Thursday, May 30, 2013

Perils of the Writer: The Mystery Box and the Blatant Misdirect

J.J. Abrams has often talked about using the "mystery box" as a writing tool.* The underlying idea is that the mystery of what's in the box is more interesting than what's actually in the box.  The longer you can hold that mystery, the more interesting the project is.

This idea is, I think, very flawed. Mostly because it encourages lazy writing.

Probably the best example of Mystery Box done well comes from Pulp Fiction.  We never learn what's in the case that Vince and Jules pick up.  What it might be has fueled a ton of speculation. But what's important of why it works is that not knowing what's in the case doesn't hurt the story.  Whatever it is, it's important to Marcellus Wallace, and it has a value that's intrinsically recognizable even to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.

When it doesn't work is when the mystery-for-mystery's sake gets in the way of logical storytelling.  In fantasy tropes, this is the Enigmatic Wizard-- the character who knows exactly what's going on but refuses to say for no reason other than the author wants to keep people in the dark.  In fact, more often than not, in those cases, keeping the secret is the very reason things go horribly wrong. The climax sequence in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix hinges on deliberate poor communication between Dumbledore and Harry.  But in that case, it's actually theme: that keeping secrets is the weakness between them. 

But more often than not, it's the case of a writer coming up with a mystery that they really don't know the answer to: so they prolong the mystery to spin their heels because they can't think of anything that's cool enough to match what they've built up.   Sometimes they then answer the mystery box with a new one: this leads to a series of mystery-boxes-nesting-dolls, like X-Files eventually gave us: zero answers because questions had to keep spinning.

This is rarely satisfying.

This is especially troubling when, in an effort to hide the obvious answer of what's in the box, the writer works furiously to lead you away from that answer to the point where the obvious answer that it turns out to be doesn't make sense any more.

Case in point (SPOILERS FOR STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS): the movie (and the pre-press) worked furiously to not have you know that Benedict Cumberbatch's character was actually Khan.  Let alone how ludicrous him being Khan in the new timeline is and why trying to re-create Wrath of Khan doesn't work in this context-- in the effort to preserve the mystery they more or less stripped everything Khan-like from the character.  Go back and watch "Space Seed"-- is there any real connection between Montalban's performance and character there and Cumberbatch's?  I'm not seeing it.  But they wanted Who Is He? to be a mystery with a big reveal-- but again it's a reveal that plays all wrong, because it doesn't mean anything to the characters.  In fact, if you read between the lines of the screenwriters' comments out there, you see that they didn't want Khan, and they more or less wedged him into a plot that didn't need him.

The best kind of mystery box is one where knowing the answer doesn't render re-read fruitless.  Where the foreshadowing pays off in a satisfying way.  Else it's just messing with your audience for the sake of confusing them.  Why do that?


*- Here's a link to his TED talk on the subject.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Finishing a Rough Draft

So, as of today, I have finished the rough draft of Way of the Shield

Just being able to say this is a huge weight off my shoulders.  This particular novel has been harder to midwife into existence than any other.  But with it done-- at least in rough draft-- I actually feel like its easier to breathe.

So you understand: I conceived, in broad brushstrokes, all four Heroes of Maradaine series at essentially the same time.  That shortly led to me drafting out the outlines of what would become Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew, Maradaine Consabulary and Way of the Shield.  If you had asked me at the time what my writing order was going to be, I would have told you: Thorn, Shield, Holver Alley, Constabulary

Thorn was first, of course, but when I finished with that, and turned to Shield, I found myself gravitating to Holver Alley Crew instead.  And then, when that was done, Shield was not coming to me, and Constabulary came about instead. 

What was so hard about this one?  Well, for one, there were key elements of the main character that hadn't gelled for me originally.  In the original outline, Dayne really had no stake or personal goals.  He didn't even really have a mandate to be involved in the events of the story.  He essentially just involved himself because he felt like it.  Also, the events of the story were, in the original outline, somewhat weak.  Without going into a lot of details, the plan was more of a mystery-thriller, where people were being killed, and there was someone mysterious in the shadows doing it. Dayne was working hard to figure out who was doing it and why.   And here's where the process of writing changes an outline, because that wasn't working at all. The project evolved, and Dayne became someone who had stakes, and who I understood where he was coming from better.  And I grew to understand where the antagonists were coming from as well, which is critical. 

So, now what?  Well, I'll take a couple weeks to cleanse the palate-- re-read Thorn, Holver Alley and Constabulary-- as well as take care of some non-writing things I've been neglecting.  Then I'll make a cleaning pass through Shield, and send it over to the agent for his opinion.

And then... well, we'll see what's next.  Probably writing Banshee.  But that could change, depending on what's asked of me.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Amazon Kindle Worlds

So the big news yesterday in the writing spheres was Amazon's announcement of its Kindle Worlds program.  In short, it's a program where fanfic writers can submit short stories set in the worlds of the shows Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl.  And with this announcement, the internet exploded.  "Get paid for fanfic?!?!"   Much concern and handwringing ensued.

