Guest Blog – Firefly Fridays

Just a quick note today, folks – Angela Quarles recently asked me to do a guest post on her blog. You can find it here.

Among other great articles, she runs an excellent, weekly series called Firefly Fridays, in which she illustrates a lesson drawn from Joss Whedon’s Firefly in order to improve our writing. I recommend checking out both her blog and the series – it’s one of the few TV programmes I have on DVD.

Jim

Myth and Magic

My map is giving me headaches, so once again I’m subbing in something else – magic.

Fantasy stories can be successes without any magic involved – stories are about people after all, not the things they can do (or at least, they should be!). Out of the hundreds if not thousands of books I’ve read though, I truly can’t remember reading any fantasy novel in which there wasn’t at least a bit of magic, even if it was only in the background, or only used by a minor character. You know why?

Magic is a way of making things fun!

Sure, you can make a great story about the hero marshalling his troops for a great battle against evil, but how much more scary do those evil hordes of beastmen become when a handful of apocalyptically powerful villains can use magical gateways to march them straight into your castle? (Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time series)

When almost everyone in the world is just a normal person and the Assembly of Magicians have the ability and, frequently, the inclination to incinerate people at the first sign of disobedience, don’t they become a dark, terrifying force which must be confronted in an unorthodox way? (Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts, The Empire Trilogy)

I had briefly considered not including magic in my story – there was no necessity for it in the plot line – but quickly came to the conclusion that I wanted it there. I also wanted some magical creatures, though not the Tolkein-esque elves, dwarves, orcs and goblins which have become ubiquitous in fantasy. Dragons, much as I love the idea of them, are also out for this world. Instead, I’m edging more towards the lesser known Fae beings.  Those Folk not quite of this world who hold powers of illusion, bewitchment and shape-changing. The Bargeist who appears as an old man but takes the shape of a bear if slighted or attacked. The Bogie feeding on fear by taking on the appearance of the viewer’s worst nightmare (though the name has to change!).  The main culture draws heavily on India as an influence, so I’ll be weaving these in with the beings of Hindu epics: the flesh-eating Rakshasa, forest-dwelling Vanara, the nymph-like Apsara and so on.

These all have magic of their own, abilities and limitations, but it’s not in a form accessible to humans. For that, we have the elementals.

The world of Amari overlaps another reality, a realm of spiritual energy with intelligent entities of its own. Some of the Fae creatures mentioned before will be in this category. When a violent natural event occurs, such as a storm, fire, earthquake, landslide, blizzard, volcanic eruption etc., this energy leaks through and elementals are formed.  These don’t have much will, intelligence or life force of their own, and most will fade and die after a period of minutes to hours. Humans on the other hand can live for many decades, so have some to spare. If a human is present and allows the elemental to share a portion of their life force and reside in them, the two can form a relationship with benefits and drawbacks.  On the elemental side, it gets to live for longer and experience life vicariously through its human, but no longer really controls its actions, being virtually subsumed into the personality on the host. The human gains the ability to use the powers of the elemental hosted to a certain degree, but the extra drain on their life force means that their health and strength suffers and they usually have a shorter lifespan. The greater the event which formed the elemental, the more force the wielder can exert, but equally the greater toll on their health and the more energy they must expend to use their power.  Humans may also host more than one elemental if they are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to do so, and though this may bring much more power, most humans will be unable to sustain more than three or four before becoming too weak for normal activities.

Naturally, big flashy battles can result!

I haven’t worked out the mechanics of hosting yet. I want it to be possible for anyone to host an elemental rather than have it restricted to rare, special individuals, instead leaving it to the rarity of a human being both present to take one on and knowing how to do so. Practically, certain types of mind may find it easier to accept this relationship

Of course, in a world of wars and diseases, power for years is not necessarily an unattractive deal.  A farmer, for instance, might find that an elemental saps his strength too much to make a living, but a soldier may well reason that without the power he may not see the traded years anyway. Someone who has the power to call up winds or can control local water currents will be in high demand by ship captains, and those with power to manipulate earth could be very valuable in construction jobs, able to level land and form trenches much faster than teams of normal men.

