Tag Archives: creating the sense of history in your writing

#amwriting: do the reasearch

People always ask what you do for a living, as we are a society of people who define ourselves by our occupations. For many years, I was a bookkeeper, and also, I worked in data entry for several large corporations. Before that, during the 1980s and Reaganomics, I worked as a hotel maid, a field hand, and had several other odd occupations, often holding down three part-time jobs.

When you tell people you write books, they are, generally, interested. When you tell them you write speculative fiction, you get a range of reactions, from pitying condescension to confused, but sincere, respect.

Sometimes people laugh and tell me how easy it must be since I can make any old thing up and it will fly. Despite the old saying that “in wine there is truth,” nothing could be further from the truth.

Readers know when you have gone off the track and into the shrubs of “that can’t possibly happen.”

This means you can’t just make any old thing up because world building must combine enough realism with the created world to make the fantasy plausible. It involves research.

I spend hundreds of hours researching the most trivial details for every book I write. If I get it wrong, it’s because I failed to do the research in the right place.

In the process of writing Huw the Bard and the subsequent stories set in that world, I’ve learned as much as many medieval scholars about how people dressed, what they ate, how they earned a living, how they preserved food and every intimate detail of their lives that is researchable.

I know all of this because I read scientific papers written by experts on the subject, all of which are available to us via the internet. My files are full of the fruits of other people’s efforts, with the sources documented and the authors credited, so I know where to go to find out more if I need to. Lists of links to websites for further research is critical because when one book goes to press, a new book is already falling out of my fevered mind and onto the paper.

Readers are smart. If something is impossible, and you don’t somehow make it probable, you will lose your readers. The best way to make the impossible probable is to mix your fantasy with a good dose of real history. Be historically accurate as often as you can, so that when your blacksmith makes a weapon, readers who know about smithing will not be jarred out of the story by inaccuracy.

Most of the time, these things you spend untold hours researching will only get one line in your narrative, but if that line is inaccurate or impossible, your readers will know you were too lazy to do it right.

The following is my short list of go-to websites for in-depth, accurate information for when I am writing, including grammar questions. They are self-explanatory and are easy to make use of. Submit your questions via their query box and, while figuring out what you really need to know may take several tries, you will soon have answers.

Medieval Histories  http://www.medievalhistories.com

Academia http://www.academia.edu/

NASA https://www.nasa.gov/

Physics http://www.physics.org/

Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Grammarist  http://grammarist.com/

I’ve learned a great deal from reading the literature of medieval times. If you really want to know how people lived, read a modern translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They were bawdy, irreverent, and loved nothing more than a good joke.

For example, if you are writing a story set in a medieval environment, you may need to know what clothing the common European people wore in medieval times. Or you might want to know what their home looked like, or a village. For that, I suggest you seek out the art of the Flemish Painters. There you’ll see what men and women looked like and how they dressed, both for celebrations, and for working. You will see what their towns looked like, and the public places they gathered in. The interiors of their homes are also found in the great Flemish painter’s works.

Any time you want an idea of average European village life in the Late Middle Ages through the 17th century, you need to look no further than Wikimedia Commons.  There, under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830) you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters. These were artists living in what is now The Netherlands, and who were creating accurate records of the everyday life of the common people, along with stylized religious images.

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

They painted their subjects with a heavy dose of religious allegory, but that was a part of village life—both the Inquisition and the Reformation were under way, and the politics of religion was in the very air they breathed. If you are going to write medieval fantasy, you must understand how strong the influence of the Church was and how entangled it was in politics. You must inject that religious realism into your work, and show how the Church, even a fantasy religion, and its politics affect the common person’s life.

My regular readers know I love the work of one family of early Dutch painters from Flanders, the Brueghel Family. Five generations of their family were well-known painters and printmakers.

The internet is your friend, and researching your fantasy novel can be incredibly entertaining. Research is what slows me down more than anything. I spend far too many happy hours on Wikimedia Commons, looking at 16th-century Netherlandish paintings.


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#amwriting: the rough draft

My Writing LifeI have begun a new novel set in Neveyah. It is the “how it all began” novel and takes place at the beginning of their recorded history. It’s been rolling around my head, and bits of this story are alluded to at various points all through the Tower of Bones series and also Mountains of the Moon.

The protagonist of this story is mentioned regularly in the Tower of Bones series as a character featured in children’s books. He’s portrayed as a kind of superhero, doing many impossible things.

