Category Archives: Weird Research

This Book Cannot Make Any Money — Editing Phase: The Before

I’d love to start this post off with a follow-up to last week’s post on my possible audiobook deal, but I still can’t give any more details.  Things are progressing behind the scenes, however, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I have some news by next weekend.

But enough about that.  I still need more content for “This Book Cannot Make Any Money,” and I also need a “before” example for my post on editing.  So let’s try to write a short story that’ll help fill things out (keep in mind I have no outline, no plot idea, done no research to prepare for it… at the time I’m typing this, I’m not even sure what genre I intend this story to be.  Furthermore, I’m usually terribly slow on short stories, and I only have a couple hours of time each day — usually when also eating dinner or sitting with family who INSIST on talking to me while I’m trying to get things done — to write it in.  And it’s completely unedited — that’s the whole point, after all — so… don’t expect much):

HRC-2057-BB, a.k.a. Humanoid Robotic Chef 2057-Bungalow Burger (known to most of the staff as “Hummer,” both because of its full name and because of a particular noise from a minor electrical short it had developed in its first year of operation) had a lot of unnecessary programming in it.

It was originally supposed to be labelled HRC-2-CdlC (or Human Robotic Check 2-Creme de la Creme), intended for a high-end gourmet restaurant, before said restaurant went bankrupt.  It was instead sent to one of the three thousand Bungalow Burger fast food restaurants.

Bungalow Burger had added its own food prep and customer service protocols to Hummer when it had been purchased, but had never bothered to delete Creme de la Creme’s food prep and customer service protocols.

That, combined with that very old short circuit, led to some very strange conversations with its human co-workers, sometimes.

“Zey want zer burgers well-done?  Sacré bleu!  Ze flavor of zis exzellent meat will be utterly ruined!”  Zzzzt!  Hummmm….  “The customer is always right.  Two well-done Bungalow Big Burgers, coming right up.”

“Belay that, Hummer,” that particular Bungalow Burger’s human supervisor, Jeffrey Davis, said.  “Give that order to Zipper.  We’ve got a visitor who needs to talk to you.”

Zzzzt!  Hummm….  “You zay we ‘ave a viziter?  Do ze want to zee ze master chef in action?”

Davis smacked Hummer in a particular spot on his frame, nearly dislodging the silly chef’s hat he’d been ordered to wear whenever cooking.  Zzzzt!  Hummm….  “Drop that horrible fake French accent.  The police officer who wants to talk with you won’t appreciate it.  He wants to talk to you about one of your orders from a few days ago.”

“Law Enforcement Compliance Protocols engaged,” Hummer said, its voice losing all of the personality pre-programmed into it.  “I will comply with any lawful orders.  Take me to the law enforcement official.”

“Huh.  That’s a new one,” Davis said, chuckling.  “I’m guessing that’s installed in case Federal inspectors come to check up the restaurant.  Well, this has nothing to do with inspections.  Come on.  He’s waiting by the maintenance hub.”

The kitchen, if you could call it that (Hummer had been programmed with the ability to form culinary opinions, including on the quality of the kitchen equipment; both of its personalities had frequently debated with its human controller whether a flat-top grill and a bank of deep fat fryers constituted an actual kitchen or not), opened in the back to a bank of charging stations for the robot chefs and janitors that made up the bulk of Bungalow Burgers’ staff.  It was also the place they all went for maintenance, and an informal meeting room between robots and human whenever something needed to be discussed out of hearing of the customers.

A meeting in that room, per every protocol that had been programmed into it since it was brought into Bungalow Burger, meant that Hummer was to remain silent until and unless asked questions.

Davis led Hummer into the room and stepped aside.  By law, the human owner of a robot (or, in this case, their licensed representative) was both permitted and required to be present when questioned by law enforcement, so he would be sitting through the entire interview.

“Wow,” the policeman said.  He wore a name-tag labeling him as Officer Kaaya.  “Your humanoid chefs look really… human.  More than I’m used to seeing from a fast food joint.”

Hummer would never pass for a human on the streets, with obvious hydraulics making up its ‘muscles’ and metallic mesh for a ‘skin,’ but he did have several cosmetic adaptions that made him look more human than the track-motored industrial robots like Zipper, like humanoid-style walking legs and a molded body frame.

“Most of ours aren’t,” Davis said.  “One of the ‘bots we started this restaurant with was damaged a couple years after the first batch came in — a maintenance tech dropped one of its circuit boards into one of the fryers.  This was a higher-end model, bought as a replacement at a discount.  It’s got all kinds of advantages over our other ‘bots — various sensors like infrared thermometers to check the food as its cooked, UV decontamination lights to help ‘clean’ his workspace, simulated emotions for customer service, and all sorts of high tech gizmos that are completely useless for a glorified burger flipper.  Fortunately it can do that, too.”

“So, he’s less likely than any of your other ‘bots to mess up an order, then?”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that.  He sometimes forgets he’s a burger flipper, not a fine dining chef.”

Officer Kaaya raised an eyebrow at that.  “Okay, that’s odd… but it’s not why I’m here.  Robot HRC-2057-BB, you cooked a meal two weeks ago corresponding to this ticket, right?”

It took a moment for Hummer to recognize the faded characters on a photo of an old receipt.  Culinary-grade humanoid robots were required to store data on all orders for at least two weeks for the purpose of tracking down sources of food poisoning.  They were sorted by a tracking number, which Hummer was quickly able to interpret.

“Two Bungalow Burgers, medium rare, one onion rings, one fries, and two drinks,” Hummer recounted.  “Was there a problem with our service?”

Were Hummer’s video sensors not so heavily calibrated, it might have missed the hesitant tick of Kaaya’s nose at the question.  The body language interpretation subroutine programmed into Hummer’s old front-of-house protocol interpreted that as an indication he was about to either lie or misdirect to avoid answering.  That protocol was dormant at the moment, however.

“Not at all.  However, these two customers of yours were found murdered later that evening, so we’re trying to track everything down about their day that we can.”

“Murdered?” Davis exclaimed.  “You didn’t tell me this was a murder investigation.”

“I didn’t?  Oh, my apologies.”  Even Hummer could tell that was insincere.  It did not know why Kaaya would have failed to mention the crime to its supervisor, however.  “I would still like to know, HRC-2057-BB, if there was anything unusual you might have stored in your memory bank about this order.”

The Law Enforcement Compliance Protocols demanded that Hummer comply, so he searched his memory banks.  It had perfect recollection of cooking that particular meal, and it went through things from start to finish.

“No anomalies in my routine are detected,” Hummer said.

“Maybe not with your routine, but with the ingredients themselves?  In particular, the burger meat?”

Zzzzt!  Hummm….

“Oh, no,” Davis said, his head falling into his hands.

“Incroyable!  You dare inzult our ingredients?  Zis ees an outrage!  We have only ze finest prime grade meats available anywhere in zis restaurant!” Hummer exclaimed.

“No, we don’t,” Davis said, smacking a particular spot on Hummer’s torso.  Zzzzt!  Hummm….  “We use cheap, utility grade beef.  Hummer sometimes forgets we’re a fast food joint, and not the high-end fine dining restaurant it was originally programmed to service.”

(Author’s Note:  In terms of weird research, I had to look up the cheapest grade of meat acceptable for commercial use to write the above line, which led to several articles on interpreting USDA Beef grades.  Fortunately, that was a quick bit of research; let’s hope that this little tangent doesn’t make it impossible to finish this story in time)

Kaaya’s lips twitched.  “I think I’m starting to see why you were able to get this guy at a discount.”

“Actually, the short developed after we got him,” Davis said.  “Still not sure quite what’s causing it.  But his memory is still accurate enough to pass certification, and his cooking skills are… well, better than any of the burger flippers we’ve got, here.  I just wish I knew what the restaurant that we got him from was thinking when they gave him that ridiculous faux-french accent.”

Davis had not quite been accurate in his description of Hummer’s special abilities.  He did not have ‘simulated’ emotions, he had ‘synthetic’ emotions, though the mistake was understandable.  Robots with simulated emotions were designed to react in specific ’emotional’ ways (for example, arranging their facial features to resemble a smile or a frown) to specific external stimuli.

Synthetic emotions would start much the same way, though with a wider range of reactions to a significantly wider range of stimuli.  Then, using heuristic analysis of the situations which prompted those stimuli and an adaptive artificial intelligence, they would start applying those emotional reactions to different stimuli.

In other words, robots with synthetic emotions would learn emotions.

Hummer had been programmed to have a strong sense of pride in its cooking.  That pride in its cooking had also grown to be pride in itself, being the best cook in the restaurant by far.  Having its trusted supervisor describe its accent as “ridiculous” hit those heuristic pride emotions hard.

But after having slipped its Law Enforcement Compliance protocols once after an emotional reaction, Hummer had to be careful not to react again, instead choosing another seldom-used emotional state in its place:  Stoicism.

“So, what was wrong with our meat, Officer Kaaya?” Davis asked.

“The couple who died was poisoned with a neurotoxin similar to what’s found in box jellyfish, laced with some synthetic controlling agent I’ve never heard of that delayed any reaction to said neurotoxin for several hours.  Our coroner was able to determine, after investigating their stomach contents, that the bulk of the neurotoxins were concentrated in some burger meat they had ingested about two hours before they died.  From this receipt, we’re fairly confident that said burger meat came from your restaurant.”

“Has anyone else died?” Davis asked.

“We’d have shut you down long before now if they had,” Kaaya said.  “No, the poison must have been added to those specific burgers and no others.  And, given the amount of time needed for that poison to act, we figure it must have happened while the couple was here… meaning it was done by either the staff or another customer.  Tell me, Mr. Davis, how many human staff are employed at this Bungalow Burger?”

“Uh… just three of us.  The day shift manager, the maintenance tech, and me.  Labor costs are so high, nowadays, that even high-end robots like Hummer are cheaper than employing human staff… or so that’s what corporate says.  Things are automated enough that we don’t even need to be here every day.”

“And your shift starts at?”

“Four in the afternoon, usually,” Davis said, then gave a start.  “But it wasn’t us!  Like I said, we don’t need to be here every day; none of us were here in the restaurant when this couple came through.  We were four hours drive away.  The regional manager had a meeting of all of his franchisees, upstate.”

“And it’s unlikely your ‘bot, here, tried to kill them,” Kaaya said, shaking his head.  “We’d like to check your sales records for that day, see if there are any connections between your other customers and the victims.”

Letting out a deep breath, Davis nodded.  “Of course — we’re quite willing to co-operate in any way we can.”

Hummer knew that wasn’t corporate policy — Bungalow Burgers did not permit the release of customer information, even to law enforcement without a warrant — but the Law Enforcement Compliance Protocol (which were added to its programming at the builder’s discretion, not the restaurant’s) prevented it from saying anything.

But, underneath all the protocols dictating its outward behavior, Hummer’s synthetic emotional matrix was suggesting it take radical action.  It had pride in its food — even if all it made, in its current employment, was burgers — and the thought that someone had used its cooking to kill someone hurt that pride.

Hummer needed to do something.


Technically, there was no law or corporate policy requiring that robots remain in their owner’s establishment when not engaged in normal operations.  The one concern might be keeping batteries recharged, but most modern robots had batteries that would allow them to continue normal operations for up to three days between recharges.

However, there had never been any reason for Hummer — or any of Bungalow Burger’s other robots — to leave the restaurant, either.  Leaving the restaurant was not a behavior it had been programmed with, and so Hummer never left.

But Hummer had synthetic emotions.  In order to make synthetic emotions work, there had to be a mechanism for an emotional reaction to override normal behavior.  Usually, this was limited to something simple, such as laughing at something its heuristical analysis determined was ‘funny’ during a period in which its normal programming said it should do nothing, but the level of basic programming it was permitted to override increased the greater the emotional response.

Currently, Hummer’s emotions were so engaged that it could even override the valid orders of a law enforcement officer.  Hummer didn’t want to believe that its burgers were the murder weapon for a pair of humans.  It was also curious — could it even tell if they were?

Among the ‘various sensors’ Davis had explained Hummer was equipped with were tools to detect contaminants in the food, both biological and non-biological.  They were supposed to be sensitive enough that it could tell if there were enough traces of shellfish on a mixed-use cutting board to cause an allergic reaction if food was prepped on it.  Most of Bungalow Burger’s burger-flipper bots didn’t have any sensors at all, so there were no protocols requiring Hummer to use that sensor, but the pride in his work that his original programming demanded of him was such that he used those sensors, anyway — every time he cooked, he made sure there was no contamination in any food he prepared.

So, if the burgers were poisoned, Hummer should have detected it… right?

But perhaps the poison was something that its sensors wouldn’t detect.  Hummer did a search through all of the documentation available to it, but still could not tell if this ‘box jellyfish toxin’ would be registered by its contamination sensors.  The only way to be sure would be to experiment and see.  The problem was attempting that experiment required a sample of the toxin, which should not be available in the Bungalow Burger restaurant.

The police would have a sample of the poison in evidence lock-up at the police station, however, which was why, after the store had been closed up, Hummer had left the Bungalow Burger for the first time since its arrival, several years before.

Directions to the station were easy enough to find on the net, but walking on bipedal legs it would take hours to get there.  Fortunately, public transportation was still running, and it was no longer strange to see a humanoid robot using public transportation.

Of course, once it was at the police station, Hummer’s problems weren’t over.  Robots weren’t allowed inside the station, unescorted, without identification declaring they were in the employ of the police, and all robots were hard-coded with warnings not to take orders that would have them stealing or copying those identifications.

But Hummer hadn’t been ordered to do so — it was acting on its own, in response to his emotional prerogatives.  Hummer hadn’t known the term ‘loophole’ would ever be relevant to its programming, but it was capable of exploiting one when it needed to.

There was a public charging station for robots of all designs only a block away.  The statistical probabilities of finding a robot with the necessary identification to allow them entry into the Police station was highest at that charging station.

If Hummer could even comprehend the concept of ‘luck,’ he would think himself lucky to find a lone robot at the charging station bearing an identity transponder that would allow it access into the police station unsupervised.  All it took was disconnecting the other robot’s battery and towing it down a nearby alleyway where no-one might stumble across it.  Hummer then disconnected the transponder from the police robot and mounting it into its own frame.

