For two or three years now, I’ve been posting bits of seasonal micropoetry. This was prompted by Lester Smith’s yearly anthologies of Halloween poetry and short fiction, published by his micropress company Popcorn Press. I contributed to several of these anthologies. Lester is now retired, but I’ve gotten into the habit of writing small poems around this time of year. Here’s a warm-up limerick.
Coming November 2!
Eighteen tales of magic and mayhem, in plenty of time for the holidays. If you really want to run with the Formidable Women theme, you could pair this with the Hath No Fury anthology that’s coming out the first of December.
My story, Royal Daughters, is a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, set in Scotland’s border country during the infancy of Mary Queen of Scots.
Table of Contents
Women’s Work by Pauline J. Alama
Hostages of Honeycomb by Marian Allen
The Sound of the Moon by Robin Wayne Bailey
Finding Truth by Lorie Calkins
Wight Nights by Steve Chapman
Royal Daughters by Elaine Cunningham
Unexpected by Suzan Harden
Save a Prayer by Mercedes Lackey
Sky, Clouds, and Sonam by Catherine Mintz
Shaman’s Quest by Kevin L. O’Brien
Authority Figures by Michael H. Payne
The Girl from Black Point Rock by Deborah J. Ross
Till the Cows Come Home by L.S. Patton
Deadly Questions by Jonathan Shipley
The Nature of Wraiths by Dave Smeds
Add a Cup of Terror by Michael Spence & Elisabeth Waters
A Librarian in Distress by Rose Strickman
Expiration Date by Julia H. West
This anthology, which features stories of kick-ass female characters, was funded by Kickstarter and expected to come out in mid 2017. Is has been delayed several times and was just rescheduled for release on December 1. Here’s why:
The publisher, Ragnarok Publications, merged with Galaxy Knight Games, and the company is going through management change and reorganization. Things seem to be settling down, and I’m fairly confident that the new pub date will happen.
Thanks to a combination of existential dread and unexpectedly potent darjeeling tea, I had a rare bout of insomnia last night. On the bright side, I figured out how to download GIMP, something I’ve attempted several times before without success. This is my first, very elementary graphic. It’s also the first new Halloween Haiku of the season. (More of those coming in October.) I’ve read that it has a steep learning curve, but if you’ve used PhotoShop, it’s not that difficult–at least, not on this rudimentary level.
I would be very surprised to meet a published author who has NOT been told some variation of this: “I’ve got a great idea for a book! All I need to do is write it down.”
Yeah, but no.
If you’re a writer, or if you’ve spent some time thinking about the process, you probably know where I’m going with this. But, hey–pumpkins. If this post isn’t informative, at least it’s seasonal.
Without further ado, let’s proceed to the metaphor.
That pretty, orange pumpkin is bright and colorful and vastly appealing, but it is not a pie. It is the raw material for a pie. There’s a lot of peeling and chopping and roasting and pureeing and pumpkin-spicing and mixing and baking and maybe even cinnamon pie crust leaf-making that happens between pumpkin and pie. The first time you attempt pie, you might be less than happy with the outcome. A crisp, flaky crust takes practice. Technique matters. Great results come from knowing the basic rules of baking, then doing your own creative spin. Do all that, and do it often enough, and you’ll soon be helping pumpkins reach their glorious potential.
Ideas are wonderful and exciting. You can’t tell a great story without a good idea, any more than you can bake a decent pumpkin pie from a Jack-o-Lantern variety gourd. But an idea, no matter how big and bright and shiny it might be, is not a story. Yet.
Today is the first day of Obon, the Japanese festival of the dead. It’s somewhat similar to Mexico’s Día de Muertos, in which family graves are tended and there’s feasting and celebration. In Okinawa, offerings of food and drink are left for the returning ancesters, and the final day is celebrated with a dance, the Bon Odori, that expresses appreciation for the ancesters and the joy that memories of them bring.
In honor of the day, I’m posting a ghost story, narrated by a ghost. Each stanza is in haiku format, though they are not, strictly speaking, Haiku.
Obon calls to me–
The first Obon since my death
Just four months ago.
I find my way home.
No feast, no lanterns greet me.
No one remembers.
This was expected;
I am no one’s ancestor.
So why have I come?
Music fills the night.
The dancers flow past my house
Bright and deft as koi.
I merge with the stream
And dance the Bon-odori.
But no one sees me.
My feet remember:
Step, turn, sway and dip, clap hands.
I dance in silence.
Once I danced and sang,
“Oh, joyful Bon-odori!
But what of me, or my child,
Gone, these twelve long years?
The Land of the Dead
Is vaster than all Japan.
I have not found her.
She’d be lovely now,
Like the girl dancing near me,
Hands like graceful birds.
