Category Archives: On Writing

Word Counts…

I put out a call last week, asking for suggestions on what to do with this blog. I got one reply — in e-mail (WHY DOES NO-ONE EVER USE THE COMMENT FEATURE?!) — that suggested I treat the blog as a diary, and talk about what happens in my life. I pretty much do that, already… it’s just that there isn’t enough new material each week to make up a new blog every week, and I’d really like to TRY and keep this blog a weekly thing. So I’m still taking suggestions, if anyone has any.

It’s a good thing I don’t give people weekly (or worse, daily) word count updates. People would get really confused. For the first few weeks, I’d post about having written roughly 1k-2k words per day, which by the end of the third week would accelerate to 6-8k per day. My record is about 12k words in one day, though that was long before I went pro.

I’d top a hundred thousand words about the end of the sixth week… and still be going, since most of my books run about 150k words. Usually at 100k, I’d start slowing down, sometimes to a few mere hundreds of words per day.

For In Division Imperiled, however, it got even worse than that. I got to about 130k-140k, which I’d estimate is about 90% of the way done, about three months after I started. Which is what I told anyone who asked — the book was “90% done,” so hopefully it would be finished shortly. And I STILL HADN’T SLOWED DOWN. I was thinking I’d finish the book in a personal record time.

And then I started trying to knit all the parts of the story together for the conclusion, resolving all the sub-plots (at least, all of those which weren’t setting up something for the next book) for the end.

The story wasn’t stalled in the least. I seemed to be adding newer, better subplots in as I was deleting others, and I was making great progress on them. I was still going about 3-4k words per day… but I was pulling about 5-6k per day at the same time.

In other words, I was going backwards.

By the end of the sixth month, I was down to 110k words. That was the shortest it was cut to after hitting that 140k word plateau, but it wasn’t the last time it shrank. I was back to 140k a month later (this was back around August or so, when I was hoping to be finished in a week or two) when I finally gave up on one fairly massive sub-plot that was threaded throughout the book. One whole chapter, and several large partials, wound up being gutted from the book. I was back down to 115k words. That’s a fine length, if the story is complete, but the tear-out left a lot of gaping “holes” in the story that needed to be filled back in. My editor was expecting the book the same week I’d ripped out that subplot, and my writing speed had dropped back down to about 1k-2k. I was fortunate he allowed me to send him a partial manuscript he could work on while I finished. I’ve had a few other cuts since then, but nothing so drastic.

Earlier this week, I topped over the 140k plateau for the fourth time with this book… and I don’t think there are any subplots left that are likely to be ripped out, this time. I still figure about 150k will be the ultimate length. If I’m able to keep going at 1k-2k per day, I should FINALLY be done in a week or two… only three months late. *sigh*

LINKSHARES!

This week, we have a Halloween-themed linkshare!  Memories of the Abyss, by Cedar Sanderson, is a mystery thriller of novella length the author says is perfect for the season.

Also this week, Stephanie Osborn has released the eighth book of her space opera series, Division One, with Phantoms.

That’s it for this week. Happy reading!

Titular Inspiration

This post will be one of those dreaded “status report” posts I mentioned last week; sigh.  At least there’s some actual news in this one.

I’m approaching the end of the next Law of Swords manuscript, and earlier this week I was distracted a bit by thinking about “What’s next?”

Well, what I WANT to work on is the sequel to the Kitsune Stratagem, or maybe the Rink of War novel-length expansion, but the success of The Merrimack Event has bumped the next installment of that series to “highest priority,” so that’s next in the queue.

There is still quite a bit of work I need to do before I can get started on that, however. First off, I need to finish the next Law of Swords book, and fast — my editor has an unexpected opening in his schedule, but if I don’t finish it soon I’ll have to hire someone else.  But once that’s done, I’ll have to immediately go into planning out the Shieldclads series.

I do have an outline for the next several books, but it’s been untouched for the past 13 years.  I’ve grown as a writer since then, and see lots of weaknesses in those outlines, so I think I’m just going to start over.  I’ll cannibalize those planned elements from the outlines that I THINK (13 years; I have a good long-term memory, but not THAT good) I was setting up, mind you, and I intend to keep the gist of the story each outline tells together, but I’ll need to re-do them as if from scratch.

And I’ll need a title.  Even if it’s just “Untitled Number (#N)”, I need at least a working title before I can begin.  It’ll just bug me if I don’t (and even having a working title can be a distraction).

Well, I DID need a title.  Even knowing I was going to re-do the outline, I have some idea of how the rest of the series should go.  I spent a large part of a day, this past week, working out titles for the next several books in the series… and would up coming up with a few other ideas along the way.  Each title has a historic reference which you can probably guess relates, in some way, to the book.

With that in mind, the next few Shieldclads books will (at least for now; I may re-arrange the order or change other things about them along the way) be entitled:

Book II:  The Farragut Affair

Book III:  The Casemate Incident

Book IV:  The Lissa Experience

But, as I said, I came up with some other ideas along the way.  Researching the titles themselves inspired some other ideas, which may (MAY) result in a set of short stories set in the same universe, as well.  These would be:

I.  The Gwiseon Enigma (A prequel story about earlier experiments in creating Shieldclads, named after the first-generation Korean Turtle Ships).

II.  The Keokuk Occasion (Named for the USS Keokuk, and set between The Farragut Affair and The Casemate Incident.  I’d explain this one but, uh, spoilers.

III.  The Manassas Mishap (Named for the CSS Manassas, and set during The Casemate Incident)

IV.  The Novara Farewell (named for the SMS Novara and set during The Lissa Experience).

So, that’s the big news:  I am thinking of writing a set of short stories to go with each new Shieldclads book… and I’m thinking about giving them away for FREE!  (Okay, if you’re any kind of reader of indie books at all, you probably have seen a ton of “FREE” books, and have downloaded so many that you couldn’t possibly read them all)  At least they’ll be free at first, and exclusively off of my website (FennecFoxPress.com, though with the limitations of the site my internet provider imposes, the actual downloads may need to come from somewhere on Maelgyn.com (note this blog’s URL).  That’s why my website is spread across two URLs — some features are only available on one or the other.  But that’s a technical issue I’ll resolve when I get to it, not something you need to know right now).  Then, at some point not TOO long afterwards (say, a week or two?), I’ll be uploading them to Amazon.  KDP requires a minimum of $0.99 per “book” (short story, or whatever), so I’ll then be pulling the free copies down.  So, it’ll really only be free for people who follow my blog (hi!), my newsletter, and\or my Facebook\Twitter\Etc. pages.  So… stay tuned.