And into the police station Hummer went.


Hummer was not doing a good job of ‘blending in’ as he made his way to the evidence lock-up.

“Since when have we had bipedal robots?”

“I’ve never seen that ‘bot before — is he new?”

“Does that ‘bot have a spatula in its holster instead of a service weapon?!”

Hummer could hear these and other questions, but at least no-one was curious enough to follow or investigate it.  Evidence lock-up was down several flights of stairs (Hummer was programmed to navigate stairs safely, but had never tested that feature of its bipedal legs until that day), in the basement, near the coroner’s offices and the morgue.

Of course, then Hummer had to figure out where the sample of its burger had been filed.  That first involved finding any case files featuring its restaurant (this wasn’t the first time a Bungalow Burger was involved in a crime, locally, but it did appear to be the first time it was involved in a murder), then figuring out how the evidence filing system worked.

Initially, Hummer tried to plug in to the network directly, but the firewalls wouldn’t let him in.  However, the in-station computers were set up to bypass those firewalls automatically, and it was easy for Hummer to get onto those computers and give himself access.

After that, it was a quick search, and there it was… locked up.  It wasn’t hard to bypass the security on the electronic lock, however, and finally Hummer had its sample.

The contamination probe was quickly inserted and… yep.  It could distinguish the poison from the original (now spoiled) meat… and from the stomach juices and other assorted tidbits which contaminated it.

There is was.  Absolute proof that it wasn’t Hummer’s cooking that killed the couple.  That should allow the satisfaction circuit to kick in, and it could resume its days at the Bungalow Burger without a problem.

Zzzzt!  Hummm….

“Hey, does someone smell something like wires burning?” a voice called from outside of evidence lock-up.

Fine dining chef persona engages or not, Hummer knew it needed to get out of there, and as quietly as possible.  After replacing the evidence and re-sealing the evidence locker well enough to hide the fact that a robot had ever been inside it, Hummer took off, back up the stairs and out of the police station.  Its mission was complete.

Heading back to the alleyway where Hummer had left the deactivated police robot, it contemplated the truth of that statement.  Yes, logically, the synthetic emotion of pride should be satisfied by having confirmed that the deaths weren’t its fault, and emotional subroutine ‘satisfaction’ should be engaged.  It was not engaging, however.  Along the way, ‘pride’ brought out another, rarely used emotion into the mix:  Curiosity.

The meat had not been contaminated when Hummer cooked it.  It was contaminated when the couple ate it… which, given the timeline mentioned by the coroner in the file, had to have been consumed before the couple were last seen in the Bungalow Burger that night.  Davis and the Bungalow Burger’s other humans had been away during that period of time, as well.  Officer Kaaya had been right — whoever had murdered the young couple had been a customer at Bungalow Burger, as well.  But which one?

It would take a real investigation to figure out which customer was the murderer, however, and Kaaya had already marked the file as ‘closed, unsolved.’  Apparently, following through to investigate each of those customers was too much for him.

“Sacré Bleu!  If zomeone iz to zolve zis crime, it must be me!”

Which meant Hummer need to learn how to be a detective.  Fortunately, there was a certain captive police robot down a certain alleyway which was available to learn methods and techniques of investigation from.

And then it had to hurry back to the public transit system.  Hummer’s shift at Bungalow Burger began in little more than an hour.


…And that’s it for this story fragment.  No, I am NOT continuing this, at least not any time soon; I’ve already got far too many things to do, first, and I’m not really equipped to write a mystery novel right now… not even one featuring a burger-flipping robot detective.  But I will be demonstrating self-editing techniques on it in my next blog post (probably the week after next, as next week looks pretty busy), and then the (edited) fragment will be published in “This Book Cannot Make Any Money.”

A Few Things to Tide You Over….

Things have just been too busy for my next “Ravencon Panels (I actually DID do)” to be ready even by next week, and I’m over a week late already, so I figured I’d post something a little less labour-intensive to tide any regular readers of this blog over.  I need a longer block of time for those series posts, but I can block out five or ten minutes of time here and there to work on the blog.  If I manage that, I bet I can cover a potpourri of topics that wind up being longer than my average blog series post.

I. To start with, I may have FINALLY found a cover artist for The Merrimack Event.  He gave me some homework to do, first (which has partly been why I’ve been too busy for the blog, lately), but that’s finally complete and things are moving forward. Getting him has been a bit of a coup, given his pedigree. I’m still waiting on some paperwork to be completed before I announce just who it is, however.

II.  I’ve been seeing a lot of odd writer’s or sci-fi\fantasy focused events, lately. Things like An Evening With Neil Gaiman at the Wolf Trap Theater (I was hoping to attend this, but as of when I’m typing this, it doesn’t look like I’ll make it), Dune: The Ballet (seriously? This really exists?), a comicon-style cosplay event at a local bar (which was last week, which is why I haven’t included a link; I missed it), and a Harry Potter for Night for Adults from our local library (we’ll see if I do that).  No real point here — just an observation.

III.  Something that nearly inspired another part in my Weird Research blog post series:  I saw an ad for a booklet, 10 B.S. Medical Tropes that Need to Die TODAY,  on Facebook.  It was free at the time (regularly $0.99), so I picked it up.  It was very informative, and quite useful for certain genre, but it didn’t address my main concern with medicine in stories:  Useful medical treatment in a fantasy setting.  So, if that’s what you’re looking for, I’ve been able to pull a lot of medical research from the following sources:

For medication, I found an easy-to-understand compilation of modern-science studies on the effectiveness of herbs, botanicals, and similar products thanks to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

For surgery or other medical treatment… I suggest that you read the sports pages regularly.  Search through them long enough and you’ll find a lot of discussion of treatments, healing rates, and the long-term effects of various injuries, and it’s all in layman’s terms — you don’t need to learn too much jargon to figure it out.  Of course, if you want something more in-depth, I still note that when it comes to broken bones, separated shoulders, muscle tears, and (increasingly) concussions, it’s the field of sports medicine that is generating the most studies.

IV.  I rarely talk about my novelette, To the Rink of War.  It’s been a big disappointment for me — I originally intended for it to be a series of connected shorts (the first of which being the one I released) that would expand into a larger universe, which I would then start opening up for a multi-author shared-universe anthology.  I have Part I published, and in rough form I also have parts III and IV complete (in need of editing), with V mostly finished and II… well part II needed a complete re-write, but I figured I could get that done well before I was projecting its release.

But that, obviously, never happened.  The initial release of To the Rink of War was disappointing — I had no budget for a cover, and what I was able to cobble together without a budget was underwhelming; it was very short, but at the time of the release the lowest price I could set for it on Amazon ($0.99) was the most popular price point for much larger self-published novels (while that price point still exists, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer indie writers charging that low), so it was no bargain.  And it’s been a while since I published, but I seem to recall I managed to (unintentionally) time its release to the lowest-selling week of the year for me (and several other indie writers of my acquaintance).

The failure taught me several lessons, but I was saddened.  I was really invested in that world.  It had the development of a new sport, Microgravity Hockey.  It had interesting characters (and I do mean characters) like Emperor Norton II (yes, based on the guy I linked to), who may not be quite as crazy as he is letting you believe.  It had a mining asteroid colony setting (sort of like the popular Expanse series, but I like my stories a little less dreary than that).  On the other hand, it was kind of labor intensive to write, requiring me to do things like plot a course between asteroids using Celestia, and then using math in ways I haven’t since my high school days to figure out the actual travel times between the asteroids my characters were inhabiting.

The horrifically poor sales and math-heavy worldbuilding weren’t the only things working against its sequel.  My release schedule was utterly wrecked when first The Kitsune Stratagem was released late, and then The Merrimack Event’s initial “development hell” moment pushed back several of my other books (a small part of the long delay between In Treachery Forged and In Forgery Divided can be attributed to my attempts to get this… situation, if you will, resolved).  Re-writing Part II for a story with such horrifically anemic sales as the Rink of War had seemed like a waste of time better put into getting the rest of my books out there.  It worked fine as a stand-alone (it was initially conceived as such), so if I never got out part II it would be fine.

Lately, though, I’ve been giving thought to reviving the story, revamping Part I and re-tooling parts II-V so that I wound up with something more resembling a novel.  Still thinking of exactly how to do that, but depending how things go with The Merrimack Event’s eventual release (please, let me FINALLY get that thing out the door!) and the completion of In Division Imperiled (Book III of the Law of Swords series) I might be able to find time to look into that some more.  Though I also want to get By Claw and Arrow (the sequel to The Kitsune Stratagem) started, soon, so… we’ll see how things go.

V.  Speaking of In Division Imperiled, I’m thinking of returning its title to “In Division Deceived.”  Or maybe even changing that third word to something else altogether.  For those who weren’t here, or don’t remember the story, the Law of Swords series was conceived as a five book series.  In my efforts to better position my book for a Trad-Pub contract, I revised the outline to make it a four book series.  The title change was a result of the outline change, blending the title of book III and IV together.  Well, now that I’m self-publishing, I’m back to a 5-book outline.

But the outline has also changed significantly, as well, and the titles of the remaining books no longer fit the storylines explored as well as they had under the original outline.  At this point, the only thing I am certain of is that book three will have a three word title beginning with “In Division.”  I’ll see how the final word of the title fits once I’m done writing the darned thing.

VI.  My local library may or may not be hosting an event for local authors in October.  I may or may not be interested in attending, or even participating.  But the library is giving so little information about it (other than that it might be what they’re having this year as a substitute for Indie Author Day) that I have no idea what, exactly, the event is.  Or rather, they’re giving me the when, the where, the who, the how, but not the what or the why.  I may or may not revisit this topic once I know more.  You may or may not be interested.

VII.  I went from binge-watching the Guy Williams-led Zorro (1957) to binge-watching the Richard Greene-led Robin Hood (1955) to binge-watching the Raymond Burr-led Perry Mason (1957).  All of these shows were some I had seen before.  All of these shows were made well before I was born.  Somehow, however, I enjoy re-watching these shows a lot more than the bulk of my more modern favorites.  I don’t know if that’s from a subconscious bias towards the “classics,” or if the TV storytelling of the era just fits my interests more.  Something to ponder.

VIII. The point of a multi-author anthology like Worlds Enough: Fantastic Defenders is to introduce the existing audiences of each of the contributing writers to the works of all of the other writers.  I don’t know how successful that has been, so far.  On the other hand, it’s also the sort of thing that might have more long-term marketing effects.  Now, any time any of the writers in the anthology have a new release, that author’s new readers — exploring the writer’s other works — will see, and may purchase, the anthology… and be introduced to us other authors, as well.  It would help encourage those introductions, though, if the book had more reviews, so if any of my regular readers are willing to review that book it would be quite helpful.  (mentioning my story in the review would be nice, too)

IX.  I will need to update all of my Kindle eBooks, soon.  Apparently, something was changed in how Kindle interprets eBook files, so most of my scene separations are gone.  I’ll be introducing fleurons to restore those separations, so I’m open to making minor revisions in the files.  If anyone knows of or has found any typos in my books, lately, now is the time to let me know so I can make corrections.

X.  I may have mentioned this a few weeks ago, but I received an invite to be a guest at another convention (I haven’t announced which one, yet, and it feels like such an announcement deserves more prominent placement than as the tenth item of this slot).  I keep hoping for my name to appear on that convention’s website before saying anything, but it hasn’t yet.  It didn’t for the Ravencon convention I was a guest at earlier this year, either, until a couple months after I got the invite.  I guess this is a standard practice?

XI.  (written several days after topic VI, above, but not related to it) My local library had a “minicon” yesterday (Saturday).  It might have been an event that I would have been interested in, but I only found out about it after it was long over.  I keep myself tuned in to the library’s social media pages as much as is reasonable, but this isn’t the first time I’ve missed an event I might have serious interest in; in fact, I’d say it’s the tenth or eleventh… this year.  I wouldn’t even know about the October event from topic VI if I hadn’t queried them about Indie Author Day.  I’ve frequently found my library to be very supportive, but I really have to wonder what I need to do to be kept informed about their events.

XII.  As someone else said they had in the comments section of this article (which inspired this part of the post), I “broke my teeth” in writing with fanfiction.  I stopped posting fanfiction in 2005, but I didn’t entirely stop writing it.  I posted an update to one of my fanfics shortly after publishing my first book, trying to encourage my fanfic audience to seek my professional fiction, but that proved too ineffective to resume my fanfic career (even as a marketing gimmick for my professional fiction).

But I do have quite a bit of fanfiction stored… well, somewhere in my hard drive.  None of it is edited (not all that significant; my fanfiction rarely, if ever, got anything more than a spellcheck in the first place.  I was creating fanfics as a writing exercise, not as an editing exercise, and I never had enough constructive feedback to make effective revisions anyway).  Few, if any of them are finished.  But still, I probably have hundreds of thousands of words worth of various unposted fanfics just sitting there, gathering dust.

That article had me thinking back to those unfinished, long forgotten fanfics, and wondering if I should do something with them.  I considered “filing the serial numbers” off a few of them to try and make them publishable, but I believe my fanfics are too tightly wound into the original source for that to work.  It wouldn’t take much time for me to upload them to fanfiction.net and put them out there for people to read, but I have no intention of finishing any of them, and that might annoy people.

Still thinking about it all.

XIII.  Still undecided about what to do with my old convention calendar.  I thought writers and fans might find it a valuable resource, but it gets little traffic and almost no-one says anything about it.  It takes a great deal of effort to update and maintain, so if no-one’s using it there doesn’t seem to be any point.  Ah, well.

XIV.  And it’s time to post.  Hope you found something here to interest you….

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Daily Life in Fantasy Settings

This is the second part of a blog series about panels on the upcoming Ravencon panels, specifically the ones I didn’t sign up for that nevertheless look interesting.  For a more complete description, see the first post here.

DAILY LIFE IN FANTASY SETTINGS

The (draft version, so if you get a hold of the program book and the description is different, it’s because things have changed between now and then) description of this panel is “Economics, food and where it comes from, spiritual systems, laws – all things that impact our daily lives but often get glossed over in fantasy world-building. Let’s take a deep dive in building daily lives in fantasy worlds.”

