Monsters & Magic – How I Found Inspiration in Real Life

Photo by Cassi Josh on Unsplash

by J.Ember Hintz

Like most young people, I went through many iterations of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I dreamed of being a radio DJ, an attorney, a journalist, a therapist, and the proprietor of a Christmas tree farm. Somewhere along the way, I stopped asking myself what I wanted to be and began focusing on what I wanted to have. A distinction I didn’t understand at the time.

While I’ve been fortunate to have all the things I wanted as a young woman, a loving partner, a beautiful family, and a successful career, I realized that I still had no idea what I wanted to be. Apparently, I was experiencing the Millennial Quarter Life Crisis. But, I should point out that I’m not a millennial, nor did I feel that my life was in crisis. I had a great life, things were going well, but was this all that there was? Was I too greedy, wanting to have my cake and eat it too? 

I threw myself into new hobbies. I taught myself how to refinish furniture, re-painted, and re-decorated my home frequently. I took painting classes and started listening to podcasts about science and theoretical physics. I sought out fantasy and science fiction stories of all stripes. I’d just finished reading the Twilight series, by Stephenie Meyer, and was experiencing that post-fantasy let down. The feeling that comes after you finish a great book or the final season of a TV show when you’re forced back into the real world where magic and monsters don’t exist. And that got me thinking, what if they did?

Over the weeks that followed, I mulled over the things that I’d seen and experienced in real life and realized that my life was, in fact, full of magic. While in college, I met and fell in love with my soul mate. He was the person I’d been dreaming of, pining after and waiting for my whole life. When love is new and exciting and full of passion, it’s hard to imagine that it will ever get better or change. But it does, as it did for us. As we grew individually, our bond was strengthened by our daily commitment to love, support, and honor one another, even when it was hard. From the very beginning, we both understood that we were dual protagonists, each with our own story arcs, on the same journey. Our love, and the connection that we share is rare and I treasure it. For me, love is the purest form of magic.

When I got pregnant, I was so confident about it all. I read all the books and thought I knew all the things, but bringing my son into the world wasn’t the magical experience that I’d been expecting. I was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia two and a half months before my due date, and the only cure was to not be pregnant anymore. I would have died in childbirth had it not been for the miracle of modern medicine. My son and I survived, and I have been fortunate to experience the surreal joy of watching him thrive, despite his premature and challenging start in life. Today, he still enjoys challenging his parents, but he’s a happy, healthy young adult living his best life and writing his own story.

My husband and son in the NICU. Photo by J. Ember Hintz.

There were plenty of monsters in my life, as well. I struggled with internal insecurities. Parenting was hard, much harder than I ever imagined it would be. I had no idea what I was doing and worried that I was failing my children in some way. I suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of my second child and was yet again saved by modern medicine, this time in the form of a magical little pill prescribed my by doctor that quieted all the monstrous thoughts inside my head.

When I decided to go back to work after taking nearly a decade off to raise my children, I was an anxious mess. I didn’t have the same work experience or credentials as the men and women I was competing against in what was a difficult job market at the time. My husband and I trudged our way through the pressures of adult responsibilities and raising a family. We fought tooth and nail to overcome the toll that toxic people and toxic work environments had on our marriage and our ability to be good parents. Family therapy saved our marriage, eradicated some of our inner demons, and became yet another magical milestone in our life.

Then, in 2009, our lives were forever scarred by a real-life, flesh, and blood monster in human form. Even today, more than a decade later, it’s a story that’s difficult for me to tell. My husband and I met at Longwood University in Farmville, VA. We were both pursuing degrees in criminal justice and had the privilege of being mentored by Dr. Debra S. Kelly. Debra had dedicated her career to awakening young minds and to bringing light to the role of women in crime, both as victims and criminals. She co-authored a book with another of our Longwood professors, James F. Hodgson, Sexual Violence: Policies, Practices, and Challenges in the United States and Canada.

During my time at Longwood, Debra became more than a professor and mentor to me, she was also a dear friend. We kept in touch after I graduated, and her daughter, Emma, who I frequently babysat during my college days, was the flower girl at my wedding. Debra and I talked about our children, relationships, and careers. She rejoiced in my successes and encouraged me through my defeats and always challenged me to be the best version of myself personally and professionally. Aside from my parents, she was the most influential person in my life. Dr. Hodgson once said that Debra was the most fearless person he’d ever met. She didn’t cower away from the things that made others tremble. I had great admiration for her courage and personal strength. She was and forever will be an icon of feminist power for me.