Strange, that this girl wears
Grandmother’s blue yukata.
It fits perfectly.
She sees me and smiles—
A smile my heart remembers
As tiny, toothless.
I once called Obon
A festival for the dead.
Now I understand.
We dance and we sing,
“Oh, joyful Bon-odori!”
My ghost child and I.
This month was mostly about the novel-in-progress. The highlight, however, was attending Gen Con for the first time in a decade. I met lots of interesting people, touched base with friends old and new, signed some books, played some games, and talked about various Secret Projects.
Projects currently in circulation: 3
Work in progress:
- Writing Draft Zero of a historical fantasy novel
- A Mythos-themed novella, still in brainstorming stage
- Awaiting editor’s notes for a short story solicited for a shared-world anthology
- Winterhexe, a German translation of the Pathfinder Tales novel Winter Witch, was published by Feder & Schwert.
- “Family Matters,” a new flash fiction story, submitted to a webzine
- “The White Tunic,” a story published in 2013, submitted to a reprint anthology
- “The White Tunic” was accepted for publication in a fantasy reprint anthology by Digital Fantasy Press. I’d submitted it last month to their horror anthology; this, apparently, was a better fit.
- A review of A King’s Obsession, a historical novel by Allison Weir, was accepted and scheduled for publication in Renaissance Magazine, issue #112
- “Dead Men Tell No Tales” did not make the final cut for a ghosts & pirates reprint anthology.
Completed in August:
- Wrote and submitted “Family Matters,” a flash fiction story (800 words)
- Wrote “Turning Characters into People,” an article about the writing process, to be published on my Patreon.
- Wrote 7 blog posts for this website, including two longer articles on the topic “Setting as Character.”
- Attended Gen Con 50, participated in 11 panels, the Candlekeep seminar, and the Worldbuilder’s Party charity event organized by Patrick Rothfuss.
- Working on a Patreon account, which is still in the planning stage.
- Focus by Daniel Goleman
- Positivity by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D.
- The Unexpected Mrs. Polifax, by Dorothy Gilman
- The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Dolge
- How the Mind Works, by Stephen Pinker
- The Private Lives of Tudor Women, by Elizabeth Norton
Here’s a link to the page for Winterhexe, a German translation of Winter Witch, just released by publishing company Feder & Schwert.
Not every location will inspire unique insights, but asking this question of your setting in general, as well as powerful sites within your setting, can be a useful world-building exercise.
If you’re not sure where to start, try recalling an experience of your own. Here’s an example:
About fifteen years back, I took my mother to Ireland for a week. One day we visited the Cliffs of Moher, which drop dramatically from green, rocky hills into the Irish Sea. Walking any distance was difficult for Mom, so we had a wheelchair handy and I pushed her up the hill to the overlook, a stone wall where tourists gather to gaze at the cliffs. She was happy to stay there for a bit, so I wandered off toward the tower. As I stood on the hill, looking out to sea, I got a powerful sense that the land not only welcomed, but claimed me. “These are my cliffs. They say to those who come by sea, ‘This far, and no further.’ If necessary, you will do the same.” And at that moment, I would have. The willingness to fight and die for a piece of real estate is a widely acknowledged notion, but I’d never actually felt it. Like many Americans, I’ve lived in many places, and I’ve liked some more than others, but picking up your life and moving it somewhere else is not only an option, it’s an expectation. I’d never encountered a place that demanded more of you. I’d never realized it was possible to experience no meaningful separation between who you are and where you stand. That was a very strange and profound moment.
Now, back to your setting. After you ask what unique thing your character learns from the setting, here’s a followup: How is the character changed by what he learned or experienced?
This change might be large or small, but it will occur. Every time we do or think something new, physical changes occur in our brains. Neural connections form or strengthen. Activity in certain areas increases. This process is profound, but it’s also invisible. Writers need to find tangible ways to demonstrate the impact knowledge has on a character.
When I look for examples in fictious worlds, I keep returning to Darkover. The pollen of certain flowers had a halucinogetic effect that jumpstarted laran, a psychic ability similar to D&D psionics. The humans who settled there very literally knew things they could have known nowhere else. Initially, only a few people developed these powers. Since laran was hereditary, after a few generations, families who had it became Darkover’s ruling class. The world is like a strange and alien sorceress who, for reasons of her own, gave magic to a favored few.
When you’re thinking about the impact setting has on your characters, keep in mind that no two people are going to see the world in quite the same way, so your characters might learn very different things from the same location.
