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  • L.L. Stephens

Ten Things That Changed My Life

I got the idea for doing this from reading this piece by Justin Currie. If you don’t know of Justin Currie, he’s the lead singer and songwriter for Del Amitri. Great band, great songs… and some of the best damn lyrics ever put to music. Check them out.

Ten things that changed my life:

1. My father’s job-hopping.

A nomadic childhood may sound like fun, but it really isn’t. My father worked at the juncture of electronics and military technology, so he would follow the jobs. With every job change came a change in where we lived, which meant that every year or so Dad would pack up the family and move us across the country. Wisconsin to New Jersey. Virginia to California. Colorado to Massachusetts to Texas. We never put down roots and I never had a childhood home in the traditional sense or made deep friendships.

I lived in eight states and went to eight different schools before I graduated high school. I was always the new kid in school… and I can’t begin to tell you how much I hated that. It didn’t matter too much in elementary school but by middle school other children already have their friends and their cliques. Making friends is tough under those circumstances and I never became good at it. I’m pretty sure always being an outsider contributed to my being such an introvert now. I learned to watch people and figure out the power structures so I wouldn’t be picked on. Usually that meant keeping my head down and staying quiet.

On the plus side, landscapes shaped my imagination and eventually my fiction. I played in and ran wild through deserts, meadows, and forests; I explored mountains and frozen lakes; and the Shawsheen River (that's it in the picture) in Massachusetts forever finds its way into my stories. A brief stint in Huntington, West Virginia where I climbed atop the levees on the banks of the Ohio River contributed mightily to Essera’s Dazun River. And another upside… thanks to lots of time on the road and what counted as reading material in the car, I am a wizard at maps.

2. Being told I could become a writer.

By the time I was 14 and living in El Paso, Texas, I was already a voracious reader. Like many young girls, I had already devoured every horse book I could get my hands on. Eventually I gravitated toward reading whatever else was at hand: newspapers, magazines, books on my parents’ end tables or stacked on the bookshelves. It was an eclectic mix. The Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller; Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk; The Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann; The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer, and the encyclopedia. I had ample reading material.

One day I needed a book for an assignment in 9th grade English class, but I didn’t have anything suitable, so my teacher lent me her copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. She said she thought I was “ready for it.” I guess I was because I read it and loved it. Part of the assignment was to write a story that was “not real,” so I wrote a post-apocalyptic story about a very odd boy and a psychic weasel. I had a blast. In fact, I had a blast that whole year because for each genre she taught, the teacher assigned us to write a story. At the end of the year, the teacher encouraged me to consider becoming a writer. I didn’t pay much attention, though, because I had already decided I would become a brain surgeon.

3. My parents’ divorce.

I was 16 when my parents divorced, and it was rough. Family is a child’s whole world and then, boom, divorce blows life and world into rubble. Dad moved to Montana and married again within a couple months. Mom and we kids moved across the country to Milwaukee to live with my grandparents. Between the upheaval and the ugly change in our economic situation, I developed insecurity about money and a few other things. Like how I wasn’t good enough for my father to stick around, but my sister ended up running away to be with him instead of Mom and the rest of us. I got a job after school and worked a lot of hours and weekends to help support the family. It was a mess.

It was during this period that I started writing. At least with the characters and worlds I created, I could fix things. There was no Triempery at that point, just a few good guy characters in what is now Essera and a vaguely sinister antagonist in Sordan. Before my sister ran away, I used to tell chapters to her during our walks to school or at night in the bed we shared, but that stopped when she left and I wrote less.

After I graduated from high school, it made sense to get some kind of career going. College was now financially out of reach, so brain surgery was off the table. My mother had read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and feared for my sanity if I took up writing fantasy, besides which I was pretty sure it led straight to poverty, the very condition I hoped to escape. Being practical, I went to technical college, where I earned my degree in Respiratory Therapy. I got a decent job at a local hospital, bought a cool car I could not really afford, and made a brief but unsuccessful stab at medical school. I eventually did get my B.A. in English, but that was many years later.