I have other news, however.  My local library is hosting an “Eat Local, Read Local” event (note that the website is referring to last year’s event; they don’t have a website for this year’s, yet) and as a local author I’ve been invited to participate.  It will be held at the Cascades Library on September 29th, from 10am to 1pm, and I will be selling my print books (signing them, if you want) at the event.  I’ll present more details as we get closer to the event (and I get them, myself).

And… that’s it, for today.

Inspiration for the OTHER Parts of Writing….

I wasn’t entirely sure what to write for a blog this week. Most of the things I could think of were too involved to complete in a week, and doing yet another status report (I’m still working on the next book. I hope to have the next installment of the Law of Swords series sent off to the editor by August (I better; he has an unexpected opening in his schedule, and if I get it to him by then I may not have to find another editor for this series, after all), which should allow for it to be published by year’s end, and for me to move on to the second Shieldclads book) when I had no real news felt a little boring.

Fortunately, I was saved from having to either skip this week or do just that when a certain crowdfunding project popped up in my newsfeed and inspired this post. It is an effort, by one of the original creators, to produce the sequel to one of my favorite computer game series… from the 1980s: Starflight (well, technically, Starflight 2 was the only one I played back then). The campaign is not fully launched, yet (they’re trying to get a handle on how much funding they need), but it’s looking like a direct sequel to the originals. I haven’t had time to play an involved computer game in quite some time, however — it’s been months, I think, since I even opened a game significantly more complex than the “Reversi Free” game on my cell phone.  Despite that, I did make a small pledge to support the game, already.  The earliest it will be out is 2020 (and if they actually make that deadline, I’ll be shocked; I’ve never known a crowd-funded computer game that was delivered on time), so maybe I’ll be able to fit it into my schedule by then.

I loved those games. Some of my other favorite games from that era were the Ancient Art of War (and its sequel, the Ancient Art of War at Sea), Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Red Storm Rising (also by Sid Meier, curiously enough, but based on the Tom Clancy novel), and (squeaking in at the end of that era) the Wing Commander series.*

One thing all these games had in common: Absolutely fantastic, well-designed, well-illustrated, and heavily lore-filled… manuals (sometimes not just manuals; some games came with other material that just added to the fun of getting a boxed game edition.  Nowadays, it seems every game manual you get, even with a boxed game, is little more than what the quick start guide was back then). In the days before every lore-rich game has its own fan-compiled Wiki and computer games had their own novel series written for them (and sometimes even after they started getting their own books), the game manual would often be the definitive source of canon for the lore.

The Ancient Art of War included a complex discussion of strategy and tactics (and the differences between the two, and it included an abridged version of Sun Tzu’s original text). It’s sequel had textbook-level discussions of many of the greatest naval battles in the history of the age of sail. Sid Meier’s Pirates! had bits of humor, a discussion of the different types of ships and arms and bits of history from the era of the early colonization of the Caribbean. It explained why they programmed the ships in the game to react to wind the way they do, and they made it FUN. I learned more about the history of fighting sail from those game manuals than I EVER did in school (and later would read quite a bit more, and learned that while there were some inaccuracies, these manuals were closer to the scholarly accepted truth of these events than any account I could find in my high-school era or earlier texts, including some produced by the US Navy for JROTC). They weren’t novels, nor were they textbooks, nor were they scholarly texts. I’d hesitate to say they were even manuals (at least, compared to what most people think of when they hear the words “software manual”). But they were brilliant examples of writing. I’ve saved a couple of them until today… (I would have saved all of them, but I think the Pirates! manual fell apart from over-use).

I’d say the same was true of the Starflight manuals, and the Wing Commander manuals. These were fun, small texts, again filled with lore, and were excellent examples of worldbuilding.  The Starflight manuals opened with briefing notes on the state of the universe, before discussing the game functions in a less “in-character” way.  (Just curious — does anybody know a term for the inverse of ‘breaking the fourth wall,’ where you’re writing a non-fiction account of a fictional matter, then switch “in character” to the fiction for a moment?  Because these manuals did just that, once or twice).  They would describe the mechanics of the game, give touches of gameplay advice, and intersperse all of that with snippets of fictional “transmissions” and “captains logs” and the like, which were meant to give you clues on how to solve various puzzles throughout the game.  Then it would have an appendix with charts, illustrations, etc. regarding the materials that could be collected in game.

The Wing Commander series manuals (and, curiously, the Red Storm Rising manual) started out in similar fashion (If I recall correctly; I was able to find a copy of the original Starflight manuals online to verify my recollections, but I couldn’t with these).  Their appendices instead were more like “Janes Fighting Ships” entries, detailing the various fighters, capital ships, and equipment you could encounter throughout the game.

I won’t say these sorts of game manuals have gone away completely (I don’t buy NEARLY enough games, nowadays, to say anything of the sort; I do know the 2004 Pirates! remake had a similar style manual, but I’m coming to believe that was a rare exception), but I think a lot of what used to be in the manuals aren’t there any more.  The material’s still around, but its been moved inside the game itself, like the “books” your create-a-character can read in the Elder Scrolls games.  In some ways, this allows for even more of these worldbuilding bits to be included in the lore.  You can’t curl up in bed with them like you can a book (or a Kindle), though (don’t be pedantic and mention laptops; yes, technically, that can work, but laptops generally aren’t that good for gaming, and are harder to “curl up” with than a book).

