Question Time: Part 1

Posted on September 19, 2010 (Subscribe to Blog)

I always enjoy feedback for my books. I get the feeling many readers think they're going to hurt my feelings by asking pointed questions, but usually my reaction is going to be either "Ah, yes, I can explain that" or "Um... er... well, I don't know, but thanks for bringing it up."

I received an email from Anita in the UK, who had some very good questions. Anita read the first book in the trilogy, Island of Fog, last year (and was one of the first to openly critique it for me), and recently bought and read Labyrinth of Fire and Mountain of Whispers. She said this:

I enjoyed the whole trilogy, though I think my favourite book is still ISLAND OF FOG because of the mystery element. Throughout all three books the characters are well-drawn and engaging and I'm impressed by the dialogue, which sounds very natural. We get to know Hal and Abigail particularly well and the episodes I like best are the ones revolving around them. Your descriptions are evocative and I love contraptions like the buggy and the CloudDrifter!

All good stuff so far! :-) I've omitted her next line because it contains a spoiler. So, moving right along to Anita's questions...

Q. If the bugs are huge, what happens when they bite folk, especially smaller-sized beings like dwarfs? Are some of them pests, biting through wooden structures or swarming through the villages? What do they eat? Is anything else a larger size than usual, e.g. the trees or fruit or animals?

At some point while writing Labyrinth of Fire and introducing the children to the new world, I had envisioned various scenes of swarms of giant bugs creating havoc, or one or another character suffering severe bites while enjoying a picnic in the meadow. I found I didn't have room in Labyrinth of Fire, so planned to fit it into Mountain of Whispers. Well, it turned out that I had even less room in the third book, but managed to fit in a fairly simple scene involving red ants. So much of this aspect of the new world has yet to be explored, and it's one of the things I'd like to delve into more in Book IV.

But in answer to the question, I should imagine that bites from massive bugs really, really hurt. In Mountain of Whispers, the scientists get attacked by an army of giant red ants, but I don't go into much detail about the bites themselves, which must have been painful. Imagine what wasp stings feel like when the wasps are six inches long! Imagine the damage a black widow or brown recluse spider could do when they're ten or twenty times bigger! And yes, I should think that woodworm and termites are a real problem to structures.

As for fruit (and vegetables for that matter), I hadn't envisioned anything out of the ordinary there, but perhaps I should. Giant bees, for example, would need a lot more nectar, so the flowers would either need to be larger or more plentiful. There's probably a lot of things in the new world that Hal and his friends (and the author) haven't yet paid attention to!

Q. When Abigal had the key around her neck, what would have happened if she had changed into a fairy while wearing it (I can't recall whether she does or not)? Wouldn't it have been too heavy for her, and perhaps hurt her in some way?

When Abigail grows wings, she typically stays at full human size rather than shrinking to faerie size, so the key wouldn't have been a problem at all. There was one time, while wearing the key around her neck, that she might have shrunk a little, and that was inside the mountain (Mountain of Whispers, p95)... but perhaps she only shrank a little bit to get free, or perhaps she picked up the key again? It's one of those tiny details that's worth noting in a discussion but hardly worth drawing special attention to in the story.

Q. Can shapeshifters marry and have children? What are the implications for their offspring? And would they still be expected to go on dangerous expeditions if they had young children depending on them?

Ah, very good questions! It's a little early for the children to be worrying about this, but certainly Miss Simone and other scientists have thought about it and probably know all the answers. As the author, I do too... but I wanted to explore this in a future book. I should imagine the young shapeshifters will ask about it fairly soon as they settle into their new lives, even though they're only twelve and have no interest in marriage just yet!

Q. When shapeshifters grow older and lose their ability to change, can they choose whether they remain in their human or non-human form? (This may have been answered in one of the books, but I can't quite remember.)

Another good question, and one that has been answered in a subtle manner. I can't give too much away here, but Felipe is a good example of someone who has "chosen" his form. Also, consider Riley and Ellie, both friends of Miss Simone, and who seem to have chosen to live in their alternate forms. So yes, they can choose.

Q. In Hal's generation of shapeshifters, each family had only one child. Miss Simone, however, has a brother who is also a shapeshifter. Is her case unusual? Where did Thomas's two sisters come from? Are they shapeshifters, or ordinary humans?

Miss Simone and her brother are a little unusual, yes, and this case is one of many things rattling around in my brain that I haven't yet explored. It seems that most questions I'm asked are to do with the shapeshifting "rules" in general, and that's either because I haven't explained everything fully enough, or – as I prefer to think – because I've teased your imagination! Again, rather than just explain all these things outright, I'd rather explore it all more fully in the next book. The rule is "show, not tell," and I feel that Miss Simone has already "told" enough throughout the three books. It's time for some "show," and I hope to achieve that by having one of the children go to work with Miss Simone as she prepares for a new shapeshifter program. Spurred on by her success with Hal and his friends, she plans to steam right ahead with a new program.

However, Thomas's two little sisters are not extraordinary in any way. Even in Miss Simone's world (or especially in Miss Simone's world, considering the number of dangerous creatures running wild), accidents occur and children are occasionally orphaned. The Pattens, having lost their innocent child to a nasty manticore, were ready to take on a pair of orphaned children.

I hope that answers your questions, Anita!

Just to finish off here, when my wife finished reading Labyrinth of Fire back in October 2009, she said to me:

Q. Why does Blacknail's buggy not have a roof on? The goblins seem so practical, but he failed to put a roof on the buggy to protect the passengers from all the dirt and squished bugs flying up off the wheels, not to mention the rain.

I had a little chuckle over this, and decided this was one of the differences between men and women; even the word "practical" differs depending on your point of view! Being male, Blacknail obviously decided that staying dry and clean just wasn't essential or important. But I can also imagine pressure from disgruntled human passengers, so in Mountain of Whispers the buggy has a partially finished roof (p31/p213). I can see Blacknail now, swearing under his breath as he welds sheets of metal to the top...

To all others who are reading this, please feel free to ask anything else that you might be wondering about. I'm eager to know what's not as clear to readers as I intended, as well as what you're most interested in learning more about – and of course I'm always grateful to have things pointed out that I might not have thought of!

Post your questions below, or email me at When I get enough questions, I'll answer them in a separate post.

Comment by ANITA on Monday, September 20, 2010...

Thanks, Keith! That certainly answers my questions. I look forward to seeing what questions other readers ask.

Comment by LAURA on Monday, September 20, 2010...

Nice answers Keith, wow, you think about your books much more than I do with mine!

Re the giant bugs and their bites, have you seen the film The Mist? Full of giant beasties swarming around, and several yucky scenes when they do manage to bite someone - might be helpful for those gross mental images you want :)

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, September 20, 2010...

Laura, The Mist was always my favorite Stephen King short story, and the movie was good too. I'm pretty sure I thought about those bugs once or twice when writing! As for world building, you can be excused when writing about the slums of Belfast in your own books as the world already exists. With mine, if I create giant bugs and other creatures, I sort of have to think about the ecology a little bit too, as everything is connected in some way. With a higher percentage of oxygen in the air, bugs, animals and plants might evolve to be bigger as they were in the dinosaur period when the world was full of lush vegetation. It's way too complex for me to figure out, but I have to at least take a stab at it!

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