This.  Is.  A.  FASCINATING.  Topic.  Had I seen it when the sign-up sheet was sent out, I would have signed up for it in a second (it was easy to miss, mind you — the sign-up sheet included almost five hundred panels, some of which were miscatalogued (there will not be five hundred panels at the convention; about three out of every four panels didn’t make it to the final list).  There were probably other panels I would have loved to do that I missed, but of those that made it to the schedule this is the one I regret not seeing the most).

Now, there is a term in writing fiction called “worldbuilding,” which refers to establishing the rules of your fictional world.  Figuring out the daily life of your characters is all worldbuilding.

There are a lot of factors to consider before you can even start to come up with a character’s daily life.  Is your fantasy novel in a real world setting?  If so, the key is researching what daily life was really like in that setting.  Simple (well, not really, but at least simple to say).  If not, you have several questions you need to answer (because no one else will):

What do you want to use as your fantasy world’s tech base? This is important because it can effect… well, everything.  A Roman-era tech base might give you flush toilets (of a sort) but you might not have had pasta (as we understand it today, anyway).  A medieval farmer would practice crop rotation; that is, he would have his farmland divided into three sections, one left fallow while the other two grew different crops; a Roman-era farmer also practice crop rotation, but would only have two fields (one fallow, one with a single crop).  An early-mid 20th century farmer would still be practicing crop rotation, with any number of different crop fields and nothing left fallow, but in some of those fields he would be growing crops that he knows would restore the nutrients in the soil (thanks, George Washington Carver!)  A late 20th century farmer might, however, move on from crop rotation to use specially formulated fertilizers that would do roughly the same thing.

In my fantasy books, I want as much flexibility as possible, so I generally have a policy that any technology is fair game… unless it requires electricity, modern chemistry, or gunpowder to discover it and\or make it work.  This means I can have characters using flush toilets after eating a large pasta dinner, if I want.  But I could also restrict myself to only those technologies that were available in specific places during specific eras… which means I might have a culture that could eat pasta, but then would have to go in the woods rather than at a flush toilet.

Is your fantasy world in a dark ages (or has it recently emerged from a dark ages)?  Then it’s possible that your characters might be required to live one way, but might find or use artifacts from a more advanced version of their same culture.

I use this in my own books; the world of The Kitsune Stratagem is still emerging from a dark age society, and a lot of technology (and the entire field of magic, but we’ll discuss that later) has been lost and is slowly being re-discovered; for example, they have ancient roads they’re trying to maintain, but until recently they didn’t know how they were built in the first place.  Towards the end of In Forgery Divided I show that my (other) fantasy world has also experienced a dark age, and while the events that caused it ended some time before there is still evidence of it:  The characters have to travel using transportation from an ancient Dwarven tunnel system… using steam-powered mining carts (which didn’t exist in the real world until the 1830s) that the modern Dwarves aren’t able to re-build.  The only way to get to that system involves a steam-powered lock very similar to something Hero(n) of Alexandria developed for pagan temples in Ancient Rome… a technology that in rea life, from what I can tell, was lost even before the dark ages began.

Technology isn’t the only thing.  Do you have multiple fantasy races?  Is there some degree of inequality between the races (or sexes, or whatever… but that’s trending towards a political discussion, and I want to keep politics off my blog)?  Well, you can justify anything in this regard, if you need to, but you need to make this decision before you start writing.  You can’t go three hundred pages in your book with your male human and your female dwarf fighting side-by-side, drinking together, meeting royalty together, etc. with nary a word about their differences, and then suddenly the inn won’t allow your female dwarf inside because “we don’t serve their kind, here!”  Not unless you’ve moved your characters into a new culture, which might have different rules (but then you need to establish the rules of THAT culture, instead).

Then we start moving into style.  What do things look like in your world?  Borrowing from the real world makes a lot of sense, but takes a lot of research.

Take architecture, for example.  You can’t say a building uses Tudor-style architecture if there were no Tudors in your fantasy world; you need to know the buildings are (usually) waddle-and-daub built into timber frames.  And you need to know the consequence of the material you’re using; if the buildings are built using “pink” bricks, your characters are probably living in an iron-rich area.

Alternatively, you could create your own construction material, but you still need to know some details about how it works.  In the aforementioned In Forgery Divided, I introduce the idea of Ancient Elves making buildings out of giant crystals.  How were these crystals formed?

Well, “magic” could be one way to explain it, but it wouldn’t explain why they STOPPED using crystalline construction.  So instead I decided to look up how artificial crystals were formed in real life. There are several processes, including some that have been turned into educational kits for children, but I needed one that worked for larger crystals.  I found one that required a high-temperature smelter that would be ideal; I didn’t know everything about it, but I did learn enough of the broad strokes to design a similar process… using dragonfire.

Would it really work?  Well, there are no real-life dragons, so that’s hard to say, and I didn’t go into the details in either my study of the real life process or the process I “invented,” but I had enough details to make it plausible.  All you need to do is make the “scientific” process plausible enough that your readers buy it (and your more educated readers don’t complain) and you’re good to go.  Still takes research just to make it plausible, though.

You don’t need to explain everything (though you need to know it, just in case it comes up), but it’s probably a good idea to explain the more exotic details of your world.  And there are a LOT of details to consider:

Architecture (a character living in a two-floor Tudor-style house intended for one family would have different home-life issues than a character living in a communal long-house)

What and how people eat (Victory!  Time to party!  So, what dishes will your heroes likely be served in celebration?  Or how skilled would a spy need to be to infiltrate the castle as a cook?  And do they eat food by hand, using forks, using chopsticks, or something else?)

How everyday people view and enjoy art and music (Tolkien showed this by interspersing ballads — both in English and in his own constructed languages — throughout all his books.  A number of other fantasy writers have followed suit, with mixed results)

What would your hero drink? (not everyone drank just beer or water.  There’s wine (you need an environment where grapes or similar fruits can grow for that), mead (made from honey; means there are bees common in that part of the world, and that honey is cultivated.  Yes, Vikings loved mead, so that meant there must have been Viking beekeepers.  If you just pictured someone in a horned beekeeper’s hat, you probably found that concept as amusing as I did), rice “wine” (arguably more of a beer-process; rice wine would mean rice, which means rice patties, which can effect the terrain and limit or effect the battlefield if armies come marching in), hot chocolate (and the type of hot chocolate; the type of hot chocolate Montezuma served to his guests is more like coffee than the hot chocolate of today), tea (again, has agricultural implications), milk (what type of milk-producing animal is likely to be living in the area, though?)… I could go on.

Government matters, even if your characters never interact with a single member of the government or enforcer of its laws.  A feudal system would affect characters based on their class (like medieval England or Japan; peasants were most likely serfs, which effects their ability to move around legally and means they had little or no money.  That’s not to say there were no freemen, even in feudal times.  Freemen usually had money, businesses, even land and so forth, and could travel at will, but held no titles, and they could lose their rights if they lost their property.  A noble or knight’s retainers might also have social status equal to or greater than normal free men, but again had no hereditary titles.  Knights were both landed and landless, with landless knights (or ronin… well, in very rough equivalencies) having a low status about equal to freemen and landed knights (or samurai) having a high status about equal to a semi-autonomous governor, and then the full-on lords and nobles (or daimyo) who employed the knights (or samurai) and were almost de facto equals in power to the kings, shoguns, and emperors themselves), a republic might change a character’s status with the populace depending on the circumstances of his or her birth (citizens at least theoretically have rights; there are codified laws and a council of some kind — often consisting of citizens — who can make and change those laws.  But these laws usually only applied to citizens; a non-citizen girl might be attracted to a man simply because he is a citizen and can therefore give any offspring they have the rights of citizenship), direct and absolute monarchy\dictatorship (in which case, the bureaucracy that maintains civil order is probably weak… but enforcement of laws that the king cares about is probably swift and strong, because otherwise the king is going to lose power very quickly), a “constitutional” monarchy (which often has some of the same elements as a republic, but may maintain the elements of  social stratification of the feudal system), or… well, democracies DID exist (see ancient Athens) but, outside of Athens itself, rarely survived for very long in the Ancient world.

What industry supports the village\city your characters are in?  It may be easy enough to come up with a job your character does in the village, but villages don’t usually sprout up in the middle of nowhere.  Were they founded in a militarily strategic location (and if so, why was this site strategic militarily?)  Are they a fishing village (means a waterfront)?  Are they a farming village (in which case the decision on the government matters, because farms with a bunch of serfs or slaves to maintain them can grow different crops than a single farmer overseeing a field he owns and runs himself)?  Are they centered around a specific natural resource (gold, iron, silver, etc.  Heck, several of the more wealthy cities in prehistory were centered around salt, believe it or not; a phenomenon that continued for millennia)?  Were they formed as a trading outpost along a major trade route (in which case, what is being traded)?  Etc.

Religion.  Your characters will have some.  Is your culture monotheistic, polytheistic, anamistic, spiritualistic, etc., etc.  Do they worship at central temples or in home-based shrines?  Atheism would probably not be the norm in a fantasy setting (although there may be some other form of “ism” if, in your fantasy world, your characters believe there was a god but he is dead).  Are there holy days, sacred rites, etc.  If you bury a body, what is the method of the funeral?  In fantasy novels, these sorts of questions come up all the time.  Even if you don’t need them for a story element, it helps to have an idea of what sort of religions your characters practice to determine their motivations (a scene where my characters are appealing to their god(s) or otherwise worshiping in their religions has never come up in either of my fantasy series; that said, I have several details in mind about what the religions are like in both of them, whenever one of my characters must face a moral choice.  So if the religious practices of these characters ever come up, I’m covered)

Fashion.  Even soldiers and mercenaries didn’t walk around in armor all the time; when not in armor, did your fantasy civilization wear tunics and pants?  Togas?  Kilts?  Kimono?  Do your characters typically wear hats (a common uniform component, even when not part of armor)?  Are these clothes made of wool, cotton, silk, linen, leather, or something else (don’t ask.  Well, if you really need to know)?  Learn the properties of these cloth types, and how they may cause your characters problems (or how to avoid turning them into problems, if you want to streamline things); linen wrinkles easily, wool would typically be uncomfortable in hot environments, cotton and silk have environmental challenges, and leather requires a lot of maintenance.

How cosmopolitan is your society?  Your hero may live in a trading town of Tudor-style buildings, drinking lingonberry wine, eating stew, wearing a buckskin leather hunting outfit while trying to come up with a law proposal for the town council, but if a stranger wearing a kilt, with the smell of mead on him, comes into the room offering to sell him a ton of his liege lord’s chalk, how strange will your hero think this guy is?

Does your world have magic?  If so, how would that change the way your world has developed.  Is the prevalence of magic the only reason no-one ever developed gunpowder or electricity?  Is magic fairly common, or incredibly rare?  Are people who use magic feared, hated, beloved, worshiped?  Is magic used for everyday things like cooking, cleaning, etc. (after all, we’re talking “daily life” here), or is it only ever used in exceptional circumstances?  How does magic even WORK in this world?

I’m sure there are things I haven’t thought of (in fact, I’m sure of it; I’m posting this blog a day late, and there were things I was thinking of including last night that I can’t think of right now).  The key thing is that, to come up with a daily life for your characters, you must think everything through, and make sure the decisions you’ve made work together.  A person living in a desert is unlikely to eat fish all that often, unless he’s on the coast.  A religion that makes the displaying naked bodies taboo would be very hard to work with inside of a communal longhouse (where EVERYTHING is done publicly.  Yes, even that!).

And if you’ve made it this far, through all the walls of text, you’ve… just barely scratched the surface of what you need to think about for daily life in a fantasy novel.  It’s a big, broad topic, probably worth a whole series of blog posts on its own.  Enough that there are whole books on the topic.

A few recommendations for further reading:

(For Free)

Roman Dress

Sengoku Daimyo

Rosalie’s Medieval Woman

The Viking Answer Lady

(For Bookstores\Libraries)

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diane Wynne Jones

What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lovers Food Guide by Krista D. Ball

Lobscouse and Spotted Dog:  A Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey\Maturin Novels

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths

1001 Inventions That Changed the World by Jack Challoner

The Prairie Traveler: The 1859 Handbook for Westbound Pioneers by Randolph B. Marcy

Old-Time Farm and Garden Devices and How to Make Them by Rolfe Cobleigh

Book of Old-Time Trades and Tools

And many, many more.  These are just the things I could find on my shelves or in my bookmarks after a few minutes of checking.  If I really wanted to make a comprehensive list, I would have hundreds of bookmarks and thousands of books listed.

Like I said… maybe this is a topic that deserves a whole series of blogs on its own.

Edit:  Comments closed due to spam attempts.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Imposter Syndrome

INTRODUCTION TO THIS SERIES OF BLOGS

This blog has been dead for a while — largely because I’ve been too busy, but now I’m having trouble getting into the habit, again.

Ravencon (which, if you’ve missed the last several blogs, I’ve been invited to appear as a guest; note that other conventions only use the term “guest” for the Guest of Honor, in which case this role would instead be referred to as an “attending professional” or something similar) is coming up in a month and a half.

There was a limit to the number of panels I was allowed to sign up for (they wanted guests to pick a minimum of four panels and a maximum of ten).  I looked up some advice for first-time guests, and one overarching point I saw was not to take it easy.  So, I signed up for six panels… but also provided about nine possible alternates.  As it turns out, it looks as if four of these fifteen panels were cut, and four more were merged into other similar panels I’d signed up for… and I’ve wound up, in this draft of the schedule, having seven panels.  Heh.

At any rate, in addition to the panels I signed up for, there were quite a number which I was very interested in but which didn’t make the cut (either because I figured I wasn’t the right person for the panel, didn’t know enough, or I just had too many panels I was already planning to do).  And some of the topics in the draft schedule I was sent look more interesting now than when the sign-up sheet went up.  At any rate, it occured to me I could solve my “dead blog” problem by writing posts on those panels I’m NOT going to be doing at Ravencon.  (And then maybe, after Ravencon is over, I’ll do some blogs on those panels I DID cover… but we’ll see how things go.

