Unlikely Influences: What Beth Cato Learned About Magic by Living Through Earthquakes

Unlikely Influences is a series of occasional blog posts,  about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.

This week’s installment is by the fabulous Beth Cato. She wrote previously about what she learned about writing from baking cookies.

BreathofEarth_500x332 (1)What I learned about magic by living through earthquakes

by Beth Cato

When I was three years old, I was in the bathtub as a 6.2 earthquake devastated nearby Coalinga, California. My most vivid memory is of water splashing sideways out of the tub all on its own. I started screaming, and my mom was there in an instant to save me.

A few days later, we drove to Coalinga to see the damage firsthand. My mom had lived there a decade before, and my grandparents had been driving away from Coalinga on a visit when the quake struck. I remember my mom being very upset at the sight of so many buildings with the fronts sheared off, exposing the rooms like dollhouses. I wasn’t disturbed, though. I was fascinated.

As I grew older, I knew earthquakes were a constant danger. We did frequent practice drills in school, though I only ever experienced quakes at home. I knew about the nearby San Andreas fault and the basics of plate tectonics, but earthquakes still seemed like a magical experiences: invisible forces at work that I could feel shiver through my skin, that I could hear in the chime of my mom’s dishes, witness in the sway of our hanging lamps. I understood, through science, that this movement indicated continental shifts in progress, but how could I ever truly comprehend something of that mass and scale?

It made about as much sense as magic.

My family would drive to the Pacific coast and cross the very visible, rigid line of the San Andreas fault as it cuts through the hills. I always wondered how it would feel to stand right there when the Big One finally happened. What would that kind of power feel like?


A few years ago, I knew I wanted to start work on a new steampunk series. I thought of writing something set in my beloved California, and I realized I hadn’t seen any steampunk set in 1906 San Francisco against the backdrop of the earthquake and fire. I love writing about magic–my Clockwork Dagger series follows a magically powered healer–so it was only right that this new book feature magic mixed up with steampunk, too. This time, though, that magic needed to be geomancy.

Creating the world of Breath of Earth pulled inspiration from so many nagging questions and curiosities from my childhood. What if you could feel the power of an earthquake–and what would that do to your body? What if you could store the earth’s energy, like electricity? What could be done with that power?

Writers are often told to write what they know. I’m a native Californian. I know earthquakes. It was only right to add magic to help things along as I rewrote history. I want readers to understand the might and awe of an earthquake in action–without the terror of actually being in a bathtub during the next Big One.

Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger series from Harper Voyager, which includes her Nebula-nominated novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE. Her newest novel is BREATH OF EARTH. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Excerpts, columns, tweets

A few things I’ve written recently that aren’t fiction but might be of interest to readers of this blog anyway:

My latest column for the Ottawa Citizen is about the Tragically Hip, a beloved Canadian band making what is probably its last tour, and about irony and sarcasm in Canadian poetry.

The Citizen also recently ran an excerpt from my story “The Seven O’Clock Man,” published in Clockwork Canada.

And I’ve got into the habit, on Twitter, of talking about a favourite book every Monday evening. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, you can find me at @kateheartfield, or that thread at #mondaybook.

My schedule for the 2016 Limestone Genre Expo

I had a great time at Kington’s inaugural Limestone Genre Expo last year. This year, they’ve expanded it to two days (although I’ll only be there Sunday.) I recommend it. The full schedule is online.

Here’s my schedule:

Sunday, July 24 2016

  • 11 a.m. Far Out: What’s Happening in Science Fiction? Nina Munteanu, Charlotte Ashley, Ira Nayman, Andrew Barton, Derek Kunsken and Kate Heartfield, moderated by Matt Moore.
  • 1 p.m.: Accessible Worlds: Disability in Speculative Fiction. Derek Newman Stille, Jen Frankel, Suzanne Church, Alison Sinclair, Madona Skaff, Vanessa Ricci-Thode, moderated by Kate Heartfield
  • 4 p.m. Magic and Magical Systems. Derek Künsken, Darke Conteur, Karen Dales, Brandon Crilly, Nancy Baker, moderated by Suzanne Church.

The Semaphore Society, emojified!

The clever Aidan Doyle wrote a program to turn stories into emoji and colour palettes, using words that appear in the text. I asked him to turn The Semaphore Society into emoji, because if ever I had a story that demanded to be turned into symbols, that’s the one.

Look how cool it is!

The Semaphore Society_emoji


The Semaphore Society_colors


You can listen to The Semaphore Society at Escape Pod or read it at Crossed Genres.

Interviews and reviews, part 2

A couple of new in-depth interviews with me are out in the world: A text one at Airship Ambassador, and an hour-long audio one with Derek Newman-Stille at Through the Twisted Woods. Both focus on my story “The Seven O’Clock Man” but go beyond that too.

Clockwork Canada, the anthology where that story appears, has been racking up more great reviews, including at Lightspeed and AE.


And in story-sale news, I’ll make a couple of appearances in Kaleidotrope in 2017: one flash-fiction piece of my own, and one collaboration. I haven’t collaborated on a short story before (unless you count Star Wars fan fiction with my six-year-old), so this is exciting.


As for the writing itself, these days I’m buried in a very rough first draft of a new novel, and revising a short story. Both are historical, but in slightly different settings than I’ve ever written in before. I do like to have new research to do all the time.

New story: The Automatic Prime Ministers

The “Governments” issue of Lackington’s, one of my favourite magazines, is available now. It includes my story “The Automatic Prime Ministers”, which is a near-future science-fictional thought experiment. It also explores the friendship between the eponymous prime ministers, of Canada and India. Bonus points for readers who guess why I named the Canadian prime minister “Flora.”

Some stories just flow; they either work or they don’t. This was not one of those stories. Much like my other most recent story, “The Seven O’Clock Man,” this one is a bundle of moving parts, and it took a lot of feedback from my clever critique partners to get it straight in my head. This story has a million ways to fail; I hope it fails beautifully, at least.

If you’re at all interested in political responses to climate change, in modelling as a policy tool, in the tension between a politician’s conscience and her duty to constituents, in the deceptively complicated role of evidence in politics and policy, in the ethics of first contact or the ethics of friendship, you’re the ideal reader for this one.

It’s also always fun to see a story of mine out in the world set in Ottawa, where I live.