Now, the reasoning behind Amazon and Alloy Entertainment doing this is pretty clear: this stuff exists, and therefore money can be made off of it.  And it certainly is easier for them to roll with these things existing and try and profit from it, instead of fighting upstream.  Plus there's Fifty Shades of Grey as a case study: its birth was as Twilight fanfic, a point which was used as a marketing tactic... but Twilight's author and publisher didn't profit from this.  So the lesson is simple: an avenue for profit is there, so ignoring it just lets someone else make that profit. 

One key point of concern I've seen out there is the terms of the agreement.  Yes, the fanfic writers get paid.  But anything new they add to the Worlds they play in is the property of Alloy Entertainment.  So if you write a story where you add in an additional Liar who isn't quite Pretty or Little*, or some other character who catches on and becomes a big thing... well, that's their character now.  So there's concern that they are snatching up your intellectual property for free.

Now, I see that point, but... I don't agree that it's a problem.  Because, yes, you made up a new character and that's you're baby, but... you made it specifically to play in that sandbox.  It's a character in that world,  for that world.  What else were you going to use it for?  And how much are you really giving up?

For example, I read a fair amount of Star Trek licensed fiction, and there are plenty of "new" characters who become key parts of the books, that never appeared in the books.  While whichever author came up with each one deserves a nod, they were made to be part of a shared universe.  Other authors picking up the ball and running with them has given them added depth.  Same thing if you create a new hero or villain writing for DC or Marvel.  You made it to be part of that sandbox. 

And there are cases where those licensed-but-not-canon additions find their way back to the source.  Por ejemplo, in Star Trek, the first names of Uhura and Sulu were never said on the show.  Nor what the "T" in "James T. Kirk" stood for.   Licensed fiction-- which had a pre-internet fanfictiony origin-- provided those gaps, which were later adopted by the canon.  That is pretty cool.  Now, does whichever author who came up with "Nyota Uhura"** deserve a paycheck because the latest movie used it? Or is the fact that she got paid for the book she wrote enough?

I mean, I've got no problem with people who write licensed fiction or fanfic, but if you are contributing to an existing property, you've got to embrace what that means.

*- I don't watch the show, so I don't know.
**- I want to say it was Vonda McIntyre with Strangers in the Sky, but I'm not 100% sure.***
***- Yes, I am a total geek.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Worldbuilding: The Tour Continues to the Kieran Empire

As I'm nearly on the 26-mile line on the marathon that is Way of the Shield, we'll do another stop on the Worldbuilding tour: The Kieran Empire, which doesn't border Druthal, but was a major influence on its history.


“Although all appearance are that the Kieran system is strong and has withstood the test of time, it is obvious that it has been surviving on the momentum of tradition for countless generations.  It may take a few more centuries, but the Kieran Empire is eventually doomed.”  -Official Report, Tsouljan Cultural Society

“Every aspect of civilization in the Trade Nations stems back to us.  Governmental structures?  Kieran.  Roads and irrigation?  Kieran.  Astronomy, mathematics, science?  Kieran.  The very language they speak.  Kieran.  Without us they would be an uncountable slew of warring, petty little kingdoms.  At the very least, they could be grateful.”  -Senator Cimmeleaus, Kieran Assembly

“In almost three thousand years, the Kieran Empire has never broken a treaty.  Bent it, twisted it, or utterly violated the spirit in which it was written?  Absolutely.  But broken?  Never.”  -Ian Callun, Druth Parliamentarian

The Kieran Empire stands as one of the oldest civilizations in history.  It was founded in 1717 BFE, and has remained for nearly three thousand years.  At its height, the Empire controlled all of what is now The Trade Nations.  In fact, their cultural similarities all stem from having been a part of the Kieran Empire.

The Empire, while still strong, is now only a shadow of what it once was.  Some say that now the Kierans are living in the past.  Some think they are planning to recapture what they once were.  And some feel the Kierans are slipping into their own decadence, and will someday completely fall apart.

The government of the Kieran empire is, theoretically, broken into three groups, who have a balance of power: The Senate Assembly, the Nobles and the Military.  In practice, however, the Senate Assembly is in charge of the Empire. Nobles have no actual authority, merely title and money.  They are able to use their title and money to influence members of the Senate, but most nobles content themselves with “courtly life”—being social with other nobles and enjoying creature comforts.  The Military also has no authority of its own anymore, as the Assembly has used its powers of foreign and domestic treaty to create a situation where the military is unable to make any action without Senatorial approval.

The Senate Assembly has 240 members, ten from each district in the empire.  Each one, theoretically, is an elected official who serves a ten-year term.  The election process is so corrupted, however, that just about every Senator sits for life, or at least until he chooses to retire.  And when a seat does open due to death or retirement, it is usually filled by a handpicked successor.

All laws, enactments, treaties and so forth (called “proposals” before they are passed) are decided by the senate with a vote.  In order for a proposal to pass, the vote must succeed by a simple majority.  However, if the proposal is deemed to be “Of Consequence” (something which is decided by a Senator declaring the proposal to be so, and another Senator seconding), then a two-thirds majority is necessary to pass it.  A proposal could also be deemed to be of “Dire Consequence” (which requires a majority vote to determine), and therefore needs three-quarters of the Senate supporting to pass.  Finally, if the proposal is deemed of “Most Dire Consequence”, a decision which itself is of Consequence, nine-tenths of the Senate must support it to pass it.  In the history of the empire, only eleven proposals were ever deemed to have “Most Dire Consequence.”
Much debate always occurs before a vote, and it is common for there also to be a fair amount of bribery, back-scratching, threatening, blackmailing and other forms of corruption.

