Thursday, May 29, 2014

Worldbuidling: Mage Circles and the Professional Mage

So, as I'm currently hip-deep in editing A Murder of Mages, one aspect I'm weaving in there is further explanation of Mage Circles, which is a crucial part of how magic works in Druth culture.  Well, not in how magic itself works, but how the culture deals with magic.

Druthal is a civilized and enlightened culture that's always had a troubling relationship with magic.  Up until the beginning of 11th Century*, most of the people were openly hostile to mages.  A tolerant attitude about a mage at the time would have been, "Let's only throw just enough rocks at him to chase him out of town." 

But over time, society advances: laws are codified, law enforcement is formalized, and justice is no longer enacted at one man's whim.  With that, attitudes about magic are dragged by the scruff of the neck, kicking and screaming the whole way. 

So you have a society where some people loathe and fear magic, but others would happily employ the services of a professional mage, as much they would a doctor or lawyer.  Just as doctors or lawyers have professional organizations and formalized accreditation, mages need the same, and in Druthal that takes the form of Mage Circles.

A Circle, in simplest terms, is an organization of mages that certifies that its members are trained, and assumes liability for its members actions.  They could be a tightly knit handful of mages, with similar goals and intentions, bound together like family.  Or it could be a sprawling guild of hundreds, with only loose interaction, functioning mostly as an institute of insurance. 

The main function of a Circle is, in theory, to ensure that a mage amongst their ranks knows how to handle their power, and that there is a system in place to bring them to heel should they get out of control.  In actual practice, a Circle often serves as a buffer between an individual mage and a potentially spurious legal system.  They will protect their own-- fiercely-- from police action if they feel its unwarranted, and often still provide counsel and support when it is justified.

What this also means that most mages, when encountering an Uncircled mage, will react the same as a doctor would in meeting a back-alley surgeon whose only training was watching reruns of Marcus Welby. 

However, since there are scores of Circles in the city of Maradaine alone (most with less than ten members), mages in general are hardly a unified political or legal body.  There are plenty of professional rivalries, simmering enmities and simple open hostilities.  Most of them don't get along with each other, and they certainly don't get along with law enforcement or other government agencies.

Which means when a mage is killed in a horrific, ritualistic murder, and one of the Inspectors investigated it is also an Uncircled mage, then you're going to get... well, you'll get A Murder of Mages

*- Thorn, Murder of Mages and other Druthal-based projects I've been working on are set in the 13th Century, specifically in 1215.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Current Projects and Writing Process Baton Pass

So, there's a blog-hop thing going on about current projects and writing process, which I was tagged on by Glynn Stewart, fellow client of Onyxhawke Agency and author of Starship's Mage.   And I always relish having blog topics handed to me.

1. What am I working on?

Currently I've got two key things on my plate: Editing A Murder of Mages to hand the final manuscript in to the publisher in the near future, and the rough draft of the sequel to Thorn of Dentonhill.  I'm coming close to the end of Thorn II, which currently has a working title of Elements of Aventil

Once those two things are done-- and I suspect neither one will take me past the end of June, I'll move on to working on the sequel to Murder of Mages.  And at some point this year I'll go back to Banshee, since I wrote about half of it before selling Thorn and Murder, and it'd be good to get that done before the year is out.

2. How does my work differ from other works in the same genre?

The main way, I think, is I strive to write fantasy that isn't easy to pin down.  It's city-based, but it isn't "urban fantasy" (which means something different than I think it ought to...).  It isn't set in a period that can easily be pegged as common for fantasy: not medieval or Renaissance or Victorian.  It isn't steampunk, but it does tweak on different technology paths. 

3. Why do I write what I write?

Mostly because these are books I would want to read, but since they didn't exist, I had to write them. 

4. How does my writing process work?

It starts with outlining and character development.  I get a sense of who the character is, and from that, what their story should be starts to coalesce.  Once I have that together, in a rough sense (very rough-- the origins of Thorn of Dentonhill can be found in some hand-scrawled sentence fragments in a notebook kept next to my bed), I then actually construct an outline using my twelve-part story structure as the scaffolding. 

Once I have that in place, including a partial Dramatis Personae, I can actually start writing.  I tend to write relatively linearly, but once in a while I'll get stuck, and jump ahead to one of the "red meat" scenes, and then go back and fill in the parts in between.  That can be quite helpful, actually.  It's one thing to know, "Hey, there's a place where I'm going to need to get to so I can have this stuff happen."  It's quite another to actually have Point A and Point B written, and then see from there the path you have to take, what you need to put in place to get there. 


With that done, I'll pass the baton on to Audrey Lockwood, who recently signed with Stringer Literary Agency, and will probably have more awesome things to announce in the coming year.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Worldbuilding: The March of Science in the Fantasy World

Today's required reading: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean.