As with any power, people will be drawn to it for good and bad reasons, but the rarity of it should prevent it from dominating the world in too many ways. A powerful elemental user may be in high demand by armies, but will be as susceptible to anyone else to a knife in the night. Also, culture will certainly play a part.  Some cultures will see these bonds as natural and encourage them, while others may view elementals as demons trying to latch onto a human soul and steal it.  Obviously in these lands there won’t be many people choosing to host elementals, or at least not openly using magic. Bearing in mind the cost, not all of those who get the opportunity to use elemental magic will take it.

But for the people who do…

They get to be awesome.

Cultural Bias

Well, I haven’t got around to redrawing my map, so more cultural information it is – this time, I’ll be looking at a culture which won’t be directly visited by the protagonists during my story, but will have a strong influence.

Over the last year I have watched a number of television programmes exploring a little more about other hominids, such as the Neanderthals.  I learnt a number of things I never knew about them before, which I’ll go into in a minute.  Especially interesting was the information that there were apparently surviving family groups as recently as 30,000 years ago.  Looking a little closer at the reasons for their extinction, it seems that the main reason they died out may well have been coincidence – homo sapiens’ expansion reached Europe at roughly the same time as forests started giving way to grassland, meaning our persistence/projectile focussed hunting style out competed their ambush hunting style.  It strikes me that, had the forests not receded or if species overlap had been postponed until the era of agriculture, there could well have been two species of hominids around today – or perhaps that should be sub-species, as evidence of interbreeding seems to be pointing towards them being not entirely separate from homo sapiens.  I thought they would be a pretty cool addition to my fantasy universe.

Anyway, let’s see what they were like.

Far from being stupid, as the caveman stereotype goes, Neanderthals actually had a brain case fractionally larger on average than our own.  According to one of the experts used by the BBC, one of the areas which was larger was the occipital lobe, an area involved in the processing of vision.  Of course, this could mean a number of things.  They might have had better resolution (making out smaller things at a longer distance), better night vision, better colour distinguishment, increased number of frames per second – I doubt we’ll ever know.  All interesting possibilities for a fantasy writer though.  They had modern-looking hyoid bones and the same version of FOXP2, a gene closely linked to language, as modern humans, which strongly suggests they had language.  How complex this was is debatable – our necks are held more vertical than theirs, which I understand allows more effective production of glottal stops, the sound indicated by the hyphen in ‘uh-oh’ as well as in many other words.    Additionally, the tools they produced were just as effective as those by early man.  The implication is that they were just as intelligent as modern humans, merely different.

The real differences lie in the body make-up.  Though populations varied as in modern humans, it appears that Neanderthals were of roughly similar height to early man at about 5’5″-5’7″ – on average they were an inch or so shorter, but with a greater sexual dimorphism, so males were perhaps a bit taller while females were shorter.  Today, human population averages range between 5’2″-6’1″ for men and 4’10”-5’7″ for women.  (Also interesting is that Homo heidelbergensis, a common ancestor, stood around 6′ tall on average – equal to some of the tallest populations in the world today – with some populations even standing ~7′ tall!  Talk about intimidating!)  Neanderthal skeletons reveal what was both their biggest advantage and disadvantage over us: they were stacked.  Big barrel chests, huge muscle insertion points on dense bones, the longer ones bowed by the forces they had to support.  I’m not saying these guys were chimpanzee strong, but the suggestion is that they had up to twice as much muscle mass of normal humans, or about 30% extra weight – perhaps the equivalent of human wrestlers or body builders.  Their bones show healed injuries that match those see in rodeo professionals, suggesting they tackled large, angry animals on a regular basis.  There also may be some evidence that their power was of a more explosive type as opposed to sustained effort

Of course, all this muscle mass was also their biggest disadvantage – they needed twice as much food to support all this extra tissue.  They lived in smaller groups, more widely dispersed, and would probably have been hit harder by the lean years.

So, to the culture.