I loved Debra dearly, and it shattered my world when she was brutally murdered in her home in 2009, along with her then-teenage daughter Emma Neiderbrock, one of Emma’s friends Melanie Wells, and Emma’s father, Mark Neiderbrock.

Emma Neiderbrock at my wedding. Photo by J.Ember Hintz
Debra S. Kelly Photo by Andrea L. Parrish

Debra’s death was a catalyst that changed the course of my life. I stopped taking things for granted, and I began to question EVERYTHING, from my religious, moral, and social convictions to the very nature of reality.

Years later, after reading Stephenie Meyer’s tale of bloodthirsty monsters, unconditional love, and difficult childbirth, I was finally able to recognize the magic and evil that was so deeply rooted in my own story. It was in that culminating moment that I began to realize what I wanted to be, a storyteller, a creator of worlds, creatures, and characters that were both magical and monstrous.

That’s when Renae Martin was born; an innocent, who experiences horrible things at the hands of real-life monsters, who, despite being touched by evil, chooses to embrace the magical and the monsters natures that lives within all souls, and ultimately realizes what it truly means to be human.

Renae Martin is the primary protagonist in my novel, The Garden, the first book of my Eternal Return Series that follows Renae through her metamorphosis from a naive young woman to the most powerful creature on the planet. #NoDamsels

For anyone interested in learning about the tragic death of Debra S. Kelly that made national headlines, I recommend starting with this article from the Richmond Times Dispatch. Warning – Graphic Content.

Redefining the Heroine – Highlighting Feminine Strength to Create Strong Female Leads

by J.Ember Hintz

The OA | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix

Seriously, if you haven’t watched the OA on Netflix yet, GO BINGE IT RIGHT NOW. 

Don’t worry; you’ll find no spoilers here, so by all means, read on.

I loved everything about this series, especially the unforgettable lead character, Prarie Johnson, played by Brit Marling. Marling, who also created and produced the show – talk about girl power – delivers the elegantly nuanced role to perfection. In her recent New York Times opinion piece, I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead; Marling explains her motivations for creating a very different kind of female hero. The article was a welcome reminder for me, as an author, that we need to rethink and redefine how we develop and portray our female protagonists.  

It’s refreshing when we see the feminist perspective of power; the strength of character built on empathy, personal sacrifice, and empowerment, show up in a science fiction series. It doesn’t happen very often. One of my favorite examples of a science fiction series turning the traditional notion of power on its head is the 2004 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. And Oliva Dunham, the primary protagonist in Fringe is one of my favorite characters of all time, mostly because I wish I had her job. There should be a LinkedIn category for Government Special Agent Paranormal Investigators.  

When we try to pinpoint what it is that makes a hero powerful; we first need to dissect the definition of power itself. The word power infers masculine modalities of strength, social dominance, physical prowess, action, and purpose, typical attributes of most fictional and real-life role models. Converse characteristics, creativity, sensitivity, and intuition, are all too frequently portrayed as weakness and are actively attacked in both fiction and real life. Just look at the way we treat female politicians. If they embrace their femininity, they’re not “electable” or taken seriously, but if they portray uncompromising values and ambition in a smart pantsuit, they’re too “b*tchy” to lead.

These paradigms are so prevalent in our social psyche that it can be challenging to write a strong female character without conjuring one or more modalities of male power. Often we end up with a masculine protagonist inside an attractive female body. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good female superhero that kicks serious butt – Storm, Black Widow, and Jessica Jones, for example – and these characters indeed sell books and movies. However, they also reinforce the notion that feminine modalities of power are a lesser-than commodity. Our cultural heritage has ingrained these narratives so deeply into our brains that even when we try to write strong female leads, we often get it wrong.

Real feminine strength is often delegated to supporting roles, the nurturing parent or spouse, the encouraging mentor, the BFF, or quirky sidekick. These helper characters are usually imperative to a hero’s success and are frequently sacrificed along the way. But, if done correctly, they can make compelling secondary protagonists of their own. However, adding token feminine characters or even strong secondary female protagonists isn’t enough. We need more Prarie Johnson’s, Kara Thrace’s, and Oliva Dunhams in science fiction. So, how do we write them?