4. Bolivia.

I married a doctor from Bolivia. He was the first man to pay attention to me, which I took to mean we had something special. We played chess at nights in the hospital where we both worked, and he taught me how to read X-rays and EKGs, skills I cherish to this day. A couple of years into the marriage and with our first child in tow, I traveled with him to see his family in La Paz. I fell in love with the country.

The Andes are spectacular. That’s the only word for them. Ice-crowned and beautiful. Everything about Bolivia stays with me even now, from the intriguing people and language and history to the amazing indigenous music and food, from the ruins of Tiahuanaco to the death-defying roads to the Yungas.

Those impressions remain and my writing often reflects what I saw and heard and learned. Dorilian dancing as the Sorcerer, the music and the steps... inspired by the diablada of Oruro. The narrow high road and guard post of the Trongor Pass is based on the road from La Paz to the Yungas. A courtyard in THE SECOND STONE is a homage to a house where I stayed in La Paz.

Another thing I learned was that my worldview was very American… and that people in other parts of the world do not view things the way I do or at least as I did at that time. It was eye-opening in a way I think people don’t get to experience unless they travel. Travel is one of the most life-changing things a person can do.

5. Having children.

Having children changes a person’s life. Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t had children. Even one child will make you both poorer and richer; poorer because they cost a lot of money and richer because it’s usually money well spent. I have three children, all sons, and can honestly say I would do it all over again (including marrying their father) just to have them in my life.

Being tied down with babies and toddlers nearly drove me crazy, though. Taking care of children is necessary but for me it was not the road to happiness. I needed to do something that was not in service to the next generation. If I had not had children, I might have spent all my energy on building a career as a Respiratory Therapist or gone to nursing school, or even made one more try at becoming a neurosurgeon. As it was, I was stuck at home with just three kids and myself, so I poured my spare time into writing again. Writing fiction was a great way to escape but never leave home. Same with reading, and I did a lot of that too. I wrote every day and never once forgot to pick up the boys from school or deliver them to soccer games.

As they grew up, the boys became amazing people who fixed my computers and printers (and sometimes left them in pieces on the dining table) and teens with whom I had deep conversations about what was wrong with me, their lives, and the world. Dorilian owes a lot to those boys.

My marriage didn’t last but my boys are forever.

6. Publishing my first novel.

I had been writing on a typewriter but having a computer to write on liberated me. Among other things, I’m a perfectionist. If I make a mistake in spelling or punctuation or simply think of a better way to word something, I will stop and correct that misstep. Right then, right there. With a typewriter that meant lots of correction tape and white out. Computers eliminated that interruption and I started out writing new chapters to my series with abandon.

It occurred to me that my series, which was still in its infancy, might be a tough sell, so I tried my hand at writing something smaller: a mass market paperback. After about four months I had produced a complete novel, my first finished work of fiction. My sister by then had returned to the area and I showed her the new book. She read it, pronounced it as good as anything else on the market (she too read a lot of fantasy and science fiction) and dared me to send it to a publisher. There were only major publishers to submit to then, so after perusing a copy of Literary Marketplace, I sent the manuscript to DAW.

DAW bought the book and published it. It sold well and was a Locus award nominee. I was a real writer! I took the advance and bought shares of Halliburton stock because I wanted an asset in my own name. I later sold the stock to help pay for college for one of the boys, so that was good. Best of all, though, was knowing I could write a publishable book and that readers had liked it.

7. Learning how to invest.

My marriage fell apart and once again I plunged into dire financial straits. That’s when my former brother-in-law stepped up to show me how to manage money. I knew nothing; I had never learned how to do anything other than use a bank and pay bills. Mark got a banker to refinance the house so I could pay off my debts, put on a new roof, fix the collapsing chimney, and have a little in the bank. I had re-entered the work force and my job salary could now handle the day to day.