With the onset of agriculture, they would have been able to form larger communities, though the population density would still have to have been less than us at a corresponding level of development – I’m thinking a land with fewer cities and more village/hamlet-sized developments to reduce the amount of food which needs to be moved around.

With the difficulties forming complex words, the language may become more monosyllabic, perhaps with tonal changes to meaning to make up for the short words such as in Chinese.  An oriental base for their culture to go with the language would help to reinforce the idea that these people have an ancient culture but not a primitive one.  Chinese and especially Japanese styles are well represented in fantasy and I want this book to avoid as many of the normal cultures as possible, so I’ll look into Thai culture as a base, with some Nepalese for the mountain areas.  Just to mix things up a little, I’ll mix in some Mayan too, though not the obvious human sacrifice element – that would compromise the aim of making them just as civilised as other humans.

In recent times there would surely have been armed clashes with humans.  There has always been mistrust between different races in real life, so how much more would humans have for these physically imposing, coarse featured people who may recall folklore monsters, or the Neanderthals have for these skinny, leggy people who move into an area and breed like rabbits, taking up all the natural resources?  On martial styles, I suspect their build would lend more to wrestling and throws, and with long, powerful arms and shorter legs I see strikes seeing more use than kicks.  Powerful hands could lend themselves to some quite nasty gripping and tearing techniques that recall a more savage side, too.  While physically much more powerful, they would almost certainly be outnumbered by humans, facing a foe who would be more inclined to sit at a distance and fire arrows than engage in close combat.  On the plus side, fewer warriors means each one could have better equipment.  At range, their massive  upper body strength and better eyesight lend themselves well to using much larger bows than were ever common on the battlefields of Earth.  To counter their disadvantages in speed over distance, cavalry may play a larger part – also easier with fewer warriors to provide horses for.  For when they did get close, they would probably want a shield to protect themselves from arrows, spears and javelins, and some kind of weapon that could both be used quickly and take advantage of their raw strength.  Axes and maces were the traditional way to deliver powerful blows, but they could also be slower than other weapons, and axes in particular could have the (slightly nasty) disadvantage of sticking in the person you’ve just killed – not what you want when you’re outnumbered and his mate is right next to him.  I suspect something like the Chinese dao/war sword would work well, giving the ability to make quick slashes as well as massive cleaving strikes:

Wouldn't like to see that coming at me...

Huh, I’m well over 1000 words again and I only just got started on the actual culture part.  Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get around to putting more up soon.  In the meantime, I really need to get on and do a bit on my map so I can do a post about that…

 

A Land of Culture

“Culture makes all men gentle” – Menander, ~300BC

“When I hear of culture…, I release the safety of my Browning (pistol)!” – Hanns Johst, 1933

“Quotes are what lazy people use to avoid having to think of something witty themselves.” – Jim Ross, 2011

 

In my last post, I mentioned how many fantasy novels are set in a European culture.  Of course, this doesn’t make them bad, or even shallow.  JRR Tolkein’s universe is probably one of the most detailed anywhere, yet this comes from his wide knowledge of European history and mythology.  Even his geography is affected by this:  Gondor seems to me to be vaguely analogous to central Europe, holding echoes of the decayed Roman Empire – it used to be great and now holds but a shadow of its power.  In the west of Gondor is Dol Amroth with its princes and heavy cavalry, like the paladins of France.  The heavily Norse-themed people of Rohan have come out of the north to settle in Gondor’s northern reaches.  To the far north-west is the Shire, clearly calling to mind the English home counties.  East lies Rhun, with its Eastern European/Russian steppe influences, and south you find Harad, in which elements of Arab and African cultures seem to be found.  The elves and dwarves both call on traditional northern European fey folklore, with the two Elvish dialects of Quenya and Sindarin being heavily influenced by Finnish/Suomi and Welsh respectively.  Likewise, David Gemmell’s worlds draw heavily on European and Celtic types.

By all this I mean to say, I have nothing against setting a novel in a European culture, it’s just that I won’t be doing so in this first book.

