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Creating Depth: Layers of the Word-Pond #amwriting

We often talk about the story arc and its component parts and features. But when we want to add depth to a story, we must look at it from a different angle. Yes, “Story” is an arc, but it is also like a pond. It is something vast and deep, set in an enclosed space.

We know it has a beginning and end, a top and bottom, with something murky and mysterious in the middle. We instinctively know the pond is made up of those three layers, although we may not consciously be aware of it or be able to explain it.

Today we will have an overview of Depth, a component of Story that we will be exploring over the next few posts. This is a part of the puzzle that eludes many authors as depth is an advanced concept requiring a great deal of thought to convey.

On our pond, Layer One, the surface layer, is the most obvious. When you look at the pond, it could be calm , or if a storm is brewing, it will be ruffled and moving.

First, we must understand that Story is an immense, unfathomable word-pond.

In Story, Layer One, the surface layer is the Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

This is the setting, the action, the visual/physical experience of the characters as they go about their lives.

On the surface of a story, when you see something, you immediately recognize what you think is there. You immediately believe you know what is going on. This is the surface meaning. A gun is drawn, the weapon is fired—what happened is clear and obvious.

The ways in which we play with the surface layer are by choosing either Realism or Surrealism, or a blend of the two.

Realism is serious, a depiction of what undisputedly is.

Surrealism seeks to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images. It takes what is real and warps it to convey a subtler meaning.

This will be a fun layer to explore, with lots of wonderful art to help us along the way.

Back to the pond. Beneath the surface is Layer Two: the middle, the area of unknown quantity where lives are lived, and events happen. Fish hatch, swim, and eat other fish. These are the creatures of the middle, entities who rarely breach the surface layer or see the bottom and who exist independently of them.

Yet their world has limits—they are confined, as we are confined by the sky above us and the soil beneath our feet.

In Story, Layer Two, the wide layer of unknown quantity is the Inferential Layer. This is the layer where Inference and Implication come into play.

We show why the gun is drawn. We imply reasons to show why the weapon was fired. We offer ideas to explain how the shooter comes to the place in the story where they squeezed the trigger.

We make these implications and let the reader draw their own conclusions.

In a good story, the path to the moment the trigger was pulled is complicated. Perhaps no one knows exactly what led to it, but your task is to fill the middle of the pond with clues, hints, and allegations. This is where INFER and IMPLY come into play.

You can only imply something to someone, in our case, the reader.

A speaker (author) implies. One meaning is displayed on the surface, but deeper down, you enclose the true meaning, a secret folded within the story. Take an envelope and write the word “murder” on it.  Then write one word, “avenger,” on a  note and slip it inside the envelope. The message (inference) inside the envelope (story) is conveyed to the listener (reader).

A listener (reader) infers. The listener (reader) deduces or catches the meaning of something that is not said directly. In reading the inferential layer of the story, they open the envelope and draw out the note and deduce the meaning of what is about to happen.

The layer of implication must be done well and deftly because you want the reader to feel as if they have earned the information they are gaining. They must be able to deduce what you imply. As a listener (reader) you can only extrapolate knowledge from information someone or something has offered you.

Serious readers want this layer to mean something on a level that isn’t obvious. They want to experience that feeling of triumph for having caught the meaning. That surge of endorphins keeps them involved and makes them want more of your work.

This layer will be shallower in Romance novels because the point of the book isn’t a deeper meaning—it’s interpersonal relationships on a surface level. However, there will still be some areas of mystery that aren’t spelled out completely because the interpersonal intrigues are the story.

Books for younger readers might also be less deep on this level because they don’t yet have the real-world experience to understand what is implied.

This middle layer is, in my opinion, the toughest layer for an author to get a grip on. We will go to popular literature to find examples that will lead us to draw our own conclusions about this layer.

Below the middle layer is Layer Three, the bottom of the pond. This is the finite layer: Whatever passes from the surface travels through the middle and comes to rest at the bottom.

In Story, Layer Three is the Interpretive Level:

  • Themes
  • Commentary
  • Message
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

This layer is sometimes the easiest for me to discuss because we are dealing with finite concepts. Theme is one of my favorite subjects to write about, as is symbolism. Commentary is something I haven’t gone into in depth, nor have I really discussed conveying messages. Archetype is another facet I haven’t gone into in detail, and yet it is a fundamental underpinning of Story.

I am looking forward to gaining more understanding of the subtler, more abstract aspects of writing as I do the research for this series. When I come across a book or website that has some good information, I will share it with you.

In the meantime, a good core textbook is “Story” by Robert McKee. If you haven’t already gotten it, get it.

Another excellent and more affordable textbook for this is “Damn Fine Story” by Chuck Wendig. Chuck delivers his wisdom in pithy, witty, concise packets. If you fear potty-mouth, don’t buy it. However, if you have the courage to be challenged, this is the book for you.

In my next post we will begin at the surface of the Word-Pond: realism and surrealism.


Credits and Attributions:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.

Impression Sunrise, Claude Monet 1872 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Dramatic Irony: adding depth #amwriting

Creating depth in writing is an involved process. When we talk about adding depth to a scene, we are talking about many things, and over the next few weeks, we will explore the ideas and facets of depth more fully.

First of all, “depth” consists of a multitude of layers we add to a scene.

Even before we get into the deeper waters, writing fiction is a complex undertaking. We need a wide vocabulary, but we also need to be careful not to get too “high falutin’” with it. This requires an understanding of our chosen genre and the general expectations of our readers.

Also, the way we habitually structure our prose (our voice) can add to the feeling of depth. Of course, it’s important to have a fundamental understanding of basic mechanical skills:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation

We don’t consciously think about this, but organizational skills are critical because we want the story to flow easily from scene to scene. How we plot a story requires a little thought and sometimes we cut or rearrange things.

If we are writing fiction, we need to be able to think critically and see a character’s thought processes from all sides. If we have tunnel vision in our writing, we only write what is directly in front of us. This can be one dimensional, boring. There is no surprise because we saw it coming all along, and no effort was made to counter it.

So how do we take that one-dimensional idea and make the reader believe we have (figuratively) plucked them from their comfortable existence and placed them in a real, three-dimensional world?

We do it layer by layer. Some layers are more abstract than others, but they add so much to a story. Take the unexpected. When you add something unexpected into the mix, the reader becomes interested in finding out more. They keep turning the pages.

