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

Sunday, 9 December 2018

A brief digression (religion in fantasy, IV)


When I began this series many months ago, I did not intend to offer any focused critique of any existing fantasy works; nor did I intend to offer (beyond my initial thoughts on God in fantasy) anything like a prescription for how to approach religion in writing. I am suggesting things one might imagine and, in so doing, criticizing certain failures of imagination, not saying what anyone ought to do. I have, therefore, effectively treated authorial choices as morally neutral.

I still think this is basically the right proceeding for this kind of essay. However, a conversation with a friend has led me to think that one might say more about the limits an author might wish to impose upon his own writing of fantasy. The topic was the morality of Rowling's Harry Potter series, and, specifically, of its spiritual content. This was a matter of particular concern among Christian readers when the books first became popular; and, though I think active criticism has largely died down with the publication of Deathly Hallows, my friend, a devout Evangelical, offered a variation on the usual complaint. The concern was, put in various ways, that the content of Harry Potter is too "occult" or "magical" to be safe; that it may encourage (perhaps, has in fact encouraged) readers to dabble in esoteric practices and so imperil their souls; that it, in some hidden way, corrupts the mind and draws people away from God.

To this objection, I offered the obvious counters: although theologically confused, Rowling is a professed Christian, and her profession must inform any reading of the work; Rowling most likely saw the magic as mere fantasy, and most readers probably do likewise; and many do in fact find within the books valuable theological or moral themes, so claiming that they are inherently wicked is unlikely to succeed. In short, his reading is bad as a reading: it does not correspond to fact, or distorts certain facts out of proportion, and it confuses the literary for the real.

Friday, 22 September 2017

A thunder sent to bring / black Ariel and Azrael and Ammon on the wing: demons (religion in fantasy, III)

Furthermore, there are certain divine powers situated in the middle, in the airy space between the height of ether and the depths of earth, through which our desires and our deserts travel to the gods. These the Greeks name daemones....
Apuleius, On the God of Socrates 6


Gods are not the only superhuman beings who feature in real-world religions. A whole host of lesser beings crowd the space between humans and the heavens. The ancient Greeks called these beings daemones. From this our own word "demon" derives, yet, unlike the demons of the New Testament or the saints' lives, these spirits were not unambiguously maleficent.

Fickle as the air of which they were made, the daemones were sometimes good, sometimes evil. As Apuleius, the author of the most famous ancient fantasy-story, the Metamorphosis, tells us in his theological treatise On the God of Socrates, they served as the gods' intermediaries with mankind, transmitting prophetic dreams and inspiring seers. They could even direct the lives of individual persons: each man had his guardian daemon, and the philosopher Socrates himself felt (so Plato's Apology tells us) that he was directed through life by the inspiration of his daimonion, the titular "god" of Apuleius' treatise.

The gulf between gods and men was not impermeable, therefore, and not everything that received worship was a "god" in a strict sense, that is, a good and powerful being fully removed from the corruption of the world. The gods' underlings had their place, and deserved their due, just like the emperors' subordinates, or the patrons--the bosses, or perhaps the dons, as it were--to whom the average Roman looked for support in time of need.  

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Sign of the Sibyl on sale - around 85% off

I will be holding a sale for the Kindle e-book of The Sign of the Sibyl from September 21 through September 27, inclusive, on Amazon and Amazon UK (sadly, price promotions aren't available on other international Amazon affiliates--a choice of theirs, not mine, I can assure you!)

Here's how it will work:

At 12:00 am GMT, September 21, the price will drop to 0.99 GBP on (about 83% off).

At 12:00 am Pacific Daylight Time, September 21, the price of the e-book will drop to 0.99 USD on (about 87% off).

At 12:00 am, September 28 (in the respective time-zone), the book will revert to the ordinary list price of 7.49 USD/5.75 GBP. Throughout, it will remain free for subscribers to the Kindle Unlimited program, as well as to those who borrow it from their friends via the Kindle Owners Lending Library.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Above the evening star: astrology, the gods, and powers in heaven (religion in fantasy, II)

For Manasseh built again the high places which Hezekiah his father had broken down, and he reared up altars for Baalim, and made groves, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them. Also he built altars in the house of the Lord, whereof the Lord had said, In Jerusalem shall my name be for ever. And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord.
2 Chronicles 33


Ancient people worshipped the stars as gods, and believed that they had control over their lives and destinies. This is something that modern people, at least in Western Europe and North America, have great difficulty understanding. They can hardly be blamed for it, of course. It is rarely easy to understand the people of a different time and place. Even when you feel a kinship of mind or feeling with an ancient person--and many who read their works do--you nevertheless stumble across things that are utterly foreign, that cut clean contrary to the ordinary intuitions of life, the common sense of your own age. The worship of the heavenly bodies is one of those things.

To the typical modern, raised (even if he never studied or understood it) on post-Classical physics and living in a city (as virtually everyone does now) where the night-time sky is almost invisible against the glare of man-made lamps, stars simply are balls of super-heated plasma and gas. The planets simply are giant rocks or balls of gas. Maybe, just maybe, they contain life, and writers and filmmakers imagine what might come to pass, if someday we did meet a person like us in mind and soul (whatever he or she or it looked like), but from outer space.

But neither stars nor planets are themselves alive. For the ancients, they were. Higher and brighter than the wet, dirty ball on which we ourselves dwell, the heavens were everlasting and unchanging, a perpetual order moving in perfect harmony with the providence that ruled the world. At once gods and the work of the supreme God, they regulated both heaven and earth, and bound man's life, character, and destiny to their dictates. To this, the science of astrology was dedicated.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

First book released!

The Sign of the Sibyl is now available in e-book and paperback formats on Amazon (including Amazon UK and other European subsidiaries). 

The process of publication is a little more drawn-out than one might anticipate from outside, and a few practical details still need to be ironed out. In particular, it will take another week or so before you can look inside the print book, but, in the meantime, the sample chapter remains available, as does the look-inside function for the e-book.

Safekeeping will take a little bit longer, but it should be up in September as anticipated. 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part II

While we wait for proofs, let's talk about print layout!  A manuscript is usually in 12-pt double-spaced Times New Roman with half-inch indents, on letter-sized paper with one-inch margins.  A finished novel is not.  Getting from one to the other isn't hard, exactly, but it does take work and care and patience.  I find that using styles (Normal, Heading 1, etc.) saves a lot of time.

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.