For the country I want to start in, I’ve decided on a primarily Indian-based culture, being one infrequently used.  Now, the main thing that seems to be maintained whenever anyone does use Indian culture is a rigid caste system, in which no movement between castes is allowed.  It’s a recognisable element so I wanted to keep some of it, but twist it a bit.  Instead, perhaps by default you are part of the worker caste, which may include field labourers, oarsmen and other physical professions which can be learned quickly.  From there, people can pass into others based on their aptitude – someone with a quick mind who learns to read and write may move into the scholar or mercantile castes, for instance, while a large man with fast reactions may move into the military.  Equally, I would like to make it so that there is no hierarchy of rank between these castes.  If everyone were a scholar, who would grow the food?  If nobody became a soldier, who would protect the land?  Actually, this idea of parts being different but of just as much importance is starting to sound like part of the Bible:

“… a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, … If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? … the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,  its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:12-25)

I think this could be an interesting tenet of the dominant religion of the region.  To avoid what has happened in many real-life religions, where priesthood is seen as a position of power, attracts the wrong type of people and so becomes corrupted (as in politics, one could say!), perhaps the priests of this religion are supposed to be servants of the people?  If this were ingrained deeply enough in the public consciousness, any priest who got above his station could well lose any credibility he has, thus maintaining the status quo.  To run with this line, perhaps the priests are also the main practitioners of medicine or healthcare?  Religions, after all, have historically often been a driving force for science, starting with the premise that a created world must have some underlying rules.

Let’s leave religion there for now and move on.  In almost all cultures larger than a single village, someone is in charge.  Realistically, those who get to be in charge try to secure favourable places for their offspring.  Now, in my current caste system, this will be done by seeing that one’s children get first hand experience of your own job early on so that they find it easier to follow in your footsteps.  Still, you need some outside agency to help stop (or at least reduce) the number people being placed in positions they are unsuitable for.  Hence, I decided to go with the old favourite of a royal family.  It struck me that a country actually functioning in this way, where most people find themselves in careers they are well suited to rather than just following the family trade, would be quite successful and probably become the significant power in the area, so I’ve gone ahead and made it an Empire.  Royals in direct line of succession will usually be highly educated in history and diplomacy, while those more distantly related will probably be back to the normal caste system (though most likely progressing further, faster due to increased resources).

Wow, that’s about 600 words just on the caste system.  Time to move on, I think.

Geography-wise, I’m making the country sub-equatorial just to get away from the usual temperate climate and the ‘frozen north’ stereotype.  The country’s going to be very hot, and due to ocean/mountain placement and prevailing winds, only some of it will see much rainfall.  Consequently, climate will range from jungle in the far north to desert in the south-west.   I’m going to throw in a bit of Arab desert culture in the southern regions, but I want to avoid the Bedouin stereotype as much as possible too.  Due to placement of mountain ranges, there aren’t really any trade routes passing through the desert,  so it shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid the classic camel trains.  I suspect people would be more likely to live along the few rivers, as happens in Egypt with the Nile, so perhaps elements of that will creep in too.

I could go on about architecture, imports and exports and the like, not to mention the other two cultures I already fleshed out a little, but I’m running over 1000 words now so I’ll leave things there.  If you noticed that I switched a little between past and present tenses when discussing things today, that’s because quite often I’ll be thinking of new ideas on the fly as well as saying what’s already planned.  I find talking to people about things I’ve already decided upon helps spark new ideas, so you, dear reader, get to be my sounding board!

Next post will either be a bit more on cultures or a look at mapping out the world.

 

A New World

So, I finally decided to kick myself into action and make myself accountable for my writing.  By posting my progress here, I let anyone who has the slightest interest in this book see, at the click of a button, exactly how much time I’ve been putting into it recently.  I no longer have an excuse to be lazy.

That’s a pretty scary thought actually.