One way to introduce the unexpected is to employ a literary device called Dramatic Irony. Employed deftly, irony inserted into the ordinary adds the element of surprise and a moment of “ah hah!” to a scene. The ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Let’s consider Romeo and Juliet. The way William Shakespeare wrote the play, we see layer after layer of irony, applied heavily.

First, the prologue announces that the  Capulets are at war with the Montagues and tells us that what happens to the star-crossed lovers at the end will bring about peace between the warring families. That the audience is aware of the situation from the outset, but the characters are not is one layer of irony. That “we know, but you don’t” factor was extraordinarily daring in its day and was one of the things Elizabethans loved most about the play.  

Now, the next layer is one that resonates with modern audiences. The second layer of irony is laid on when Romeo falls in love with his nemesis—the daughter of his family’s arch enemy. Again, the audience sees the irony there, but (third layer) Romeo pushes onward, trying to convince Juliet that her family won’t harm him, that her love will protect him. Alas, the ironic blindness of teenaged infatuation.

And at this point, despite the blatant warning the prologue gives us at the outset, we are all hoping for a happy ending, even though we’ve had 400 years of “we know how this will end, and it isn’t good.”

Mercutio and Benvolio discuss Romeo’s love-stricken behavior, assuming he is still pining for Rosalind (fourth layer of irony). The audience says, “We know something you don’t!”

Alas poor Romeo! he is already dead;

stabbed with a white wench’s black eye;

shot through the ear with a love-song;

“Shot through the ear with a love-song” is brilliant, ironic prose in any era. All through the play, from Tybalt’s murder to the suicides, the audience knows what is going on, but the characters don’t. That is dramatic irony taken to an extreme and was a contributing factor in the play’s success back in 1594-1595 when it first opened.

But tastes have changed over the 400+ years since that play was written. We can still inject irony into our work but don’t have to be quite so heavy-handed in our writing.

I’m just saying that nowadays it’s a bad idea to write a prologue explaining the end of the book, as that will encourage readers to put the book back on the shelf and purchase one where the outcome is more of a mystery.

Perhaps we have scene involving a committee’s conversation about what to do with a plot of land. Should we let it be developed commercially or make it playground? In itself, the topic might not be terribly interesting.

But what if in the opening paragraph a woman enters the empty conference room ahead of the meeting and places a backpack under the table. She makes an adjustment to its contents, sets the timer to go off at 14:25 (2:25 pm), and then leaves, being careful to leave no fingerprints.

Now every second that the conversation drags on ratchets up the tension. Each time a committee member gets up to get a glass of water, or make a phone call, and the clock on the wall ticks toward 2:25, you wonder: will they be the one to escape death?

Irony should be the backpack lurking under the table. It’s there; the reader knows it’s there but once it’s placed under the table we don’t have to mention it again until it is found or the clock ticks to 2:25.

Consider Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury uses irony to convey information. First of all, Bradbury challenges us by introducing “firemen” not as those brave people who put out house fires, but as men charged with starting fires and burning all books. The naming of that job title is subtle. The author never resorts to explaining the irony, but it packs a punch when you first read it. So, in that case, we have “situational irony” delivering information we need, in a way that packs a wallop and promises more to come.

In the 1948 short story, The Lottery, Shirley Jackson wrote about something we typically think of as good. After all, winning the lottery usually means we’ve won money or a wonderful prize. But in Jackson’s story, it’s not about what is won, but what is lost. The irony is that stoning someone to death yearly purges the town of the bad and makes way for the good.

Dramatic Irony adds depth to a story, especially when done in such a way that the reader understands it but hasn’t been told what to think. Readers like to think for themselves.

For a good speculative fiction story that is one long scene filled with dramatic irony that becomes humorous, you might want to read The Machine that Won the War, by Isaac Asimov. This story first appeared in the October 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and was reprinted in the collections Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) and Robot Dreams (1986).

 


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1594 – 1595 PD|100.

Cover for Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Artwork by Joseph Mugnaini Published October 19, 1953, by Ballantine Books. Fair Use.

Frank Dicksee, Romeo and Juliet, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg&oldid=354454367 (accessed June 25, 2019).

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Update on Works in Progress #amwriting

Time flies when you’re having fun—it’s June already, and nothing I planned to have completed is done at this point.  However, I have made progress on some really important things.

I bought a new vacuum cleaner.

I’ve got a new vegan cookbook.

I dog-sat my neighbor’s boxer for four days.

But we’re here to talk about writing. In the short story department, I have had one story accepted by an anthology. I sent two others to magazines, and they’re currently hanging in that peculiar limbo. Waiting to hear if I’ve sold them or not is always a little frustrating but I try to just send them off and forget them, which is why it’s good to keep a list of what you sent and to where.

This is where the spreadsheet for submissions comes in handy. You can do this by hand or use Excel or Google Sheets. (see my blogpost of 1 May 2017 – Submissions: discovering who wants them and how to manage your backlist. My list has:

  • Date of submission
  • Title of Story
  • Genre
  • Name of publication/contest it was submitted to
  • Website for publication/contest
  • How it was submitted (i.e., through Submittable or through the publisher’s website)
  • Closing date
  • The date you can expect to hear back by at the latest: 90 – 175 days is common.
  • Where to respond and who to notify in the case of simultaneous submissions – some publications/contests allow simultaneous submissions, but you must notify them immediately if your work is accepted elsewhere.
  • Accepted Yes/No
  • Date accepted/rejected
  • Remarks if given

Once your spreadsheet is set up, it’s easy to keep track of what you sent to where and where it is in the process.  Using the Submittable App makes it even easier—they keep track of your submissions for you.

I’ve slowed down on the short story mill—my novels have once again claimed my attention.

The Author in her natural habitat.

The first draft of Heaven’s Altar is ¾ of the way done but is at a creative plateau point. This is a novel set in the Tower of Bones world of Neveyah but takes place fifteen generations before Edwin’s time. I have taken my main character through his vision quest, and he is now headed toward the showdown with destiny.

Those final showdown scenes are always so difficult to get out of my head and onto paper.  I do a lot of thinking, of trying to pry that elusive nugget of gold loose. But it’s still refusing to show itself, so for the moment, that manuscript is at the “inching” stage—mostly on the back burner.