Each district is presided over by a Military Governor, who is the Commander in Chief of all the legions in that district.  The Military Governor is appointed by the Senate, and the Senate can also revoke his position and replace him, and his not required to give cause.

The Kieran Legal code is incredibly complex and detailed, but written with numerous conditionals and loopholes.  This allows for skillful lawyers (and Kieran has more lawyers than all the other nations combined) to manipulate the law to make almost anything legal, and almost anything illegal.

Kieran citizens are guaranteed certain rights and freedoms by the law, but these are equally bendable.  Most citizens go through life not having any problems, but one can easily get himself in trouble and find himself trapped in the system with his rights removed by a whim.

Any crime, if one is found guilty, will be punished with a fine.  If the criminal cannot pay his fine, he can have it paid by joining a labor camp, or by selling himself into slavery.  As slaves have no rights at all, most will choose the camps.  Going to a camp does not forfeit one’s citizenship. The labor camps are how most of the farming, ranching and mining in Kieran gets done.

The Kieran military has a discipline and internal structure that is only rivaled by the Poasians and Lyranans.  They have a distinct chain of command, but the military does not have branches, like the Druth Army and Navy.  Rather, naval and ground troops are part of the same structure.  Organizationally, the military is broken down by districts, and each district’s Military Governor is at the top of the chain.  Below him are generals, colonels, majors, captains, lieutenants and soldiers. 

Within each district are several legions, about twenty to fifty per district.  The size of a legion will vary, but each legion maintains its own home base, and has the manpower to operate the base or go on a march without support from other legions.

While the Kierans do break their units into specialized soldiers, with each unit performing a specific function (swordsmen, bowmen, cavalry and so on), they will cross train all their soldiers in multiple weapons, as well as operation of siege machines and ships.  This allows them the freedom to move soldiers to different positions, and into different units, allowing them for flexibility in their tactics.

Within the cities, most children of free citizens are able to get basic education.  All over the cities are several free, open schools where, during the day, teachers will instruct writing, reading, history and so forth.  These teachers are actually university students, who must spend one year doing this teaching in order to graduate.

Every city also has at least one university.  The universities are all supported by the government, but require tuition to be paid in order to attend.  Usually the only students are from rich families or ones who are able to get a sponsor, but there is a way to get the government to fund one’s education, in return for a promise of service in the government or military.  Outside of the cities, there is almost no opportunity to be educated.

Any practitioner of magic or mysticism must register as such.  The easiest way to do so is to join the “1001st Legion” (the name a holdover from when all the legions were under the emperor and only numbered), which is a special group of the military, under the Senate, comprised entirely of mystics.  If one does not wish to do that, they can join an official Circle of Mystics in the Trade Nations.  Citizens of other Trade Nations who are members of Circles and are mystics are not hassled.  Other foreign mystics must have proper paperwork to travel freely in Kieran.

One can register as a Civilian Mystic, without joining any group, but the process is very difficult. 
It is rumored that the Kierans have a special prison for mystics hidden away in the mountains, and anyone caught practicing who is not registered is brought there.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tools of the Writer: POV and Trust

Point-of-View is one of those funny things writers get very worked up about.  And I've noticed, reading through some older* books I have, making concrete POV choices is a relatively recent development.  I mean, yes, certainly, the distinction between first-person and third-person was always clear.  But third-person was often more of a muddled third-person-omniscient instead of the discrete multi-person third-person-limited, where individual scenes have a clear POV character.  Even the idea of a "POV Violation" as a writing mistake seems to be a relatively new thing.

Because, let me tell you, a lot of classics are just loaded with POV Violations.

However, the standard today is for clear, discrete definition of whose head your in for any given scene or chapter. George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice books do this explicitly, telling you who the POV character is instead of a chapter title.

There are a lot of "rules" of how to do a POV character, who can be one in your book and when you can let them be one.  I'm of the opinion that who can be one and when is whoever you need it to be for the scene, whenever you need that scene to be. 

My big thing with POV is trust.  Unless the Unreliable Narrator is a technique you're utilizing, then you have to present your POV character in an honest way.  You have to trust that character and what his engagement in the plot is. 

Now, that doesn't mean the POV is limited to the "good guys".  I love my antagonist POVs, as long as they are antagonists that I can trust are being honest with how they engage in the plot.  If I have a character who is against the hero privately, but acts as his friend, and I don't want the reader to know that... then that character can't be a POV character.  But if I want that betrayal clear, then that's exactly who I want as POV.

This was especially hard for me in Maradaine Constabulary, which is probably my most constrained work, POV-wise, in that I only have Satrine and Minox as POV characters.   This is because, at its core, it's a murder mystery, and if you go into the head of murderer, then the mystery is given up.  By limiting the POV to my two Inspectors, then the reader has the same set of data that they do.  