Again, I’ve tried to keep these books around, but I think I was a bit less successful here — the Starflight 2 manual was once dropped in a bathtub (don’t ask), and I haven’t found the game manuals from the Wing Commander series since my last move.  While I had them, though, they were fun reading — sometimes, even after I stopped playing the games, I would pull them out, curl up in bed, and read these manuals just for nostalgic fun.

So what is the point of all this?  Well, as much as I was waxing nostalgic, it isn’t just to lament the long-forgotten art of computer game manuals.  It’s to talk about applying writing lessons from unexpected sources.  In this case, those old computer game manuals proved to be an excellent model of worldbuilding, for me.

Were I to do a touch of editing (and some additional reconstruction; a portion of them were lost in one of the incidents that delayed The Merrimack Event’s release, and while I reconstructed the important bits I did that a little haphazardly), the notes I wrote up for my own use in the Rink of War universe would greatly resemble the Wing Commander\Red Storm Rising\etc.-style appendices.  My outlines will sometimes include little diary entries\captains logs like you find in the Starflight manuals — things which likely won’t ever make it into the books, themselves, but which help me figure out what the characters are thinking.

You often hear people say “Inspiration comes in many forms” when it comes to story ideas, and writers often take experiences from real life to plot their books around. I’ve come up with childrens book ideas (which I’m not sure I’ll ever have time to write) just by watching the birds at our birdfeeder, myself.  I don’t think most writers think to apply the same thought process to other aspects of their writing careers, however.  When veteran book designers are giving advice to amateurs, they often say to “look at books you like” as examples to base their books around, but there are a lot of self-publishers who still have no idea how to go about formatting their books.  So how many writers would think to apply the lessons learned from game manuals from the 1980s when it comes to writing up notes for their books?

Just a thought.

*- I’d also like to mention the Sierra Classic games, which are also favorites of mine from that era and also contain lots of good examples of good worldbuilding and complex lore. Most of the best examples of the writing of those games were IN the games, not the manuals, however. Oh, and while I’m at it, I might as well mention “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego,” which I think was the last game I bought for my old Commodore 64; I didn’t play that game for very long (I switched over to a PC not long after), but it came with a copy of a (real, unadulterated for the game) desk encyclopedia I still have and may occasionally still use now and then.

On Easter Eggs…

(I had this post in mind to write months ago, last Easter, but it wasn’t possible to write and post it back then for a variety of reasons.  Even though it’s no longer Easter, there’s no real connection beyond the name, so I figured I’d go ahead and write it now)

In 1979, a programmer for Atari, working on the game “Adventure,” was fed up with not being credited for his work. In secret, he added a feature that could be used to display his name, and never told his bosses even after he left the company. When Atari management learned of it, they considered removing the unauthorized feature, but instead decided to leave it in. Atari started adding more ‘hidden’ features for customers, calling them “Easter Eggs.”  (I pulled this bit of history entirely from the link; I’ll just assume it’s the truth and not apocryphal)  These of often fun little inside jokes, though sometimes (in software, at least) can add quite a bit of enjoyment to the game.

I like to have fun with my writing, even when writing about serious things.  Among other ways of doing so, I include ‘Easter Eggs,’ ‘Inside Jokes,’ whatever you want to call them.  Often, for me, this is in the form of ‘fantasy’ languages (for example, mid-way through In Treachery Forged, the characters partake in a Dwarven ‘Fu’Ro Bath‘), making subtle references to my other books and stories (such as when, in one draft (not the first) of The Merrimack Event‘s prologue, the archaeology expedition was digging up a building which greatly resembled the Royal Castle of Svieda; those details did not survive to the final draft, however), or giving characters certain meaningful names (like when I use one of the monuments in the city of Norre to add a expy-like tribute to the 1974 Washington Capitals season (and, in an earlier draft, to a certain Monty Python movie, but again that didn’t survive to the final version).  In my fantasy novels, many of the names I use are derived from names pulled off of international hockey rosters, and the Washington Capitals have long been my favorite team (WE GOT THE CUP! Uh… sorry; it’s been weeks and I’m still quite happy about that one).  Their inaugural season, in 1974, was an exercise in futility, however).

The difference between an inside joke and an ‘easter egg’ (at least, in this context) is that an easter egg is hidden away, but could be recognized if you know to look for it.  Most of the jokes mentioned above?  I try not to give any indication that they’re jokes, when seen in context, but it might be obvious to people in the know.  If you know Japanese, the ‘Fu’Ro bath’ was probably pretty obvious.  The archaeological dig’s discoveries might have been a bit obvious to my regular readers, if that scene had survived intact.  I’m not so sure casual fans of the Washington Capitals would recognize that particular tribute, but someone who was particularly knowledgeable on the team’s history might see it an go “wait, what?”

The trouble comes with what happens if you want your Easter Egg to refer to one thing, but readers might think it refers to something else.  I really, really wanted to name a character of a recently-written scene Ubleck the Unbreakable, who would have had an odd fondness for certain types of custard-like puddings, but would readers (those who recognized the reference, anyway) think of the non-newtonian fluid, or the Dr. Seuss book it was named after?  Or would people recognize the reference at all?  Does it even matter?

Well, sadly, Ubleck the Unbreakable will NOT be appearing in the next Law of Swords book — I’ve already cut the character and merged his role in with someone else’s, so the pudding fiend will be saved for another time… perhaps.  But at least he reminded me of something I wanted to blog about, so there is that.

Observations From My First Experience with Kindle Select

We’ll get to a discussion of The Merrimack Event in a moment, but first I have a bit of news:  I must not have embarrassed myself too badly, because Ravencon wants me back.  That makes TWO conventions (both in the same Williamsburg hotel, oddly enough) willing to let a self-published hack (whose newly released book has been in the top-500 for much of this week, and was tagged as  Amazon’s number one hot new release in certain subgenre) appear as a guest speaker.

I haven’t yet requested a reading, book signing, table, or similar opportunity for hand-selling my books at either Ravencon or Marscon.  I’ve certainly considered it, but I haven’t had the technical capabilities nor (consequently) have I bothered to fill out the sales tax forms needed to hand-sell books.