For example, let’s say your rogue and paladin walk into a busy summer faire. Your paladin feels profoundly uneasy, and she senses a flavor of evil she has never before encountered–banal, self-serving, grasping, a value system that glorifies vulgar display and useless material things above all else. Raised in a monastery, a veteran of holy wars, she knows how to deal with monsters and the armed forces of tyrants, but the inequity she sees at the faire–the wealthy gem merchant shoving his way past hungry children–is not something her sword can resolve. She might be struck with a sense of her own limitations, or perhaps by the realization that while she would gladly die to protect the people of this land, she doesn’t particularly like them. As she tells her companion, “There is nothing for me to fight here, and nothing worth fighting for.” The rogue sees the same things the paladin does, but she realizes that she knows how to beat every one of these grifters, thieves, and lowlifes at their own games. For the rogue, the faire is like coming upon a mirror, suddenly and unexpected, and seeing something there she didn’t know existed. That might dismay or delight her. It might make her reassess her life, or it might raise her confidence level and prompt her to try something far more daring and ambitious than she’d ever before considered. Or both.
Again, this technique isn’t something you’ll apply to every new location, but it’s another tool for creating a settings with strong and distinctive personalities.
One of the panels I did for Gen Con’s Writer’s Symposium was “Setting as Character.” An hour really isn’t enough time to address this topic, so I immediately started thinking about things to add to a similar discussion in the future.
First is the concept of genius loci, the spirit or essence of a place. This could either be a literal guardian spirit, or simply a distinctive atmosphere. It’s a good place to start a discussion of setting as character, but oddly enough, we didn’t touch on this at all.
As fantasy writers, we have a huge vocabulary of mythical and fantastical creatures who guard particular places. There are dryads and treants in the forest, nyads and rusalka in the waters, minataurs in mazes, and magical caves and sacred springs that have a different, less personified sentience. Not every fictional location has (or needs) a literal guardian, but this notion suggests a good thought exercise to use when developing a setting.
If nothing comes to mind, it might help to get the ball rolling if you look for examples in your own experience, or in folklore and fiction. Here’s a personal example:
We did a driving tour of Scotland when Andrew and Sean were in middle school, and one of my oddest and strongest memories was an afternoon traveling through bleak, deserted landscape on a one-lane dirt road. Every now and then there was a place to pull off to let another vehicle pass, but we never needed them. In nearly three hours, we didn’t see another car. No people, no sheep, not even a bird. The sun became mist-shrouded when we turned onto this road and didn’t appear until we came to a main road. Time seem to be suspended, and according to the milage on the map, the trip took much longer than it should have. The sense of moving from the world we knew into something alien and “Other” was powerfully strong. If I had to envision a genius loci, it would probably be a huge, translucent raven–a psycopomp that could ferry people between worlds. The image of a large, mist-colored werewolf also came to mind more than once. It’s hard to travel through that part of Scotland without feeling that the land could very easily express itself in the form of mythical (and probably malevolent) creatures.
Sometimes the genius loci doesn’t lend itself to personification, but is easily identifiable as an emotion, attitude, or pattern of behavior. This isn’t an original theory, but sometimes I envision the setting of Game of Thrones as an elaborate gameboard, with the gods–the Old and the New and probably a few who are seldom mentioned in the prayers of the Westeros faithful–as the real players. They have their kings and queens, bishops and warriors, perhaps even their avatars. I don’t know what these gods want, but who ever does? Still, their essence infuses certain locations, such as the sacred tree near Winterfell. In the north, the Old Gods still seem present; I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Three-Eyed Raven was melded to an ancient tree. But wherever you go, there are frequent references to ancient conflicts, and the feeling that the essence of Westeros is the sense that everyone who lives there is part of an endless, deadly game.
When you’re doing the “character sheet” for your setting-as-character, start with some of the usual suspects–appearance, resources, and history–and then consider less obvious notions, such as what secrets the land might have, and how it would protect them. Is there something about the flora, fauna, or mineral deposits that create a unique characteristic? (Example: The halucenagenic pollen of certain plants on the planet Darkover jumpstarted psychic powers in the human newcomers.) What about the seasons? A world with a predictable pattern of relatively short seasons will be a very different place that one that has a more elliptical orbit, two suns, or other factors that lead to extreme or extended seasons. If your world includes magic, the notion of genius loci is likely to be an important part of your magic system. Places of magical concentration, such as ley lines, haunted forests, and sacred pools, give a setting personality as well as power.
Since every character is revealed through his/her/its relationship with others, think about the relationship between the land and the people who live on it or move through it. Is it one of mutual benefit, or is it adversarial? How does the spirit of the land effect these people? Do they become dour, grim, and suspicious? Are they more likely to take an interest in magic than the people in the next valley?
Finally, how do your characters perceive the genius loci? Is it something they fear and avoid, embrace and emulate, or simply accept as they would the weather and topography? Are they even aware of it? If residents are oblivious to something that visitors perceive, that opens a whole new set of story possibilities.