On my current work-in-progress, Way of the Shield, it's more complicated than that, but similar rules of not using a character for POV apply.  There are people whose motivation and trustworthiness I want the reader to keep in question, even in a subconscious way.  Ideally, when their truths come to light, it will hit the reader like a hammer, because they might not have even suspected it. 

We'll see if I pull it off.

*- Of course, when I say "older", I'm mostly talking about from the 80s.  But, of course, older than that as well.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Kellirac

The tour around Druthal continues, with map and write-up on the eastern neighbor, Kellirac.
"Kellirac is not as dangerous as they say. But when I see the bonfires, I make sure my boots are on and my sword is sharp." -Desenánderez, Acserian missionary
"I'd rather have them as an ally than an enemy. Never make an enemy of people who eat their own dead." -Darius Estinian, Kieran Senator

"Magic is like flowing water, and in most of the world it is a mighty river, coursing with strength and dependability.  In Kellirac, it is a dry creekbed, churning rapids and a waterfall, all at once." –Xaveem Alassam, Imach Warlock

"You cannot kill the fire.  You cannot kill the storm. You cannot even kill my army.  The dead never leave us.”   -Kellirac Warlord Luten Torgsed

The nation of Kellirac is thought by most other nations to be full of primitive, almost animalistic people. The mere mention of Kellirac bonfires is enough to scare children in Acora and Oblune, and the sight of Kellirac troops on the field of battle can terrify most western armies.
There is talk of wild magic, impossible beasts, cannibalism and even the dead walking and speaking.
This attitude is mostly based on misunderstandings, rumors, and half-truths. The truth is Kellirac has much in common with where Druthal and Waisholm were a few centuries ago. But while Kellirac is harsh and unforgiving, it is more than fierce warriors and terrifying folk customs. Kellirac is a region of rich history.

Kellirac is not a unified nation, but four: Jastam, Nerith, Retal, and Kuvar.  Over the centuries the Kelliracqui people have repeated the cycle of coming together under a single strong ruler, and then broken back up into the four regions.   Each of the four provinces is governed by a feudal Lord, and all four Lords make decisions regarding their region. Any small degree of unity depends on the moods and alliances of the four Lords, but typically they all agree that none of them may take the Unworthy Throne in the Keep. The Keep was originally a fortress built by the Kierans during their occupation of the region. It has stood for centuries, and has become the center of Kellirac political life.

Each local warlord has men (and sometimes women) in his official employ that act as a local law authority. This office is called Meeschun, and enforces the property rights, tax levies, and other decrees of the nobility.

In theory, Kellirac obeys the Kieran legal code that was established during the Empire's highest days. In reality, crime in Kellirac is handled personally. The wronged party regularly takes revenge as he or she sees fit. "Kellirac Justice" is an often-used phrase to mean bloody revenge.

     This leaves the office of the Meeschun with little to do but arrest poachers and collect taxes. However, crime is not much of a problem in Kellirac, as life is too much of a daily struggle to worry about who stole from whom. For many communities, if an entire day has gone by with no injuries, illnesses, or deaths, a celebration is held. In this environment, theft is a rare occurrence. Adding to this fact, there is little to steal, and few well defined laws. As a result, Kellirac tends to have little need for an organized system of punishment.

Criminal activity in Kellirac is an affair best left to those involved. In general, disagreements and disputes are settled simply, either by gathering up one's brothers to beat the offending party senseless, or asking the Meeschun to deputize the offended party, who then gathers his brothers to beat the offending party senseless. In more extreme cases, the offended party can challenge the other to a duel. Duels in Kellirac are far less formal and ritualized than they are in the rest of the world. They consist of a challenge, two swords, and one person dying.

One tradition that stands in many of the smaller, more remote communities is “Sticking.”  Sticking occurs after a crime that offends the sensibilities of the community, such as impregnating a young girl then refusing to marry her. In this punishment, the strongest males in the community form two lines, and each one carries a heavy cudgel. The offender must walk, not run, between these two lines, and each man takes as many hard swings as he wishes at the offender’s head and upper body. If the offender makes it to the end of the line alive, he is forgiven by the community. Few people survive Sticking.

Kellirac does not have a standing army. Instead, the feudal system of responsibility in Kellirac allows a Lord or noble to gather his warriors and vassals at any time. Refusal to serve a noble is considered a crime in some areas, but not in others, and the severity depends on the noble involved. However, few men refuse the call to arms when it has been made.
Desertion, on the other hand, is common. Many men who are conscripted for a prolonged battle fear for the well being of their families, and desert to return home for planting and harvest. This has led to the aphorism “The Kellirac fight with the seasons.” Desertion for reasons of cowardice is punishable by death, but desertion to return for harvest or planting is often forgiven. In one recent engagement on the Druth border, a battle between the Kellirac and the Druth waged for several weeks, but ended abruptly when the early onset of harvest season took the Kellirac by surprise. In the morning, after Druth battle lines had been re-drawn, the Druth cavalry discovered that the Kellirac had gone home, leaving only one small unit behind who delivered the message “We shall come again after harvest.”

