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Interview with Tiffani Collins

She has always been terrible at running, so she learned to ride horses. She was even worse at dancing, so she studied martial arts instead. A banshee sings better than Tiffani does, so she picked up the violin - and didn't fare much better, truthfully. When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, Tiffani always said “Work with animals,” so she became a Veterinarian Technician and did that for fifteen years. 

When she got tired of wrestling dogs and herding cats, she got a job at the local library where she gets to talk about books with other bookworms all day long. She read to keep sane and she writes. Tiffani Collins lives in a small rural town in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California. 

Q.1 Tell us something about yourself not many people know?
Ok, so not many people know this about me until the first time we as a group-whether it’s co-workers who want to hang out after work or Renaissance Fair friends who want to grab some dinner after a busy day at the braiding hair at the braiding booth-are trying to decide what we want to eat. Usually, the first restaurants they suggest are either pizza places or Mexican eateries, and that’s when I have to confess that though I was born and raised in California, I don’t like either pizza or Mexican. You can take me just about anywhere else and I’ll be a happy camper, but if you make me go out for Pizza and Mexican my smile will turn stiff and you’ll hear a slow resigned sigh as I grimly open the menu to look for something I can eat without complaint. Usually, it’s the salad bar or fajitas.

Q.2 When should we expect your next book? What will it be about?
My next book is called Reflections of a Tigress and it is my second book in the Traveler’s Journal series. In this book, I wanted to explore how a fugitive from powerful forces begins to build a new home for herself and a base of operations designed to help others like herself escape to freedom. I mean, this is someone who’s been isolated from how the real world works her entire life and now has to make her way in it after faking her own death. 

She’s plunged into the school of hard knocks after diving headfirst into the slave abduction business, and sadist that I am, it was a lot of fun to watch her fight her way through all of the trouble I threw her way. The digital copy of Reflections of a Tigress will be released in August with the paperback version to follow as the fickle fates allow.

Q.3 What made you write The Travelers’ Journal series?
I write the Traveler’s Journal because I can’t ever do anything small. When I first came to a story for my first main character, Nící, it was supposed to be a short story. It ballooned into a 130,000+ novel. Danny’s story began when I was a freshman in college and was put on the back burner for ten years before I took it up again. By then, her tale had mutated and spiraled out into a sprawling epic that I estimate will take about 20 books to tell in full.

I have friends who say they have hundreds of different ideas for stories just bursting to come out of their heads. For me, there’s only this one massive idea, but the Traveler’s Journal series is home to an infinite number of possible worlds that all have the potential to stretch the imagination. Though Danny is the main focus of my series, hers is by no means the only yarn I can spin, and that’s why I love writing the Traveler’s Journal.

Q.4 Do you feel any competitive pressure from fantasy films? If not, why?
I don’t think I fully understand the question, but if you mean do I feel like I must compete to get my ideas out before movies beat me to the punch and make me look like a copycat… well, there is a little of that, but in that case, I would say I also feel the same pressure from other fantasy writers.

I try not to let it get to me though. I can’t afford to. I am just not nearly as fast as many other writers and though movies take years to bring to the screen, it still feels as though so many of them launch the same ideas and characters as me before I get my chance. I console myself by remembering that there is nothing new under the sun, and no matter how original any of us think we might be, someone, somewhere, at some point has also written about the same thing as us. What’s important is how we leave our own unique signature on the same classic story.

Q.5 What is one stereotype about fantasy writers is absolutely wrong? What one stereotype is dead on?
Ok, so I’m going to be boring here and say that I can’t think of any stereotypes about fantasy writers to say either way. Now, if you’d asked me about romance writers, that would have been an entirely different kettle of fish, but since you didn’t, I’ll demonstrate a smidgeon of tact and keep my mouth shut! 

Q.6 Do you ever research real events, legends, or myths to get ideas?
Oh, man! Do I!

I think it’s because I’m lazy, but I just can’t bring myself to make up so much raw material on my own, so I draw heavily on mythology, legends, and history for much of my inspiration. Luckily, myths and legends tend to leave a lot of leeway for creative license and even History also has enough wiggle room for alternate interpretations.

When I realized the scope and scale of Danny’s story required a civil war, I knew I was going to need a lot of help, since I do not have a military background. So, I thought I would use a real historical civil war to engineer the backbone of the Traveler’s Journal story arc. And, of course, I couldn’t think of a better war than the American Civil War, which has been most thoroughly documented. I also used a lot of the history from the Underground Railroad, the American circus around the turn of the 19th century, and of various cultures such as the Native Americans, Vikings, the Celts, Romans, Slavs, etc.

Q.7 What is the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I think it’s often difficult not to fall into the assumption that motivations, priorities, and emphasis are the same for men and women.