Bleakbourne on Heath, my alternate Arthurian mishmash is nearing completion. This is a work-in-progress that began life as a serial, and while I did end the serialized version with a wedding, the main thread was left incomplete. That story has languished for two years while other projects took up my attention. I intend to finish Bleakbourne during NaNoWriMo this year, so I have been designing the final showdown for Merlin, Mordred, and Leryn. I know where Bramblestein, Lancelyn, and Galahad must be and what they each must do. I have also figured out how Morgause the Cat fits into the story and what her role will be in the big event.

Baron’s Hollow, my contemporary novel is in the outlining and backstory stage still. This book will also emerge more fully during NaNoWriMo if all goes well with Bleakbourne. As that should only take about 10,000 words to finish, I will have plenty of time to get Baron’s Hollow off to a good start. I expect Baron’s Hollow to top out at about 60,000 words.

I’m still trying to figure out the characters, what secrets each is keeping from the others, how those secrets mount up, and how each member of the cast makes it to the final showdown. In order to write their story, I need to know these people as individuals, understand how they would or wouldn’t react to each situation, and what the catalyst for the final event is. I know what has to happen during that scene. I know where it will happen. I just need to know why these particular people do what they do.

Finally, Julian Lackland, the final installment in the Billy’s Revenge series has been completed. I am just waiting for comments from the final group of beta readers. If all goes well, he will go to print in September. If more revisions are required than I hope, it could be November or December–I refuse to rush him to print.

So that is the update—I’ve been averaging 700 to 1000 new words a day, which isn’t exactly burning up the universe. However, combined with the revisions and editing work for other authors, it does move me forward.

How has your new work been progressing? Feel free to let me know in the comments, but include no links please, as the spam blocker will send those directly to the spam folder.

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@authorLeeFrench, Collaborating with another author #amwriting

Today I’m continuing my series on productivity, featuring a guest post by USA Today bestselling author, Lee French. Lee not only writes as a solo author, but she has two co-authors with whom she writes. These collaborations produce widely different work.

Besides writing bestsellers, Lee is a regional municipal liaison for NaNoWriMo. She travels a lot, working the tables for Clockwork Dragon at as many conventions as she can fit into her schedule, publishes several books a year and produces new short stories every month for her website and fans. Despite this vigorous schedule, she remains true to her commitment to only publishing the best quality work. One way she does this is by working closely with other authors.

And now, Lee French talks about productive collaborations:


Lately, I’ve come to the opinion that the future of indie publishing is collaboration in one form or another. We get more done when we work together with a team outlook. One form of collaboration is co-authoring. I’ve worked with two different co-authors, Erik Kort and Jeffrey Cook. These are two quite different people, but they share similar strengths. Which is great, because those strengths cover for my weaknesses.

I met Erik on an online role-playing forum using bulletin-board style called Myth-Weavers. It’s a community of people playing games like Dungeons & Dragons as collaborative writing, often because finding an in-person group of 4-6 people with adult obligations who can all meet at the same time on a regular basis is challenging. At the time we first began playing in a game together, Erik and I lived a few hundred miles apart. He had college. I had a preschooler and another on the way. I never would’ve met him in my daily life.

Over the years, we gravitated toward each other as players because we had similar writing styles and narrative preferences. I found joy in working with him. We first decided to give a shot at writing books together after a game called The Greatest Sin folded due to real life obligations. He ran the game as the GM and I played a character named Chavali. After it folded, we had a chat conversation that began with expressing our mutual disappointment and ended with both of us admitting we didn’t want to give up on the story or Chavali. By this time, I’d published my first book, Dragons In Pieces, and he’d started his first book in earnest, Children Without Faces (as Erik Marshall). We both knew we wanted to pursue publishing as a job. I don’t recall who said the words first, but we both eagerly jumped into the idea of an epic fantasy series with these ideas neither of us could abandon.

Jeff and I met under quite different circumstances. By the time I first encountered him, I’d already published five books and had several more in the pipeline. He had a similar number already also. We met at an event he’d organized, of a group of authors hanging out at a geeky restaurant, enjoying good food and trying to sell a few copies of their books. I attended the event because I’d first heard about it too late to request to participate.

At that point, I’d participated in one group reading but otherwise had no idea what to do at a book event.

I was so young and naïve at the age of 39.

Being me, I flipped through books and made strangled attempts to engage in conversation with the authors present. Some were pushy, which I had hard time extracting myself from. Jeff was not pushy. I chatted with him and picked up one of his books on my kindle because he was nice and pleasant to talk to. After I’d read the book (Dawn of Steam: First Light, which is not at all my usual sort of reading material), I decided I liked the cut of his jib, so to speak. The next time he needed a ride to a show we’d both signed up to work in Portland, I offered to transport him.

Two hours, the duration of the drive from my home to Portland, is a fair amount of time to be stuck in a car with someone. Twice. On the ride, we chatted about writing and books, and all kinds of other things. We chatted during the event. Then we chatted on the way home. I helped him with some annoying story ideas, and he helped me with some of my own. Instead of feeling drained when I got home that evening, I felt energized, like I could write a book before going to bed.

We decided to work several more events together, then invited a few friends and turned it into Clockwork Dragon, a formal indie author co-op with its own bank account and centralized tax payments for all of us. At this point, we work 25-30 events per year, selling each other’s books.

But we didn’t decide to write a book together until the first time we took a road trip to Indianapolis, Denver, and Kansas City. Jeff and I spent 5 weeks on the road with nothing better to do than talk. Some days, we drove for fourteen hours. Rather than sit in silence or just listen to the radio, we decided to hatch a mad scheme to co-author books. We’d both done it before with other people and knew generally how to work it. Our collaboration started with a nonfiction book about how to work event tables, a task we both felt (and still feel) completely qualified to teach. Working the Table: An Indie Author’s Guide to Conventions came together swiftly and easily with a minimum of fuss. That led us to dive into fiction collaboration with Nova Ranger Academy, a standalone military superhero novel.

Both Erik and Jeffrey are excellent plotters and researchers who love doing those things, but not especially swift writers. I’m less enthused by either plotting or research, but I can bang out a book like it’s nothing. As such, my collaboration model with both relies upon initial conversations about theme, characters, and basic ideas. They go build the setting and plot, then I take what they’ve built and write the book. They read through the first draft and make revision notes, then I take those and fix things.

Other models exist and are equally valid. Some folks alternate writing chapters, using two different POV characters. Others might have one person writing a first, bare-bones draft, then the other person threading in description, setting, and other subtleties. And so on. Anything is possible.