The Kellirac armies are considered formidable despite their technological disadvantage, partly as a result of their reputation for savage fearlessness. During the Rebellion, as Kellirac fought on the side of the Empire, many Druth and Waish warriors told stories of atrocities, such as the dismembering of dead enemies to keep as trophies, and the ritual eating of the slain. While cannibalism is a fairly well documented historical practice in specific, ritualized circumstances, there is no proof that cannibalism has been a part of Kellirac military practice since the days of Arengi.

 Kellirac soldiers are reckless and wild by the standards of the other Trade Nations. They have few skilled archers, and virtually no cavalry, as there is little call for it in mountainous Kellirac. But what the Kellirac lack in formalized training, they make up for in passion, ferocity, cunning, and reputation. The sight of naked or fur-clad Kellirac, waving axes and picks, shouting bloody war cries as stag horned trumpeters blow horns from the hilltops and javelin wielding troops appear from the hills and melt back into the mists have routed more than one line of Druth cavalry.

Despite their large deposits of precious metals, Kellirac is relatively poor in metals that are useful for weapons and armor. As a result, most Kellirac warriors are equipped with simple leather armor, spears, and wooden shields. Swords are expensive, and are almost exclusively used by knights and lords.

 There is no formal system of education in Kellirac. Those young people (men and women) who show intellectual aptitude early are sent to one of the many Acserian missions in the region to study, or on rare occasions sent to Druthal. On the other hand, Kellirac children are taught by their parents to hunt, track, forge, sew, and perform many other tasks necessary for their culture and survival. While Trade is spoken throughout Kellirac, the traditional language of Sechiall (pronounced sake-hi-ell) is spoken by far more people, particularly those in more isolated settings. In fact, given a choice between raising a child to speak Trade or Sechiall, Kellirac mothers will choose Sechiall first. In the eyes of a Kellirac, Trade is a fine language for describing politics and economics, but fails miserably when trying to describe the intricacies of day-to-day life of the Kell character. However, many subtle intricacies of the Kellirac language are lost in translation, making Kelliracs sound stilted and confused when speaking Trade.

Only a small minority of Kelliracs can read the Trade language, and that is mostly restricted to the nobles and richer families.

Although a Trade Nation, Kellirac has poor relations with the other members in general. Kellirac has a long history of attacking Waisholm and Druthal. For the last several decades, relations have been antagonistic, but rarely openly hostile.  The Kellirac still harbor bitterness over several crushing defeats at the hands of the Druth and Waish armies.

Many Kellirac have fled their own country, living as wanderers or as an outskirter subculture in Druthal.  These Racquin mostly keep to themselves, and hold on to elements of Kell culture and language.

The Kellirac are a superstitious people, and the constant numinic storms and magic flares do nothing to ease these feelings. The Kellirac are very suspicious about magic, and as they see it, its connection to the dead. Many Kellirac consult diviners and necromancers regularly. But as much as the people of Kellirac respect magic, they fear it as well. Kellirac know that magic is a volatile, often unpredictable force, and treat mages with respect, awe, and fear combined. The Kellirac are more likely to practice ritualized magic than any other people are. Bonfires, ritual effigy burning, and (according to Acserian rumor) human sacrifices are part of Kellirac ritual observances, and have developed an unfairly negative reputation among outsiders.

In the minds of most outsiders, particularly the Acserian missionaries, the bonfires and cannibalism are the most frightening and the vilest of Kellirac superstitions. According to Kellirac folklore, some of The Wretched (see below) entice human followers with promises of wealth, power, and glorious battles. Those Kellirac who agree to follow The Wretched set bonfires at the waning Blood Moon, and chant ancient, forbidden death chants. These people then become vessels for The Wretched, who feed on the flesh of the living as a source of their power. After nine nights of bonfires, ritual sex and dancing, and preparations for battle, these groups of Human Wretched will attach the nearest village. Many Kellirac villages have taken to launching surprise raids on the bonfire encampments, as the Human Wretched require the full nine nights in order to fully transform.

The religion is based upon the dead. The goal is to die honorably, and be reunited with one's ancestors in the next world. Those who die dishonorably, particularly by an act of cowardice in a lost battle, become "The Wretched," spirits who are tainted, not allowed passage beyond. Those who die in a losing battle but die with honor or those who do not die in battle become The Wanderers, undead spirits who aid humanity in hopes of being allowed to move on.

When Acserianism came to Kellirac, attempts were made to "civilize and educate" the Kellirac. However, the new religion never supplanted the original pagan beliefs. While some Kellirac have become Acserians, most notably Valsam Du Retal, one of the Kellirac Lords, most are either still pagans, or have become part of a splinter faith of Acserianism. This religion, called Samacheriai, is a blend of traditional Kell beliefs and somewhat obscure Acserian beliefs. Samacheriai believes that there is one all-powerful God, and that he sends prophets to the world to help humanity understand his ways. However, it also assumes that the Wretched, spirits and creatures of supernatural power represent aspects of God that can be petitioned for help and knowledge.

The major Kellirac holiday is Hultachia, which means "Death Walk." On this day, all Kellirac prepare for sunset by making as much food as they can, which they will eat some of in a giant meal right before nightfall. The leftovers will be left for the dead. They set candles at the doors and windows, and let the fireplace burn all day. The belief is that at sundown, the borders between this world and the next fall, and any Wanderers who have been deemed worthy will come to visit their loved ones once more before passing into the next world. However, the Wretched will do everything they can to keep the Wanderers from crossing over.