I’m not sure I’ll have everything I need done by either convention, but I recently took the first step towards being able to (legally) hand-sell my books:  I upgraded my (old-fashioned flip-style) cell phone to a new (albeit inexpensive, starting-level) Android-powered Smartphone, with which I should be able to add a credit card reader of some sort (such as Square or Paypal. I want to talk to the bank (specifically, a financial advisor working for my credit union) before I decide on which one, just in case the bank has a special deal with one or another, as some do).  There’s been a bit of a a transition period (my new phone, uh, doesn’t actually work as a phone.  It makes calls okay, and I can hear people just fine, but they can’t hear me beyond a buzzing sound.  The microphone has been tested and works, and tech support says it’s something on their end… but they haven’t figured out what, yet, and they want me to wait “three business days” to see if they can fix it.  If I can get everything working in time (not just the phone, but the card reader and the tax forms), I might approach the conventions and request one of those hand-selling opportunities, after all.

Also, I completed the book block and cover for the print edition and sent them to the printer.  Ordered a proof copy… and got back a minor disaster.  Createspace somehow decided that my cover wasn’t conforming to their standards (even though it was set up to match their stated standards to the pixel) and “adjusted the size” of the text of the spine.  I… well, maybe I’ll let this photo show you just why that seems to be such a problem.

I’ll have to be making corrections for that.  I’ll also be fixing some minor typos in the manuscript of The Merrimack Event that were discovered post-ebook-publication, shortly.  I’ve already had one person e-mail me a set of typos they found, and my mother (heh) found another set.

Those corrections will be uploaded to KDP roughly around the same time I approve of the final print proof, to give myself (and any other fans who want to let me know of anything they find) a chance to discover any other possible issues.  While I try to put out the best quality book I can the first time, the final proof is done by just one person (me) and I do miss things, on occasion, and inevitably will have to issue corrections, so I do appreciate those people who point things out to me even after publication.

Now, for the post I’ve been working on for the past couple weeks:  As I mentioned at the time I first published it, I used the publication of The Merrimack Event as my first exploration of the Kindle Select Program. Now a few weeks in, I have some observations:

  • Reviews do appear to come faster from the book on Kindle Select than they have with any other book I’ve published.  I don’t know if that’s solely from the book itself or from the Select program.
  • For whatever reason, the charts on my KDP dashboard seem to update the “Page Reads” figure (based on the Kindle Edition Normalized Pages, or KENP; how it calculates the size of a KENP, I’m not certain) much faster than the sales figures.  There was one day when I went to bed (after midnight) with thirty-eight sales for the day and 50,757 page reads.  I woke up the next morning, and that day’s totals instead said I had sixty-five sales… and 50,757 page reads.  I noticed that happen more than once, in fact.  Incidentally, Amazon calculates The Merrimack Event as being 737 KENP long.
  • It is possible to increase your sales rank when your sales total drops, thanks to page reads.
  • In Treachery Forged had been my highest-ranking book ever, hitting the top-20 sales ranking in the SciFi-Fantasy categories and the top-2000 in overall Amazon sales ranking.  Strangely, at the time I’m writing this (I’ve been composing this post for weeks, now; I started it well before the post announcing my Marscon invite went up), I’ve overwhelmingly beaten it in the overall Amazon sales ranking (the highest I’ve seen, so far, was around top-500; I’m hoping it gets better before I post), but I’ve yet to even make the top-100 list for the overall SciFi-Fantasy categories.  I did break the top 100 of the Scifi-Fantasy\SciFi subcategory, however.  Probably has nothing to do with KDP Select, but worth noting.
  • In Treachery Forged sold about the same number of copies per day, if not more, at a top-2000 sales ranking (it’s first month’s release) as The Merrimack Event has at a top-500… but I’m guessing The Merrimack Event topped it thanks to page reads.  So if you were wondering if page reads factor into the rankings, it appears they do.
  • Speaking of In Treachery Forged, the success of The Merrimack Event has helped spark new sales for that and my other books as well.  The boost for my other books hasn’t been NEARLY as large as the boost that In Forgery Divided provided.  The other books are in a different genre (Fantasy vs. Science Fiction, which despite the effort of some people to convince people otherwise ARE different genre with different fanbases, even if those fanbases overlap and co-mingle), so that’s probably the difference.
  • If the page read totals remain high, I may decide to renew my KDP Select for another 90 day period.  Reviewing many of the KDP select horror stories, I intend to minimize my risks by never taking a book OUT of wide distribution to put it into Select, so for me that’ll be a one-way trip.  So, while I still intend to EVENTUALLY send it wide, it won’t be until the page reads drop to the point that sending it wide makes viable economic sense.

And… that’s it, so far.  I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the subject, sooner or later.  In the meantime… my Birthday is this Wednesday (September 20th), and adding a little signal boost pushing for more sales and reviews of any or all of my books would be a really good birthday present.

Edit:  Spammers are very aggressively moving back through my blog to try and hit the comments section.  Closing this one to new comments, too… (will they keep going back until they hit the posts that the software auto-closes comments on, I wonder?)

Ravencon Panels (I actually DID do): Swords Not Required

Note:  As I was writing this blog last night, I learned that the print edition for the anthology World’s Enough, Fantastic Defenders, in which my story “A Gun for Shalla” appears, had appeared in print on Amazon.  This was a bit of a surprise for me, even if I knew it was SUPPOSED to be released soon (I was told the book launch would be at Balticon, which is next weekend), because I was expecting at least one more communication requiring my response before it was released.  But, hey, it’s out!  There are several good stories in this anthology in addition to my own, so buy your copy, today!

And now on to the regularly scheduled (and delayed for an evening) blog….

When I saw this panel on the long list of possible Ravencon panels, I was quick to pick it.  And, it turns out, it became my first panel (as a pro) ever.

