Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Sample chapters

The blog has been a bit quiet this month, but we've been busy: most recently, with print layout for our novels.  We now have sample chapters!

Read the first chapter of Philipp's Sign of the Sibyl
Read the first chapter of Ella's Safekeeping

Watch the blog (or follow by email, in the right sidebar) for further progress updates; we hope to have the novels available as paperbacks and e-books in August or September.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Fish and chips: food in fantasy

Food has a history. Once you say it, it seems obvious, but most of us don't think about the fact very often. We all know the basics: potatoes come from the New World, wheat from the Old; the Aztecs ate chili peppers and chocolate and avocados, the Chinese did not, though they did have tofu. But the details get fuzzy when you look a little closer. Where are bananas from? Two-thirds of the export crop is produced in five countries: one is the Philippines, the other four are in Central or South America. Yet bananas are not a New World fruit. They were first domesticated in Southeast Asia, and almost a fifth of the world's total crop is produced in India (or was a few years ago). What about coffee? We associate it first with Turkey and the Near East (or at least I do), but it is actually native to Sub-Saharan Africa.

And that's only the plants themselves. Things get even more complicated when you look at recipes, when we have them at all (there is at least one Roman cookbook, for what it's worth). Pasta was not, perhaps, invented by the Chinese (that seems to be a fairly recent legend), but no one was eating spaghetti bolognese, back when the tomato was unknown less than five thousand miles from Bologna.

What does this have to do with writing, you wonder? Quite a lot, actually. Not everyone likes to describe food in fantasy (I've gotten through The Sign of the Sibyl without a meal more elaborate than "duck breast with rice, steamed greens, and wine"), but some go on at length. George R.R. Martin is a famous example, and there's a fair bit of food even in the Narnia books (Edmund and Turkish delight; Shasta eating butter for the first time; the three lords of Telmar at Ramandu's table).

Food, like clothing, weapons, armor, religious rituals, and government bureaucracies, can help set the feel of the fantasy story, that elusive element in world-building that lets you describe the setting and the characters and their customs in a series of swift strokes. Enough such strokes, and you have (if you're good at it) built up a picture of a whole imaginary world, or at least the parts of it that we as readers need to see. The kind of food you portray should thus fit the rest of the setting of the story, and give it the proper texture.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Clothing in Fantasy

Some writers (I am one!) like to come up with clothing for their various fantasy cultures and characters.  The typical fantasy setting, though, doesn't have sewing machines, washers, dryers, or steam irons.  How do people make and take care of clothes?  How do they use the clothes?  How do all these things affect the kinds of clothes they choose?

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Never trust the news...

...when it comes to etymology, anyway. The BBC has an article on the etymologies of several words or idioms that, it alleges, developed during the First World War. I'm habitually suspicious of such articles, and looked up the words I use. They were right on camouflage, but several others are incorrect, and quite badly so. The Oxford English Dictionary is not an infallible guide, but its citations put several of these words securely before the War:

1. "Dud," said by the BBC to have originally referred to a shell that did not explode and only later to have been expanded to other malfunctioning implements, already occurs in multiple broad usages in 1908. 

2. "Binge," which they allege to be a piece of Lancashire slang spread abroad during the war, was in use in both Northamptonshire, in the mid-19th century, and Oxford, by the end of the century. Neither is near Lancashire. Worse yet, the word was already used, as a verb, by Hilaire Belloc in 1910: surely a noteworthy enough writer that we could take it as already mainstream before the War.

3. For "crummy," they give an elaborate etymology linking it to lice, which resemble crumbs. The link with "lousy" is certainly present--in 1859. If it was "coined by American infantrymen" at all, they must have been pre-Civil War regulars. One wonders if it is really an extension of "crummy" meaning "strewed with crumbs," which is already in evidence in the 18th century. 

[On a side note, "crummy" was once a term of approbation for a pleasingly plump woman. Plumpness no longer gets the praise it once did, and I doubt your wife or girlfriend is going to want to hear, "Well, my dear, that dress makes you look remarkably crummy today!"]

4. "Cushy," we are told, was borrowed from Urdu; this is true enough (though the OED suggests Persian and not Hindi influence alongside Urdu), but again, the word is already cited in the 1890s. It might have been spread to the rest of the army by British Indiamen in WW1 (who knows?), but it certainly didn't enter English then.

5. The worst of all is another word of allegedly subcontinental origin. You or I might think that "chat" was related to "chatter," but no, the BBC treats us to an elaborate explanation of how it came from picking lice ("chats," in Hindi) off one's body while kibbitzing with one's fellow soldiers. The tale has the marks of an invented etymology about it--the suggestion of an exotic origin for a word of obvious etymology, the weirdly incongruous shift from literal to metaphorical meaning. And, in fact, it is completely made up: "chat" does mean "louse," but in English cant, and as early as 1699. "Chat" in various senses close to our own (though originally more negative) appears as a verb in the mid-15th century, and as a noun in More and Shakespeare! 

In sum: never repeat such stories, unless you've checked them yourself. They're too often wrong. I only wonder where the BBC people got their information (no citations, of course: always a bad sign, but typical in journalism; this earlier article, in a BBC publication, was more accurate). Several of these appear in Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, but he notes the earlier appearances of "crummy," for example, and suggest that "dud" was merely "resuscitated" from relative obsolescence during the war. He also gives the "louse" etymology for "chat," but with no hint of the Hindi connection, and no suggestion that a connection with speaking did not exist beforehand. I'm guessing an intermediary, more popular, source. 