Anyway, 11/11/11 seemed as good a day to do this as any.  Of course, I’ve been planning this book for a lot longer than that.  I even have just over half of the first chapter written (first draft i.e. terrible)!  I would say this thing has been in the planning stage since around April or so, over which time I’ve jotted down bits and pieces, thought a lot and talked through some of the important themes with my brother.  It’s time to get serious.  I should also mention that Holly Lisle’s site (hollylisle.com) and plot writing mini-course have been invaluable in the planning process.  These two posts have been especially helpful and I recommend them to anyone thinking of starting a book: http://hollylisle.com/maps-workshop-developing-the-fictional-world-through-mapping/ and http://hollylisle.com/how-to-create-a-character/

To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I should tell you a little about what I like to read, because that will clearly give you an idea of what the finished product aims to be.  I’ve always been a reader.  Right from the years where I was reading such great works of literature as “Wesley and the Dinosaurs” in class 2, my friends and family have called me a bookworm, and I could regularly be seen walking to and from school with a book in hand.  Before you ask, I only walked into a lamppost once.  After that I paid more attention to what was happening in front of me too.  These days, given the time, I devour novels.  Genre doesn’t seem to matter all that much.  In fact, I’ll take a good story wherever I can find it, whether a book, film or even computer game.  I’ll stick to books for now.

In crime I’m a great fan of Harlan Coben’s humour, Ian Rankin’s grittiness and Reacher’s sheer awesomeness in anything by Lee Child.  Robert Ludlum is the godfather of the spy genre, while a Jeff Abbott novel pretty much assures you of a cracking adventure read.  Tom Clancy and, these days, Dale Brown have some brilliant military fiction.  I especially love all the cutting edge/near future technology that Dale Brown introduces with all its advantages and flaws.

Science fiction has always been a good portion of what I read.  Iain M. Banks’ fantastic Culture novels,  C J Cherryh has many: I love the Alliance-Union Universe with the Company Wars books and Faded Sun trilogy and highly regard both this latter trilogy and her Foreigner Universe (which I am slowly working my way through), in which she really explores the differences in psychology between humans and aliens rather than just treating them as people with strange skin colours and faces.  Though no longer a collector of the tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000, some of the novels published in that universe have been great.  Dan Abnett is generally a solid writer, especially his Eisenhorn and Ravenor books, though my personal favourites have to be the Commissar Cain novels by Sandy Mitchell simply for the audacious idea of injecting comedy into such a relentlessly bleak vision of the future.  I admit I’m also a sucker for powered armour, so Robert Heinlein’s  Starship Troopers was a must, and the excellent and little-known Armor by John Steakley is one of my favourite books out there.  Seriously, go buy it if you have any interest in science fiction.  It’s only a few quid on Amazon and you won’t regret it.

Still, I think Fantasy has to be one of my oldest passions, and is the genre I’m hoping to break into myself.  From the old classics of JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and C Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, through Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, David Eddings’ Belgariad, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth (it ended with Faith of the Fallen though, and no-one will convince me otherwise…), Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (and also the completely different Nation), the Dragonlance books, Stephen Lawhead and last, but certainly not least, David Gemmell, who is my personal favourite author, I love reading about new worlds, new cultures, new creatures, new characters, heroes, villains and epic quests to save the world (and discover oneself into the bargain).  In my opinion, Legend by David Gemmell is one of the finest pieces of fantasy written.

The genre has traditionally fixated on medieval Europe analogues.  Of course, there is a romanticism about the age of swords and bows that isn’t really felt about that of muskets and cannon (or, for that matter, stone clubs and spears).  Medieval Europe is familiar, safe territory.  After reading the Empire Trilogy by Janny Wurts and Raymond E Feist, though, I knew I didn’t want to follow suit.  This trilogy largely dwells on the political manoeuvrings of a young woman suddenly left in charge of her house in a culture which seems to be a fascinating blend of Japanese with some Aztec/Mayan styling, in a world in which metal is so rare that people make weapons of resin-laminated hide.  I think that was where the desire to write my own novel really started.  Consequently, I’ve made a firm decision to avoid over-used cultures as much as possible, or else twist them in ways that aren’t usual.

I’ll start discussing some of my main cultures in the next post.