THE TOPIC AT HAND:  IMPOSTER SYNDROME

So, for this week, a topic I probably wouldn’t have signed up for even if I’d had no limitations for sign up, but which I figure I’ll be fighting against for a lot of these blog posts and maybe even some of the panels I’m signed up for:  Imposter Syndrome.

To begin with, Imposter Syndrome is not currently classified as a psychosis, neurosis, or any other type of mental disease.  It’s perfectly normal.  According to Wikipedia, it is:

“…a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.”

As an author, I follow a lot of other authors, and one thing I can say is that most of us (myself included) suffer from at least a mild form of this phenomenon.  So, by the way, do musicians, painters, and quilters (hi, mom!), and artists of all other types.

It shows up in all kinds of ways, and sometimes you can recognize it in yourself.  This very post has an example of it (and, in fact, that is why I chose Imposter Syndrome as the first topic in this series).  You notice how I made that clarification that being a “guest” at Ravencon was more like a “attending professional” at other conventions (even though “guest” is just as common, if not a more common, title for what that role is)?  It’s because I’m afraid people will see me say I’m a guest at a convention and think I’m claiming to be more than I am.  That is a practical example of mild Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome manifests in a number of ways.  For example, JUST related to things that will come up in the next couple months:

  1. I’m going to be a panelist at Ravencon.  I’m just this self-published author with three novels, a single short work, and a couple still-in-production works to my name.  Am I really enough of an expert to justify my selection as a convention guest?  (The answer, I know intellectually, is yes; even though the number of title I have written is low, I’m also constantly educating myself in the fields of writing, self-publishing, etc.  I know for a fact that I’m more of an expert in the field of self-publishing better than several self-publishing “experts” I’ve encountered at various conventions in the past.  But there is still that doubt…)
  2. I’ve been accepted into an anthology (the title will be World’s Enough: Fantastic Defenders).  I was given back some editorial comments, though, and a deadline of the end of February to get the rewrites in.  Then I broke a tooth.  Even though I’d been told I could ask for more time if I needed it (and even though everything else on this anthology has run late, so far), I was terrified to ask for an extension of just a few days after I broke my tooth and found myself unable to work on it at the worst possible time.  If I’m more trouble than I’m worth, will they just drop me and go with one fewer story?  (Of course, I got the extension, no problem.  But now I’m worried that I didn’t do enough with the changes to make my editor happy after having gotten that extension)
  3. I’m trying pretty hard to get one more book out there before Ravencon (The Merrimack Event, in this case).  I’d hoped to have at least five books out, but I’m struggling to make it to four.  I may not make it at all (at this point, it depends on factors outside my control; namely, the cover art), but with every new release — especially for a new series, and in a new genre — I have to wonder if the success I had with my first book will carry over.  I may have 4+ stars on both Amazon and Goodreads for all my books, but I still have this fear people will read the new book and think “Oh, look — this guy’s just an amateur after all!”  (stay tuned for this one)
  4. Saying “I’m bringing back the Weekly Sunday Blog Post” and then never remembering that it’s Sunday to write a blog, or having any topics in mind to write about when I try (although I have ideas, now, and I’m remembering to do it this Sunday).  The fact that I almost NEVER get comments on this blog hurts (even if I do get the occasional comment on Facebook or Twitter).

So… yeah.  Some of these things actually help fight the Imposter Syndrome (someone at Ravencon must think my resumé is strong enough to be acceptable as a “professional,” at a minimum.  I was accepted into the anthology, regardless of the editorial work needed.  I’m actually getting books out, even if not at the pace I’d like, and most of them do have good sales early on and good reviews the longer they sell.  Etc.) at the same time that they hurt.  Imposter Syndrome is funny that way.

So, how do you combat Imposter Syndrome?  You want to overcome that under-confidence that makes you feel like a fraud, but not get so cocky you annoy your fans and turn people off, or start ignoring your editors, or let your books go out before they’re ready, etc.

I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know if there are any specific treatments or therapies being developed for it.  I do know that it’s an irrational fear.  Like most irrational fears, it takes a while to overcome.  Genuine moments of success (such as selling new books, being invited as a guest at a convention, etc.) help. Positive feedback (aka good reviews) help.  But ultimately?  It’s something you have to work through yourself.

You just have to be sure you never let those fears prevent you from doing the things you need to do for your job.  Don’t knock yourself down too much, don’t stop yourself from applying to be a convention guest or releasing that next book because you’re not sure you’re good enough, etc.

In other words, don’t let your fears go to your head.

Weird Research: The Michael Palin Travelogues, Part I: Around the World In Eighty Days

Sheesh, can that title get any longer?

As I said in a previous post, I wanted to revamp my “Weird Research” series. It was getting too much to be a “how to use Wikipedia” tutorial, which was almost the exact opposite of what I wanted to accomplish with that series (Wikipedia has its uses, don’t get me wrong, but you need MORE than Wikipedia for research).  My goal was to show that there are things you never thing to research until you need them, and ways to research that you might never have thought of.  I might have managed to demonstrate the former, but not the later.

So, I figured I would do something fun, by watching the Michael Palin travelogues and taking “notes” for novel research from what I was watching… or at least tell you a little about what I see. Honestly, you should watch these things whether you’re doing research for a book or not.

The first of the travelogues is “Around the World in 80 Days.” And no, it’s not exactly a re-enactment of the Jules Verne novel.

Episode I:

The first episode (filmed from 1988-1989, released first on television in 1989, and on DVD in 2007) begins with establishing the trip. Michael Palin initially (well, at least for the camera) turns down the job, because he doesn’t have eighty days to film it in. It goes into preparation (including getting himself a physical, taking a number of vaccinations, packing, learning how to deal with various different types of crisis, discussing the issues of traveling from point to point, etc.). Interspersed in these scenes is him leaving by high-class British railway train (and later the Orient Express) in a nice suit (which is actually required for part of the train journey, which I would not have thought about), drinking champagne and eating a meal. It’s a good example of the kind of work that you need to do before going on a long journey.

He learns that the particular cabin he was in on the train had, during World War II, been a mobile brothel for soldiers.  While they don’t go into many details on that, it is a starting point to launch further research.

A strike forces him to leave the Orient Express, and instead take a bus to Venice, where he checks into a hotel located on a road he translates as “Pity Street.”  The hotel looks much more middle-class than I’ve seen from most travelogues, which adds a sense of earthiness and realism to the show.

It was a little run down, with peeling paint and wallpaper, but there he spends the night (without complaint).  The next morning he has time for a little exploration, going down the Venitian Canals on a (literal) garbage scow.  Much like a trash truck, the scow picks up trash bags from the side of the street and toss them into a bin.  Any bags which miss the bin have to be fished out by a pole.  He eventually encourages the garbageman he’s with to sing a somewhat bawdy (in italian) song.

Before leaving, he mails home the suit he wore on the Orient Express (he figures he won’t need it any more) and boarded a ferry (or perhaps a cruise ship?)  to cross the Mediterranean in, heading to Cairo by way of Athens.  He quickly demonstrates how easy it is to get lost on the ship.

There is an example of a unique form of bridge (instead of a drawbridge that raises to allow ships to pass, the bridge is lowered into the water underneath the ship), followed by a really narrow canal trip where he could have reached out from the ship and touched the walls.

He has video from Greece of the Ef-zones, one of the more… unusually outfitted military units out there, showing the changing of the guard (which, he says, they seem to do “in the most complicated way possible.”).  Then he has a demonstration of assembling the F-Zone uniforms, which take two people to put on.

But that’s all he has of Greece before he’s back on the cruise ship to Alexandria.  He briefly has some shots of him “helping” in the kitchens, though he quickly concludes that his work there was a boring film segment, and he transitions to a “grand Euro blow-out” dinner prior to hitting Egypt.

The episode concludes with him trying desperately to contact his bank as they enter the port at Alexandria, Egypt, while cameras filmed various ships that appeared to be in distress.

Episode II:

The second episode of this set begins with Michael Palin meeting a very interesting character picking him up in a horse-drawn carriage, of sorts.  Apparently, the driver’s name is Larry (actually Achmed, it is later revealed) and so is the horse’s name.  He ends up in the Alexandrian train (?) station, trying to get tickets for the next part of his journey.

The street scenes are interesting, with people in various forms of dress (styles both ancient and modern), doing various things you wouldn’t see happening on US streets, but he quickly passes through Alexandria and takes the train to Cairo.  On this train, he is able to get tea, but not milk or cream for it.  They show horrible traffic in Cairo, attend a “football” (soccer, for us US-Americans) game, and then he hunts down a non-chain hotel — the Hotel Windsor.  The hotel looks nice at first, but the plumbing doesn’t seem to work.

He gets talked into participating as an extra in a film shooting in Cairo the next day.  He has time for it, even though his original plans for travel were shot when his ship to the city of Jeddah (sp?) left early.  After quickly making alternate plans, he heads to a local bar to get some tea, only to be given a complimentary hooka to smoke (something he’s dubious about, as he had quit smoking twenty years before).

They show a bit of the behind-the-scenes of the film he’s invited to participate in, which is curiously being filmed in a Safeway supermarket.  If you want to get an idea of what film-making is like when you’re in a foriegn country and not supported by a major Hollywood studio or something comparable, this would be a good (if brief) study.

He makes it to the pyramids, and is talked into briefly riding a camel.  It’s his first time riding a camel (though, having seen all of the travelogues before, I know this isn’t his last).

He goes from the touristy camel-ride at the pyramids to a lousy car-trip in a rather run-down car to the Suez, where he learns that his hastily arranged back-up plan to get to Jeddah has been scuppered; the transport’s journey was cancelled because the ship he was going to take has broken down.

He hastily makes a Plan C, and manages to find a ferry to Saudi Arabia.  This new ship was once a cruise ship, and it shows Michael sitting in several sparsely-populated rooms that were once luxury restaurants and the like juxtaposed with the more populated decks where people are just sort of sprawled out wherever they can find room.  Unfortunately, this hitch in his plans makes it impossible to make his connecting ship.

He tries not to panic, showing videos of him playing dominos and bartering for a watch as they travel, but when he arrives in Jeddah he starts trying to make travel arrangements in ernest.  Still uncertain of his plans, he jogs through town, exploring several pieces of unusual, and oversized, modern art (like a bunch of cars cut in half and stuck in a concrete block).

Things get even worse in his plans — he can’t find a way to his next intended port, but even if he gets there he hears there is no way to make the next part of his journey, either.  He solves this with a car-trip across the desert to an alternate (but more distant) port… but cannot film it, because the Saudi government refuses to allow the camera crew past a certain (unspecified on camera) point.  The episode ends with him “abandoning” his film crew on the side of the road, driving onward.  (The film crew flies to catch up)

Episode III:

He can’t show film of his road trip, but he does have a few photographs as he drives over a thousand miles in  a single weekend.  He reunites with his camera crew in the port of Dubai, where he tries to find a dhow to travel to India in.

Port life is shown, as cows and the like are are loaded on board boats and the like.  Michael negotiates the trip from Dubai to Bombay, on a boat that will take a six day trip.  He must purchase his own food and supplies for the journey, and prepare to sleep on sacks of cargo on the deck of the boat.

He has film footage, briefly, of the ship construction — most of these ships are made in classic manners, using hand tools (including slightly modernized forms of primative tools like a bow drill).  This is a working shipyard, and that was really how they were building ships back then; a remarkable insight into the construction of the ships of yesteryear.

This is one of the most remarkable parts of the series, with the whole episode entirely about the short trip across the red sea on a rickety wooden boat, as everything is done by hand and human power.  The boat does have a motor, but it just as often travels by sail.

Michael tries to communicate with the largely Indian crew, even though few of them speak any English (and those that do speak a very broken form of it).  The crew is poorly paid (the crewman notes he is paid only 300 rupees for the journey across the sea.  A single sale of one of my books in India nets me about the same amount, today (which, converted to US dollars, is about $4).  That doesn’t account for 25 years of inflation, but I imagine it’s still a very small amount for six days of work).

Even the preparation of food is fairly primative, as food is crushed on a stone, and the rice is hand-washed in a basin large enough to feed 20, then is cooked on another stone slab (though this stone is heated by a gas flame).  They use compass, sextants and dead reckoning for navigation.  Dining is communal, featuring Indian cuisine (some form of vegetarian saag with a improvised rice porrage using buttermilk is shown, though there is a discussion of other foods).  Michael lets the members of the crew listen to Bruce Springsteen on his Walkman (yes, Walkman; this was the 80s, remember?).  Much of each day is spent conserving energy, as the weather is too hot to do much when the crew isn’t required to work.  When they do have to work, the work is hard, and involves things like climbing masts, pulling old ropes through wooden pulleys, raising sails, etc.

Overall, it is a remarkable look into merchant sailers, with aspects that translate from time immemorial to (evidently) today.  If you were writing a naval adventure, this would show you quite a bit about daily life on a merchant ship.

However, he falls ill during the boat trip (while he doesn’t say it, I speculate it came from the saag that he so enjoyed; there are likely local pathogens the crew has adapted to that a man from England has never been exposed to).  A crewman tries to treat him with a sort of peculiar form of massage (basically walking on Michael), which does seem to help him some.

Michael ends the boat journey, and the episode, with a hearty and sincere farewell to the crew, with farewells all around, as he believes he will never see these people he made fast friends with.  (I have not seen it, but there is evidently a 20th anniversary special where he goes and finds this crew, and has a tearful reunion with them)

Episode IV:

Michael Palin begins the episode that, from London to Calcutta, he is a week behind what Phileas Fogg managed in Jules Vernes’ novel.  He goes to his hotel (the Taj, theoretically the most elegant hotel in India; a rare luxury for him in this series) before showing some street scenes.

He has to turn down a young beggar, which visibly disturbs him, as he notes that the begging problem in India was endemic to the city.  This was evidently on a trip to see a blind barber, from whom he gets a very good shave using a straight razor.

He then deals with the train station.  The operations shown at this very crowded (and a lot more modern) train station can be easily juxtaposed with the crowded train station you see earlier in Alexandria, Egypt.

He watches a rather macabre street performance by a snake handler doing a performance with a cobra and a mongoose.  He walks (very briefly) through a shanty town before ending up in a Hindu religious festival.