Whatever division of labor you choose, be clear about it. Don’t leave anything vague or unexplained. Discuss all the phases of the book, from concept to publication. Who will format it? Who will handle the royalties? Will it be a 50/50 royalty split, or is one person really doing much more of the work? Who will buy print copies if you go to an event? Who’s responsible for the cover? Proofreading? Editing? Getting beta feedback? Revising with that feedback? Writing the blurb copy? Setting up advertising? Will there be an audio edition, and who will handle that and how? What happens to the Intellectual Property when one of you dies?

Finally, even if your co-author is a friend, draw up and sign a contract to specify all these decisions. It doesn’t have to be formal, legalese writing, but it does need to lay out all these decisions. Include a clause for one of you to get out of the deal in case you ever have a falling out or one of you can no longer write for some reason.

Above all, look for someone you can work with. Co-authoring books is a professional arrangement that lasts as long as the books are available. In the indie world, that’s effectively for the rest of your life. Don’t get into an agreement with someone you don’t like or can’t stand working with just because they’re more successful than you. Get to know them and consider a test run of a novella or short story to see if your work styles match.


Lee French is a USA Today bestselling indie author of over two dozen fantasy and science fiction books across a variety of subgenres. Her newest release is Crawlspace, the sequel to Porcelain, a YA space opera portal fantasy about aliens, wormholes, eating disorders, Marines, laser guns, and family.

 

Link to The Fallen (with Erik): books2read.com/u/3GXXpm

Link to Nova Ranger Academy (with Jeff): books2read.com/u/bxzDnd

Link to Crawlspace: books2read.com/u/bOGk7K

 

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World building – immediate community #amwriting

We have discussed the larger aspects of world-building – power structures such as religion and politics. We’ve talked about food, and about how word choices convey imagery which contributes to the reader’s visualization of the written world. Now we’re going to examine the immediate world, the community your character lives in.

If I were writing a story starring me as the main character, I would open it with a couple of 50-something empty nesters moving to a small quarry town, twenty miles south of the state capitol.

But what sort of town is this?

Tenino is a bedroom community; the commute isn’t too bad and homes here are affordable, whereas homes in Olympia tend to be quite expensive. This town has a long history of boom and bust; quarrymen, loggers, and farmers settled here.

Timber is no longer big here. Nowadays our town is famous for Wolf Haven International, sandstone art, crafted whiskey, and wine. We still have a few large cattle ranches out on the Violet Prairie, but 5-to-7-acre executive “horse properties,” llama farms, alpaca ranches, goat yoga, and soap-making classes have found fertile ground here. In the early part of the 20th century bootlegging was an industry here (my maternal grandfather) so having the distilleries is the legal continuation of an old tradition.

It’s an isolated town, filled with quirky, wonderful people, and situated in a valley with heavily forested hills on the outskirts. If a fictional story were set in this town, it would feature the same political schisms that divide the rest of our country. There are other tensions. Some families have been here for generations, and  a few don’t appreciate the influx of low-paid state workers buying cookie-cutter tract homes here.

Other than the few local businesses, most people commute to work in Olympia or one of the other surrounding communities.

My street is a stretch of rough blacktop with no sidewalks. It runs east and west, with a fabulous view of Mount Rainier rising at the east end. It is lined with homes on both sides, but it’s divided. A nicely landscaped mobile home park is on the north side of the street, across from my front door. On the south side of the street is the long row of forty stick-built homes, built in 2005 just before the housing bubble crashed. On my side of the street, the row of homes are nearly identical, as there are only two types of floor plans, one for three bedrooms (mine) or the four-bedroom version.

This makes for a seriously boring-looking neighborhood, so for a few years we had the only house with an orange door.

The day we moved into our brand-new home in 2005, two inches of rain fell, making moving a misery. Our new house rose out of a sea of mud and rocks. With a lot of effort, we made a pleasant yard. When the housing bubble burst, many of the people on my side of the street lost their jobs, and their homes went into foreclosure.

For several years, wherever there were two or more empty houses, it looked somewhat like a ghost town. Also, there was a long period when our house was valued at far less than we paid for it, which meant that had we wanted to, we couldn’t sell it.

My town has one grocery store, which carries the basics, but their produce is awful, and you really have to check the pull dates on things like eggs, hummus, and cottage cheese. It’s more affordable to shop in Olympia.

We have a historic district, where the buildings are all built from sandstone quarried at the old quarries. Many of the old buildings are home to antique stores. The masonic lodge is made of Tenino sandstone.

The city park is a pleasant place to go on a hot Saturday afternoon, with a large public swimming pool in one of the flooded quarries.

It’s a nice place, a quiet town with several large Baptist churches, a Catholic church, and a large number of small off-shoot fundamentalist churches. Alas, those of us of the Lutheran persuasion must go to Olympia to find God.

In the morning, birdsong fills the air. Robins, wrens, finches, hummingbirds, crows, Stellar’s jays, mourning doves – the neighborhood is alive with birds.

Odors are important. The meat department at the grocery store smokes their own ribs and other cuts, and the wind carries the scent all over the neighborhood. When they mow the fields at the edge of our town the smell of cut hay fills the air.

During the day when I go outside, I can hear the children playing at the school. In the evening, the neighborhood is filled with the sounds of kids playing in each other’s yards.

Other familiar sounds are the traffic on Highway 507, and the horns sounding from the trains passing at the west end of town. Annoyingly, helicopters from the nearby military base sometimes buzz our town—flying low over our roofs, shaking the houses, rattling dishes in the cupboards.

It’s the perfect setting for a paranormal fantasy or a murder mystery.

Your characters subtly identify with the community they live in. Small town or large city, village or hut in the forest – where they are from shapes how they think, how they see the world. This is true of fantasy and sci-fi stories as well as murder mysteries and thrillers.

Visualize your own community and write a word picture of it. Then visualize the community your characters live in and write a word picture of this imaginary place.

Ambient sounds, odors, places the characters regularly frequent—these form the general environment, the setting of your story. This is the immediate world, the world of community.


Credits and Attributions

Photos and images in this post are from the authors personal collection © Connie Jasperson 2019

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World Building – creating political structures #amwriting

Every society, fantasy, sci-fi, or real-world, must have an overarching political structure—a government of some sort. Humans are tribal – like all primates we are comfortable when we have a hierarchy of decision-makers to guide the tribe.

A simple society might consist of an elder and several trusted advisors.