It's a look at chemistry through the lens of history, The Disappearing Spoon talks about every element on the periodic table, its properties and its history, not to mention the history how the periodic table itself came about.  I found it a fascinating read, and the history of science in general is a subject I feel gets something of a short shrift, both in academia (in study of history or science) and in worldbuilding.

Until this century, science was something someone-- anyone with the time and inclination-- could putter around with.  There were, of course, men (and women) of scholarship working out of universities.  But there was plenty of science being done, more or less, by the bored and wealthy as a hobby.  A lot of discoveries came about through trial and error of people filling up their spare time.  X-rays, for example, were discovered by someone who was just messing around with different stuff to see what would happen.  When said messing around resulted in a picture of his bones, he was convinced he had actually gone insane, and in order to prove to himself that it wasn't real, he kept repeating it over and over, and then showed it to his wife (who fainted dead away).

Most science was done with the time honored tradition of the following steps.
  1. Poke something.
  2. See what happens.
  3. Poke it again and see if it happens again.
Secondary worldbuilding tends to ignore science and the history of science.   I've been guilty of it as well.  History in secondary worldbuildingn tends to be mostly about kings and nations and wars.  But the history of a civilization is more than that.  When looking at your world's history, ask yourself: Who was the Socrates of this world?  Who was the Pythagoras?  The Isaac Newton?  Galileo?  Kepler?  Pastuer?  Curie?

Will this stuff come into play in what you write?  Probably not.  But it's always more interesting when you know it.

Another thing to think about, in a fantasy setting-- is magic studied like it's a science?  Does the advancement or understanding of magic have its own history?  Does your world have, say, a Pythagoras, Newton or Galileo of magic?*

The other good reason to read The Disappearing Spoon?  Little bits of science trivia you just might apply in your worldbuilding.  Here's a free one: copper is a natural disinfectant, killing bacteria.  Water piped through copper pipes won't have bacteria, nor will copper coins or doorknobs.


*- As an old-school D&D player, I always loved all the "Bigby's ____ Hand" spells for just that reason.  I just imagined this semi-scholarly mage who kept working, tirelessly, to perfect Giant Hand magic. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Perils of the Writer: All the "Rules" with a Grain of Salt

Every fledgling writer hears all sorts of "dos and don'ts", rules that you NEED to follow if you want to have ANY CHANCE of getting published.  Most of these things are nonsense, essentially trying to quantify something that is more gut-feeling than hard and fast rule.   Case in point:
I was just at a conference, where in the opening pages agent-author seminar, the agents stopped reading a participant's opener as soon as they hit an exclamation point, and stressed that shows lazy writing. There must be some other way to show the emphasis, or else don't emphasize the point where it is used. 
I have to admit, this one, in particular, strikes me as especially arbitrary. Exclamation points show lazy writing? Incorrect usage of exclamation points can certainly be problematic, but to exclude their usage altogether? Absurd. I'll say again with emphasis: Absurd! (Especially considering one of the events at that conference was titled, "The Power of Positive Writing!” Yes, with the exclamation point.)

But more to the point, there are only three punctuation marks that can end a sentence.  Why avoid one-third of them completely?  How is that lazy writing? I don't know.  It's a fundamental part of punctuation.  It would be as if someone said, "I never like seeing quotation marks.  There must be some other way to show a character is speaking."

The advice, as a reading rule itself, I find almost obscene.  It's a step away from saying, "If I see a sentence with two words that start with a 'k', I stop reading." I shudder to think of fledgling writers running to their manuscripts and slashing out exclamation points. Because THEY! MUST! GO!

I'm so glad neither my agent nor my editor follow such a silly rule.*


*- The first sentence of Thorn of Dentonhill is "Thief!"

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Perils of the Writer/Worldbuilding: Avoiding the Chakotay Problem

I've talked before about worldbuilding and the challenges of just doing a copy-and-paste of Earth cultures, which, of course, you don't want to do.  Draw inspiration from real-world cultures?  Sure. But if you just drop them in, unconsidered, and say, "That, plus magic makes a fantasy culture", you're going to cause trouble for yourself.

The biggest problem in doing something like that is when you do that, if you don't do the research work, then you could easily fall into the trap of making your fantasy culture merely the stereotype of the Earth culture you're inspired by.  And then you'll fall face first into the Chakotay Problem.

Chakotay, if you aren't aware, was the first officer on Star Trek Voyager, played by Robert Beltran, and his primary character trait was being Native American.  What kind of Native American was relatively vague, though at least one episode narrowed it down to a tribe in the Amazon river basin of South America.

Not that it mattered, because the show's presentation of him was "vaguely Native American", slapping any sort of poorly thought out trope or stereotype onto him.  They did this with no regard to where in the Americas it came from, or even if it had legitimate origins at all.  Part of this came from poor research.  Apparently, the document prepared for the showrunners by an "expert" to draw from was written by a sham artist-- someone who claimed to be an expert on Native American culture, but had zero ties to it, no scholarship on the subject, and made things up whole cloth.  