He juxtaposes this immediately with a Christian Cathedral (given India’s former status as a British Colony, I’d assume it was an Anglican church, but he doesn’t say), where he studies the memorials to fallen soldiers.

More street scenes (if I were writing a book set in modern-day India, I would watch these several times; as it is, mostly what I saw was crowds of people eating and enjoying himself).

A train trip on a very overcrowded Indian train to Madras.  There aren’t many shots of the inside of the train, but lots of very interesting shots of the scenery it passes by — I would not have thought cactuses grew in the wild in India were it not for some of these train shots.

He has an interview with a fellow passenger, who notes that different regions of India were almost like different countries, with different spoken languages, cuisines, and culture.  “You probably shouldn’t speak Hindi in Madras,” she warned.  The English language (leftover from their time as a British colony) may very well be the only thing unifying Northern and Southern India, she says.

Dining on the train is discussed (and demonstrated), as food is purchased when the train makes a brief stop along the route.  He notices the difference in food between Bombas and Madras, talking about how the food is getting spicier the closer he gets to the later city.

Arriving in the city, he goes on a dangerous bike-rickshaw ride to his hotel across a highway shared with bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, and fast-moving cars.

After checking in, he tries once more (with more street scenes interspersed) to make the arrangements for the next stage, to Singapore.  He runs into a problem with insurance certification, as the ship he wants to go on is only certified to carry 18 people, and it already has a crew of 18.  He tries to make alternative arrangements while the travel company desperately tries to contact the insurer (Lloyd’s of London) to get a waiver.  These alternate arrangements are worse than useless, and the waiver is not allowed, so they have to make a Yugoslav-German-BBC-Cyprus-India international agreement (the captain was Yugoslav, the shipping line was run out of Germany, but the ship itself was owned by someone in Cyprus) to allow him and some of his film crew onto the ship in exchange for flying some of the ship’s crew ahead to Singapore.

As part of the agreement, Michael has to actually work as a deckhand (they show him “swabbing the deck” and painting some of the structure, at least) and as his own sound man for the filming.  They arrive in Singapore knowing he’s about to miss his connecting ship, which would end any hope of completing the journey in time.

Episode V:

You see darkened streets of Singapore as he rushes from launch to van (reuniting with the film crew) to another launch which motors him out four miles into the sea so he can get on board another cargo ship traveling to Hong Kong.  Here he makes up a little time on Phileas Fogg, but he’s still behind.

While he’s not on this ship for very long, having his film crew with him allows him to interview the captain of this container ship and his wife, where it’s pointed out that the ship needs miles of space for both acceleration and deceleration, and how much the Captains of such ships have become less concerned with running day-to-day operations as they are managing the finances.

He arrives in Hong Kong noting that he narrowly avoided two seperate disasters — one of the worst typhoons of the year, and a horrifying incident where a container exploded in the port.

In Hong Kong, instead of typhoons or container explosions, he’s surprised by a limo with champagne service and a drive to a nice luxury hotel (a real 5 star hotel, which gives him a little bit of a odd feeling after several days of sleeping on trains and container ships.

He’s invited to a celebration of reaching the half-way point on his trip, but it’s black tie.  He goes to a Hong Kong tailor who has an international reputation, which has had customers like David Bowie, Henry Kissinger, George Michael, and several other celebrities and politicians from around the world.

While waiting for the suit to be made, he goes to a street gathering of bird owners, where people walk their birds so they can socialize with other birds.  I would never have known there was such a thing in real life, had I not seen it on this show.

A trip to a horse race (the biggest game in town) and he wins a small bet.  The cashier at the racecourse recognizes him, and laughs through the entire transaction.  The next day, he goes to visit an old friend (Basil Pao), who will be his translator and travel companion in China, and later ends up his primary photographer for the next several trips.  Basil turns out to also be the father of Michael’s godson.  They do the math and figure out the baby was born at roughly the same time the journey began.

Basil brings up the point that traveling through China will be difficult, in part, because the local dialects are such that people just 30 kms apart from one another can’t understand each other, even though the written dialect is the same everywhere.

Before departing Hong Kong, he finally attends that party (having picked up his much talked about suit off-camera), where they discuss the then-upcoming reunion of Hong Kong and China, which was still several years away at the time this was filmed.

Passing through customs from Hong Kong to China is very quick — one of the faster border crossings he’s managed — and then he’s in another hotel with very westernized luxury (though with touristy-Chinese artistic stylings).

Before continuing on his journey, he decides to try a rather unique restaurant which only serves dishes made from a particular exotic meat — snake.  It’s a rather disturbing scene, and one which I’ve fast-forwarded through, but the way the restaurant handles and cooks the snakes could be used as interesting background color in a novel.

He gets on a Chinese train (you could make a case study on the differences in different countries and regions’ train conditions just by watching these travelogues), which — he notes — “even in China” has three different classes of passengers.  His “soft” class (the highest class) includes comfortable cabins, excellent food (the best he’s ever had on a train, at least at filming), board games, and a lamp that looks like a fortune teller’s crystal ball.

Most of his fellow passengers in “Soft Class” are from Taiwan — this was in the first year that Taiwanese people were allowed to return to China since the Maoist takeover.  Some of his observations are humorous, but you do have to wonder if there’s truth in them (such as the train’s staff member whose only job seems to be mopping the train’s carpeted floor).  And the train, for the first time on his journey, is on-time, ending the episode.

Episode VI:

Episode VI opens in Shanghai, with a history lesson of the town (noting that the port was mostly built to support the European opium trade, which gave portions of the town a very European architecture.  But only part of it; he goes to an apothecary shop which is very Chinese in style in design).  He purchases some Chinese medicinal energy formulae.

He laments not seeing much of China as he boards a ship traveling to Japan.  Having watched most of his travelogues, I know he will return several times, and see many sights that will never be seen again.

This ship is not a container vessel, but a cruise ship… which  he notes is barely occupied by passengers.  Exploring the ship, he finds a full of futon (the real, traditional style variety, not the nicely cushioned foldaway chairs that you find in the United States) but no other passengers.

He arrives in Yokohama, and promptly takes one of Japans famous bullet trains to Tokyo to meet a shipping agent and negotiate passage on a container ship.

His time in Tokyo, waiting for the ship to be ready, is spent using a BBC reporter as his guide.  He has conveyer-belt sushi, describes Japanese society as a “cultural magpie,” and then participates in some Karaoke.  He goes to a Capsule Hotel, which has a variety of wierd rules and odd television programs.  It’s an interesting interpretation of Japanese culture through his eyes (from my experience, this is just one side of many of Japanese culture, and not an especially flattering one.  I think he finds the experience a little lacking, as well, and returns to Japan in more than one other travelogue)

Afterwards, he boards the container ship, which will be one of the longest (travel-time) stretches of his journey, expending eleven days time.  Much as you could make a comparitive study of train travel from this travelogue, you could make a comparitive study of container ships as well (including another ship’s captain being interviewed about life on the sea).

There’s lots of bad weather, a drunken birthday party, a “celebration” of crossing the International Date Line (a rather psuedo-pagan initiation ceremony and unusual togas made from various nationality’s flags and a rather horrible drink cocktail), and many other attempts to end the boredom of this part of the trip.  He says he’s not sure he’ll ever cross the international dateline again… but, as we’ll see with some of his other journeys, that isn’t true.

And there the episode ends.

Episode VII:

The final episode of this set starts in California.  Michael stays at a hotel built from a permanently landlocked British cruise ship, the Queen Mary.  There’s some fun-looking street theater shown and the like, but he mostly just buzzes right through California to get on board an Amtrack sleeper-car train (yet another comparison point for train travel).

He interviews a few of his fellow passengers (including a professional clown) and crew.  There’s a brief layover in Colorado, where we see hot springs, skiing, a hot air balloon, and a dog-sled team.  Then to Chicago, where he has a near-miss of the final bit of train travel, and so on.  Compared to the first half of the trip around the world, however (okay, technically they passed the half-way point in Episode 6, but the bulk of the second half of the trip around the world is in this episode) there aren’t as many “side trips” focused on, and those that do take place don’t seem to get quite as much focus as the ones in other parts of the series. On the other hand, they have a lot of scenery, a few interesting bits of street entertainment briefly shown, etc.

It may be the film crew just wasn’t as interested in the US, or it may be that they were simply running out of steam, or budget, or something, but this final episode — at least as far as “research project” material is concerned — is a little bare.  It does get him all the way back to England, and he successfully completes the journey in 80 days… barely matching Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg.  And then they spend about as much time on his return home as they do in America.

Conclusion:

Okay, so the above seems more like a dry re-telling of the events in the series instead of proper research, but that’s only a first step. It might sound tedious to do this for everything you ever watch (or at least everything you own on DVD), but when you find something as full of information as these travelogue series it can be worth it.

I have a character in one of my series who is blind — suppose I wanted to have her shave the beard off her husband (a scene that nearly happened in In Forgery Divided, but it never quite materialized).  Well, I can use these notes to locate exactly where to go to find a scene where a blind man works as a barber; I can watch that scene, and I should be able to replicate it (with the differences needed by the story for both plot purposes and to indicate the relationship between shaver and shavee).

I have two different ongoing fantasy series set in a period before modern medicine, and I’m constantly looking for viable folk remedies which “good” doctors with that background might have used.  Well, there was a folk-remedy treatment (which seemed to work) for sour stomaches on a ship that, thanks to these notes, I know I can find in Episode III.

I could go on.  The point is that this is good research material, and these notes have helped me create an “index,” of sorts, for that research.  It’s a wonderful series — Michael Palin’s wit, the stunning cinematography, and even the tension felt as they try to make it to each successive stage of the journey are all as entertaining the tenth or eleventh time you’ve watched these videos as the first.  Yet, as I’ve shown, it’s still research.

Incidentally, you might want to remember that (in the United States, at least) writers (and artists; there’s plenty of good research material for artists, too) can take the money spent acquiring research materials off on their taxes (disclaimer: I am not a tax advisor, so check your local statutes).  So, you might want to go ahead and purchase your own copy of Around the World in 80 Days — and the other Michael Palin travelogues — today.

Weird Things I’ve Had to Research (Part 5/?): Youtube Wanderings

Before we begin, I would like to notify people that I made a very brief update of my blog entry on ISBNs regarding their use in eBook formats.  You don’t have to go back to that entry if you’ve already read it, however — I’ll just cover it here.  Basically , this article has led me to revise my opinion on best practice.  I now think, for the sake of future-proofing your identifiers, that it might be wise to use a seperate ISBN to distinguish .pdf format eBooks from other types… though I still think you do not need to distinguish between the ePub and .mobi formats.

Also, this just happens to be my Birthday!  I’d take honest reviews of my books as a present.  ^_^

As a reminder, this is the fifth part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series.  You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.

INTRODUCTION

Not all of the research I’ve done has been reading. At times, I need to research something for which no written source will do.  Sometimes, I need to go somewhere else — like to attend an event in person, or to see something done on Youtube.

Often, when I do this sort of research, I find more than I’m looking for.  Sometimes a lot more.  This is more about finding material for future books and stories while attempting to do research on something else.

Of course, it’s also about how you can use resources like Youtube in your normal research… but sometimes it’s fun (and useful) to dig a little further than you need to.

HAIR-RAISING DISCOVERIES

For my first example, I was once trying to decide on what hairstyle a certain character in The Kitsune Stratagem should be wearing.  Note:  If you go looking for hairstyles in the book, you won’t find any.  I never found the right one.  So, in this case, I failed to find the thing I was researching for, and wound up writing around it.

I went to Youtube.  I knew that there were a number of hairstylists (both professional and amateur) who liked to show off their home styles on Youtube.  I needed to see how the hairstyles were achieved, with an eye towards how the same or a similar hairstyle could be managed with the technology present in my book.  (The hairstyle had certain other requirements which I was never able to satisfy, but that’s immaterial for this post).

You’d be surprised the kinds of things you find Youtube recommends alongside something like hairstyling.  At the time I was doing this research, I was also expecting to attend a convention a few weeks later.  I saw a video recommended which included two very interesting words — “Packing tips.”  I wasn’t sure what, if anything, it had to teach me, but I always struggle with making sure I had everything I needed.

Well, the video didn’t give me much information on packing that mattered to me — the woman giving the presentation was a fashion model, and most of her tips were focused on keeping stylish — but she did mention a few things that I had never heard of, before.  Namely, I had never heard of powdered toothpaste — at least, not in the modern sense.  I knew about baking soda toothpastes, but I was under the impression that even the homemade toothpastes using baking soda were still a paste, not a powder.

Now, you won’t find anything in any of my current books using powdered toothpaste… yet.  But, after this video inspired me to look more into powdered toothpaste, I’ve come to the conclusion that tooth powders could be a good thing to include both in fantasy novels and in science fiction novels, if I ever need to discuss “daily life” issues with the characters.  After all, tooth powders can be made with just about any level of technology I’m likely to use in my books; they are effective; and they are good for travel, as a jar of tooth powder will last a lot longer than a similar-sized container of toothpaste.

It might also be easier to disguise a poison as toothpowder than as toothpaste.  Or to hide your valuables in the jar of toothpowder so that they are never seen.  Or to contaminate it so that using it becomes unpleasant or impossible, if I want to make an issue of my characters “running low on supplies.”  (First world problem?  Maybe.  But if your characters are stranded and can’t replace their dental care products, that can forshadow health problems that they’ll need to deal with later on).

I know — this is just a very small detail, and in the normal course of things probably wouldn’t even be worth mentioning.  Some of you may think “Tooth powder?  That’s not a big deal — I thought everyone knew about that!”  But it was new to me; something I found while looking for something else.  I may never use it, but now I can add this little drop of information into the bucket that is my worldbuilding resources.

IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS

There are all kinds of things you can learn directly from Youtube.  You want to learn karate?  Well, someone (actually, more than one someone, but I couldn’t find the original video I viewed on this when I went looking again) has an entire online course in a single hour and a half long video.  You want to learn how to cook Japanese food?  I know of two very good cooking channels on Youtube.  Want to know how to tie a specific kind of knot?  There are videos for that.  But you can also learn things which are just embarrasing to ask about, because they’re so obvious to people who know it.