To find the answer, I asked the internet, naturally, and found numerous how-to articles on this exact question. Their advice? Give your hero flaws, inner strength, a good back-story, individual goals, and a defined story arc – all excellent suggestions. These are also mandatory mechanisms for creating ANY strong character. One article even suggested writing your hero as a man and then, merely changing the pronouns! Sigh. While pronouns are essential to defining how your character identifies themselves, adding she/her cannot invoke the essence of feminine power when used alone. It has to come from the soul.

To create a robust and nuanced protagonist exemplifying female power, we must go back to the feminist perspective of power. We need to give our female-identifying heroes empathy, confidence, and resilience, and they need to lead us somewhere; into battle, into public office, into a parallel universe, on an internal AND external journey of some kind. They also need to empower others, both on and off the page. And if they can do all of this while embracing their sexuality, even better! I’m a sucker for both male and female gendered characters that explore their internal desires. Who are they attracted to, and more importantly, why?  

Good fiction writing comes from a solid understanding of sociological and psychological motivations and repercussions. Check out this expert from Principles of Social Psychology – 1st International Edition by Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani and Dr. Hammond Tarry, on the psychology of attraction. As writers, we have to dig deep, explore, and understand who our characters are and how that correlates to the world in which they reside. 

If we do the research and thoroughly flush out our characters, we can end up with coveted, multi-dimensional examples of feminine power.

My Eternal Return Trilogy revolves around three very different strong female protagonists, Renae Martin in The Garden, Vasa K’atèri in the Fountain, and Nova Melengali in The Gift. While I can’t promise to deliver perfect feminist icons, I will tell you that none of these feminine power players will ever need to be saved by anyone other than themselves. #NoDamsels

My Obsession with Laura Mersini-Houghton & Theoretical Physics

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

by J.Ember Hintz

My fascination with the universe started on a balmy summer night when I was thirteen years old. My father and I were relaxing on our side porch and looking up at the stars after a long day spent scraping a century of paint off the side of our barn. As darkness fell, he began pointing out constellations, trying to help me find them in vain. Maybe I was tired, or perhaps I just couldn’t see them the same way that he did. Either way, it seemed like an impossible game of connect-the-dots to me. To this day, I still can’t find anything other than the big and little dippers.

But it wasn’t the lesson in astronomy that stuck with me. It was the feeling of acute infinitesimal-ness that overwhelmed me when my father pointed out that there were more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it affected me deeply. He went on to explain that given those big numbers, the likelihood that we are not alone is pretty high. It was the first ‘mind-blown’ moment of my life. 

Unfortunately, my brain wasn’t hard-wired for the complicated math that goes hand and hand with physics. So, I channeled my new fascination with the universe, like every other geeky child of the ’80s, into an obsession with Star Trek. Every day after school, I explored strange new worlds, sought out alien civilizations and, went where no one had gone before with Kirk, Spock, and Sulu, satisfying my curiosity for answers to all of those BIG questions.

My LOVE of science fiction eventually led to an avid interest in the concepts of theoretical physics and some very deep internet rabbit holes. That’s when I came across this interview with Laura Mersini-Houghton, cosmologist and theoretical physicist at UNC Chapel Hill. Not only was this brilliant woman asking the same what-if questions that had been stirring my imagination since childhood, but she was also answering them, WITH SCIENCE. She was doing the math. She was connecting the dots.

To say that Laura Mersini-Houghton is my hero, would be an understatement. She’s the scientific female role model that I wish I’d had growing up. She is the Einstein of the modern era, breaking through the boundaries of our current understanding of the universe and our place in it.

Her research on the Cosmic Microwave Background – the radiation left over from the Big Bang – and the origins of the Eridanus Super Void – a massive region of missing energy near the constellation Eridanus – fascinated me. She was the first to person to suggest that this “Cold Spot” may have been caused by a primordial entanglement between our word and another universe. 

Mersini-Houghton’s research became the inspiration for my first novel, The Garden, where I was finally able to explore a few what-if questions of my own. 


To learn more about Laura Mersini-Houghton and her cutting edge research, check out this article by Alyssa LaFaro, Endeavors from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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