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Laura VanArendonk Baugh: Books, Travel, & Animals

posted Feb 25, 2019, 5:19 PM by Grace Bridges   [ updated Feb 25, 2019, 5:20 PM ]
Laura, you’re an award-winning author who writes in multiple genres. Can you give us the run-down on how many books you’ve published and what genres they are?
Oh, this is a more complicated question than it might first seem, because some of my stuff is stories or novellas rather than novels, and some are stories in anthologies, etc. But, I have two non-fiction books (my day job is in animal behavior and training), some magazine appearances, a half dozen short stories or novelettes sold alone, and somewhere between 14 and 16 anthology appearances and four and six novels, depending on when this piece posts. /grin/ Most of my fiction is fantasy (epic, historical, and urban), but I’ve done a few other genres as well. I always come back to speculative, though.

You travel a lot. What are some recent places you’ve been?
I love travel! It’s great fun, it’s a great way to learn, it’s fantastic to get out of routine and see something new and do something in a new way.
I’ve been very, very fortunate to take some dream-of-a-lifetime trips in the last couple of years, from a guided cruise in the Galapagos and backpacking through the Andes to my recent trip from Argentina to Antarctica. So astounding, I’m so fortunate and happy to have done that.

What have your travels inspired in your writing?
So much world-building has already been done for us writers, in that we have all of human history to pull from. Travel (which should, in my opinion, always include some history and at least a bit of language) is really good for inspiring twisty story bits and syntax for subtle dialect. 
But the biggest inspiration for me is probably setting and mood. I didn’t know where Thor’s battle in The Songweaver’s Vow would take place until I started writing the scene and realized I was picturing the western Irish coast, and then obviously he was visiting the Wyrmhole, because where else would you find a supernaturally large serpent? And then having that setting made it much easier to write that scene, because I knew what it should feel like. In the same way, visiting all those museums and Viking village reenactments made writing that Asgard setting much more successful. I even had a reader in a book club comment, “Oh, no wonder it felt like a real place, then!”
It’s not always that direct, of course. I’ve pictured a Portuguese coastline while writing a story about medieval Spain, and I’ve used Renaissance Italian neighborhoods in my second-world cities. It’s less about copying something as it was and more about getting the mood and tone of it.

How does your work in animal behaviour influence your fiction?
That’s a great question! Very occasionally, when I need to work a character through something that is terrifying or emotionally difficult, I think about how we might do it with a fearful or aggressive animal, and then I translate that. But far more often, I think it shows up in body language. We actually share a lot of the same little emotional tells—a tongue flick in a nervous dog is the same as a nervous human licking a lip, and we avert our eyes the same way (it’s about avoiding unwanted confrontation, not submission, sorry pop culture egotism), and so on. So it’s natural to incorporate some of those in my writing.

What have been your most successful books so far, and what do you put that down to?
By sales figures, the most successful books have absolutely been my non-fiction, and that’s due to my professional work and the platform I built there. But in fiction, The Songweaver’s Vow has gotten the most critical attention, and I put that down to a variety of factors: I’d built a readership by then, I got some very good reviews from Kirkus and book blogs, and I had a brilliant cover which helped grab attention. I also think timing helped; I saw the Viking/Norse trend coming and hurried the book (the idea for which I’d been sitting on for a few years) to catch it. 

Do you incorporate feedback from your fans into your writing?
I have to answer this one with a qualified yes, I think. I tend to be a more conservative writer, not sharing a lot of the story before it’s finished. I have author friends who are always sharing excerpts and snippets and I feel I should do more of that, but I’m always thinking, What if I change this before it’s final? Does this make any sense out of context or will it just confuse people? So I don’t tend to get a lot of fan feedback while a work is in progress.
But I absolutely incorporate feedback from my critique partners and beta readers, oh yes!  And now that I am planning some series, I will of course watch for what readers most enjoy in early books as I work on later books. 

Who is your favourite character from your latest fiction? Tell us a little bit about them and the book.
Oh, this is hard, because my latest project is an epic fantasy with so many great characters. Shianan and Tamaryl both make incredible sacrifices for what matters to them, even as they oppose each other. Luca rises above a horrific past to defy victimhood. Ariana is relentlessly idealistic. Elysia is the quietly ferocious woman many of us would love to grow up to be.
But I might have to talk about Soren, who uses his position of power to be brave in a way I’m not sure I could match. He just opens up to his half-brother mid-crisis and says, “Hey, I know we hate each other, and there’s good reason for that, but do we have to?” And that really impresses me, even as his author. He tries so hard to do the right thing, even when it’s hard or when it hurts.
The story is Shard & Shield, first in a trilogy, and it’s about… a lot of things. Heroism and sacrifice and family, and who your family is when it isn’t your blood relatives. /clears throat/ “King's bastard Shianan finds his whole purpose in protecting his homeland from magical raiders—but to save the life of his only friend, he must steal the artifact that shields his world..”

You’re a member of the face-blindness club (more info in a recent interview with GeyserCon's Jean Gilbert). 
How does this affect your writing, your characters?
Oh, that’s easy. I don’t describe anyone. /laugh/ That has long been the number-one complaint about my writing, that I don’t spend time describing characters’ appearances. I’ll toss something out about hair color or height and that’s enough for me, but not for a lot of readers who want to know about chin clefts or nose shape! 
On the other hand, people have said that I have a lot of body language in my books, as I mentioned, and one author I really respect told me she could tell I worked with body language and animals because that’s how all my characters express themselves—and that’s how I tend to recognize people, too.

What’s the funniest stranger-than-fiction thing that’s happened to you as a result of being an author?
How bizarre—I can’t think of any! I have plenty of stranger-than-fiction moments, but right now I can’t remember any specifically related to being an author.
I do clearly remember the first writers conference I ever attended. I arrived early, while a small pre-conference workshop was happening but before the rush of general attendees. I crossed the parking lot alone and was just reaching for the facility doors when they burst open and a woman ran out, sobbing.
I fumbled, asked if I could help, the usual caught-off-guard responses, but she didn’t speak a word, just ran off into the parking lot crying.
I looked back at the doors. So, writers conference. Good idea, right? We’re sure? Really sure?
I did go in, and I had a fantastic time, and that’s where my critique group started and we’re still going strong over nearly seven years later, which is like a hundred in critique group years.

Name a place you haven’t yet been that you want to go, and why.
Iceland, because the landscape looks amazing. I just want to soak up the scenery and go hiking there.
I have a friend writing a setting based on a town in northern Norway, and I keep telling her that I will make that research trip with her. No matter how I’ve tried, northern or southern hemispheres, I have never seen the Aurora, and I really want to do that.
I haven’t yet been to the African continent, but it’s so big with such varied options! Perhaps Morocco to start? Or all the way down to South Africa? So many different choices.

Thanks so much for having me on the blog! I really appreciate it, and I’m so looking forward to GeyserCon!