Another major holiday is the Straw Bear Festival, which is a strange development from an Arengish festival that drives out evil. While the specifics of the Arengish traditional festival have been lost, the modern version is a day long festival where a boy who is nearing adulthood dresses in a suit of straw, branches, and greenery. He travels from house to house, howling and dancing. At each home, the woman of the house comes outside with a broom and pantomimes beating the “bear” away. At sundown, the entire town comes out, and all of the village children tear the suit away from the boy within. The suit is burned, and the boy is given gifts, cakes, and small trinkets. This festival is more for the children, who spend the day singing and playing games. Often, groups of children follow the “bear” from house to house, jeering and making fun of the “bear” as he is driven away by the women of the village.

The Kellirac have many ceremonies, but one stands out in importance. After death in battle, the surviving relatives of a slain warrior will place candles at the slain's bedposts. At sundown, the spirit of the slain warrior is believed to return to rest, and to learn the outcome of the battle. If the slain warrior's side won, he is released into the next world. If his side lost, he becomes one of The Wanderers. If he died dishonorably, he becomes one of The Wretched.

Once a year like clockwork, an enormous storm, both magical and natural in make, erupts over Eastern Kellirac. It has become a badge of honor to "Ride the Storm," which means that the warrior in question plants his sword into the ground, and stands in place as the storm buffets him. Most "Storm Riders" do not survive the attempt.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Getting Lost in the Subtext

I recently saw the movie Room 237, which is advertised as a look at the symbolism and hidden messages in Kubrick's The Shining.  But what it really is, in my opinion, is a look at seeking hidden messages and symbolism to an absurd degree, filtered through The Shining as an example.  The Shining is an excellent vehicle to use for such a thing, since it's filled with lush visuals, and Stanley Kubrick had such a monstrous reputation as a perfectionist.  No one would put the same level of hyperanalysis on, say, Michael Bay's Armageddon.  What for any other filmmaker would just be considered a continuity error or a happy accident of framing, for Kubrick the presumption is he did it on purpose because he had a message.

Now, I've talked about clarity in writing, but regardless how clear you make things, there will be subtext to be found.  It's inevitable, unless your writing is completely devoid of value.  Of course, part of that is because we're almost conditioned to look for it, as part of education.

Case in point: probably my favorite "had to read in high school" books was Lord of the Flies.  Of the things we were assigned back then it's one of the few that I've gone back and read again just because I wanted to.  And because it was a read-for-high-school book, we unpacked loads of subtext.  For example, there's the sexual imagery/loss of innocence in the first pig hunt; the id/ego/superego analysis of Jack, Ralph and Piggy; Simon-as-Christ imagery. It's loaded with it.  Were all those Golding's intent?  Maybe, I don't know.  Maybe it's really just about boys going crazy on an island because nothing is stopping them. 

But here's the thing, and it's certainly the lesson to take away from Room 237: the analysis of hidden meanings and symbols has far more to do with the analyst* than the artist. 

Unless you are one of those deliberate decide-my-subtext-first-and-write-to-it people.  Then you're just messing with them

*- Of all the crackpottery on display in Room 237, I have some real affection for the guy whose core theory is, "The Shining is Kubrick's message of his own feelings of madness and alienation due to his role in faking the moon landing".  Because, really, Danny's sweater alone is enough to feed that guy.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Acseria, maps and worldbuilding

Another busy day here-  the rough draft of Way of the Shield has almost reached the point of going over the top of the hill, so it's now a matter of getting all the pieces in place before the drop*.  So I'll share another bit of worldbuilding: Druthal's southern neighbor, Acseria.


“And a new nation will stand.  A nation of God, by God and for God.  And such a nation, built on principles of faith, shall be like to none before seen.”  -The Book of Galena, The Acseram

“There must be a God, for no man could make that happen.” –Clwythnn Strongtree, after seeing Acserian zealots storm the bridge at Fencal.

“I have no quarrel with their God.  I just fail to see why he must dabble in politics.”  -Archduke Louis Gauchon of Linjar

“They are a decent people, but I cannot fathom a man who would rather eat a horse than a chicken.” –Olona ab Calisien, Ninth Chair of the Fuergan Syndicate
Acseria is a nation centered on their religion and their church.  The church rules the nation.  The rest of the Trade Nations have felt the church’s influence, as the faith has spread, to a varying degree, throughout them.  The church as some very strict tenets and scripture, but the rigidity with which they are followed can vary.

