Ask the Author: 8 Questions with Award-Winning Author Laurel Anne Hill

Laurel Anne Hill grew up in San Francisco, with more dreams of adventure than good sense or money. Her close brushes with death, love of family, respect for honor and belief in a higher power continue to influence her writing and life.

KOMENAR Publishing released Heroes Arise, Laurel’s debut parable, in October 2007. “ForeWord Magazine” selected Heroes Arise for a Book of the Year Award for 2007 (bronze, science fiction). Sand Hill Review Press published her second novel, The Engine Woman’s Light, as an e-book in October 2016. The trade paper and case laminate editions followed in 2017. The Engine Woman’s Light received the 2017 Independent Press Award (steampunk category) and a Kirkus star. Kirkus has included this gripping spirits-meet-steampunk novel on its list of the best 100 indie books in 2017 and top six indie teen. Chanticleer Reviews has shortlisted The Engine Woman’s Light for its Ozma and Dante Rossetti Book Awards.

Laurel’s shorter fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in:

Clockwork Wonderland, Once Upon a Scream, Horror Addicts Guide to Life, Fault Zone, How Beer Saved the World, Shanghai Steam, Tales of Fortannis, The Wickeds, Horrible Disasters, Spells and Swashbucklers, Rum and Runestones, Nth Zine, Lynx Eye, Space and Time, and a variety of journalistic media and small circulation fanzines. Several pieces have won awards. KQED-FM broadcast her perspective in 2004 about the plight of homeless families. HorrorAddicts fans voted Laurel Most Wicked 2011 for her steampunk/horror short story podcast: “Flight of Destiny.”

Laurel is a member of CWC San Francisco/Peninsula Branch and served on their executive board for five years. She also is a member of Broad Universe, Wicked Women Writers and Women Writing the West (where she served as secretary for two years). She’s the Literary Stage Manager for the annual San Mateo County Fair, a program participant at science fiction/fantasy conventions, a writing contest judge and an editor for Fault Zone. Her current writing projects include a novel set in early California and several short stories. She lives in Northern California with the spirit of David, her late husband.

ALC: What are the key elements of the Steampunk and Gaslamp fantasy subgenres? Where can new authors connect with readers of these subgenres?

LAH: First of all, I don’t consider Steampunk as a genre or subgenre. To me, Steampunk is an amazing phenomenon which has infiltrated the visual, musical and literary arts, from science fiction, fantasy, young adult and horror, to costuming, gaming, photography, sculpture and painting. Steampunk portrays a history that never was, advanced technologies one might visually observe and understand (such as those powered by steam or clockwork). Steampunk embraces craftsmanship rather than planned obsolescence. Steampunk stories, often set in the Victorian era, contain more “science” and less “magic” than Gaslamp fantasy.

However, that is just my opinion. The publishing company, Tor/Forge, offers a different slant on their blog: “Steampunk fiction (which blends 19th century fantasy settings with science fiction elements) is only one form of the diverse range of fiction that makes up the Gaslamp Fantasy genre.” Steampunk is a subgenre of Gaslamp Fantasy? I guess I’ll eventually defer to their definition. Those blogging for Tor/Forge ought to know what’s what.

As for meeting Steampunk fans, I suggest new authors use Google to locate nearby science fiction/fantasy cons. Look for fan-run cons that either focus on Steampunk programming (for example, Clockwork Alchemy in Northern California) or have at least several Steampunk panels scheduled. Peruse the various Facebook Steampunk groups, to see which ones are of interest.

ALC: Your novel, The Engine Woman’s Light, has won several awards in the young adult and fantasy categories – why do you think this story stands out from other books in these categories? What was your research process for the book? 

LAH: I spent 20 years writing The Engine Woman’s Light. Why so long? I had to learn how to write a novel, rather than a short story. I used my own personal positive and negative emotional experiences to breathe life into my characters. For example, when my mom passed away, I rewrote the chapter in which my protagonist’s foster mom dies. Tory Hartmann (Sand Hill Review Press), Charlotte Cook (my long-time writing mentor) and freelance editor, Derek Prior, all provided excellent writing advice along my writer’s journey. “Stay close to the point-of-view characters” remained their collective mantra. Although The Engine Woman’s Light is a genre novel, its forward momentum has a strong character-based element.

I also learned how to run a steam locomotive, which meant joining a number of historical railroad organizations and spending time in engine cabs, maintenance shops, libraries and museums across the United States. I traveled by car to most of the locations described in my novel. I wanted to get the physical environment right.

ALC: What elements must novels for teens/young adults include to resonate with readers? What are some trends you are seeing in this genre?

LAH: The reader should feel that the story is being told through the teen protagonist’s eyes. The author should use first person or a very close third person point of view. Keep the forward momentum strong, and don’t forget: Life is tough. Challenge your teen protagonist, but let her/him cope, survive and learn something of value.