A more complex society might have a monarch leading a society composed of multiple layers:

Monarch/Royalty

→Nobility

→→Lesser Nobility

→→→Upper Middle Class

→→→→Middle Class

→→→→→Lower Middle Class

→→→→→→Lower Class

→→→→→→→Poorest Class

Every human society, large or small, is divided into layers and classes, whether we want to admit it or not. Change the word “Monarch” to “Mayor,” Governor,” “President,” “Pope,” or “Prime Minister,” and the society they lead falls into the same layers.

This is because someone is always more important, richer, has more power, makes the rules.

The politics of a society are an invisible construct that affects every aspect of a story, even if it isn’t directly addressed. Our characters have a place within that structure. When you know what that place is, you write their story accordingly. If you know your characters’ social caste, you know if they are rich or poor; hungry or well-fed. This will shape them throughout the story:

  • Hunger drives conflict
  • Well-fed could mean a complacent society

Every society has laws, inviolable rules. Breaking these laws has consequences.

Some small tribal societies have unwritten codes of ethics, but they are as firmly enforced as any written laws. When a character goes against the commonly accepted rules, they must face the consequences.

That flouting of civil laws is an opportunity for conflict.

Sometimes I run short of words on a new project but I can’t set it aside. At that point I go deep into the backstory and examine the hidden underpinnings of their society. Little, if any, of this backstory will enter into the finished product. But I have found that when my characters are sure of what their station in society is, I can write their journey with confidence and authority.

I need to know who they are, how they see themselves and their future, and how they fit organically into their world.

One aspect that is a hidden support structure of every fantasy society is the government.  Even if it doesn’t come into the story, take a few moments to examine the political power structure of your world. It’s a good idea to write down a page or so of information detailing the political and monetary structure of the world your characters inhabit.

As I create the political power-structure, I find that the opportunities for creating tension within the story also grow. I keep a list of those ideas so that when I run short on creativity, I have a bit in the bank, so to speak.

However, in order to convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work. Does the government/legal system affect your characters? If not, this exercise is a waste of time, sorry.

  • Who has the power and privilege in that society, and who is the underclass?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • Monarchy, Elected officials, Warlords, Shamans, or what?
  • How do they get that power? Hereditary, elected, military coup?
  • What laws affect your characters or hinder them?
  • How are the governing people perceived? Foolish or wise? Honest or Corrupt?
  • What place does religion have in this society? We examined religion last week in the post Creating Power Structures and Religions.
  • What passes for morality? You only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws, what are the consequences?

One critical aspect of society that governments have control of is money. If you have a fantasy society, design a simple monetary system. Keep it simple, so you don’t contradict yourself over the course of the story.

I use the same system in all three of my fantasy worlds. A Gold is comprised of 10 Silvers. A Silver is comprised of 10 Coppers.

In a sci-fi world, you can get away with using a blanket term like credits. These are easy concepts for a reader to imagine without your having to go into detail. Examples might be:

  • Innkeeper: “A mug of ale is three coppers. No coppers, no ale.”
  • Spaceport pawnbroker: “It’s unregistered. A weapon like this is worth five hundred credits, don’t you agree?”

If you’re writing in a speculative fiction world and you absolutely must use created names for money and positions, make those words simple to read and pronounce, and once you have established them, don’t deviate from them.

Good world building takes the familiar and shapes it into unfamiliar ways. It’s only my opinion, but I suggest you keep to familiar terms for leaders. King/queen, president, mayor, admiral, captain—these are terms that convey an image with no effort on your part. Anything the reader doesn’t have to research is good. If you are too enthusiastic in creating an entire language in order to convey a sense of foreignness, you have gone to a great deal of trouble only to lose the majority of readers.

When you are building a world that only exists on paper, you must be sparing with the space you devote to conveying the social, religious, and political climate of your story.  This is atmosphere. This is knowledge the characters have, but the reader does not.

There is no need to have an introductory chapter describing the laws and moral codes of the religious order of St Anthony, or the political climate of East Berlin in 1962. The way you convey this is to show how these larger societal influences affect your character and his/her ability to resolve their situation.

You show this in small ways, with casual mentions in conversation ONLY when it becomes pertinent, and not through info dumps.

Familiar words convey familiar images. Use them wisely in showing an entire fantasy world. Consider the politics in a medieval setting:

Setting:

  1. the village of Imaginary Junction, in the Barony of Blackthorn.

General atmosphere:

  1. the weather is unseasonably cold

Introduce the protagonist and show him in his situation:

  1. In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is  hiding.

Introduce the antagonist(s):

  1. Soldiers of Baron Blackthorn, whom Sebastian has inadvisably humiliated in a song are searching for him.

Introduce the way politics and power affect the protagonist:

  1. the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian
  2. he is hauled before the angry baron and
  3. thrown into prisonsentenced to hang at dawn.

The bolded words above offer a reader powerful images of both the physical and political world Sebastian lives in. These words are familiar to every reader of fantasy. They convey emotions and a feudal atmosphere without you having to resort to an info dump of the history of Imaginary Junction.

Show the coldness of the alley, show the irate nobleman’s anger, show the wretchedness of the protagonist in prison, show the arrogance of the soldiers. Use familiar terms to convey entire packets of images wherever possible, and they will be unobtrusive, allowing the reader to live the story, to fear the coming dawn as much as Sebastian does.


Image Credits and Attributions:

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540 / Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Enrique VIII de Inglaterra, por Hans Holbein el Joven.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Enrique_VIII_de_Inglaterra,_por_Hans_Holbein_el_Joven.jpg&oldid=344005488 (accessed June 2, 2019

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Augustus Edwin Mulready Fatigued Minstrels 1883.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883.jpg&oldid=335802594 (accessed June 2, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Ernst Meyer – A Roman Alley – KMS2097 – Statens Museum for Kunst.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Ernst_Meyer_-_A_Roman_Alley_-_KMS2097_-_Statens_Museum_for_Kunst.jpg&oldid=330745323 (accessed June 2, 2019).

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World Building: Creating Power Structures and Religions #amwriting

ALL societies have an overarching power structure of some sort because someone has to be the leader. Similarly, all smaller segments within societies, from families to business, to churches, to governments have organized leadership structures, even if they aren’t formally described as such.

Power structure: the hierarchy that encompasses the most powerful people in an organization. An overall system of influence between individuals within any selected group of people.