Acseria is a theocracy, ruled by the Acserian church.  The titles in the church stem from the old Futralian titles, and the hierarchy of the church is as follows.
  • Rei- The highest authority of Acseria-- the Rei has the ear of God, and God has his.  When he makes an official proclamation it is law (although it must pass through the Kannan Assembly to confirm that the Rei has not wavered from his faith), and all of Acseria will move at his word.  He also votes with the Kannan Assembly, with his vote counting as twenty.
  • DaiKanna-There are eighteen DaiKanna, two for each province of Acseria.  They comprise the upper echelon of the Kannan Assembly.  Only a DaiKanna can call for a vote. Some matters, such as the elevation of someone to the rank of Kanna, can be voted on only by DaiKanna.
  • Kanna- The main body of the Kannan Assembly, with their being 162 Kanna (18 for every province).  The Kanna, like the DaiKanna, are only representatives of their province.  While they may bear affiliation for a certain sect or order of the church, they do not specifically represent them.
  • Manall- This is the rank of the leaders of most sects and orders, as well as the central figure religious figure of cities and communities.
  • Shannar- The Shannar is the lowest rank of fully ordained priest, and is the one that the common man has close contact to.
  • Chosen- The Chosen are ministers who lead services and give spiritual comfort and leadership to the people, but the are not ordained, and cannot perform some ceremonies.

In addition to the church leadership, each of the nine provinces (Telsa, Myam, Sobal, Pelkin, Amida, Shisa, Ores, Gerina and Allassa) has a Prince who has ruling authority, as long as that prince stays in good standing with the church.  This is a hereditary title, unless the church sees fit to remove one line of Princes and replace it with another.  The Prince is at the top of the feudal system, with nobles below him, who are simply called Lords.  Princes live a challenging life, since each one has twenty Kanna and DaiKanna who each feel they have authority over him, and each one will have their own agenda.

Law in Acseria is specifically church law, edicts handed down from the Kannan Assembly, all (presumably) based on interpretation of the and other sacred documents.  Over the centuries, laws change due interpretation of the scripture and the prevailing attitudes of those in charge.

The Code of Life is a primary component of the law.  These are handed down from old Futralian codes, and the translation and interpretation of them is the cornerstone of Acserian debate.  Fundamentalists feel they mean “One must not,” while Reformists think they mean, “One should not.”  As it stands, the Code of Life (in the Reformist standard) includes:

  • One should not touch one’s brother or sister, parent or child, in the manner one touches one’s wife.
  • One should not eat that which is not blessed and properly prepared.
  • One should not take that which they do not own.
  • One should not separate soul from body.
  • One should respect their betters. One should not speak that which is untrue.
  • One should not touch another man’s wife in the manner they touch their own, nor any who is not their wife.
  • One should not drink that which is impure or intoxicating.
  • One should not take more food than is needed when another is hungry.
  • One should not desire that which is not theirs, nor that cannot be had.
  • One should not take credit for work of God or another man.
  • One should not commit an act borne from anger
  • One should not make one’s rest force another to work, nor rest to leave the work to fallow.

Magic fluctuates in acceptance in Acseria.  Currently, the official standpoint is that magic is useful and acceptable to God, but it had often in the past been considered heresy and sacrilege.  Many Acserians still hold this opinion, and react badly to displays of magic.

When accused of a crime, be it against man or God, one is brought before a church leader (usually one of the Chosen, sometimes someone higher) for trial.  If guilt is determined, then the criminal is given an Act of Penance, which can range from a series of prayers, to self-flagellation to taking on some form of vow or missionary work.  The criminal has the right to volunteer an act for the priest to approve, or else the priest will assign one.  Failure to do the Penance Act is High Sacrilege.

Any form of High Sacrilege (which requires a Manall to determine) can be punished by Excommunication.  Someone who is excommunicated is not part of the community and has no rights.  If they aren’t executed shortly after the excommunication (which used to be the fashion, but is currently frowned upon), then they will typically flee to Druthal or another nation.

The Acserian military is not strongly organized, but when they lack in structure they make up for in devotion.  They are essentially a militia of faithfuls with informal training in how to use their weapons.  However, they have been known to fight with fearless abandon.  These ordinary soldiers are usually referred to as zealots.

These militias are under the authority of the Princes, who use their Lords and vassals to bring it together.  The Princes only can call them together with a call to arms from the Rei or the Kannan Assembly.

The centerpiece of the Acserian life is their religion.  It is a monotheistic relgion, in which their God (referred to simply as God), has a plan for the faithful to follow.  In order to help follow the plan, they must act according to his wishes (such as live by the Code of Life), for which they will be rewarded by their souls joining God in the next life. 
God lets his plan be known to them through signs and omens, as well as use of his divine servants and nine Prophets who are to help guide them.  As of 1215, six of the Prophets have come, and three more are expected.  The most important Prophet is the second, Acser.
In Acser’s time, Acseria was a number of protecterate provinces of the Kieran Empire, and the people living there were somewhat lost in terms of spiritual and cultural identity.  Acser started preaching to them about the God and spreading his word, recreating their hope and identity.  Acser also brought an end to a conflict with the Imachs that the Kierans were ignoring, and then confronted the Kierans about their hypocrisy.  The Kieran legions publicly killed him for this.  They then tried to stop his followers and his message, but it instead thrived and spread.
Acserians believe that mankind, at least the faithful, have a soul which is separate from the body.  The soul is the important, eternal part of the person, and the body is merely a flawed physical expression of the soul.  Life on this world is about the triumph of the soul over the body—living in a good and correct manner despite the flaws of the body bringing incorrect urges. 
They also consider birds, especially hawks, to be sacred creatures—messengers of God and carriers of souls.  Most Acserians will wear a talisman of a hawk to show their faith.
While the church itself has several orders and sects, the primary division is between the Reformists and the Fundamentalists.  They each control a large amount of Kannan Assembly, and essential represent liberal and conservative views of Acserian politics and theology.