Then Mark did the best favor any one person ever did for me: he taught me how to invest the small retirement account I had also gotten. I had been about to liquidate the account to save the house. He showed me about the stock market and how it works; how to research, evaluate, and pick securities that would grow in value; how to time purchases and when to sell; about being risk-averse but not too conservative. Financial security is something too many people in our society cannot find but few things are as life-changing.

You know the proverb about if you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish he can eat for a lifetime? I’m really glad someone taught me how to fish.

8. Getting married better.

So, having learned a few things from my failed marriage, such as that if a man doesn’t love you the way you already are, he won’t love whatever you become trying to please him… I married again. We met on a message board for writers (he’s a lawyer) and I first fell for his intelligence, humor, and way with words. He is a reader of thrillers and an excellent editor, whereas I read almost anything else and am in desperate need of editing. Despite that and being 900 miles apart, we were perfect for each other. Though we talked on the phone, we hadn’t exchanged photos. I guess we both figured we looked our best in pixels. Eventually, though, we decided to meet in person and hoped for the best.

Since marrying Steve, I’ve been over the moon happy for 15 years.

9. Getting my knees replaced.

I come from a family of bad knees. My father had both knees replaced. My mother has had both knees replaced. So has my sister. My knees never had a chance.

Knee replacement surgery is pretty drastic. Basically, the surgeon removes the joint — the terminal ends of both leg bones at the knee, including all cartilage and ligaments and usually the kneecap — and puts in a shiny new joint of metal and plastic. These days it’s a common surgery with a high rate of excellent results… but it’s still tough to contemplate. The recovery is grueling. I put off having the surgery for 10 years as my knees kept grinding away, cartilage gone, ligaments shredded, bone on bone.

Finally one day I turned to my husband and said, “I don’t care if I end up hardly able to walk. I can’t walk now. I want the surgery.” The constant pain was just too much. A month later I had both knees done at the same time by a surgeon named Dr. Good. You gotta love that.

Five years later, I have no pain at all and I can walk for miles. Life is so much better this way. I thank the stars for modern medicine. Those are my knees in the picture.

10. Finishing My Series

I had been writing my still unnamed series forever… but I had not finished it. During my brief stint as a DAW author, my editor Peter Stampfel had suggested writing Dorilian’s backstory, so in the ensuing years I did just that and — following my divorce and while working full-time — went about trying to publish SORDANEON. I workshopped the book in a few places, hired an editor to polish it, worked on the synopsis until I couldn’t stand it for even another hour, and sent out dozens of queries to agents… but nothing came of it.

I believed in my characters and their world, though, and I wanted to make the story magnificent, so I kept working on it. There remained a gap between SORDANEON and the main body of the series, though. About five chapters of the gap had been written and workshopped but… if the series was never to be published, what did it matter if that part of the story ever got written? I was the only one reading it. So I turned to writing other things and dabbled in romance novels.

Still, I would sometimes show SORDANEON and the other books of the series to interested people. Other authors mostly. Some readers of my other work. People who read the Triempery novels loved them, and I felt good about that. By that point, though, I’d given up on sending SORDANEON out for publication.

When Forest Path Books, a small press publisher, contacted me and asked if they could publish the books… I could barely believe it. Readers would get to see this story! That was when I realized I absolutely had to finish writing the second book, the one that completed the series. I had to tell Stefan’s story.

So I wrote like a maniac. Within six months, THE KHELD KING went from a few chapters and some riveting scenes in my head to a big, amazing book. And best of all, the story I began telling so many years ago during the break-up of my parents’ marriage, and the break-up of mine, and that had been a part of my life for all this time… was finished.

My life is far from done, but my life work is out there for the world to read. A part of me that felt unfinished now feels complete. Hopefully, my readers will enjoy reading this series as much as I enjoyed writing it. I feel blessed to have received early good reviews and some wonderful social media followers. I am so excited for everyone to read book two, the most recently written book in the series.

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