About the book: Twelve-year-old Helga has more danger in her life than most beasts her age—Wrackshee slavers after her, a vicious attack by bandits that nearly kills her, a race against dragons pursuing her, and leading a daring rebellion to save her life and rescue friends and family from the insidious WooZan. And that is just the beginning. But what do you expect when you are a young beast who just can’t see the stupid rules of the world making any sense? Helga can’t accept things as they are and ends up taking on not just one, but two all-powerful, supreme tyrants in two different realms.
Helga never intended to lead a revolution. It just sort of happened because she wouldn’t go along with the “rules of normal” that keep tyrants in power and entire societies enslaved. Beginning on a dangerous quest to solve some mysteries in her own past, Helga leads her quirky comrades on a journey that will not only forever change them, but upset ancient civilizations.
As an author, I’m drawn to eccentric, unexpected characters: those who surprise because they hear a distant galaxy, see a different music, create their own fragrance rather than get hooked on a soundtrack; the child who has her own ideas about how the emperor is dressed; the lunatics and rebels who tell stories on the boundaries. Helga’s unusual story will take readers to worlds they never imagined—definitely a whole new ride.
Time and again, the unconventional heroine and her eccentric comrades overcome ominous tyrants and black-hearted slavers, not by battling to the last beast standing, but by being the first beast to think differently.
Helga: Out of Hedgelands is divided into three books which introduce the epic saga of the Wood Cow clan and their role in overturning centuries of slavery and tyranny. This story will continue in additional volumes of the Wood Cow Chronicles now in development. Over the series of current and future volumes, the entire history of the Wood Cow clan, the fall of Maev Astuté, and the coming of Lord Farseeker to the Outer Rings, will be told.
Please enjoy the following excerpt from Helga: Out of Hedgelands.
The key to a successful run of the dragons to the Hedgelands was speed. Once the monitor caravan was loaded and the monitors were fully awake again, the monitor train had to make the passage between Norder Crossings and the Hedgelands before the monitors grew ravenously hungry again. A skilled Dragon Boss knew precisely how to make the run to the Hedgelands with great speed. Mudpot was the best of them all. Stuff the monitors with shark, load while they dozed, then as they began to stir, set a swift—and tasty-smelling—runner at the front of the caravan. For the runners it was a chance to escape the fate of the slave works at Tilk Duraow. As the runner ran for life and freedom, the monitors raced after the scent of their next meal. The faster the runner, the faster the caravan traveled. If the runner was fast and strong enough to endure the grueling race, he or she might stay just ahead of the monitors all the way to the slave works and win freedom. Runners that faltered or stumbled became an impromptu snack for the monitors. A Dragon Boss wanted the fastest, strongest runner possible. A failed runner meant delay and other problems as the lead monitors snacked, and then turned sluggishly sleepy—while the rest grew dangerously restive. The delay could be even longer if replacement runners turned to “shakes and gibbers”—quivering piles of terrorized flesh unable to stand, let alone run. When “shakes and gibbers” struck it could hold up a Dragon Train for days while new runners were brought from Norder Crossings.
Every Free Chance Book Reviews is pleased to welcome Rick Johnson, author of Helga: Out of Hedgelands, to the blog today. I had a few questions for Mr. Johnson that he has graciously answered.
Why are you drawn to characters that are, as you describe, eccentric and unexpected? What makes these characters eccentric or unexpected?
I am drawn to strong, eccentric characters, both because the unexpected tends to be entertaining, and because the unexpected invites us to “play with possibilities” in ways that the normal and predictable do not.
“Common sense is that collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen” (quote commonly attributed to, but probably not actually from, Albert Einstein). This quote, regardless of who said it, offers an elegantly simple description of “common sense” —the customs, habits of thought, and cultural parameters that we learn to be so “obvious” that we do not question them. These limits of thought and perception typically set the boundaries of what we believe to be good, possible, true, lovely, beautiful, and believable.
In most cases, throughout human history, progress has been possible—indeed, empowered by, the capacity to imagine worlds beyond what most people considered normal, natural, or consistent with common sense. At some point, “common sense” became “nonsense” because some one began to think beyond what, previously, had been obviously true.