Now, if you haven’t read my books you might not guess it (after all, I have a series I’ve called the “Law of Swords” series), but I frequently use weapons other than swords in my fiction.  So I was quite ready to discuss the topic…

And then I was made moderator.  While I could pick which questions to ask the panel, time management issues meant I couldn’t answer them.  I wasn’t really disappointed (I got all kinds of interesting discussion based on the questions I posed), but I do want to give my own answers to my “questions for the panel”:

I.  Why are Swords so compelling in fantasy fiction, and which of those characteristics would you recommend when considering a different type of weapon for your main character?
There are many reasons swords are a great weapon for the main character of a sword-and-sorcery style fantasy series (beyond just, well, the word “sword” is used in the genre name).
1. For one thing, it is the iconic weapon of the middle ages (though it probably shouldn’t be; the iconic weapon SHOULD be the English Longbow, or the horse-mounted pike, or… well, several other options which would have been more commonly and effectively used by the warriors of the middle ages, but because they were the weapon of choice for symbolical reasons during the crusades; after all, the cross guards used in the swords of the time made them look like crosses).  Most sword-and-sorcery fantasies are set in the middle ages.  So, it just makes sense.
2. Tactically, swords are equally good offensively and defensively.  My fellow panelist (and Ravencon Literary Guest of Honor) Chuck Gannon brought this up and discussed it extensively.
3. Swords have been used (are still used, though mostly ceremonially, today) for thousands of years, though for long stretches of time they were more of a secondary weapon.   Outside of some style differences, a “sword” is a fairly universal thing; if you are writing a fantasy, it doesn’t matter where in the technological timeframe you set your fiction, a sword of some sort would be available.  This wouldn’t necessarily be true (for example) of a handheld crossbow, or many types of throwing weapons used (theoretically) by ninja, or other more exotic types of weaponry.  And we know they have really be used in combat, unlike, say, the military flail.
4. Now, this is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” thing, but swords are popular for writers (or movie people) to use as a weapon because their use is already popular enough that people can easily visualize how swords work.  It’s almost impossible to grow up without being exposed to some sort of sword fight in movies or television, and while I’ve heard on occasion that the style of sword fighting used in movies isn’t historically accurate, people will be able to picture SOME kind of sword fighting as you write your fight scene.
So, to sum up, some of the characteristics that might be useful for you to consider when choosing a weapon for your character are:  Symbolism, effectiveness both offensive and defensive, does not appear out of place in the technological timeframe of your fantasy, and the audience understanding how it works.  We’ll touch a bit on some of these in the next few questions, so let’s leave it there for now.

II.  Different weapons have different “best use” characteristics — bows and arrows are better used at range, ninja tools are best used for the assassin type, spear-and-shield are best used in group tactics, and so forth. Does the choice of weapon you give your main character affect their personality, and if so how?

I really should have asked whether the weapon “affects or is affected by” their personality when I asked this at the convention, because you might not decide on a weapon until after you’ve finished designing all the other aspects of your character.  Regardless, the weapon you choose to arm your character with can easily shape or be shaped by the character’s personality.
If your character is a pikeman (spearman, part of the shield wall, whatever), you had better be able to get along with your fellow soldier or you aren’t going to live very long; while you can apply some other polearm styles to a spear and use it successfully, they really aren’t intended for one on one fighting.
If your character is using assassins’ tools, they (or their trainer, if they’re still learning how to use them) probably have some significant secrets in their background.
If your character is using a bow and arrow… well, they either need a secondary weapon for close in fighting (most commonly a sword or dagger, as seen by Legolas in the Lord of the Rings and Robin Hood in most versions of his tale.  It doesn’t have to be a sword, however; in The Kitsune Stratagem, I gave my male lead a bow and arrow with a modified version of a ninja tool for close range fighting) or they need to hang back from the center of the action.
I could go on, but I think you get the point.  The tactics required to use the weapon, the style of combat suggested by the weapon, the range of the weapon, and so forth all make differences in how you expect the character to behave.  If they break the expected behavior, you have to justify that.  So, if you have an anti-social spearman, you’re going to have to justify that.  If your character is an assassin who blabs out everything about his life at the bar every week, you’re going to have to justify that.  Well… you get the idea.

III.  Certain archetypal fantasy races have weapons they’re expected to carry — a significant plotline in my Law of Swords series came about because of an argument I had over whether Dwarven Axemen made tactical sense or not. If you give an atypical weapon to your fantasy race character — for example, a heavy warhammer wielded by a stereotypical high fantasy elf — how much explanation do you think is necessary?

You know, I spent a lot of time answering OTHER moderator’s questions with “it depends,” it is fitting I need to give that answer to one of my own questions.
If all you’re doing is giving your Dwarf a nice sword, or some kind of ranged weapon, or something of that ilk — something that you would expect them to be able to handle, even if you were expecting them to have an axe or a warhammer — you don’t really need to give any explanation.  On the other hand, if you’re giving, say, a zanbatou to a hobbit, you need more of an explanation than the Rule of Cool.
But you might WANT to explain why your characters are being armed with atypical weapons.  There’s a reason you picked those weapons, right?  If it’s anything more than a whim, don’t you think your audience might also be interested?

IV.  No-one thinks twice if your magically-inclined characters decide to use a small twig — also known as a wand — in battle, even if small twigs were never used that way in real life combat. Do you think — IN FANTASY — that you can get away with inventing a completely original type of weapon for your non-magical characters?  If so, what cautions would you suggest authors consider when inventing these weapons?
An admission:  I asked this question because I did this, myself (sort of) in The Kitsune Stratagem.  I took a real life weapon, a ninja tool (though a variation that was typical of the legend rather than the accepted historical form), and altered it to be a little more portable.
So, obviously my answer to this question is “yes,” I do think writers can get away with inventing original fantasy weapons.  But I think they need to be careful:  Don’t throw your readers out of your universe by making too complicated a weapon, or something too anacronistic.  If no other society in your world is using gears, having someone carry around a clockwork-powered repeating crossbow would throw your reader out of place.

And that’s how I WOULD have answered my own questions.