Saturday, 27 May 2017

No longer so, Orson?

Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender's Game, has a nice series of articles on writing based on correspondence and questions from writing classes he has occasionally taught. The newest is now over ten years old, and the advice on publishing is thus out of date, but any blog-readers who are interested in writing will still find helpful the thoughts of a successful author (and, they say, an even better teacher of writing).

One of his older posts gives me pause, however. In an essay on "rhetoric and style" from 1998, Card attacks the idea, too common (in his judgment, anyway) in creative writing programs, that an author needs to develop a distinctive, individual style. That an author will have his own style is, Card says, an inevitability, but there is no point in belaboring it; rather, the author should seek to tell the story he needs to tell. By focusing on the story itself, not on the language in which it is being told, the author will arrive at real clarity, and good style, too.

Anyone who has read overwrought, self-consciously "literary" writing will know exactly what Card means, and most will probably agree with his judgment (I certainly do). However, I wonder if Card isn't overlooking something, or rather, whether the rise of self-publishing hasn't changed the advice one might want to give.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Mahound is in his paradise: religion in fantasy

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri's knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunsets and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees;
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.

--G.K. Chesterton, Lepanto, second stanza


A tourist visits Gondor at the end of the Third Age, on the eve of the War of the Ring. What does he see in its capital? More or less what Pippin does before Sauron's armies cross the Anduin: the black outer wall of the city, the lesser walls of its upper circles, houses and arches of white stone, a tall tower atop the central stone keel of the city, and, around the dead, white tree before it, the soldiers of the Tower Guard in their sable uniforms.

Now, imagine being a tourist in Rome during the reign of Nero. What would you see? Again, buildings of marble, arches, perhaps not soldiers (forbidden, in theory, within the city's sacred boundary). And what else? Statues, aqueducts, columns, and, scattered throughout the city, one other kind of building that Pippin does not: temples. From the grand edifices of the forum to the little shrines on the street-corners, Rome was a city full of gods in "a world full of gods." Minas Tirith is not.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part I

For me, self-publishing was an easy choice: I tend to enjoy managing lots of fiddly details. That doesn't mean, however, that the process itself is easy. Here's a smattering of things I've had to research or consider so far.

Disclaimer: I am a housewife. Information in this post comes from my own experience and (possibly flawed) understanding; if you take any action based on it, I am not responsible for the results.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Thoughts on Alternate History VI: the limitations of a genre


I've read some pretty good alternate-historical stories, rigorous, "soft," and more or less fantastic. I've often felt discontented with what I read, however, for reasons on which I've not quite been able to put my finger. I suppose I can only say that the fantastic settings and plot-devices reveal two key intellectual limitations of the genre: materialism and chronological snobbery. In what is, for now, the final post on the topic, I'll try to explain what I mean.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Thoughts on Alternate History V: Bats from Planet X

Unbeknownst to the Puritan pirate captain, the ring of power had fallen into the hands of the warlord of a distant planet whose name is made up entirely of phonemes in shaded areas on the International Phonetic Alphabet chart. The warlord bided his time, gathered his armies. Then one day, a cloud of fire-breathing bats descended from the sky, wreaking havoc and burning all the countryside. The warlord rubbed his hands together—or rather, the ends of his wings—as he looked down and saw the Earth burning like a little firecracker, and he sat back in his throne and laughed and laughed and laughed.

--Ella Hansen, In Enigmate, "False Ending" (revised)

Ahem. I'll let Ella explain where that little gem came from, and why, someday. Let's just say that Young Adult fantasy sometimes gets old, even for the authoress herself. What I mean to draw attention to is the paragraph's protagonist: our trusty alien warlord, whose presence in the story I apparently inspired. "Alien Space Bats" were--so the story goes--invented in a usenet discussion by a contributor who wanted to underscore just how impossible it would have been for Unternehmen Seelöwe ("Operation Sealion"), the planned German invasion of Britain in WW2, to succeed: only the intervention of extraterrestrials could have brought the Germans victory.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Thoughts on Alternate History, part IV: Writing "hard" and "soft" alternate history

If the observations I have made in the last two posts are accurate, there is an important practical consequence for the writing of alternate history: every "hard" alternate-historical narrative is in danger of going soft. Once the timeline has diverged sufficiently from the main narrative, only authorial fiat prevents it from diverging further. Once John F. Kennedy has given the order for an all-out response to Soviet aggression off Cuba and Thomas Powers has flattened everything under Moscow's sway with the full might of the Strategic Air Command, there is no telling what the world will look like even five years later, let alone fifty.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Your Loving Aunt

When looking through old files of my writing, I rediscovered this story, first published on a now-defunct collective blog in 2008.  My novels (however the early drafts start) always end up fairly serious; my short stories almost never do.


To Miss Prunella Pig, 234 Penn St.
5 June

My dearest Prunella,

How delighted I am to hear that your new house is completed! You must tell me everything about it. Have you chosen curtains for the parlour yet? There is a lovely print in a shop not far from my house: yellow with small pink roses. It would match your couch perfectly. And of course you mustn’t forget the wallpaper. Perhaps a pale yellow or pink will do best. Oh, my dear, I am so anxious to see it all. I have more things to remind you than I can write.