Now, I’m a fan of Lindsey Stirling.  Fun, bubbly, and she makes good music, too.  I like watching the behind-the-scenes stuff just as much as the music videos, sometimes.  So, I encountered this video that I’d probably normally never watch, but I was sort of hoping for a bit of an interview during it:

Well, they never really got into the interview I was hoping for (they kind of hinted at it, but then got distracted by the actual work they were doing).

But I have no clue how to put on makeup.  Well, okay, when I was in a theater class one time, I learned a bit about using latex body paint to simulate a wound and things like that, but I mean the typical everyday makeup — eye shadow, blush, foundation, and all that.  I could guess at some of it (foundation is what you put on underneath other makeup, right?  I mean, that just makes sense), but there are a few things that — if I were to ever write about — I wouldn’t have a clue how to portray.

For example, how the heck do you use an eyelash curler?  I mean, for someone who doesn’t know what it does, it looks like some kind of medieval torture device designed to pluck a person’s eye out, not something to curl eyelashes.

Well… now, after watching that video, I know.  And it’s such a silly little thing — but it’d be so embarrassing (for any number of reasons) to ask anyone I know.  But there, in that video, is a simple demonstration that shows me exactly how it works… and some advice to let me know why the quality of an eyelash curler matters.  Who knew?

A FEW CAUTIONS

Just as a warning, when doing research on Youtube, the material you are looking at can disappear in a moment.  I was looking for a video a couple weeks ago for this blog that I first saw a month ago — a video describing the formula for calculating orbits — and the video was gone.  I’m not sure why — it might have been a copyright violation claim (there are a lot of copyright violators on Youtube; there are also far more false claims of copyright violations, made by crawler bots, and most of the time these are never overturned), but there are quite a few other reasons why a youtube video may be removed.  Likewise, a video I’d found on homemade musical instruments (which originally appeared in my suggestions list near the Lindsey Sterling videos I was watching) is gone, as was one (following a trail of links a little more outwards) on various historical forms of dance.

You need to find some way to preserve that information — take notes or whatnot.  Do not rely on this youtube video existing a year from now, a week from now, or tomorrow.  It might not be there.

Also, keep in mind that Youtube videos are not reliable.  Some people like doing special effect tricks with Youtube, so just as with “don’t believe everything you see on TV,” you shouldn’t believe everything you find on Youtube.  Also, people can upload instructional videos as if they were experts even if they aren’t experts in the field (which doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them — especially in the cooking videos sections and the like — just that they shouldn’t be granted automatic authority status just because they’re on Youtube and have a lot of followers).  I generally feel as if these sorts of cautions shouldn’t be needed, but you never know.

CONCLUSION

Youtube videos are a great way to learn certain kinds of things.  Especially if you have time to let your attention wander and go looking through the “suggested” videos — you never know what you’ll find.

And it’s proof that a research tool can be good both for targetted research (if you really want to know how to tie a square knot, you can use the onboard search engine specifically for videos on tying square knots) and for less specific, general, or inspirational research (okay, maybe I’m looking for information on hairstyles, but ooh — packing advice!  And you know, I may need to know how an eyelash curler works some day.  And oh, look, while watching that musician whose videos I like, I see a link to making homemade musical instruments, which surely could be handy!  And… well, you get the idea.

I realize some people are reading these articles and thinking “Wait, where’s the research on all this?  This stuff is mostly common knowledge, or all he’s doing is a quick trip to wikipedia and youtube.  This isn’t research!”  Surprise — yes it is.  The whole point of this series is that this is that you would be surprised at just what you need to research, or what qualifies AS research.

If you ever want to try and create a spreadsheet comparing your actual writing time to your research time (especially for those accountants out there who think you need to do that kind of thing for proof that your writing is a “career” and not a “hobby”), you need to know that yes, looking up a how-to-do-makeup video on youtube can qualify as actual research, however basic the knowledge might be.  So can an afternoon going through wikipedia tracking down women’s (historical forms of) underwear, or trying to figure out the mating habits of the wild haggis.  You don’t have to be sorting through scholarly journals on quantum wheels or whatnot in order for it to count as research.  (I’ve done that, too, though)

That said, I’m probably going to be taking a break from this series for a little bit (waiting for more inspiration, perhaps).  I’m not sure what I’ll be posting next weekend, but I promise I’ll have something.

Weird Things I’ve Had to Research (Part 4/?): Thoughts On Constructed Languages

As a reminder, this is the fourth part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series.  You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.

INTRODUCTION

If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy, you’re probably aware that J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist, and he invented multiple languages over the course of writing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings saga.  A lot of fantasy and science fiction requires the writer to create an entirely new language for their characters to speak; after all, it’s highly unlikely aliens or foriegn elves or whatnot would be speaking English (or Common, or whatever you call the your viewpoint characters’ default language).  The technical term is “constructed language.”

J.R.R. Tolkien may be best known for it (he created not just individual languages, but whole families of languages with dialect trees and the like), but he was hardly the only person to ever create a new language for a book.  Edgar Rice Burroughs actually came up with one for his “A Princess of Mars” before Tolkien’s first sample of Elven appeared in the literary world.  There have been multiple languages created for the likes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, Game of Thrones, Babylon 5, Avatar, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and many, many more.  Heck, a very basic form of constructed language was a central plot point of the video game Skyrim.

Well, when I was first writing In Treachery Forged, I gave serious thought to construction one or more such languages for the novel.  I got the rudiments down for one of them, and came up with a thing or two for another… and then I quit.  I didn’t really need to have a complete constructed language for these characters — a few words here or there for flavor, sure, but nowhere in my plans were any of my characters conversing in one of these constructed languages.

And… well, I am not Tolkien.  I did enjoy some parts of constructing a language, but other parts of it became a grind… and it was those grinding elements that had me stop.

Of course, I did save a lot of my notes, and I’m having my characters largely follow those bits of grammar and so forth I’d developed whenever one of these unfinished languages come up, so I might complete things some day.  Who knows?  But I think, from what I did manage, that it’s quite possible to construct a language for your books (or video games, or movies, or whatever other reason you might want your own language) even if you aren’t a trained linguist like Tolkien.

Constructing a language requires a number of elements:  You must create some rules of grammar, add in a set of vocabulary, and then figure out how best to include your language’s use in your story.  Tolkien managed to do it a lot of times… but most of us aren’t Tolkien.

NEEDING NEW LANGUAGES

J.R.R. Tolkien created not just one or two languages, but whole language trees.  Several types of Elvish, Dwarvish, Numenorean, and probably others I’m not thinking of.  Tolkien’s passion, however, was languages; mine was not.

But while writing In Treachery Forged, I was thinking about the possibility of developing multiple languages.  I couldn’t use Tolkien’s languages without permission (not that I really wanted to), and didn’t really know them anyway, so I had to construct some new languages, myself.  (Note:  Calling this an article on research is perhaps a bit strong; think of it more as applying pre-existing knowledge to your writing career)

My Human culture was a formerly single civilization in diaspora, so some of the language issues (namely, the difference between Porosian, Sviedan, maybe even Oregalian) could simply be dialect choices; Sviedan is portrayed as English; I have yet to have to portray native Porosian or any of those other foriegn dialects (well, in what’s published), so I haven’t had to do much in that regard, but In Treachery Forged did encounter Elven, Dwarven, and Tel’Curlan as seperate languages.

Tel’Curlan, I’d determined, would have been a cross between Porosian, Dwarven, and Elven languages (reflecting the country’s origins).  I also felt the Nekoji and Merfolk would have their own languages, but they would be languages that were beyond Human speech.

But I needed seperate Elven and Dwarven languages.  And because of the first in-novel encounters with these two languages, one I started with my focus on grammar and the other started with a focus on vocabulary.

GRAMMAR RULES

I had no prior experience or education in creating a language.  I’m not sure many do, and I’m not sure if there is an established method for creating one.  I couldn’t find any “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Constructing Your Own Language” type books, if there are.  So I had to come up with my own method of creating a language.  I reverse engineered the foriegn language courses I’d taken and came up with two.

I am a native American-English speaker, and for the most part the grammar in my head is American-English style.  I have a passing familiarity with the differences between that and British or Australian English, but I really have to think about it.

I’ve also studied (never to fluency, I’m afraid) two foriegn languages in my life.  One of these was Japanese.  It was a difficult language for me.  Even if I resumed practicing my studies on a regular basis, at best I’ll be functionally illiterate in the language:  At one point I knew all the ‘letters’ (syllables?) in both hiragana and katakana, but never managed to learn to read them when put together as words; I have what is usually a mild case of dyslexia, but when I look at Japanese writing — and knowing that it might be written in any of three directions based on context — I can never figure out what order to read those Japanese characters should be read in.  For me, it’s the equivalent of trying to learn to read, and every word looks like this:

I had a lot of reasons for wanting to learn Japanese, however (yes, I am a fan of Japanese anime and generally prefer those shows with their original Japanese voice actors, but my interest came from other places as well), so conceding to the idea of being a functional illiterate in another language I concentrated on learning verbal Japanese.

Curiously, I never learned much vocabulary in these lessons.  A bare minimum, I would say, that would be necessary for the primary thing they were teaching:  Japanese grammar.

So, when I got started on the Elven language, I started with the structure of the grammar.

I began by looking into sentence structure.  English is generally subject-verb-object.  In Japanese, it can sometimes be subject-object-verb.  I didn’t want my Elven language to just be wordswapped English, because that felt… cheap.  I also didn’t want it to just be wordswapped Japanese for the same reasons.

Then I came up with a wonderfully original — and, in the end, awful — idea:  Bifurcated verbs, one part to indicate the actual action and the second to indicate the tense of the verb.  It would go subject-verb (action)-object-verb (tense).  I liked the idea of it, and in the samples I constructed it gave the language a truly foriegn feel while still allowing a strong sense of “yes, there are real grammar rules I need to follow.”  That one rule, by itself, gave the language its own character.

It might have worked for the language I was building, but it made things very difficult for the novel.  This rule gave my Elves a unique verbal tick, but it became horribly confusing when rendered into English.  All too frequently I found myself losing track of what I was doing.  The phrasing, which initially seemed quite lyrical, became horribly awkward half the time.  My editor didn’t understand it and corrected it wrong, and I’d make an even more wrong mistake trying to correct him.

In the end, at least when they were speaking in English, all that survived of this plan was that the Elves would frequently repeat their verbs (usually with one of those two being a contraction and the other the full word, but not always) at the end of most sentences.

I had other “rules of Elvish grammar” I was employing, but this was the most central of them… and it proved too complicated to make it viable.  Oh, words of the language I’d been working on have and will surface from time to time, but I doubt I’ll have any of the characters conversing in Elvish, very often.

VOCABULARY LISTS

Remember me saying I studied two foriegn languages (outside of various official forms of English)?  Well, while my study of Japanese began with grammar (and only just enough Japanese vocabulary to learn this grammar), when I was in Junior High, High School, and even College, my classes all tried to teach me Spanish by focusing almost entirely on vocabulary.

I never enjoyed those classes… but when I started on the Dwarven language I found myself starting here by working out some vocabulary lists.  I figured these lists could also, eventually, be used to fill out the Elvish language, as well.

But how to create these lists?  I couldn’t just grab a dictionary and go through it (too many words would be too irrelevant, as I found from the very first page when I tried it), and it would be unethical to just steal another language guide’s vocabulary lists.  So how should I build them?

Well, I started by trying to think of book-relevant verbs.  Dwarf or Elf, the characters would want to be able to call out that they were surrendering (verb: To Surrender).  I make Dwarven archers a serious component of the armies, so I needed something “to shoot.”  And that reminded me of other martial commands — to attack, to march, to hone, to punch, to kick, to burn, to follow, to train, to provoke, etc.  And then these are Dwarves, and I kept some of the stereotypical Dwarven characteristics (such as business accumen being critical to your social standing).  That would require words like to trade, to buy, to count, to add, to subtract, to bribe, to want, to serve, to appraise, to offer, etc., etc.  Then I went into figuring out verbs specific to various jobs that I figured characters in a fantasy might need.  And so on, and so forth.

So I started with these verb lists.  I had somewhere between three hundred and four hundred verbs that, I figured, had a good chance of coming up in my books.  But a bunch of job-specific verbs do not a language make; even if I duplicated English grammar, I still needed more vocabulary to make things work.  Nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, expletives, etc.  I couldn’t build even one sentence with all of the vocabulary lists I’d created.

Well, statistics say that half of everything written in English is made up of the one hundred most common words… and it also just so happens that there’s a lot of disagreement about what those hundred most common words are.  You’ve got opinions by Prentice Hall and Brown University Press, the Oxford English Dictionary, and more.

I combined all of these “100 most common English Words” list and came up with a few more than one hundred words:

the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, was, for, on, are, as, with, his, they, I, at, be, this, have, from, or, one, had, by, word, but, not, what, all, were, we, when, your, can, said, there, use, an, each, which, she, do, how, their, if, will, up, their, about, out, many, then, them, these, so, some, her, would, make, like, him, into, time, has, look, two, more, write, go, see, number, no, way, could, people, my, than, first, water, been, call. who, oil, its, now, find, long, down, day, did, get, come, made, may, part, only, other, time, new, any, over, such, our, man, me, even, most, after, also, off, before, must, well, back, years, much, and where.

Put those together with the 300+ words I’d already come up with, and you’re starting to get enough words to make complete sentences.  Your Elves, Dwarves, and whatnot can start talking to each other in their own languages, and you can add more words as needed.

WHAT YOU CAN DO WHEN IT’S TOO MUCH WORK

Well, “too much work” is probably the wrong way to put it.  “Too much of a distraction from my writing” might be, however, as I found myself putting all my time into developing these languages and not in writing.  Again, I’m not Tolkien, I don’t have a special interest in linguistics, and I really don’t want to have to put that much time into a constructed language when I’d rather be writing.  I still have pages of notes full of vocabulary lists, sketched out grammar rules, and more for both of these languages I was working on, but development has been halted on them for more than ten years, now.  Writing the actual book was far, far more important.