Leader

→Assistant Leader(s)

→ →Assistant(s) to the Assistant Leader(s)

→ → → Middle-Level Clawing-their-way-to-Assistant Assistants

→ → → →Lower-Level-Hoping-to Survive-to-Retirement Assistants

→ → → → →Peons-Who-Do-the-Actual-Work-But-Don’t-Get-to-be-Called-Assistants

Religion rarely is a component of sci-fi but often figures prominently in fantasy work.

This is because a common way to train magic-gifted people is by apprenticeships, religious orders, or a school of some sort.

If you are taking the religious route, how important is the actual worship of the deity(s) in your tale?

Is there one god/goddess or many?

Benevolent or malevolent?

In many historical societies in this world, the Church/Temple was the governing power. The head of the religion was the ruler, and the higher one rose within the religious organization, the more power one had.

SO, in your world, how important is religion to your characters’ journey?

To convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work in the cities and towns, the segments of society outside the church.  Merchants, priests, teachers, healers, thieves—each occupation has a place in the hierarchy.

  • Is religion central to the governance of the society, or is it a peripheral, perhaps nonexistent thing?
  • What segment of society outside the church has the power and privilege, and who is the underclass?
  • How does the underclass live, and what is the role of religion in keeping them in their place?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • What passes for morality? Is sex before marriage taboo? What constitutes murder, and how is it viewed? You only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws, what are the consequences?

If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.

  1. What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
  2. What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
  3. Who has the power?
  4. Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
  5. How does the priesthood interact with the community?
  6. Who can join the priesthood?
  7. Do people want to join the priesthood, or do they fear it? How is the priesthood trained?

In the Tower of Bones series, the overarching government in Neveyah is the Temple of Aeos, which is really a large commune run by mages. Mage-gifted children must be trained, and a school exists for that purpose. Aeos is the Goddess of Hearth and Home, so her style is a gentler, community based kind of religion.

Tauron is the Bull God, who rules the world of Serende, but who wants to be the only god in the universe. Hoping to force Aeos to become his wife, Tauron has attacked and imprisoned Aeos’s husband, the Mountain God Ariend, and has taken half of Ariend’s world. In Tauron’s world, only the strongest are worthy of survival.

Aeos managed to find her husband’s prison and reclaimed half his world, but she can’t undo another god’s work. Thus, her husband’s prison remains a prize in the ongoing war of the gods.

These actions of the deities brought civilization to its knees on the three worlds. At the time of the Tower of Bones series, the worlds have mostly recovered.

When I created the religious power-structure in the Tower of Bones series, the opportunities for creating tension within the story grew exponentially.

As I said, the underlying premise of the story is that the gods are at war. But the imprisonment of Ariend caused the Universe to bar the deities from acting directly against each other ever again.

Thus, their battles are fought through their people, their clergy who are gifted with the ability to use magic.

When one god makes a move that affects the balance of the worlds, the others make a change to counter it and their people are the playing pieces in their great game.

That meant I had two radically different religions to create, that of Aeos, and that of Tauron. Highly structured religion is central to my characters’ worlds of Neveyah and Serende. Their places in their respective societies revolves around their positions within those hierarchies.

But what if your work has no religious element?

On Monday, we will explore creating political power structures.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Carl Pippich Karlskirche Wien.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Carl_Pippich_Karlskirche_Wien.jpg&oldid=234767606 (accessed May 29, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dommersen Gothic cathedral in a medieval city.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dommersen_Gothic_cathedral_in_a_medieval_city.jpg&oldid=319795786 (accessed May 29, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Cole Thomas The Return 1837.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Cole_Thomas_The_Return_1837.jpg&oldid=301862305 (accessed May 29, 2019).

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World Building – Where Magic and Science Converge #amwriting

Today we are examining the close relationship of two facets of world building in speculative fiction, science, and magic. Both are tools our characters employ.

Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writer of true science fiction must know the difference, and never “let the streams cross.”

Egon: Don’t cross the streams.

Peter: Why?

Egon: It would be bad.

Peter: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean “bad”?

Egon: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

~ Ghostbusters, Screenwriters: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, for Columbia Pictures, ©1984

Magic is not an accepted trope of hard science fiction so don’t even try to justify it. If you are writing a sci-fi fantasy mix, don’t try to pass it off as hard sci-fi. It is science-fantasy at that point, a subgenre of spec-fic.

Mushy science is just as offensive to fans of hard sci-fi as magic is, maybe more. Mushy science means the author didn’t research the possibilities thoroughly. When science fails the truth test, hard sci-fi fans will voice their opinions in bad reviews.

Those of us who are physics-geeks know what the cutting edge of propulsion technology is.  We read publications that tell us the new advances in laser tech. We know what is being discovered about exoplanets, how nothing truly earthlike has been discovered as of this writing.

We know all the ways currently being discussed regarding terraforming Mars. This planet is in our backyard and is within humanity’s grasp if we can work together and keep the greedy hotheads running our many different countries from screwing it up for the rest of us. So many possibilities, so many stories to imagine and write.

But what of Interstellar Propulsion? After all, we want to get to these newly found exoplanets and see if we can either adapt to them or make them fit us. My current favorite way to bring humans to another world is through the use of generation ships. Entire colonies living for generations on a moon-sized ship, traveling through the cosmos offers so many opportunities for drama. For some good research-reading and a plethora of ideas to investigate further, check out Futurism: Here is the Future of Interstellar Spacecraft.

When writing science fiction, the science is fundamental to the world:

Communications – This is the Future of Communication Thanks to Technology

Transportation – What’s the Future of Transportation?

Agriculture – High-rise Urban Farming

Waste management – The future of waste: five things to look for by 2025

Resource management – Resources for the Future: website  https://www.rff.org/

The environment of any spacefaring society must be created of technology, or they would not be able to leave the safety of this world. Earth is the only world known to harbor life as we know it.

Writers of science fiction must become futurists. They must take what is theoretically possible and think ahead. Your task is to take what science says is conceivable and make it feel true and solid.

Know the limits of whatever theoretical tech you are exploring in your work, write stories that stretch them, but don’t ignore them “for the sake of the story.” Limits are what keeps science from feeling like magic.

So, now we agree that science should never feel like magic. But shouldn’t magic feel like magic? Yes, but just like science, magic shouldn’t confer absolute power.

In both science and magic, forcing our characters to work around the limits is the key to good stories.