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Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): One Man’s Villain Is Another Man’s Hero

This is the fifth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.  (I noted last week I had apparently been cut from several of the panels I was originally scheduled for; well, the program guide has been… well, not quite finalized, because these sorts of things tend to change at the last minute, but close enough — they’ve made a PDF of the schedule public here. In the end I was put back on some of those I originally feared I had been cut from, and should now be on listed on six panels, which (assuming nothing changes) I’ll mention next week.

One Man’s Villain is Another Man’s Hero

Here is the Ravencon write-up for this panel:

Twirling mustaches and obvious evil plans are a thing of the past. Today’s villains and heroes are as complicated as the world we live in. Discuss with our panelists what makes the difference between villain and hero, and how thin that line can be.

Once again, we’ve got an interesting topic.  Now, I’m not sure you’ll find many complex villains in my own novels (I try to focus on developing the heroes at the start of a series, with the villain getting more development later in the series.  Unfortunately, it’s still very early in all of the series I’ve released, so my best villains haven’t shown up yet.  That’s partly why I didn’t sign up for this panel), but I do know something about the topic nonetheless.

It’s actually fairly easy to advise people on how to make a complex villain.  “Give your villain a sympathetic back story,” and “everyone is a hero in their own story; your villain must think he’s doing the right thing” are things I’ve repeatedly heard.  That seems to just be common sense… although (a) common sense is not common and (b) sometimes the story you’re writing doesn’t make it easy to show your villain’s point of view.

There’s also the matter that, well, there have been plenty of popular stories with popular villains who aren’t exactly complex.  While a powerful force of nature and a great danger to all of the people of Middle Earth, Sauron is a fairly straight-forward villain who didn’t need a sympathetic back story to become the main villain of Lord of the Rings (now, he did GET an interesting backstory when the Silmarillion was released, but that wasn’t published until almost twenty years after Sauron was introduced to the reading public).  While the now-non-canon expanded universe did eventually fill out his story, Boba Fett was a villain who became a cultural icon from his physical appearance alone.  His past was a mystery (some people actually think his character was weakened when it was filled in), his motivations were unclear, he had a tiny role, and yet he developed a fan following as big as many of the major villains of the series. (In fact, much of the backstory for him was created BECAUSE he became so popular, if I understand things correctly)

And the villain doesn’t have to be a person.  A “villain” can be a natural disaster, for example, or simply surviving alone in the wilderness.  While not typical of fantasy or science fiction (my main genre), there have been a number of stories where the big struggle is surviving against the odds, and those odds aren’t someone else at all. It can, though — one of the biggest hits in recent years is The Martian, which features a struggle to survive in an alien landscape.  Mars itself is the villain of the story… well, sort of.  “The elements of Mars,” perhaps?

But this topic is specifically about creating a complex villain, and saying (effectively) “give them a sympathetic back story” might not be enough help. It’s a great piece of advice; if you’ve ever seen Batman: The Animated Series, their sympathetic treatment of Mr. Freeze took a Batman villain often considered a comic laughingstock and made him into a major villain that many people could hope succeeded some day.  In fact, I’d argue that series is a virtual blueprint for creating sympathetic villains.  But just that line itself — “Give them a sympathetic back story” — is, well, not enough.

It’s too generic of a piece of advice, and honestly it isn’t always true.  I’ve read many an amateur effort at writing (thanks to my background in fanfiction) where the writer tries too hard at giving the villain a sympathetic back story, and while the villain may be “sympathetic” (or not; if the ‘excuse’ for becoming a villain is too weak, it feels like “Really? That’s it?  That’s why this guy is trying to take over the world?”), but if you make things go too far your villain can appear… well, pathetic, not sympathetic.  So perhaps just “try and give them a sympathetic backstory” isn’t the best piece of advice.

So, what else can you use to make your villain seem complex? Well, how about using other techniques for making a villain compelling and complex.

In the Lord of the Rings, we know next to nothing about Saruman’s back story… except that he was supposed to be a good guy, in fact a leader of good guys, who turned traitor when he thought he was going to lose.  As a villain, he is more complex and compelling than Sauron.  It’s a common technique for the creation of a villain; TV Tropes refers to it (using wrestling parlance, of all things) a “Face-Heel Turn.”

One of the best-known villains in the world of mystery novels has almost no backstory, sympathetic or not, but he is thought to be complex and compelling because, well, he’s basically a villainous version of Sherlock Holmes (I am, of course, referring to Moriarty).

If your villain has a complex, intricate plan, and your reader can follow along with it (even if they may not know the villain’s true end goal), that can make them seem complex and compelling. It’s a method a lot of television shows with a-plot\b-plot formats (the episode has a specific “a” plot that is the focus of that episode’s story, but there’s also elements from an overall seasonal “b” plot) use.

So, there are many ways to create a complex and compelling villain… if you need one.

Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Gearing Up For War

This is the fourth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.

GEARING UP FOR WAR

This panel is described in the (still just a draft) write-up as “Depending on the time period, terrain, and the nature of the fight, you’re going to need different kinds of kit. We’ll discuss how human beings prepare for battle physically and mentally — and what that says about their society.” I really feel under-qualified for the topic of mental and physical preparation, and I don’t even want to touch the one about what these preparations “say about society” (talk about a land mine for those of us who try to maintain politically neutral public faces!).

But discussing military kit? That I can do, if only from the perspective of a military history buff who’s done enough research into this topic to know (at one time) what people were supposed to receive in a few historic kits by heart. (Okay, so, um, my focus was the history of the US Sailing Navy, but sailors needed kits, too!  And it has been a while since I last studied this, so don’t test me; I probably can’t recite everything from memory, any more)

Now, one of the things to remember is that, until the last century or so, a soldier’s “kit” was largely theoretical. Some bureaucrat somewhere would write up a list of what was supposed to be in a soldier’s kit and set a budget (usually below what was actually needed) for obtaining these supplies; some lesser bureaucrat elsewhere would receive the money to put these kits together, skim some of it off the top, and then toss it down the chain. Each toss down the chain to the next layer of government usually meant less money for each kit, to the point that soldiers and sailors rarely received much the kit they were assigned.