But as always, there was a real man and real events at the core of the mythology.

I am taking the mythical man and giving him his place in history as the founder of the City of Aeoven, the College of Warcraft and Magic, and the first leader of the Temple of Aeos. I had the basic story drawn up back in 2009 when I began devising the world of Neveyah—three lines mentioning their childhood heroes.

The events that launch Aelfrid down the path of the mythic hero are all laid out. Now I must connect the dots and bring him to life.  If the story grows too large, it will be published as a two volume set, but my intention is to keep it to the same length as Valley of Sorrows.

As an indie, I must pay CreateSpace up front for my stock whenever I go to book fairs or signing events, so keeping my costs down is critical. CreateSpace costs are dependent on the length of the book, so if I have to pay $6.99 for each book, it limits  how much stock I can afford to keep on hand. I don’t want to run short of books, so I try to keep my costs to below  $5.00 per book. This also makes donating them to libraries and shelters affordable.

Even though Tower of Bones was published first, the rough draft of Mountains of the Moon was actually written first. In early 2009 I had been asked to write an epic fantasy story-line for a Final Fantasy-style anime-based RPG that was never built. For that reason, the world building was super-heavy.

Before I even had a story, I had to spend months

  • devising history and mythology
  • designing all the many environments where the story would take place
  • drawing maps
  • designing the creatures the characters do battle with
  • I also had to design the rules for magic, including its limitations

Having all these things so well-drawn and documented has been a bonus, as I can just write the story. The setting is clear in my head, laid out in a style sheet for that world, and the terrain is detailed on maps.

The north in the time of AelfridI have learned from the mistakes of others. Unlike the Saga of Recluce series, my maps for the early days detail the world as it was then, so there is no struggling to guess where the major towns are. (See my post, of  March 10, 2014, Spanking L.E. Modesitt Jr.)

I would definitely do two things differently, if I were to create that world today: the calendar, and the names of the days. I wouldn’t go with a 13-month lunar calendar, and I wouldn’t name the days after Norse gods.

But the calendar is canon now, and just as in real life, you must work with what you have. So, right now I am nearing the first plot point, where the first calamity occurs. Since this is the rough draft, everything to this point is really sketchy—a lot of “he said,” and “he went,” just to get the ideas down and everything in place.

These “telling and not showing” places are road marks, to guide me when I sit down to write the true first draft. My synopsis was about 3000 words. This rough draft will top out at about 55,000 words, and the first draft of the novel itself will be around 90,000 to 100,000 words.

398px-Heroes journey by Christopher Vogler

Hero’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler, via Wikipedia

What I am doing at this point is setting the scene, introducing and developing the characters, and finding the reasons why they are who they are as people. I have a grip on my mentor’s character, and also the side characters.

I know my protagonist fairly well, although what initially motivates him is still a bit of a mystery. His personality and what he has to do are clear, but I haven’t yet discovered what lies within him that pushes him to achieve this thing. That is part of the journey for me.

For this book, I know exactly who my villain is, and how he came to be that person. He is new to me, but his motivation is clear and easy to imagine. I feel a real connection to him.

Altogether, if everything goes according to plan, writing this book will take about a year for me to get it to the final draft and into the editing process.


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#amwriting: L.E. Modesitt Jr.: creating depth without dumping info

Fall of AngelsOne of the most difficult aspects of writing is creating the sense of history without resorting to an info dump. It is a fine line to walk, because too much information will cause the reader to stop reading, and not enough will also make them close the book. What we are looking for is a happy medium, a narrative that incorporates some history, but only the bits that are needed to move the story forward.

That ability to create the past while describing the present is one that author L. E. Modesitt Jr. has, and is shown to its best advantage in his masterpiece Fall of Angels. Written in 1997, this is the sixth installment in one of the most enduring fantasy series of modern times, The Saga of Recluce.

This saga takes place over many generations and explores both sides of the conflict, with not usually more than two books dealing with a particular protagonist.

Modesitt Jr. knows his world. It is clear when you read his work that he understands the environments and societies he is writing about, and he knows the moral values of the three cultures who clash in this series of books. In Fall of Angels he takes the reader back  a thousand years, to the origins of the conflict that is explored in the previous five books, but the world the angels find themselves stranded on feels familiar–because the author knows every aspect of his world.

In this series as a whole, Modesitt Jr. examines two radically different magics–the black of order vs the white of chaos. This is the central theme of each tale in the saga, and the protagonist is either of the black or white persuasion. In a few books there is a grey area of magic where the protagonist embodies both, but always the price of magic and the responsibility of those who wield it is a central theme in this series.