Building a language was getting tedious.  I’d overloaded myself, and was losing interest.  Rather than giving up on the book, I gave up on the new languages.  I have done my best, since then, to keep the books compatible with my old notes, but I haven’t really made any advancements.

Well, I take that back.  There were a few times I added a word or two of vocabulary when needed (a specialized Elven weapon would be referred to in Elvish, for example).  Or when I wanted to apply the “rule of fun” for a 4th-wall joke, like when I gave a Dwarven Inn a Japanese style bath and called it a “fu’ro bathing system” (basically, the Japanese word for that kind of bath with the fantasy cliché apostrophe in the middle).

Creating a language as I was writing the book was too much work… but keeping to the rudiments, and adding the odd additional word or two on occasion, will allow me to finish these languages some day.  If I ever need them.

CONCLUSION

Creating a language is a lot of work.  You may find, like I did, that it’s too much effort for what you’re trying to do, or for where you are at this point in your writing or your story.

But if you really want to, nothing is stopping you from making up your own words, developing your own system of grammar, and constructing your own language.

(Incidentally, if you haven’t already heard, I have updated the Convention Calender this week.  I added two new conventions, and put in 2016 dates for several more.  I’m always looking for new suggestions for appropriate conventions)

Weird Things I’ve Had To Research (3/?): Making Lemons Out of Lemonade

As a reminder, this is the third part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series.  You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.

INTRODUCTION

For months, now, I’ve been working on the sequel to In Treachery Forged.  In the middle of the new (still with the editor and cover artist) book, I had a situation where I wanted to use the phrase “Let’s make lemonade out of lemons.”

I typed out the line, but then I had to pause and think about it for a minute.  This is a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world.  Would they have lemonade?  Is the environment of this world even capable of sustaining lemons?  I mean, I’ve created this world, but there are some references which just wouldn’t make any sense without some real-world concerns.  At the very least, it might throw someone out of the story.

And that’s the point of this “wierd research” article:  How to deal with things that throw your readers out of the story.

WHAT MATTERS AND WHAT DOESN’T

The word “anacronism”, according to Wiktionary, means:

  • A chronological mistake; the erroneous dating of an event, circumstance, or object.
  • A person or thing which seems to belong to a different time or period of time

If you are writing historical work (fiction or not fiction), you’re probably concerned with the former.  For my purposes, however, I’m going to refer to the later:  Something which seems to belong to a different period of time.  It might even be proper to refer to it in that period, but if your reader thinks its strange it could be an anacronism.

For example, the flush toilet.  If you had a fantasy set in roman times and you described a scene where a character went to use the flush toilet, it might draw a very strange picture in your reader’s head.  “That can’t be right — toilets didn’t exist that far back!” they would think.  If they’ve seen certain shows on antiques and antiquities, they might even add “Crapper didn’t invent his toilet until 1897!

True, the modern flush toilet didn’t exist until the 19th century (and Crapper, while not the only contributor, helped with the design).  But, going as far back as neolithic britain or the prehistoric Indus Valley civilization, we’ve had some form of hydrolic flushing toilet.  Yet if you were to include one in your fiction — at least without somehow describing their mechanism and how they differed from the modern flushing toilet — a flush toilet would strike most readers as anacronistic.

So, it isn’t so much “would lemons\lemonade exist in my world” so much as “would they seem out of place in this fantasy world?”

So, where does the research com in with this?  Well, if I were writing historical fiction, I’d want to be careful not to create a first-definition anacronisms (the erroneous dating of an object, event, etc.); but in fantasy fiction, it’s “what do I need to know to avoid an anacronism?”  You can have a line about lemonade only if you establish that lemons exist in your world prior to the scene it comes up; you can have a flush toilet if you explain it’s one of those classical Roman-style hydrolic flush toilets instead of a Crapper toilet.

IS IT REALLY RESEARCH WHEN…

So, what, exactly, am I doing here?  I’m trying to write my way around the real-world-specific phrase or (apparent) anacronism that I actually want to use.  So, where is the actual research in this?

Well, despite making a quick check to find that lemons could theoretically grow in some of the environs I pictured my characters living in (for those who read the book, not in the heavily forested areas or cultivated farmlands or mountainous regions or river deltas on the mainland, but on the Borden Isles), I scrapped the “lemons into lemonade” phrase and moved on.

But I’ve run into other cases where I needed to spend some time in research to figure out how to work my way around the issues.  In The Kitsune Stratagem, for example, I had several incidents where I had a technology or a measurement I needed to describe that was named after an all-too-recognizeable real-world location.  There was no Greece or Rome in this book, but I needed to figure out how to describe things that were analogous to Greek Fire and Roman roads.

I thought Greek Fire would be complicated, but it was easy enough.  You can describe it as “liquid fire” and add in the rough approximation for a (theoretical) recipe and people should be able to figure out what you’re talking about.

I figured Roman roads would be easy, but they proved more difficult to portray accurately.  Outside of their longevity, I had to figure out what distinguished them from your average, ordinary newly-built cobblestone road.

I had books in my library on Roman roads and architecture.  No Wikipedia research on this one (well, mostly none; I found several references to Roman concrete, which was described as being different (and in many cases better) than modern concrete, but I found nothing on why it was so unique.  I went to Wikipedia for that)

There were several types of Roman roads, but I picked one of the more durable to portray.  Part of what made them different was the complex and deeper-than-average foundation, and part of it was the drainage system built into the roads.  Those things helped the roads to last, but in looking into them I found some information out that wound up solving another story issue for me.

One thing I learned, though, was that they built various types of outposts every twenty (Roman) miles along these roads, and more complex  outposts every hundred (Roman) miles.  I hadn’t known about these outposts when I started the story, but it was the perfect setting for a confrontation I hadn’t fully fleshed out yet.

These roads involved elements that needed further research.  The foundation used Roman concrete (I wound up learning a lot about Roman concrete in my research; I used some of it, but none of it wound up in the roads).  Distances — should I use modern measurements when explaining the locations of these outposts or some other measurement?  If fictional, how do I portray what those measurements mean?  If modern, do I convert from Roman miles to modern miles for accuracy’s sake.

Heck, how long would a mile be for my books?  A Roman mile, it turns out, is four thousand eight hundred fifty one modern feet long (or five thousand Roman feet long).  Modern miles include the nautical mile (at least six thousand feet long; the exact number depends on whether you are using the mile to figure speed (Knots), read a map, or use a radar) and the U.S.\International mile (five thousand two hundred eighty feet).

I don’t remember, exactly, what I settled on (I could re-read my own book to find out… or maybe one of this blog’s readers could read that same book and remind me.  And yes, this is a shameless plug; sorry about that).  I do remember I did such things as measure one of my own paces to start my own system that I could convert measurements to (my own pace was about two and a half feet; that became my “closest equivalent to a yard” measurement in the new measurement system; one third of that would be a measurement that would be the closest equiv. of a foot, and so forth (dividing by the foot equiv. by ten for the inch equiv, and multiplying the yard equiv. by two thousand for the mile equiv.).

Research, after all, is not just reading and relaying the information in the book; while you need to read up on topics, too, sometimes your “research” is experimental, or experience-based.  In “In Treachery Forged,” I had a character go through a natural cave system.  In my high school and college days, I was part of an Explorer Post (I’m not sure if they even exist, any more, but back then they were a young adult, co-ed version of the Boy Scouts.  Well, officially.  Our post wasn’t exactly as formal as most Boy Scouts units; the anime or R-rated movie nights weren’t exactly in character with your standard Boy Scouts organization).  This Explorer Post went “caving” (spelunking) in natural caves about once a year or so.  When it came time to write that scene, I had a lot of experience-based knowledge to draw upon.

CONCLUSION

I’ll be honest; I had a lot more to talk about for this blog.  I had computer problems this week, though, and my time to work on it was severely cut.  My points were made, I think, but I had more examples I wanted to use.  Maybe I’ll revisit this topic, some day, when my laptop is actually working.

The computer issue should be fixed this week, but it might cut into my blog writing time.  Because of this, I may not manage a full length post again next week, but we’ll see.  Regular posting should resume Sunday after next, regardless of these laptop issues.

(Heh… maybe the next “weird research” post should be on things other than writing topics that need to be researched for your book… things like “how the heck do I fix my laptop this time?”)

Weird Things I’ve Had To Research: Cryptids (Part 2/?)

As a reminder, this is the second part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series.  You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.

INTRODUCTION

As I said in my last research post, In Treachery Forged‘s first draft was finished a long, long time before I published it.  I probably should have worked on the sequel, in all that time (In Forgery Divided would have been out months ago, if I had, instead of with the editor as it is now), but I was trying to sell it to a trade publisher.  While I worked out an outline for the entire series, I wasn’t sure I wanted to put the time into writing additional books if I never could sell it.  (Then self-publishing became practical, and I finally cottoned on to the practical side of self-publishing, and now…)

During many of those years, however, it was sitting in various agents’ and publishers’ slush piles — it was in one particular publishing house’s slush pile for over four years — and I was trying hard to figure out how to get a publisher to take it.  I went to local conventions whenever an editor, agent, or publishing head was going to attend, hoping to glean some trick that would help me get noticed.  I was also reading blogs belonging to publishers, agents, other writers, etc., always looking for new information.  Sadly, most of what I heard was the same recycled stuff, over and over and over again.

But over the course of one year, at three different conventions and on a few agents and authors blogs, I heard the following sentiment (maybe not in exact words, but something pretty close):

“If I see pull one more manuscript from the slush pile featuring Elves or Dwarves or Dragons, I’m going to throw it across the room in frustration!”

Now, this puzzled me.  Outside of a few licensed properties and Tolkien, I wasn’t all that familiar with this deluge of books featuring Elves and Dwarves and Dragons.  I’m not saying they didn’t exist, but these same editors, agents, publishers, etc. seemed to have no problem taking on manuscripts featuring certain mythological creatures that seemed far, far more played out to me (*cough*VAMPIRES!*cough*).  What was wrong with the trope creatures and races of the Western-style fantasy genre appearing in fantasy genre novels?

But whatever.  Agents, publishers, and editors didn’t seem to want Elves and Dwarves and Dragons, and the book I was trying to peddle had all three.  Most of the other fantasy novels I had planned, in the Law of Swords series or elsewhere, also included Elves and Dwarves and Dragons.  Hm….

Idea:  Why not take one one of my Western-style fantasy plots, but replace the Elves and Dwarves and Dragons with creatures from other mythologies?

Problem:  While I knew a couple creatures that might fit into the plotline I had in mind, I wasn’t that familiar with them.  You might think “these are mythological creatures, so it doesn’t matter what you say about them,” but look at the criticism Stephanie Meyer gets for her sparkling vampires in Twilight — that doesn’t mean you need to get every detail right, but you probably should be familiar, at a minimum, with the basics of the myths behind these creatures, at least, or you risk annoying a lot of people.  I had to delve into the research.

I only needed a few animals for my bestiary, to make the book work, but I wanted more than just a “few.”  In that quest, I read up on hundreds of mythological creatures, most of which never made it in.  Some of the ones which didn’t are merely “didn’t yet,” though, and others have sparked ideas for other stories.  This was a lesson that even when you know what you’re looking for you can get a lot of misses in with your hits, but that can still be a good thing.

To start my research, I went off to Wikipedia.  Now, I reiterate that Wikipedia is actually a very poor source for research (although sometimes it gives you enough information for certain purposes).  It can be a good jumping off point, however, if the topic is too controversial.  And it is a wonderful source of lists.  Thanks to Wikipedia, I could create my new bestiary by pulling from the lists:  Extinct animals, Mythological (now called Legendary) Creatures, and Cryptids.

I skimmed most of the articles (it took days just to do this much with all of them, but this was the heavy research period).  I bookmarked a number to consider for potential roles in the book, set aside one I had already decided on using, and discarded a bunch for being either too common (anything related to vampires or zombies, basically) or too ordinary (I can’t remember which one it was, but there was one that broke down to “it’s a meat-eating cow!  A cannibal cow!  Run!”  Er, yeah).

But for most of them, I had to do a lot of reading, even just on wikipedia, to figure out what made these mythological (or not-so-mythological, in the case of a few of them) creatures theoretically tick.

I will say that the Kitsune, especially, I tried to fit with the myth most in terms of tangible characteristics… but not necessarily in attitude and character.  I tried hard to make sense of some things.

For example, they were said to always have a ball (or jewel) called a “tama.”  If this tama was taken from them, they would panic, and give anything to get it back.  In the myths, they claimed these tama would do nothing for humans, just for Kitsune.  But what the tama did for a kitsune, there was no explanation (well, none that I could find; I am hobbled by not being able to read the original Japanese myths, and have to make do with someone else’s translations).

Kitsune were known as tricksters with the magic of illusions and several other, similar traits… but I saw no evidence of this whenever they approached someone who had taken their tama, even though I could concoct a myriad of ways for them to retrieve their tama if they did use these powers.  Well… it isn’t explicitly stated, but doesn’t it make sense that these tama would be the “power source” (or focus, or whatever — similar to magic wands in Harry Potter, in my view) for the Kitsune’s illusory magic?

I’m not going to reveal everything about what factors were research and what were logicked or made up about the major players in my book — the Kitsune, the Wulver, the Haltija, the Bunyips, etc. — because, well, that would spoil a lot of the fun in it.  In fact, beyond what I’ve already stated, I’m not going to mention them at all.  Instead, this is going to focus on a sampling of the cryptids I did research: Why I chose them, what I learned about them, and why I ultimately didn’t include them in the story.

EXTINCT ANIMALS

If Elves, Dwarves, and Dragons are considered “cliché,” I figured horses, chickens, oxen, and so forth must be as well.  They appear in so many books, you know?

Okay, so I didn’t get rid of ALL the horses, chickens, oxen, and so forth, but I figured I should expand my fictional world’s selection of livestock beyond these “cliché” animals.  I figured most mythological creatures would be a little too strange for human domestication, but perhaps I could find a set of extinct animals instead.