But, for the sake of our sanity, let’s talk about what was SUPPOSED to be issued to soldiers and sailors throughout the various eras we have records for… and we have records, in some cases, dating back to Roman times.  Sometimes the government paid for these kits, sometimes the soldier or sailor were responsible for paying for these things themselves; sometimes the kit was required to fit a uniform standard and design, and sometimes the soldier or sailor (or, especially, feudal lords\knights) could customize or fit themselves out on their own, and sometimes some things were provided and you had to pay for others.  Usually, the only ‘advantage’ of paying for your own kit is the ability to customize things.

Regardless, whether you were a Roman Soldier or a member of the modern military, there are several things which are common to every soldier’s (or sailor’s) kits:

Some form of weaponry.  Whether that’s swords, spears, bows and arrows, or firearms, you would get a weapon (sometimes more than one).  At times in history, the weapons would not actually be issued with the kit, but handed out right before battle; regardless a weapon of some type should be considered part of the kit.

Body armor.  Note that this isn’t always a part of your kit; early Roman infantry soldiers wore none to increase speed and ease of movement (and as a cost-cutting measure), though later on various different types of armor were developed and issued.  Sailors from the Napoleanic era certainly didn’t wear armor into battle (though Spanish officers sometimes did).  Frequently, armor was something the soldier would have to pay for out of his own pocket (or get docked out of his pay), as it often had to be custom-fit to the person wearing it.  Today, soldiers are usually issued body armor (bulletproof vests) as part of their kit, though occasionally soldiers may purchase “civilian” gear if the issued equipment is defective or insufficient and replacement gear is slow to arrive (this is technically not permitted in the US Army, but the rule has been relaxed and\or ignored at various times of crisis).

An “entrenching tool” (aka, a shovel) were part of most soldiers kits (though not most sailors, as you obviously aren’t going to be digging through your wooden ship’s decking; in its place, however, sailors were issued tools for splicing rope or similar Naval tasks).  A soldier needed his shovel to be able to dig out camp latrines, dig in temporary fortifications and trenches, and more.  Plus, they could work as a backup weapon in a pinch.

Usually, soldiers were also issued clothing.  This could be something as simple as basic livery to go over your armor, or multiple types of uniform for use in different times of the year and on different occasions.  This can include not just the obvious uniform pieces, but also things like socks, shoes, underwear, belts, etc.

A water containment device (whether that’s a waterskin, a canteen, or something else).

Cooking gear of some sort.  You might not have the tools for gourmet cooking on hand, but some way to build a fire and hold food over that fire is quite handy.  You also need some method of eating food given to you, so a bowl for soups and stews, a spoon, a knife, a fork if they’ve been invented… that kind of thing.

An axe or saw for cutting wood.  Because you need some way of getting fuel for those cooking fires.

A satchel\backpack\bag of some kind.  Because you’ve got a lot of gear you need to carry around.

Bedding.  This could be anything from just a simple blanket to a full-on kit for a tent, a sleeping bag, a rain tarp, and more.  The most original bit of bedding kit I recall is from the American Civil War, where soldiers were each issued HALF of a two-person tent; if your buddy lost his gear, you were out of luck.

Frequently, sewing supplies were a part of a soldier’s kit.  Soldiers and sailors were responsible for the maintenance of their clothing, so having a needle and thread were handy.  Plus, it gave you something to do in your downtime.  Macramé may popularly be thought to have its origins in the fringe work of arabic carpets, and in modern times is often stereotypically found in some hippie peacenik fashions, but making it was an extremely popular hobby among 17th, 18th, and 19th century sailors.

Finally, most soldiers starting out get a small supply of consumables — some hard tack biscuits or similar emergency rations, a half-a pint of rum a day (usually watered down into grog on shipboard), gunpowder when needed to support a black powder weapon, oils for maintaining equipment, soaps for keeping clean, etc.  How regularly these consumables were replaced (or whether they were replaced at all) varied from army to army.

Specific parts of the military might get special items, as well.  For example, if you were in the horse cavalry, you’d probably get special gear for your horse (while I know this is true, I’m fuzzy on the particulars of what would be issued).  Scouts might be issued some form of looking glass (binoculars, special sights, etc.).  Etc.

Of course, even if the military provides all of that, there were still things soldiers and sailors loved to add to their kit whenever possible.  Games (such as chess sets), cards, small musical instruments, and other material designed for entertainment were often more of a necessity than the shovels, cooking gear, and spare underwear, but rarely would any government service give them to their soldiers for free.

And if you’re a writer, you may need to add a few more unusual items to the kit, depending on genre.  I mean, if you’re writing a sword and sorcery, any magical characters may require certain components for ammo.  In certain science fiction universes (think Star Trek), some sort of portable sensor (think tricorder) would likely be a part of your kit.  That sort of thing.

As a writer, you may never need to let your readers know everything that’s in your fictional character’s kit, but it’s generally a good idea to keep track of the resources your character has as a writer.  Otherwise, you might wind up in a situation where your character has a ridiculous number of little-used items (like, say, Bat Shark-Repellant) that can turn the whole thing into a joke.  And it’s a good idea to get some idea of how much a soldier can store on themselves — it’s probably more than you think, but less than you want — while composing your characters’ kits.

Of course, like every other bit of writing advice you might receive, it’s not a hard and fast rule.  After all, the 1960s Batman is still a popular cultural icon, Bat Shark-Repellant and all…

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Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

This is the third in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FROM?

When people find out my mother is a professional art quilter, they almost always say, “Oh!  My grandmother was a quilter!”  And maybe they’ll follow that up with something about patchwork scraps or the like.  Note that my mother uses computer-aided design, state-of-the-art quilting machines, laser-guidance, and all kinds of things your average grandmother-the-quilter would never bother using for a hand-stitched patchwork quilt (nor would my mother, for that matter; they’d be unnecessary).  My mother usually gives some form of “smile and nod” type response, knowing there is no real comparison between what she does and that.