In Fall of Angels, Modesitt explores the side of order, the black magic of healing and building.

The story opens on the bridge of a battle-cruiser, the Winterlance. The crew is human, and are in the military service of the UFA, which is comprised of the planets of Heaven.

The crew of the Winterlance is from the various cold planets of Heaven. Most are from Sybra, the coldest planet, but a few are from Svenn, a more moderate planet. This limits where the Angels can comfortably live, making high altitudes their favored homes.

They are about to enter a battle from which they will likely not return, fighting  against the Rationalists, the humans from warmer planets, and with whom they have been warring for thousands of years. The Rationalists are an extremely patriarchal society, and are also known as Demons.

In the opening pages we meet a crew that, by happenstance, is made up of women, with only three male crew members. Nylan is the ship’s engineer, and, as are all the officers, he is connected into the ships neuronet, the mental command center that completely controls the ship and its environment.

Ryba is the ship’s captain, and while she and Nylan have a sexual relationship, there is no doubt that she is in command. I didn’t say romantic, because though they sleep together and care for each other, there is no romance involved.

The energies expended during the battle are such that the Winterlance is thrown into an alternate universe, above a strange planet. With no way to return, they are forced to land.

Unfortunately the first thing that happens is they have landed on a world previously colonized. It probably happened in the same way, but by the Rationalists of the warmer worlds of Hell. The lord of the land immediately attacks them, and the conflict is on.

All Angels are not equal. Nylan is half-Svenn. The Sybrans cannot take the heat of their new world and are pretty much trapped in the cool mountains, but he can go lower, into the warmer areas, although he too suffers from the heat.

While the maps in this series are not very good, or really even useful, I feel sure the author must have a file with worldbuilding information for this series in it. Some forethought and planning went into creating Recluce, Candar, and the other continents that become locales for action in this series.

One type of tree is deciduous, with triangular gray leaves, and only loses half of them during the winter, the others curling up and remaining on the tree though the bitter cold. He knows the plant-life, and the animals native to this new world, and he knows the terrain and doesn’t contradict himself over the course of his narrative.

Modesitt Jr. shows us all of this, without resorting to telling. Information about the worlds of both Heaven and Hell and how the struggle to survive on the world of Recluce affects the marooned crew is doled out as needed, in conversations. The knowledge is dispensed organically, in such a way that the reader doesn’t see it as backstory.

Modesitt Jr. takes the concepts of traditional gender roles and twists them inside out. If she hadn’t been thrown out of her universe, Ryba would never have had the chance to rise any higher than she already had, as women are considered technically equal, but there is a glass ceiling that women rarely break through.

In their new world, Ryba makes sure the three men know they are now the ones with lesser stature. After viciously trouncing him bare-handed when he challenges her, Ryba coldly tells Gerlich, “I could amputate both your arms and you would still retain your stud value.” This comment is all we need: Ryba is determined to build a culture where women have all the power and men are simply a means to reproduction. She is deadly, calculating, and will ruthlessly use anyone to achieve her goal.

Her actions show us this. 

Nylan is a strong man but he is not a leader, and feels like he has no other options, other than to march along with plans Ryba sets down for them. Using their failing technology he forges the weapons and builds their tower so they can survive the first winter in their mountain home. Ryba develops a talent for prophecy and becomes a slave to ensuring her own visions come true, while Nylan develops the foundations of order magic.

the chaos balance l.e. modesitt jrAs events unfold and his relationship with Ryba disintegrates, he grows confused and unsure of what to do. He is a man with a temperate mind, believing in equality with neither sex having the upper hand. A few of the women feel the same way he does, but all are unwilling to go against Ryba, believing that while she is hard and unforgiving, she is better than the society created by the Rationalists, where women are property.

The characters themselves tell us this in their conversations, so the author doesn’t have to dump information.

Modesitt Jr. gives us a morality tale, as true speculative fiction does. But, rather than spelling everything out, he dishes it up through actions and conversations in such a way that the reader makes the connections themselves. While in many of his books Modesitt Jr. can be too cryptic, giving the reader little to no backstory to explain things, in Fall of Angels he strikes the perfect balance between too much information and not enough.

This balancing act between too much backstory and not enough creates a depth to the story that draws the reader in, suspending their disbelief, and holding their attention for the entire novel.

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