Archive for the 'Worldbuilding' Category

Interview for Savage Mojo’s Dungeonlands Kickstarter

October 13th, 2012

A brief update. I’ve been brought on to write the Ur legend for Savage Mojo’s Dungeonlands Kickstarter project: “Legend of the Lich Queen,” which kicks off their “Tomb of the Lich Queen” trilogy which is now in its final 25 hours:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/723840670/dungeonlands-tomb-of-the-lich-queen

Tommy at Savage Mojo has also just published an interview with me:

http://savagemojo.com/home/?p=3206

Here, also, is the teaser video for “The Legend of the Lich Queen” which I’m currently writing:

Gore Vidal Has Left the Stage 1925 – 2012

August 2nd, 2012

Charles McGrath’s New York Times obituary for Gore Vidal calls him “the elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization.”

For anyone who has read Vidal’s work with delight and care, it is hard to believe that Vidal saw the United States as possessing a civilization that could end. Power, yes: the nation has great power, wielded without regret and directed anywhere those who possess it choose. But the USA, a civilized nation? Debatable, as Vidal saw it.

That the country could at times be a great deal of fun, or at least amusing, and a pre-eminent provider of entertainment — that Vidal would agree with, laughing all the while. Like Aaron Burr, who as protagonist opened Vidal’s extended fictional portrait of the carpeted halls of power, he enjoyed himself, and laughed more than most — at the nation, at us, at the power brokers and even at himself.

His wide-ranging body of work is like no other, as we see in his obituary. He had the courage of his convictions, or perhaps the courage of one born into the families that determine our national and personal fates, but who was fated by his lesser status among them — relatively poor, proudly sexually transgressive, highly educated in the arts, aesthetics and intellectual analysis — never to be a serious political player himself. He therefore had nothing to lose from honesty, and he was openly, aggressively, fluidly, sexual at a time when few could afford to be, and he wrote non-fiction and outrageous comic fiction both with post-gender attitude.

Narratives of Empire, his heptalogy of historical novels published between 1968 and 2000, traces the United States from the Age of Burr through the Age of Mass Media. Itreveals more than many non-fiction histories about how power is inherited, used, and guarded in America. These seven novels of our national political life bristle with ideas and even historical facts that were not discussed — or admitted to — by either critics or historians, by and large, and certainly not by politicians.

Vidal compared himself on at least one occasion to an obvious precursor: historian Henry Adams, who as the grandson and great-grandson of American presidents was present not only in the hallways of power but also in the homes where the power brokers lived and socialized. Adams’s influence was not always positive: in 1876, Vidal avenged his precursor’s personal prejudice against President Ulysses Grant in a way that was unworthy of most of his historical work — mean, petty, nasty, and a historical lie.

Like Adams, Vidal will probably be less remembered for Narratives of Empire than for his lesser achievements – theater, film, and television appearances, feuds with other writers. Adams is most often remembered today for the rather historically irrelevant cultural musings of Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres and for his highly selective personal memoir The Education of Henry Adams. While Education is empty of his wife’s suicide and the decades they were together, and leaves out his D.C. salon and ever-changing circle of ‘nieces’, it is worth reading, if only for Adams’s account of being private secretary to his father, Francis Adams, who as minister of the Mission to St. James in London was appointed by Lincoln to ensure that Britain never recognize the Confederacy. But Adams’s grand works are his histories of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, and possibly “Napoleon I At San Domingo” (in Adams’s Collected Essays, 1891), the most clear-eyed and even admiring assessment written by a white American historian in the nineteenth century of General Toussaint Louverture and of what the San Domingan revolution meant for the history of the United States.

These two writers offer a grand composite vision of the history of the United States. They were there, and if they weren’t there, their relatives were. They brought us their visions of our shared past; they have themselves become part of the historical record.

Biblio:

Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire, which I list in historical order, not in the order they were published: Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington D.C., The Golden Age.

Henry Adams’s Collected Essays; History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson; History of the United States of America During the Administrations of James Madison; The Education of Henry Adams.

*Best Served Cold* *2009). Orbit

September 10th, 2009

It seems that the first day of autumn rolled in this morning. Since summer didn’t show up until August it does seem too soon. But then, we are going to be on a real campus this weekend (Yale– how classic is that?), so that I feel invigorated by the sense of snap in the air today is appropriately seasonal. A sharp contrast with yesterday, which was pillowed in the humidity pushed up from the south by another tropical storm.

 Among yesterday’s many tasks, I had to return a book to the library, where I scored a winner — Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night on cd. Since finishing Donaghue’s late 18th C historical novel, Life Mask I had failed to find any audio book that worked for my work-outs. When I find one, I settle in for several hours for often several weeks — Life Mask was 19 discs that played for about 70 minutes each. It’s hard to transition out of the world that one’s workout has signaled entry into after so long. Finding the right workout book is not easy.