The following is in no way a complete list of all the factions, orders and sects of the Acserian church.  Rather, these are the major factions, the ones that have the most influence in the Acserian church.  There are dozens of lesser orders and sects throughout Acseria.
  • FUNDAMENTALISTS- The Fundamentalists believe in returning to the core values of the Acserian faith as outlined by the old Futralian.  Morality, to the Fundamentalists, is not a matter of debate, but rather has already been strictly defined by Meliphol and Acser, and therefore by God.  The Code of Life centers around how one must live their life.  Service to God (and the Acserian community, by extension) must be the primary goal of one’s life.  There are further sub-factions of the Fundamentalists, broken down into which book of the Acseriad in the Acseram is most important—the larger sub-factions prefer Ansom, Chedrik and Zanik.
  • REFORMISTS- They believe in following the spirit of faith over the letter of it.  The texts of old Futralian (and to an extent, the writings of Meliphol) should be looked at as parable and example, not utter truth.  They interpret the Code of Life as being a guideline to what one should do.  Sin and transgression are forgivable, and one should be tolerant of new ideas and debate.  Sub-factions based on which book is more important exist, but they are more casual, usually just used as points of debate rather than true disagreement.  They tend to favor Nalesta, Clienthis and Hiedrovik. 
  • PURISTS- Similar to the Fundamentalists, but even more orthodox.  They trying and live life as exactly as possible as how the Futralians would.  Devoting their lives to service to God, believing that any tolerance of sin is equivalent to the act of sin itself.  They also believe that all elements of the texts of the Acseram, even the apocrypha, are sacred and holy, and should be adhered to.
  • LUMINARIES- This order focuses on learning and saving knowledge.  Monks of the order are the primary instructors and teaching missionaries.  It is the Luminaries who copy, save and archive sacred texts and other writings.
  • THE CIRCLE- This group centers around the idea of God as a more abstract concept, shying away from strict adherence to text and dogma.  They tend to be extremely tolerant of sin, transgression and other religions, as they believe that God, in his infiniteness, intends for such things to exist.
  • THE ORDER OF THE HAWK- This is a semi-militaristic order of proselytizers.  Members tend to work in or with the armies of Acseria, as officers, chaplain or elite soldiers.  They will also do much missionary work in dangerous territories.  They do study some fighting and mystical skills, but they focus more on preaching and spreading the good word of the Acseram, with views that lean to the Fundamentalist side.
  • OVALSHANS- This is a smaller sect who have dedicated themselves to the study and care of the Citadel, the architectural masterwork of the prophet Ovalsha.  They will be the first to proclaim any event at the Citadel as a miraculous message of Ovalsha, and feel that he is second only to Acser in importance.
  • THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE FEATHER- This order focuses on the Acser presented within the book of Nalesta—Acser as pacifist.  The Brotherhood is opposed to the use of violence, and will always work to achieve peaceful solutions.  Study of mystical arts is well known to the Brotherhood.
  • EASTERN ACSERIANS- This group is more often referred to as a “cult” by the larger factions, but it has a strong block of followers in the province of Allassa.  Eastern Acserianism blends Acserian belief with Imach mindset.  Like the Purists, this leads to a stricter lifestyle, intolerant of deviation, and the views of the Eastern Acserians lean toward the Fundamentalist.  Fundamentalists, however, tend to eschew the Eastern Acserians, except when it is politically convenient not to.


*- That was a mixed metaphor, wasn't it?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Worldbulding: Nation/Culture Building Template

Way back when I first started the Serious Worldbuilding Process for the world Druthal is in, the internet was still in its toddlerhood.  So when I first cooked up the National Documents, I didn't have a lot of precedent to build from.  In retrospect, I was essentially building a proto-wiki template for worldbuilding.  I was also less well-read, less researched and less-practiced at the time.  As a result, what the National Document was became something I was unsatisfied with.

So I've made some changes to the template-- using how many actual nations are broken now on Wikipedia as a basis-- and have come up with something that I find... stronger.  Like all things, it's a work in progress.   But you might find it useful.

Basic description*

  • Government
  • Laws
  • Military
  • Foreign Relations
  • Internal Relations
Geography and Ecology
  • Notable Natural Landmarks
  • Notable Flora/Fauna
  • Languages
  • Religion
  • Familial Units 
  • Social Rituals
  • Clothing and Hairstyles
  • Cuisine
  • Entertainment/Games/Sports
  • Art and Other Great Works
  • Notable Subcultures

Key People
  • Current
  • Historical
One advantage this form also has is that it's nestable.  For example, you could create one for, say, a sprawling empire, and then use the template for each of the principalities and protectorates of that empire, and then again for each region within the principalities, and then again for each city.  You could even go down to neighborhoods of the city, if you've crafted it to that level of detail.

So, if this is useful for you: have at it.  If you have suggestions, I'm happy to hear them.

*- As you can see from my post on Waisholm, I enjoy putting a few in-world quotes about the culture from both insider and outsider perspectives.  For me, it's a good way to get into the mindset.