For instance, I’ve read articles that talk about how women place a lot more importance on having strong friendships whereas men don’t have as many close friends unless they share core common interests, and as soon as that common interest is no longer in place, the friendships tend to fall to the wayside. I’ve also heard a great deal of how differently men and women communicate and how men and women have different approaches to handling their problems. As a woman myself, I catch myself double-checking that when I write a male character, I don’t make him overly wordy-studies show women use way more words each day than men-or that they don’t go spouting off in-depth about their feelings all the time with other guys.

But then, I think, all of this second-guessing leads into the second hardest thing about writing characters of the opposite sex-to remember to write them as just people. At the end of the day, the differences between men and women are not so significant that we should take pains to highlight them. If we do, then I think we run the risk of turning our characters into caricatures and any story about them into a farce.

Q.8 Where do you as an author draw the line on gory descriptions and/or erotic content?
I think that both gore and erotic content are like any other kind of descriptive details and should be handled the same. If the description of detail does not further the plot or develop the character then it isn’t necessary and should be cut. Not because of prudishness or queasiness, but because it’s sloppy story crafting. That said, I also think that once you’ve considered who your target audience is, you shouldn’t shy away from the description of gore or sex either. If you’re writing about a battle and you skirt around the reality that blood is spilled when people fight and the combatants usually suffer grievous wounds and death, or you’re writing a story where the sexual tension is building between characters but your narrative blushes and covers its eyes when it comes to the pivotal sex scene that changes the game for said characters, then you’ve simply failed at story craft in the opposite direction.

Q.9 How many books have you written? Which one is your favorite?
I’ve written three so far, and I really can’t choose a favorite. I’m very pleased with all of them for various reasons. Even my first book, Dark Wood, which probably reads as an author’s first serious attempt at writing, is a book that I am proud of because I love the characters I created and the world I built around them. I also learned a lot about myself and my story craft in producing that book. With Danny’s first book, I learned even more and am proud of all the work I built into the building that complex world, and how I’ve continued to expand on it in this most recent book. In the words stolen from one of my favorite movies, “I could no sooner choose a star in the heavens!”

Q.10 How do you select the name of your characters?
I hate making up names, terms, and phrases from scratch! They always sound so stupid to me, no matter how hard I try. So, like when I rob history and cultures blind, I cheat and steal names from the cultures I decide the character hails from. For instance, if my character comes from Norse ancestry, I try to pick old Norse names. If they come from the northeast corner of North America, I choose a name from one of the Native American tribes that lived there during pre-colonial times. I have found the website Think Baby Names to be incredibly useful. I also steal from mythology embarrassingly often. Luckily for me, the average person doesn’t seem to be all that interested in reading classic myths and legends from the ancient world, so mostly the names I choose to act as more of an easter egg for mythology nerds like me. 

Q.11 What fantasy realm would you choose to live in and why?
Would I sound incestuous if I admitted I’d love to live in the world I built for Danny? I love it because literally, anything is possible, at least somewhere on one version of Earth or another. If I wanted to go to a world that’s as close to Utopia as human beings can get, there’s a world out there I could visit. Plus, I know all the rules and all the pitfalls and all of the secrets, so I have the inside track! I’d be able to avoid all the trouble while having the best possible time. Feels like I’m cheating a little, but that’s my honest answer.

Q.12 Do you believe in writer’s block? If yes, how do you deal with it?
I have definitely hit a wall in which I stare at the blinking cursor and, for the life of me, can’t think of a thing to put down that will move the story forward. Usually, this is because I’ve gotten hung up on some minutia. For me, I need to have every little detail of the world-building and characterization solid and nailed down before I can focus on the narrative. So, in those cases, the solution is to do some research in the area that needs fleshing out, make good thorough notes on everything in my series notes, then pick up the story once again. For those times that I grind to a halt because I’m at an important, yet tricky scene and nerves have me shying away out of fear I won’t be writing enough to pull it off, I force myself to put my butt in the chair and write anyway. I tell myself it can be a steaming pile of dog vomit, but I have to get the words out, then I’ll clean it up during the editing phase. I learned this writing my first book, Dark Wood, then I learned the second important bit-those sections that I think suck donkey balls are actually my editor’s favorite bits of the whole book. So, go figure, right?

Q.13 Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with good or bad ones?
I’ve been fortunate, so far, that the reviews I’ve gotten have been positive. As far as “dealing” with reviews I try to follow the advice of an author who has had a strong career for decades. She advises writers to not allow other voices into their writing spaces. She even goes so far as to recommend that you write all your books before releasing them on a schedule so that if you get reviews that are very critical or that think your books are great, but really, you should do this to make them even better! That way, you’re not tempted to alter your own voice or plans for your stories trying to appease all of these other voices. If I waited to release all my books until the series was finished, I’d be old and grey, possibly dead, so I can’t take that particular piece of advice, but the rest of it, yeah, I try to follow.