So the end result was a mish-mash of stereotypes and Chakotay mentioning "his people" having sayings, stories or traditions, all of which were utterly made up.  Tripe that was at best ignorant, and more often than not, highly offensive. 

Clearly, this is a thing you want to avoid in your worldbuilding.

The best thing you can do is give your cultures dimensionality. Do the proper research.  Make sure that the real-world cultures you are drawing inspiration from aren't immediately obvious. Build depth into them, and don't rely on trite stereotypes.  Otherwise, all you'll do is highlight your writing as something not to take seriously.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Sequel Grinding

Some more experienced writers have told me that writing the second book is much harder than the first.

So far, with Thorn of Dentonhill II (new working title: Elements of Aventil), that hasn't been the case.

Not to say I haven't had my challenges.  It's gone steady, but around the 2/3 point, my writing output has slowed down.  Not stopped, but gone from 5-6K a week to 3-4K.  But that's not uncommon.  Every book I've written has had some sort of mid-point quagmire, and frankly, this has been the least troubling one to date.  I mean, Way of the Shield spent months in around 30,000 words where I just couldn't figure it out.  So spending a week longer to hit 70K on Elements is hardly cause for alarm. 

But why do writers have trouble with second books?  Mostly this comes from the fact that first books usually have years of midwifing, where writers work at their own pace.  Polishing and perfecting.  So once that finally sells, the pair of questions "Great, what's next?  And can you have it done in six months?" can certainly seem daunting. 

Now, perhaps why it's less daunting for me is because I kept working on rough drafts of new material while shopping Thorn-- a tactic which paid off, since I sold Thorn and Murder of Mages at the same time-- so the process of "Now how do I write another novel?" was demystified.  I worked out a process of outlining.  I've been coming at Elements with this solid outline-- which has, for the most part, survived intact, though there are plenty of aspects finding their way in that had nothing to do with the outline.

Of course, part of this has been to address the question, mostly imposed on myself: now that I'm "a professional", can I grind out the work at the pace I need to?  Part of the reason why Way of the Shield could sit and do nothing for so long is that no one was really asking for it.  In theory Elements of Aventil is going to have people asking for it, and having it done, proving I can do it as fast as I need to-- especially now, when we aren't at "quit your day job" money yet-- is an important next step.

So, in brief: yeah, writing the sequel is hard.  But, fortunately, it hasn't been as hard as I feared it could be. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Worldbuilding: Archduchy of Maradaine

The Archduchy of Maradaine, in northwestern Druthal, lies between the Maradaine River and the Patyma river, with the Itasan Canal marking its eastern border.

The Archduchy of Maradaine has three regions: the coastal lowlands called the Sharain, the rolling hill country of Toren, and the wide plains of Itasa.  This archduchy might be considered the standard of Druthal from which the others deviate.  The terrain consists of mostly wide, rolling plains of fertile land.  The biggest use of the land is for sheep ranching, as well as farms, which are primarily devoted to wheat.  Wool from these sheep are greatly valued commodities, as it is of the highest quality.  The people of the archduchy of Maradaine are, for the most part, friendly, open and honest, and somewhat conservative in their concern for propriety.

The city of Maradaine is officially in this archduchy, although the south half of would be in Sauriya. As it is the capital of Druthal, Maradaine is a city of tremendous activity, being the last major city on the Maradaine River before it reaches the ocean.

The largest city in Sharain is Ressinar, which is also the official seat of power for the Archduke of Maradaine*.  The primary industry of Sharain is sheep ranching, with Sharain wool being a valued good throughout Druthal and the rest of the world. Sharain is also known for its vineyards, one of the few regions in all of Druthal to produce quality vintages.

Key foods in Sharain, besides lamb, are potatoes, onions and white beans, and wheat to a lesser degree.  Duck is very popular as well, as they are plentiful in the region.  The most common seasonings of the region are rosemary and mustard.  A wide variety of mustard seeds are cultivated in Sharain, and many towns have their own special blends.   

Traditional dishes include Lamb Sharain, stewed with potatoes, seasoned with wine, onions, rosemary and mustard, or Lamb Sausages and Crisp-- potatoes and onions fried in duck fat. 

To the east, in Toren, there are less sheep ranches and more farms, growing wheat, barley and other grains.  Ducks and other game birds are favored there, and bird hunting is a noted sport in the country around the city of Delikan.  Toren wines are uncommon and unremarkable, but Toren beers are spectacular. 

In Toren, neither onions or potatoes are popular, though they can grow well in the region.  Cabbages and mustards are the preferred secondary crops.  Thus any Torenite dish will typically be stewed in cabbage and beer, with lamb-and-duck sausages being one of the most common choices.