Fantasy, especially children’s fantasy, including the idea that cows should, indeed, be allowed to talk—and think—perhaps encourages us to wonder about many other creatures, people, and dimensions of thought that “common sense” keeps us from hearing and seeing. Possibly, we may even discover that there are cows within ourselves waiting to speak.
How many once-certain “impossibilities” are now so commonplace as to have entered our “common sense” understanding of reality? At some point, supple minds played wildly with what was essentially fantasy, and used creative efforts at sense-making to redefine what was possible. This is the power of imaginative sense-making. We discourage this power, or bind it hand-to-foot in the closed world of prejudices and iron-clad assumptions, at our own peril. It is for that reason that I’m drawn to those who think differently, who don’t get hooked on a soundtrack; the child who has her own ideas about how the emperor is dressed; the lunatics and rebels who tell stories on the boundaries.
The unexpected and eccentric often also add humor to a story. Humor is a natural relative of fantasy, and close collaborator. The sense of humor and need to play that are part of human nature are engaged when a story playfully sets up situations that strike us as absurd or unexpected. In this way, humor, like fantasy, encourages flexibility of mind. As we set up situations that are incongruous in light of the “givens” in our experience, we both laugh and have the opportunity to see things in fresh perspective.
Essentially, humor is a matter of how we look, and re-look, at things we normally take for granted. When something we “know” is shown from an absurd angle, we often find it funny. In my own writing, I use humor to poke holes in the expectations cultures create to “keep things in their place.” Many of the characters I create do not fit easily into stereotypes. Even those who may not be counted as eccentric, often bring something unexpected to the story.
As an example of what makes my characters unexpected, let’s look at Helga, herself. I suspect that Helga is probably the first cow to lead a heroic quest. I did this consciously to offer a possibility to think beyond the boxes to which genres sometimes fall prey. Cows, in our common sense understanding of the world, and in contemporary storytelling, stereotypically, are seen as stupid creatures, with no real capacities or use beyond grazing and being eaten. Common sense tells us that they could not possibly be the heroine of an epic adventure. Cows also are seen purely as herd animals, simply blindly following the herd. In my novel, the Wood Cows, and Helga, in particular, are actually the ones who depart from the herd mentality. Helga has the practical skills of a young apprentice carpenter, which, from a common sense view of things, is an unlikely choice. It is also true that in my novels, the characters are not all good, or all bad, simply by virtue of their clan, nation, or background. It is the individual qualities that make my characters heroes or villains, not who they are by background.
The point of all this is simply to try to tell a story that is enjoyable and takes storytelling beyond the boxes that sometimes limit our possibilities. All of the problems that haunt us today were created by people with a passionate desire to live in the world as they know it to be. In such a world, some laughter and fantasy, different from what we expect, may help us be a little less certain about what we know to be impossible.
What is like to write a story with the help of your entire family?
Storytelling, and reading stories together, has been a strong feature of our family for a long time. When our children were younger, we used to (figuratively) sit around the campfire in our living room, listening to stories, reading novels aloud, or telling stories. It is from that family culture, where reading and telling stories have a central role, that the family involvement in my writing comes. We just all genuinely like interesting and entertaining stories and that encouragement provides a great testing ground for new storylines, characters, etc.
Both my wife and daughter have also been professional editors on children’s stories and educational materials, so I get a lot of wise advice also—although, I must confess that I sometimes don’t listen as well as I should, so my errors are my own!
How do you set out to right a story like this? What is your research process?
First, regarding my research process: I am fortunate to have a native love for reading and grew up in a family that encouraged reading. I was the weird kind of kid who read everything in sight during his spare time, even encyclopedias! Throughout my life, I have read widely in history, literature, cultural studies, science, and other areas, so I have a pretty fertile internal inventory of information upon which to draw as I write. I continue to read constantly down to the present. My stories also are inspired by the people and environments I observe and experience.