For me, as a reader, magic should only be possible if certain conditions have been met. This means the author has created a system that regulates what is possible. Magic works

  • if the number of people who can use it is limited.
  • if the ways in which it can be used are limited.
  • if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every kind of magic.
  • if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  • if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
  • if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
  • if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
  • if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
  • if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.

These conditions set the stage for you to create the Science of Magic, an underlying, invisible layer of the world you have built, one that possibly won’t get mentioned. But if you create this “science” and follow the arbitrary rules you have designed, your story won’t contradict itself.

For example, if in chapter three you declare that lightning mages cannot sense their magic in the rain, then it stands to reason they cannot sense it if immersed in a river in chapter twenty-three.

What challenges does your character have to overcome when learning to wield magic?

  • Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
  • If that is so, what is the block?
  • How does that inability affect their companions, and how do they feel about it?
  • Are the companions hampered in any way themselves?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their abilities?

Even if this aspect does not come into the story, for your own information, you should decide who is in charge of teaching the magic, how that wisdom is dispensed, and who will be allowed to gain that knowledge.

  • is the prospective mage born with the ability to use magic or
  • is it spell-based and any reasonably intelligent person can learn it if they can find a teacher?

This is where science and magic converge. Magic and the ability to wield it confers power. Good technology does the same.

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

That means the enemy must have access to equal or better Science/Magic. So, if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school,” you now have two systems to design for that story. You must create the ‘rules of magic’ or ‘the limits of science’ for both the protagonist and antagonist. Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.

In creating science technologies and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within either system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

An important thing to consider whether using magic or technology: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when it affects the characters and their actions. Dole information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.

Science and magic are two sides of the personal-power coin we who write the two radically divergent sides of speculative fiction give our characters. In either sub-genre, these fundamental tropes offer your characters opportunities for success, but those opportunities must not be free and unlimited.

In both sci-fi and fantasy, the struggle is the story. How the characters overcome the limitations takes a person out of their comfortable environment. Roadblocks to success forces ordinary people to become more than they believe they are.

They become heroes.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from the movie, Ghostbusters, Screenwriters: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, for Columbia Pictures, ©1984, Fair Use.

Ghostbusters theatrical release poster, Columbia Pictures ©1984, Fair Use.

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

 

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World building Part 2 – the Commonalities of Need #amwriting

Need shapes the environment and forms an obvious but unobtrusive layer of the world our characters inhabit.

What our characters do for a living, the tools they use, what they must acquire – these things form a layer that grows out of need. This layer shows the reader the level of technology, the society they inhabit, and their standing within that culture. This layer is easy to construct in many ways but can be a stumbling block to the logic of your plot.

First, no matter what genre you are writing in, you must establish the level of technology and stick to it. Do the research and then create your technology.

The Romans had running water, central heating, and toilets in their homes. So did the Minoans. However, all their great architectural creations required human hands to do the physical work. They walked, rode horses, donkeys, or oxen, and were limited to wagons drawn by those same domestic beasts.

In the ordinary environment, cups will be cups, bowls will be bowls. The materials they are made of might be different, but those items will always be the same. Furniture will be similar—people need somewhere to sit or sleep. They need a place to cook and somewhere to store preserved food.

Clothing styles are up to you, but I suggest you keep it simple and don’t wax poetic about it.

Some aspects of a story require planning if you are to keep to the logic of your established world setting.

Characters remain the same, no matter what genre you are writing. Beneath the obvious tropes of a particular genre is a human being. Consider the soldier:

I write fantasy, so the following is an excerpt from a short story written this last year, The Way of the Seventh Door.

Worlds are like clothes. I could drop Jared into any world, and he would still be who he is—a young, hapless schmuck with potential. Genre defines the visuals, but the characters are paper dolls we dress to fit the society we have placed them in. The clothes and world of Soldier Barbie fits Corporate Barbie… and Malibu Barbie… and Star Wars Barbie.

We will take one protagonist and place them in one of three kinds of settings: fantasy, sci fi, or contemporary. As we go, write your own version of this scene.

  • A soldier, your choice of gender, gears up for an impending battle. It will take place on foreign soil and could involve personal, face-to-face combat.
  1. First, we must consider what garments they might wear.
  2. Next, we armor them.
  3. Then we give them weaponry.
  4. Finally, we equip them with some sort of rations and water, as sustenance becomes an issue if a battle stretches for several days.
  5. We do it in one paragraph.

Now let’s put Jared, my luckless protagonist from the previous example into this scenario. Fortunately for the safety of everyone in Neveyah, he isn’t preparing for war, but he does have a mission, and it requires dressing appropriately, and ensuring he has what he might need to complete it:

In any setting, there are certain commonalities with only minor literary differences for soldiers: they all need garments, weapons, armor, and sustenance, and you can use those things to

  1. offer more clues about your character’s personality and
  2. set your protagonist up for a meeting with destiny by inserting clues: white armor, new boots – what could go wrong?

Whether the weapon is a rifle, a sword, or a phaser is dependent on the level of technology you have established.

Logic determines how each need is met. In the case of weapons, within each category there are many varieties of each. Which kind of hand-held weapon your protagonist will use is dependent on their skill level and physical strength as well as what is stocked in the armory.

When it comes to weaponry, if you are writing about them, you need to research them to know what is logically possible. Within each of the three world settings, strength and skill are determining factors—a cutlass is an efficient blade and is much lighter than a claymore. A one-handed blade allows the wielder to carry a shield. A shotgun is much lighter than a machine-gun but is less effective, so be true to the logic and research what might be most useful to your characters and don’t introduce an element that doesn’t fit.

Sci-fi writers—I suggest that for advanced weaponry, you should do the research into theoretical applications of lasers, sonic, and other theoretically possible weapons. Sci fi readers know their science, so if you don’t consider the realities of physics, your work won’t appeal to the people who read in that genre.

For soldiers of any technology level, from Roman to medieval, to contemporary, to futuristic—armor will always consist of the same elements: breast and back plate, shin-guards, vambraces, a helmet of some sort, and maybe a shield. These elements won’t vary much, although the materials they’re made of will differ widely from technology to technology. For the sake of expediency and logic, garments must be close-fitting as they will go under the armor.

Expediency affects logic which affects need. The same is true for any occupation–bookkeeper, lawyer, home-maker–the setting changes from genre to genre, but the fundamental needs for each occupation remain the same.