Those who have read The Hunger Games and Breaking Dawn will realize that the subjects of violence and sex are not off limits in today’s YA fiction. Pornography, however, is not an option. Write only what is essential to show the protagonist’s journey in the violence and sex areas.

ALC: How did the Fault Zone series of anthologies come about, and what is the process for submission and publication? How can publication in anthologies such as these benefit writers?

LAH: Around ten years ago, a professional editor in the California Writers Club, San Francisco Peninsula Branch, volunteered to start an annual anthology, primarily to benefit our club’s members. We are now working on our eighth issue, and the current publication schedule has become once every two years. I’ve served as editor-in-chief for issues seven and eight. We use “Submittable” to receive manuscripts.

Some of our issues have included contests for nonmembers and the publication of the winning nonmember story. Issue number eight, however, is only for members. Publication or winning a prize is, of course, a benefit to our club’s members. However, we accept pieces from members that other publications would reject. We work with our members to produce strong fiction and narrative nonfiction stories. One of our mottos is “Writers Helping Writers.”

ALC: Explain the magic/science divide that exists in fantasy writing, and the role that faith can play in world-building.

LAH: First of all, some definitions would be useful.

Faith: A firm belief in something for which there is no proof.

Religious faith: Belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion. (Offerings to the gods to gain favor.)

Science: The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Magic: The use of means (such as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces. (Manipulation of the gods to get one’s way.) Magic is not faith, but belief in magic can produce a placebo effect.

Now, for the Magic/Science Divide. Magic is often seen as mysticism, the violation of scientific laws. Science, on the other hand, is our tool to explain seen and unseen truths. These two realms are often viewed as unresolvable opposites. Where magic holds sway, science must fail and where science holds sway, magic must fail. This trope builds on the potential factors that cause a divide between the science and magic in a work.

For example, fast forward to today’s times. There’s a phenomenon that once resided in the realm of faith and/or magic and now has been explained by science: Sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, a person may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds or even up to a few minutes. Some people may also feel pressure and/or like they are choking, or even terror. In some parts of the world, sleep paralysis is treated by the village shaman. In the US, physicians focus on use of medication and improving sleep habits. Many people worldwide experience sleep paralysis at least once during their lifetime.

ALC: How can writers approach world-building as a character, and what are the benefits of using this technique?

LAH: The character arc is the journey of a character in a story from point A to point B. Dynamic characters do things, take action, change or totally refuse to change. Non-dynamic characters, don’t. Fully developed characters tend to come alive on the page. Flat characters don’t.

The story world in which a cast of characters exists also can have a journey from point A to Point B, and come alive on the page. Characters can alter the world around them, producing positive or negative outcomes. In speculative fiction, the environment, itself, can contribute to the change. For a classic example of world building as a character, I recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain.

"Fully developed characters tend to come alive on the page. Flat characters don’t."

ALC: What are some ways that writers can effectively bring diversity into their stories and characters? What are some things they should be careful to avoid?

LAH: First of all, character diversity should be integral to the story, not added as window dressing. In my award-winning spirits-meet-Steampunk novel, The Engine Woman’s Light, character diversity varies with time and location. North California in 1878 differs from South California in 1896. Needless to say, create diverse characters without creating stereotypes. Not sure about your end result? Let a professional cultural sensitivity editor evaluate your manuscript.

ALC: With over 40 pieces of work in your writing portfolio, what do you know now about publishing that you wish your early-writer self would have known when starting out?

LAH: I wish someone had given me the various lists of writing suggestions I’ve put together to hand out at fan cons and writers conferences. I’d had seven short stories published before I learned what a story arc was, or anything else about formal story structure. And what was this premise thing? I definitely was a pantser—someone who wrote stories by the seat of their pants instead of according to accepted story structure—and still am, at least for the first draft.

I wish I’d learned about California Writers Club before 1999—and writers groups and conferences in general.

When KOMENAR, a small company in California published my debut novel Heroes Arise in 2007, the acquisitions editor held a boot-camp for their new authors. Several training sessions involved how the US publishing industry really operated at that time. This was before print-on-demand started changing publishing procedures. Bookstores did not and still don’t pay distributors or publishers for books until the merchandise in their stores sells. I’d heard about book damage when bookstores returned unsold books to “the sad warehouse.” I’d not realized that a growing number of stores simply tore the covers off the unsold books and discarded the innards in the trash. That remains standard practice today. It’s cheaper to ship covers than whole books.

Most important to remember: The real work of the author begins after publication, to help push the book. My current publicist is Black Château Enterprises. The Engine Woman’s Light has won twelve honors and awards, including a Kirkus Star, and was on the Kindle Best Seller List (Teen Steampunk category) for a total of 55 days in 2018. 

     For more on author Laurel Anne Hill visit

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