Further east in Itasa, the true "bread basket" region of the Archduchy.  Here most of the wheat the supplies the city of Maradaine is grown.  While Itasan breads are known to be hearty and yeasty, most of the rest of their cuisine is not noteworthy.  Lamb stews with barley, or roasted birds with bread (chickens or ducks, mostly) are the common traditional dishes in Itasa.


*- Archduke Kellen Hare, Eleventh Archduke of Maradaine.  The Hares of Ressinar claim to be one of the oldest noble lines in Druthal. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Perils of the Writer: Real World Politics and SF/F

I don't usually bring up real-world politics here.  But it's been drumming around the circle for a while now, so I might as well address it. I might be something of a rare bird in this industry, in that I'm on friendly terms with people with vastly varying political leaning.  People who I disagree with, even vehemently.  And don't get me wrong, I do love occasionally getting into it, politically speaking, as long as it's a good argument, and not just yelling, "You're wrong!" back and forth. 

But let's not confuse politics for behavior.

Because there are plenty of people-- people on the far left and far right, frankly-- who gleefully act like assholes, and then when called on that behavior, use their political affiliation as a shield.  "Oh, you're coming after me because of my beliefs!"  Terms like "witch hunt" are used, because it's easier to hide behind that, make yourself a victim, instead of acknowledging: hey, I'm acting like an asshole.

It's so much easier to act like you're being persecuted.

But if you act like an asshole-- and believe me, I've been there: back in my twenties I'm sure I had some Grade A moments-- people will and should call you on it, and it's disingenuous to say it's because of your politics.  You know why?  Because I know people with the same political lean who aren't assholes, so it's clearly not some sort of obligatory behavior based on political opinion.

I am all for people wearing their politics on their sleeves.  And put it in your fiction.  Have your fiction be a full-on polemic; rip your political opinion off your sleeve and shove it down my throat.  Politics I agree with, politics I don't agree with.  Go full out.

All I ask is that it actually be a good read, too, you know?

Which brings me around to the Hugo Nomination thing.  I want to believe that people who nominate things do so in good faith, even if they are politically motivated.  I haven't read Larry Correia's Warbound-- or anything else by him-- but I've seen enough people praise the books.  He was nominated for the Campbell a couple of years ago.  I can honestly believe that there are plenty of fans who really liked his book and feel it deserving of a "Best Novel" award, even if their reasoning was motivated by politics.

However, I actually read “Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day.  Now, I won't go into Mr. Day's personal history or anything-- it's out there and well documented, and you don't need me to give you an opinion on him.  You have your opinion, one way or another.    But here's the thing about “Opera Vita Aeterna": it's just poor writing.   Overly florid, trying-too-hard writing that, if I were in critique-teacher mode I would have made a lot of red-pen marks on. 

I get, as a matter of principle, wanting more stories with an explicitly conservative or religious message to them. I get wanting those stories to be lauded and nominated for awards.  If that's your political or theological lean, then of course you want to see that.  But given that, why would you hitch your wagon to a work that is so mediocre and hold it up as a shining example of the sort of thing you want to see?  What do you gain by that?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Worldbuilding, Food and Regionalism

Here are some choice passages from the intro of a book that most people probably wouldn't think of in terms of worldbuilding, especially fantasy/sci-fi worldbuilding:

In bald terms, terroir refers to the soil, climate and topography of a microregion, and pinpoints what makes an ingredient grown in one place taste different from the same ingredient grown in another.
But terroir isn't merely rainfall, mineral content, and angles of exposure to sunlight.  no matter where we're form, terroir is our cultural and historical link to the land, the expression of the land itself and the people who live there.
         --Country Cooking of France, Anne Willan
Defining regions, when it comes to worldbuilding, is a big part of a shift from macro-worldbuilding to micro-building.  The food people raise says a lot about who they are and the way they live.  Especially in any sort of pre-industrial setting, where a hundred miles of distance could may as well be a world away. 

The basic staples of domesticatible animals and major crops will only give you so much definition (unless you really go to town in building all new flora and fauna, in which case, I salute you)... but the minor variations of culinary regionalism can give you a wealth of details to color your world with.  Then you can even take a basic dish-- say a stewed chicken-- and then add in two or three ingredients that define the region, and you have a traditional regional dish.

Travelers in Druthal could therefore have Chicken Thalin (in the eastern region of the Archudchy of Sauriya), cooked with onions, carrots and mustard seed, and then cross the Maradaine River into the Toren region of Maradaine Archduchy, where the local dish is stewed in cabbage and beer.  (And, of course, Toren locals might give funny looks to a bunch of bulbmouths from Thalin coming over.  But that's just what those cabbage-eaters do, isn't it?)

In the upcoming weeks, I'm going to do a little "culinary tour" of the Druth Archduchies, showing some of the macro-worldbuilding in food and culture.