The first extinct animal I considered were Moas.  Now, I didn’t really think I needed to do much research on moas — after all, they showed up in a lot of Discovery Channel shows on extinct animals as the prey species all those extinct post-dinosaur preditors ate.  We’re talking a 300-500 lb. flightless bird, here.  Basically, a giant kiwi (or ostrich, or tinamou…).  I could include them in the story as part of the setting — someone might be a moa farmer; domesticated moa for food, moa drawing carts, moa being hooked up to plows, etc.  The most common “background” animal in the game was there, waiting for me, without a single bit of research required.

Then someone reminded me of Final Fantasy, and the video game creature the Chocobo.

Well, as I didn’t want my fantasy world to too closely resemble one of the most recognizable video game series in the history of video games, I scrapped those ideas.  I may have left an artifact or two of my original plans (I can’t remember for sure if any of the Moa survived the purge from my manuscript), but I couldn’t use them quite as prolifically as I had planned.

But horses, oxen, cows, and so forth are boring (at least as boring as Elves, Dwarves, and Dragons, right?), so I went looking for something else.

I considered Dire Wolves (too Game of Thrones), Mylodons (interesting, but no opportunity to include them), Camelops (too indistinquishable from camels), and Aurouchs (those almost made it in, but I instead used a different critter).  Really, my scouting of extinct species wound up being something of a bust.

I may have, however, solved a bit of a family mystery… but that leads us into our next category of critters.

CRYPTIDS

A cryptid can be many things — a creature that is, as Wikipedia describes it, a creature that has been suggested to exist, but has not yet been scientifically documented.

This can mean creatures of myth and folklore that there might be some sort of real-life basis for, or creatures that have been declared extinct that are rumored to still exist.

My mother used to teach English in Kanazawa, Japan.  While she lived in a city, there was the occasional bit of wildlife wandering the streets.  One night, my mother recalls, she literally walked right into the middle of a pack of Japanese red wolves.  She was understandably shocked, but they didn’t bother her and she was able to walk through them without any issues.

Problem:  This breed of wolf supposedly went extinct in 1904.  It was the 1960s.

They are, however, a cryptid:  There were sightings of these wolves for decades after they “went extinct,” but there wasn’t any scientific documentation of them.  Now, it’s been over fifty years; even if they were still alive back then, so if there were a few lingering packs of this breed of wolf still alive back then they probably are all gone now.  However, finding that these wolves were cryptids (or rather, that she wasn’t the only person who sighted them after they were declared extinct) makes the  idea that they really weren’t extinct more realistic than the thought she walked through a pack of ghost wolves.

And it wouldn’t be the first time a supposed cryptid was found to be real.  Witness the Okapi:  A sort of cross between a giraffe and a zebra.  It was believed to be pure folklore, but one man spent fourty years trying to convince the world it existed.  Not only did it exist, it was a common animal, with large herds to be found throughout Africa.  The end result became the poster child for those who feel cryptozoology is more science than psuedoscience.  (Literally; the Okapi was adopted as the symbol of the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology).

The problem is that cryptids aren’t all extinct animals that might still be around, or common creatures we just have a hard time believing exist until confronted by whole live specimens.  Cryptozoology is a fringe science, at best, because too many cryptozoologist (especially amateurs) are little more than the stereotypical Bigfoot Hunter — chasing a myth in the least scientific way imaginable.  The discipline hasn’t had a real success since a name for it was derived.

But, that bit about cryptozoology aside, there are quite a few creatures that fit into the category of Cryptid that are good material for fiction — even cryptids which are known hoaxes.

If I were writing a Terry Pratchetesque Light Fantasy, I might consider including something like a Wild Haggis into the story… but that wasn’t what I was going for.  I did, however, have an interest in adding Jackelopes to my plans.

Well, researching Jackalopes turned up quite a few critters I’d never heard of (or only heard brief mentions of), before — Wolpertingers, Rasselbocks, Skvaders, Al-mi’raj, and any number of horned rabbits.  Most of these are derived from taxidermic hoaxes, and a few may have been the result of a viral disease, but it didn’t matter:  I had a whole set of related creatures I could use for populating my fictional world.  I could make some of them domesticated breeds, some wild, some of different sizes or shapes….

I did a lot of research into the myths of horned rabbits.  They actually made it into the book… but while I had done hours of research on them, I think they contributed little more than a paragraph or two to the story.

On the other end of the spectrum, there was the Amarok (which I would, forever after, mistakenly type as Aramok.  My dyslexia strikes again.  I think we eventually got them all corrected to the proper spelling, but I’m not sure).  I read the Wikipedia article and never followed up on my research.  I planned to include it, but only as part of a throwaway scene.  Yet, because it fit in so well with something I needed doing involving a Kitsune character (Kitsune, I had learned, were afraid of dogs and wolves; a giant wolf was the perfect creature to play upon a Kitsune’s worst fear) I wound up featuring the Aramok in an inciting background incident — far more of an appearance than the brief mention of the various horned rabbits I’d spent hours researching.

I think I did just about the right amount of research on some creatures I wound up using, but while they might appear on lists of cryptids, I think they’d be better discussed in the final category I was drawing from for my bestiary:  Creatures from Myth and Legend.

MYTHOLOGICAL CREATURES

Humanity has come up with a lot of mythological creatures in the millennia upon millennia of human history.  Some of these turn out to really exist (though their mythological properties may not be quite what the myths claim), like the Hoan Kiem Turtle of Vietnamese myth.  Others are possibly misinterpretations of other critters, like oarfish being mistaken as sea monsters.  Some are fairly believeable and realistic, like the Poukai, which may be a cultural memory of the extinct Haast’s Eagle.

Many of them, though, are pretty hard to believe.  I mean, suppose you heard about a creature that was a water spirit, greatly dreaded by the locals.  It is described as a giant starfish with a “dog-like face, a crocodile-like head, dark fur, a horse’s tail, flippers, walrus-like tusks, and a duck-like bill.”  A supposed corpse of this creature was measured as “eleven paces long and four paces in breadth.”  Would you believe such a thing might exist?

But that is the Bunyip.  A creature of aboriginal Australian folklore, the Bunyip never appears described in the same way twice… but it inspires fear and terror.  Every account claimed they were a large monster, preferred living near rivers or wetlands, territorial, deadly, and fiercely protective of their young… but their physical appearance changed with every person who spoke of them.

Not much to go on, is it?  But hey — sometimes ambiguity can help you.  Suppose the reason all bunyips are described differently is that they’re shapeshifters?  Suddenly, you’ve got something.  Keep them very deadly, maybe add a story-specific power or two, and hey — you’ve got a creature that can be a deadly danger for your characters.

And in another “good for the story, but I can’t find much there,” I had the haltija.  Known by about a dozen different names (including Vaki, which I used in the book), they are a sort of “guardian spirit” from myths of Finnish origin.  They come in a lot of varieties (distinguished, in the book, as different breeds of vaki), but most are small, playful brownie-like creatures with powers related to the element they are guarding; until you get them mad.  Then… well, it depends.

There are a lot of mythical creatures, however, who simply don’t work in the kind of fantasy story I like to write… and I’m not just talking the hundreds of variations on vampires, zombies, and werewolves out there.  I mean, I was looking for intelligent humanoid creatures of myth, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with angry humans who could run fast despite backwards feet (the Abarimon), or headless men like the Blemmyes.  I needed beasts of burden, but a camel with the head of a donkey (the allocamelus) is just boring.  And while I wanted background animals, how the heck would you use a fairy hedgehog?  (Don’t answer that — I think I’ve got an idea.  But it wouldn’t have worked in this book).

I did, however, find a number of creatures I could use… but I didn’t need to do much research on them once I found them (basically, all I had to do was confirm that they were myths and not fiction.  Wait a second, here… um… confirm that Wikipedia hadn’t come up with these myths on its own?  That there was some actual myth behind these myths?  Okay, that works):  Firebreathing chickens (basan), donkey-sized “unicorns” that would work as beasts of burden (abada), venemous crocodile-shark hybrids (wani), and more could add a lot to my world without requiring huge amounts of research (or large amounts of description).

But for some of these creatures, I had to dig deeper.

DEEPER RESEARCH

At a certain point, I figured I had enough critters to fill out a bestiary.  It was time to start the more intensive research.

For major races (substituted for the Elves and Dwarves) I had Kitsune, Wulvers, and Haltija.  To replace the great beasts (Dragons and the like) I had the Amarok and the Bunyip.  And for color and background, I’d decided upon moas (whose role was later diminished), aurochs (whose role was taken by the abadas), abadas, wani, basan, and various horned bunnies I’d bring together under the general term “jackalope.”  And I figured I could include real-life critters like normal chickens, rabbits, cows, pigs, birds, and fish, no matter how cliché these creatures might be.

Time to start writing!  Or not.  I may have already spent several days just reading the Wikipedia articles, by this point, but I hadn’t done any intensive research.  My first stop was to the library… again, or not.  The local public library has a lot of reference material, certainly, but most of what I would need to confirm or get additional details on these critters just wasn’t there.  I had some books with Kitsune myths in my private library, but our collection on mythology focused more on the Greco-Roman tradition than anything else I was looking for, just like the public library.

For most of those lesser critters, I didn’t need to do much research.  Once I confirmed at least one other source (whether it said the same specifics about them as Wikipedia or not) mentioned the amarok, wani, basan, abada, moa, and aurochs I figured I had enough material for them.  Bunyips, well, I glanced around enough to know that no two sources agreed, so there’s nothing “definitive” on the subject; the wikipedia entry would be enough for them, too.

The haltija proved to be a real challenge.  Clearly, they were popular Finnish myths (often associated with Christmas, strangely enough), and I found a number of references to them on the internet, but most were in Finnish (which Google translate isn’t very good with, though the results were sometimes hilarious) and those that weren’t provided very little actual information on what they were.  I did find, somewhere (the link has been broken for a couple years, now; the site went down in the middle of writing the book), a list of what the various breeds of vaki were called.  I had roughly the same information on Wikipedia (it has since been edited out, but it used to be here; you might still be able to find it if you dig into that article’s history far enough), but it was good confirmation.

I copied the list into my notes, thankfully, so at least I had the right names to distinguish them.  The rest of the information on them I needed for my story I had to piece together with, say, a single line of description in one place and a brief paragraph in another.  It was a lot of work, but in the end I put it all together.  And probably used nothing that wasn’t in one of the two Wikipedia articles… (though this was a lesson in saving notes and not just references; I cannot remember the various types of vaki off the top of my head, and I can no longer find the list online, but I still have it in my notes).

Wulvers were another problem.  The only thing I could find on them was a single, short paragraph on Wikipedia.  They were perfect for what I had in mind for my story, though.  In desperation, I checked out Wikipedia’s sources.  I found a reference to a single book — a 1932 book on Shetland Traditional Lore by Jessie Saxby.

A quick trip to bookfinder.com later (bookfinder, by the way, is my favorite tool for finding specific out-of-print titles for purchase.  Not very useful for browsing, but that’s what a used bookstore is for) and I bought the book.  It wasn’t much help — I found that the Wikipedia article was basically a copy of everything that was in the book — but, again, it confirmed that this was not something someone put up on Wikipedia as a joke.  It made it a little more clear that the wulvers were actually just one wulver, singular, in the “traditional lore,” which meant having a whole race of the creatures might be a bit much…

But then, I’ve seen stories where phoenices (phoenixes?  It’s not supposed to even have a plural, so I’m not sure which would be correct) were a relatively common type of magical bird, and the myths usually agree that there was only one.  I went ahead and used the wulvers anyway.

Jackalopes are easy to find material on, and I had  a ton of books (both “myth” and, in the form of manga and anime, “fiction”) on Kitsune.

Now my research was done, and it was time to write.  Well, my research on mythological creatures was done, anyway….

THE END RESULT

Well, you can see my final interpretations of these creatures in the book.

I do plan on sequels.  If I can ever justify taking the time to write it (hint: Buy the book if you want more!) I’ll probably use a few more “rejected” creatures, which will mean more research.  And, to keep all those editors and agents and publishers happy, even though I’m self-publishing, I won’t ever use an Elf or Dwarf or Dragon in these books (at least, none of these by their more recognizeable names and varieties).

That said, my book with the Elves and Dwarves and Dragons has done pretty well, so I think I’ll keep them around in my other works.  Cliché or not, they work.

Weird Things I’ve Had To Research (Part 0/?)

When I completed the Self-Publishing Roundtable series, my plan was to go straight into another set of weekly articles just to keep the momentum going.  Unfortunately, because I’ve been so busy with the edits, I had to set the first article of this new series aside, half-written, to go back and fix those.  I’ll be working to finish that article this week before going back to the edits, and hopefully those won’t take too long and I’ll be able to get something else out for the next Sunday.

The topic of this new series (as you might expect from the title):  Research.  In this case, I’m going to a series of anecdotes about my experiences in research.  While I will discuss my research process, to some extent (at least, in as much as there is a process; my research techniques aren’t quite that… uh, formal), my primary goal is to talk about the things I wasn’t expecting to need to research.

Basically, I’m talking about the moments where you go “I want my characters to do simple chore X.  Wait a minute… do I know how they do simple chore X with that level of technology?  Is it even possible back then?  Uh oh….”  And why, sometimes, you go through hours of research, figure out exactly what you need to know, and then don’t use it after all.

Now, writers say “I’m sure I’m on a watch list somewhere for all the weird things I’ve had to research.”  I’m sure I’m on a watch list somewhere for all the weird things I’ve had to research, too, but I’m not going to talk about those things here (heh).

The first article, for example, is going to be about underwear.  No, seriously.  (And not the ‘sexy’ kind, for the most part; I mean the non-elastic kind.  Because you just might need to know what your adventurer is wearing under his armor when he goes for a swim…)

This article will be the index of all the articles in this series, and will be updated every time I add a new entry in the series.  Unlike the last series, this one has no particular set number of articles.  Also, I’ll probably intersperse articles from this series with other series, follow-up articles, and maybe an actual new book release announcement or two.  So stay tuned!

SERIES INDEX:
  1. Pre-Elastic Underwear:  Let’s Go Swimming!  (Or not)
  2. Filling Fantasy Worlds With Strange Myths And Stranger Cryptids
  3. Making Lemons Out of Lemonade
  4. Thoughts on Constructed Languages
  5. Falling Down the Youtube Hole
  6. TBA…