In terms of how I set out to write a story like Helga, I’ll tell you a brief story. Some dozen years ago or so I was in a used bookseller’s shop on Chicago’s South Side, or perhaps it was along the Main Line to Bryn Mawr at some stop—I don’t recall which at this point, I spent so much time in old bookshops in those days. In any case, it was a dusty, cluttered shop filled with old books and manuscripts, just the sort of place to make me eager for browsing. I like looking into lost shelves, odd piles, and long-ignored boxes of papers.
On this fortuitous occasion, I chanced across a pile of oversize folios, which, as I glanced through them were found to be of no great interest in themselves. One of these, however, contained a single manuscript sheet, seemingly unrelated to everything else, which was apparently stuck between pages almost as a bookmark. It was this curious manuscript that was to initiate my research into the history of the Wood Cows (Woode Cowes, as the old manuscripts have it), a clan of bygone times, who had such profound significance for their age, that, were they of our scientific times, geological eras or such might well be named for their remembrance.
The researches generated by this singular discovery have now passed over more than a decade and led me through countless ancient archives and old booksellers. As the earliest fruit of this research, Helga: Out of Hedgelands was published as the first volume in the reconstruction of the ancient history of the Wood Cows. In coming years, the Wood Cow Chronicles will expand as more of my research brings the entire astonishing story of the Wood Cows to modern readers.
Possibly (probably) by now you have realized that the account I have just given is a bit tongue-in-cheek. The story of how the Wood Cow Chronicles came about is not quite as I say above, although it does have much to do with wandering through bookstores. Let me explain.
Essentially, for most of our lives, we exist in boxes. We are cut off from reality outside the box. Typically, children are as much at home in the non-physical and imaginative dimensions of reality as they are in the physical and practical dimensions. As we grow up, a “reducing lens” is attached to us by our culture that, in most cases, steadily reduces the amount of non-physical and imaginative input we can accept into our perception of the world around us. The valve is so effective that, but the time we are adults the input of non-physical and imaginative input to our perception of reality may be down to a trickle. We essentially have learned to see the world as if we were locked in a box, out of which we peer through the “reducing lens.”
My experience is that we can’t make sense of the world around us without stepping beyond the boxes we are taught to inhabit. One cannot find the meaning of life with only one lens to look through. One cannot cope with the immense complexity of modern society with only a few voices in the conversation.
I began this by telling a fictional tale of wandering through bookstores and finding ancient manuscripts about the Wood Cows. The kernel of truth in that tale is that, for me, bookstores—especially those that are disorganized, jumbled, and filled with practically even type of old and new book available—are a place where worlds mix, a metaphor for stepping beyond the box. In such a bookstore, the array of views contained in the messy piles provide a metaphor for the sort of sense-making we are called to do in a messy, complex, marvelously diverse world. No set of purely physical, practical, dollars & cents, assumptions will serve us in such a world. We also need the non-physical, imaginative, and humane elements that tend to push us out of our boxes.
In the end, for me, it takes more of a leap of faith to believe that our current society of “boxes” is healthy and serves us well, than to imagine that cows can think and talk.
About the author: I am a native of the Great Plains, having grown up on a farm in the Platte River Valley of western Nebraska. I love the wild beauty of the Plains and nearby Rocky Mountains–the too hot, too cold, too empty, too full of life extremes. Typically, the awesomely diverse and the awesomely stark are much the same, even as they are different. Although I have lived in Michigan, North Carolina, and British Columbia, the western plains, mountains, and desert are in my heart.
As my day job, for over thirty years I have been a faculty member and administrator in higher education. Teaching broadly in the liberal arts, including creative writing, my professional publications include educational materials, poems, and 28 stories for young readers. During my spare hours, I have also collected and carefully studied the records of former times upon which the Wood Cow Chronicles are based. It is my privilege to bring this astonishing saga to light.
The Wood Cow Chronicles have been researched and written with the irreplaceable assistance of Barbara, my beloved wife of more than thirty-five years, and our children. Indeed, the essential research into the history of the Wood Cows has been conducted during the odd hours of family reading and storytelling “around the campfire” as we say–even when there is no campfire! This research continues and grows richer as our family expands across generations and continents.
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