10 Questions with Barbara Howe
Barbara grew up in a small city in the United States, where she was the first girl in her high school’s history to take machine shop—to the consternation of the teachers who were steering her towards a more typically female university career in the humanities. She did go to university, intending to study mechanical engineering at one of America’s top technical schools, but in her first year she discovered the fun of computer programming, and never looked back.
Over the years she has worked on projects ranging from multi-million-dollar financial applications to low-level kernel ports. She moved to New Zealand in 2009, and after a short-lived job involving mobile phones, found work as a software engineer in the film industry. Software still pays the bills and she writes in her spare time.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you call home and what do you write?
I live in Wellington with my husband and daughter, in a house overflowing with books, games, and puzzles. I write romantic, optimistic fantasy and have so far completed four books in the YA/Adult Reforging series: The Locksmith, Engine of Lies, The Blacksmith—all currently available—and The Wordsmith, scheduled for release in February 2021.
2. What drew you to that particular genre and age group?
I blame it on my daughter. She’s an auditory learner who has never outgrown wanting me to read to her. She’s a good reader on her own but she says she gets more out of listening to a story read by someone else than reading it herself. I have read a lot of fantasy to her, as that’s a genre we both enjoy—she doesn’t share my enthusiasm for historical dramas and contemporary mysteries.
We moved to New Zealand when she was 14, and around that time we had a run of bad luck in our book choices. Several in a row had less-than-stellar heroines: women or girls who were bit players in their own stories, or victims of either insta-love or plot-induced stupidity—one of my pet peeves as a reader. I thought I could do as well or better than the ones we had just read, and since I was still job-hunting and had spare time, I started writing the sort of story I would enjoy reading out loud. I was writing for my daughter but also for myself, with a heroine I could be proud of—one who wouldn’t make me cringe, blush, or roll my eyes. My 60-year-old husband liked it as much as my daughter did, and they encouraged me to keep at it.
3. What are you currently working on?
I’m putting the finishing touches on The Forge, the fifth and final book in the Reforging series, and have made starts on a couple of other projects. One, that I am tentatively calling Fire and Frost: A Love Story, is a prequel to the Reforging. The other, set in a different magical universe, is a romantic suspense fantasy loosely based on Beauty and the Beast. I’m calling this one Skin Deep.
4. What inspired you to write the Reforging series?
I dreamed it up. Literally. I woke one morning with the climactic scene from The Locksmith playing in my head: a woman and an injured man arguing in a watchtower on the side of a mountain, with a giant bear of a man running up the slope towards them. My head was buzzing with action verbs—pounded, bounced, clanged, clawed, slammed—and I scrambled to get it down on paper before it all slipped away. Then it was just a matter of working backwards to find a story that would lead them to being in that watchtower at that time. Once I found that story, I knew there was a good deal more to it than would fit in one book.
5. Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, panster or somewhere in between?
I’m in between, sliding back and forth on the spectrum as the story develops. I always start out with a clear vision of both the end and beginning of the story, and have to rummage around in the ether to find the path that connects one end to the other. I usually develop an outline, more or less detailed, and start writing to that. The fun begins as I flesh out the characters. They insist on taking the story on wild and convoluted tangents I hadn’t guessed at when I started, and I have to adjust the plot to their demands. Sometimes my outline just goes out the window, but the latest book, The Forge, required careful plotting to make events in several intertwined threads come out in the right order. Keeping that detailed outline up-to-date as the characters took over proved to be a challenge! A few times I thought I’d never keep it straight, but my plot lawyers—husband and daughter—haven’t picked any serious holes in it yet, so I’m happy with the way it turned out.
6. What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing?
I am fascinated by synaesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that integrates different senses in unusual ways. For example, in chromesthesia, one of the more common forms, sounds can trigger the person affected to see colours. In grapheme-colour synaesthesia, another common form, individual letters appear in different colours. The subject gives us a glimpse of the marvellous complexity of the human brain. How can someone glance at a printed page and immediately pick out all the individual letters, without conscious thought or reading the text? When I first read about synaesthesia, it seemed like a magical gift to me.
The grapheme-colour form was the inspiration for the magical talent exhibited by the title character in The Wordsmith. There are many other variations that are equally intriguing, like mirror-touch synaesthesia, where the synaesthete observing a touch on someone else’s face will feel the same sensation on their own face. There are a wealth of stories there, just waiting to be told.
7. What’s the most personal story/scene you’ve written and why?
That would have to be the episode in The Forge where a student has a run-in with an unimaginative and misinformed teacher. I’m not as confrontational as my student character; she behaves as my younger self wished she’d had the nerve to behave.
8. Who are your literary influences? In what way?
That’s a tough one, because there are so many authors I love. I will pin down two: Mary Stewart for her romantic suspense novels, and Dorothy Dunnett for her Lymond Chronicles—the best historical novels I’ve ever read. I have no hope of approaching her level of expertise, but I do aspire to being as good as they were at spinning out an engrossing plot.
9. What books are on your bedside table right now?
I’m one of those odd ducks who always has several books going at a time. Right now it’s The Court of Mortals (the third book in the Stariel series by New Zealand author A J Lancaster), Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, and Ted Chiang’s collection of stories, Exhalation. H G Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is near the top of the To-Be-Read pile, and I’m slowly working my way through Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan space operas and Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries featuring Thomas and Charlotte Pitt.
10. Last and most important, where can we find your books/stories?
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