Q.14 Do you have any unique and quirky writing habits?
You mean aside from having to thoroughly research every nitty-gritty detail-even the ones that will never get any page time before I can move the story plot an inch? I guess the other habit that is a little quirky is that I cannot do anything creative without either a much-watched favorite movie in the background or music. Music is especially helpful because sometimes a song will inspire an entire awesome scene, which usually results in me listening to that one song on a loop for over an hour as I try to get the whole scene down on the screen. But, honestly, my brain is like some strange psychological version of musical chairs; when the music stops, so do my thoughts.

Q.15 Outside of your family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author?
My county’s public library is incredibly supportive of local authors, including me. It also helps that I work for the library, so I have an in! Not only did the deputy direct read my book and recommend it for purchase, but she also endorsed me for the employee spotlight during NaNoWriMo month. Because my books have been promoted through the library I’ve been able to reach more readers who then buy my books or tell their friends and family, who then turn around and buy my books. It’s actually very cool to have a job that lets me talk to my readers who make a point of tracking me down on my shifts to discuss what they thought of my writing.

Q.16 Who designed your book covers? How do you select him/her?
A. Paramita Bhattacharjee
has done a great job working with me to design my covers. She’s highly professional and infinitely patient, which is great because when I started venturing into print on demand for both paperback and hardback versions of my book, I had a bit of a learning curve going in. I found her while looking through a Google search for fantasy cover artists.

Q.17 What three things readers should expect from your books?
A. 1.
Look for “easter eggs” pulled from history, mythology, and cultural legends. I love doing research and wherever I can get away with it, I gleefully tuck little gems like historical or legendary characters in amongst the kick line of my cast.

This next one might be considered a bit of a spoiler for those who don’t like to know what happens, so be warned! I follow the same rules the writers for the show Leverage had for each of their episodes: The good guys must win; the bad guy must suffer, and my characters are the All-Star team, so they never make rookie mistakes, meaning all the problems they face must arise from either succeeding too well or organically from the situation itself.

My story is complex and requires a lot of research and careful planning, so I will never be one of those speed demons who can pump out 4 or more books a year, but I promise you, I will NOT be another George R. R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss. I have been shortening the span of time it takes me to complete the first draft to about 9-12 months, not including production time. More importantly, I have Danny’s entire series mapped out, I know where we’re going and I have literally drawn a map and written myself detailed directions, so the only reason my readers won’t get to find out what happens to Danny, Alice, and all of their friends is if I die!

Q.18 Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
A. Da Vinci
! Assuming we could wave the same magic wand to ensure we didn’t have a language barrier between us. And I mean, really? Do I need to explain why meeting Da Vinci would be awesome?!?!

Q.19 What is your favorite book by other authors and why?
Oh, God! I hate this question! Should I answer with the book that made me laugh the most? Or maybe the book that got me reading in the fourth grade and transmuted all my testing scores through some mystical means of alchemy from well below average in every subject to off the charts... well, except for math - that never got over the above-average line, sadly.

It's so hard to pick a favorite, but I'll take a stab at a few that have suck in my head for years and are always the first I recommend to people:

by S. A. Swiniarski - best horror book about vampires ever and the first book that I ever encountered that explained vampirism as a virus pathogen, which I really thought was cool back in middle school. BTW, I went from reading Goosebumps in the fourth grade (those books I mentioned above) to reading John Saul and Dean Koontz by sixth grade, so just because I say I read a book in middle school doesn't mean it was meant for children.

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher - This is the fourth book in his Dresden Files series, but the FIRST book of his that I liked. The first two sat collecting dust on my shelves for years because I thought his main character, Harry Dresden, was an irritating chauvinist and the author couldn't write any female characters that weren't trying to out-macho the guys or use their sex appeal to get what they wanted, which really grated on me. Then a friend told me if I got past the third book, the series really begins to take off - and she was right. The Dresden Files is like crack cocaine, according to my cousin - once you get a taste, you're addicted for life. One of the reasons I love Jim Butcher is that he is a prime example of how an author can have a rocky start but really come into their own as they grow in their craft. He gives me a lot of hope for myself as a writer.

Lord of Scoundrels
by Lorretta Chase - the one straight-up romance that I will publicly admit to loving. Remember how I said if a book can make me burst out laughing, I'll forgive it everything else? Well, this book was hilarious, so I could get over the fact that it is a dyed-in-the-wool Regency romance novel. It's also my reminder that there will always be exceptions to any rule and that I should sometimes get out of my own way and try books from genres I don't typically like.

And finally, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo - because Kaz Brekker is in there and he is the BEST ANTI-HERO EVER! 'Nuf said. If I ever manage to pull of characterization half as well as Bardugo did with Kaz, I will die believing myself a success as an author.

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far?
I came into this whole indie author experience a very firm believer in “if you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”

Yeah… not so much, anymore.

I am so glad that indie publishing is finally established enough that there is an entire cottage industry surrounding it that now offers authors affordable, professional services for things like formatting, cover art, marketing and promotions, and editing. That said, it’s still a good thing that I’ve got the DIY mentality and the stubbornness to carry it all through because there’s still so much that you have to teach yourself and then do when you’re your own small business-which is what an indie author is when you boil it all down.

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