In every aspect of a world, expediency decides what must be mentioned and how important it is. At times, you must go back to an earlier place and make changes that allow for a certain necessary turn of events.

For instance, in a battle situation, food must be extremely compact, lightweight, and must provide nutrients the soldier needs. Nutrition bars, jerky—battle rations and how the soldier carries them must be considered. How do you fit that into the world building? Casually, with one sentence, a few words.

What basic things do you need in your real-world? You need food, water, clothing, and shelter, and a means of providing those things. Place the character in a room and call it a kitchen, and the reader will immediately imagine a kitchen. Mention the coffeemaker, and the reader’s mind will furnish the cups.

Need manifests in other, more subtle ways.

Do you require a way to communicate with others quickly? Messengers, letters, telephones, social media, or telepathy? Choose a method for long distance communication that fits your technology and stick to it.

If you are writing a sci fi tale, what sort of personal power does that technology confer on the characters? What powers it? What are the limits of that technology, and how do those limits hamper the protagonist? What do they need to acquire to overcome those limitations?

If magic is a part of your world, you must design the way it is used, what powers it, and set rigid limits. Limits create opportunities for both failure and creative thinking.

In all levels of technology, some of what the characters need should be denied to them.

Obstruction offers the opportunity for heroism.

No matter the genre, need and human failure makes the story more real.

Next week, we will explore the commonalities of science and magic and how they are applied to world building.


Credits and Attributions:

Excepts from The Way of the Seventh Door, © Connie J. Jasperson 2019, All Rights Reserved.

Gladys Parker [Public domain] “Mopsy Modes” paper doll published in TV Teens, Vol. 2, No. 9 Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Mopsy Modes – TV Teens, Vol. 2, No. 9.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Mopsy_Modes_-_TV_Teens,_Vol._2,_No._9.jpg&oldid=344503399 (accessed May 21, 2019).

Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0] Japanese Paper Doll, ca. 1897-1898 Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:MET DP147723.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:MET_DP147723.jpg&oldid=305535412 (accessed May 21, 2019).

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Fantasy Food #amwriting

As many of you know, I have been vegan since 2012. However, I write books set in fantasy environments. An important part of world building is including the appropriate food for your level of technology.

I recently read a fantasy book where the author went to a great deal of trouble to give each kind of fruit, bird, or herd beast a different (and in some cases, an unpronounceable) name in “their” language.  This ruined what could have been a great book for me. Every time the protagonists halted on their journey, they pulled some random fruit with a gobbledygook name out of the bag and waxed poetic about it.

For me, Tolkien had it right. When I am reading, I don’t want to have to learn a new language. Fantasy food should be kept to the familiar. Bacon should be bacon, apples should be apples. Food is part of the world building, so it needs to something a reader is familiar with.

During the 1980s, much of the meat I served my family, we raised ourselves. Our chickens were cage free and had good lives, and our sheep were raised using simple, old-style farming methods. I grew up fishing with my father, and I have a first-person understanding of what it takes to put meat, fish, or fowl on the table when a supermarket is not an option. Take my word for this: getting a chicken from the coop to the table is time-consuming, messy, and smelly.

SO – in a medieval setting meat won’t be served every day, and not just because it is a real job to slaughter it. Other, more subtle factors come into play, things that affect the logic of your plot.

In the middle ages, the wool a sheep could produce in its lifetime was of far more value than the meat you might get by slaughtering it. For that reason, lamb was rarely served. The only sheep that made it to the table were usually rams that were being culled from the herd. And chickens were no different because once a chicken is dead, you lose the many meals her eggs would have provided. Cattle were also more valuable alive: cows as milk producers and bulls as oxen, draft animals.

In medieval times, on many estates, it was a felony for commoners in Britain to hunt for game. However, most people were allowed to fish as long as they didn’t take salmon, so fish was on the menu more often than fowl, sheep, or cattle.

Therefore, eels, eggs, grains, and vegetables were easy and figured most prominently on the menu. Pies of all sorts were the fast food of the era.

Wheat was rare and expensive. For that reason, the grains most often found in a peasant’s home were barley, oats, and rye.

Common vegetables in medieval European gardens were leeks, garlic, onions, turnips, rutabagas, cabbages, carrots, peas, beans, cauliflower, squashes, gourds, melons, parsnips, aubergines (eggplants)—the list goes on and on. And fruits? Wikipedia says:

Fruit was popular and could be served fresh, dried, or preserved, and was a common ingredient in many cooked dishes. Since sugar and honey were both expensive, it was common to include many types of fruit in dishes that called for sweeteners of some sort. The fruits of choice in the south were lemons, citrons, bitter oranges (the sweet type was not introduced until several hundred years later), pomegranates, quinces, and grapes. Farther north, apples, pears, plums, and wild strawberries were more common. Figs and dates were eaten all over Europe but remained rather expensive imports in the north.

Even a century ago, the average person didn’t eat meat every day because it was difficult to acquire. To buy it from the butcher, you paid them for their time and labor as well as for the cut of meat. It was not cheap.

For the most part, my characters eat a medieval/agrarian diet. In medieval times, peasants ate more vegetables, grains, fruits, and nuts than the nobility did. The main source of protein would be eggs and cheese. Herbal teas, ale, ciders, and mead were also staples of the commoner’s diet because drinking fresh, unboiled water was unhealthy. Medieval brews were more of a meal than today’s beers.

So, in Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers, when food is mentioned, it’s likely to be oat porridge, soup or stew, ale or cider, or bread and cheese.

Billy is captain of a mercenary company and an innkeeper, and for most of his story he does the cooking. I keep the food simple and don’t make too big a deal out of it. The conversations that happen while he is trying to feed the Rowdies are more important than the food. The food is the backdrop.

For Huw (pronounced Hugh), starvation is his most urgent problem, so food and the difficulties of obtaining it are an integral part of his story at the outset.

Knowing what to feed your people keeps you from introducing jarring components into your narrative. In the world of Neveyah (Tower of Bones), my people have a New World diet. It isn’t really mentioned, but maize and potatoes are important staples as are beans and wild greens.

When it comes to writing about meals, I feel it’s best to concentrate on the conversations. The food should be part of the scenery, a subtle part of world building. The conversations that occur around food are the places where new information can be exchanged, things we need to know to move the story forward,


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Medieval cuisine,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medieval_cuisine&oldid=896980025 (accessed May 14, 2019).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Village Scene with Well,  Josse de Momper and Jan Brueghel II PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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