As a writer, there are certain things you hear all the time that the best response is a similar “smile and nod.”  Among them are “Oh, I’d like to write a book some day.  My memoirs would be fascinating!” (The people who live lives interesting enough to make good memoirs are often too busy living those lives to think about writing them) and “Oh, you wrote a book?  Anything I might have read?” (How would we know?  Usually, we don’t even know these people well enough to know whether they read at all, much less if they might possibly have read anything we wrote).

Another question we often have to deal with in the topic of this Ravencon panel:  “Where do you get your ideas?”  And often, as a writer, the answer is a smile, a nod, and some pithy nonsense answer.  Sometimes we’ll expound on it, and yes, following whatever we suggest WILL (usually) give you some ideas.

But here’s the thing:  If you’ve been writing for a while (like I have, and most writers who’ve published have), coming up with new ideas isn’t the problem.  The problem is we have so many ideas that it’s impossible to get around to them all, and usually coming up with an answer to that question gives us even more.

Because ideas come from everywhere, and are in everything we do.  Do you want to know where the ideas have come from for things I’ve written (published and not published)?

  1. I was in the sixth grade.  Inspired by a character from the Danny Dunn books, I challenged some kids in my class to give me a word, any word, and I’d give them a story around it.  The word they gave me was eyeballs.  I gave them a story involving mutant eyeballs taking over the town.  Sadly, like everything else I wrote in my school years, it was lost (at least the handwritten stuff, like this thing; the schools were supposed to keep permanent records of everything I wrote that would follow me from elementary to junior high to high school.  Come high school, my file was “misplaced.”  Shame, that — while none of it was usable at all, some of it might have been worth saving to re-visit some day).
  2. Back when I was in high school, I had a teacher that said “You cannot write from a 1st person omniscient perspective.”  I suddenly felt challenged to write a story in the first person omniscient perspective whose main character was a mind reader.  (This resulted in a short piece, almost flash, that I still plan to publish if I ever find somewhere for it… but it’s far too small to publish on its own, and I have nothing to group it with)
  3. I was in a college.  I had been assigned to read Oedipus Rex for a class.  This was the fourth or fifth time I was being required to read this “classic” piece of dreck.  I heard for the first time, however (and I’ve never bothered to confirm it) that the three plays that are the current “Oedipus Trilogy” are actually the only three survivors of a set of NINE plays (3 interconnected trilogies).  So, to try and get myself through reading the play again, I used it as research for a new prequel (perhaps explaining just why the gods entrapped Jocasta and Oedipus so horribly).
  4. A discussion about whether axes would really be a good weapon for stock-fantasy-race Dwarves, and if so why (and\or in what situations), and if not what really would be a good weapon for them.  This contributed to In Treachery Forged (but was not the sole idea behind that story).
  5. Back before self-publishing became viable (or at least before I recognized the opportunity), I was trying to go for a traditional publishing deal.  I used many tools to find possible places to submit my books and short stories, including a book (the Writer’s Marketplace) which listed what genres each publisher was looking for.  There was one particular publisher which noted they mostly did non-fiction, but they did publish four novels each year “focusing on caves and spelunking.”  I came up with an idea for a story of a fictional cave — whose layout and general location would be based on a composite of the three or four different caves I have been spelunking in — that had been involved in numerous incidents over the millennia (a prehistoric man’s home, a refuge during the civil war, a boy scout-esque educational trip, and more), the cave itself unchanging.  Unfinished; as a compilation of short stories (I’m even slower in the short form than I am writing novels) it’s a slog.  I haven’t given up on it, but it’s very low priority.
  6. I saw one too many anime and cartoons where characters existed who had hair over their eyes.  I started wondering why someone would have that hairstyle.  (Inspiration for Euleilla from In Treachery Forged)
  7. As I’ve said before, The Kitsune Stratagem came about because I ran into too many people who were saying “Elves and Dwarves are so overplayed!  If I see another book with an elf in it I’m going to throw it across the room!” (and similar sentiments).  I figured I’d see just how overplayed it came across if I tried a similar story to one I would have written using Elves and Dwarves and Dragons. but instead substituted in other types of fantastical creatures (in this case, Kitsune and Wulvers and Bunyips, oh my!)
  8. I was watching some long-forgotten TV show where there was a discussion of sawed-off shotguns.  I started wondering what the fantasy equivalent would be.  The resulting story will be appearing in the upcoming World’s Enough anthology, due to be published in time for a launch party at Balticon (May 26-29).  Since I’m not the one who set that schedule, there’s a slim chance it’ll actually be released on time.
  9. Getting a bit silly, and instead of saying the phrase “he brought a knife to a gun fight” I replaced it with “he brought a trebuchet to a sword fight.”  Something unfinished and put off for a while, but maybe I’ll get around to it some time.
  10. I wanted a non-stereotypical hero (think someone like Porkins in Star Wars) in a space-based science fiction novel.  I wrote about half of it before I learned that my plot was almost identical to Night Train to Rigel.  (Well, maybe it was Slow Train to Arcturus.  I always mix those two up)  I liked what I had, but I decided I needed to re-plot the whole thing, so it’s waiting for a while.
  11. I was watching a hockey game, and started wondering how hockey would be played in space.  That was the origin of the Rink of War.
  12. While researching the California gold rush (for the Rink of War), I read the story of real-life character Emperor Norton.  I thought about bringing someone like him into a sci-fi boom-town setting.  The result (Emperor Norton II) makes a brief appearance in the Rink of War, but was a central figure in the sequels… of which four are mostly written, but since there was so little interest in the Rink of War itself I’ve abandoned that project.  I may revisit it, some day, retooling the planned series of shorts (short stories, novelettes, and novellas) as a full length novel.

I could go on.  And on.  And on.  My full idea bank of unwritten\unfinished stories (even just the ones I’ve made some effort to plot out or take notes on) would be ten, twenty, a hundred times that long.  So, yeah.  The idea that ideas are hard to come by seems… alien to me.  Which might be why I didn’t sign up for this panel in the first place….

Edit:  Comments closed because of multiple spam attempts.

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.

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