 In any case, I followed Donaghue’s Life Mask on cd, with a print book, Joe Abercrombie’s 15th-century Italian flavored fantasy, Best Served Cold. Along with Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (also experienced via cd) and Treason’s Shore by Sherwood Smith, these were the novels that held my interest this summer.

Best Served Cold is signally composed with more originality and sharply limned characters than many Fantasies. This isn’t easy to do, since thousands of Fantasy works have been published, and published in ever more numbers every month since LOTR created this new publishing genre — and demographic audience.

 What I liked most about Best Served Cold is the picture it provides of the terrible harm private mercenary armies are to everyone. They are fighting a war for their own profit. They collude with each other to drive up prices, throw battles and wars, betray each other and their employers, create wars where there are none. You have to think about Blackwater and, at last accounting, nearly 200 other private militias that are getting U.S. military contracts. If you ever thought  privatizing a national military is a good idea, you should read this novel of Abercrombie’s, particularly p. 239. But surely there’s no one in these current real world militias who is a classic likeable rogue like the former merc General, Nicomo Cosca, in Best Served Cold.

 Like Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Mercy (2008), and Sherwood Smith’s conclusion to her Inda series, Treason’s Shore (2009), Best Served Cold is a Fantasy novel that feels infused with current political events and catastrophes.  But readers who read to escape the real world, never fear!  Though this deep connection to contemporary events and conditions is successfully accomplished, none of these works will lose anything in depth or effectiveness as all these events disappear from our national attention deficit disordered mind.

 This may be the first Fantasy novel that has a character of agency who is an autistic, just on the edge of functioning. Friendly has no bonds with other humans, or booty, or power. He’s not likely to commit betrayal. He counts things, anything. His dice are his comfort objects. He is happy and content in prison, where the rigid routine allows him to feel safe. He’s a splendid addition to any group of thugs or soldiers because he loves the dice, and he never miscounts. He’s a methodical killer in a fight or battle, counting, counting, counting. He’s a sudden savage killer when the numbers are wrong or someone has broken his comfort routines. Friendly provokes the reader into thinking about what the chances were back in such times and conditions of autistic persons surviving at all.

Morveer is the chemist/alchemist/master of poisons-for-hire. Morveer reminds one of certain portraits of Merlin, including TNH’s description of the “unreliable magician” in her current “Re-reading Sandmanhere, and which others like Kit Kerr have also discussed at different times – Kit has also employed this specifically in her Deverry works. Most of all it is Morveer’s relationship with his apprentice that recall a twisted Merlin, a penetrating reading of that odd end of Merlin’s life with the entry of Viviene, she who wished to learn all his magic and secrets. The Merlin parallel feels most strong around p. 195. However, you will be surprised how this narrative strand plays out.

 The two ‘primary’ characters are the peasant turned mercenary general, the ruthless and brilliant strategist-swordswoman, Monza Murcatto, and Caul Shivers, a Viking sort, who has foolishly followed advice proferred at home and come south to become a better man, rather than a killer and seeker after ephemeral booty. It’s seldom I see actors in the role of fictional characters, but I couldn’t get rid of the image of Shivers as Sex and the City’s Aiden:  hunky, competent, unsizzling personality, dull of expression, and twice jilted by Carrie Bradshaw. There are many more characters than these, but these are the most successful, with the most page time. All of them betray each other and re-align frequently.

 The structure of the novel includes a variety of time periods, a variety of charcters and multi-threaded narrative lines.  These are written with an admirable deftness.  Nor does the prose plod.  The opening section is some brilliant satiric repartee by deeply knowing, profoundly cynical characters who know each other better than they want to, and have loyalty to nothing or anyone. At first you can’t believe what you are reading — you think this author is maybe an untalented sap and you’re going to close the book. But that’s not what is going on. It’s a brilliant bit.  And something that’s included in this bit, is there, at the very end of the novel.

 What was problematical for this reader concerning the novel was the name Abercrombie gave the featured region of his world-building — Styria. My eyes and brain insisted on seeing Syria every damned time, which threw me out of where we are. Nor did it feel like a name that would be found on the 15th Century latinum peninsula, of which this tale of warring city states is so reminiscent — as well as of Mario Puzo’s The Family (2001), featuring the Borgias, with historical characters including Niccolò Machiavelli.

This novel was just about perfect for this reader — see, in ‘my interests’: betrayal. It feels  significantly superior to Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy. This may be because the world is so emphatically modeled upon a historical time and place, and historical characters. There was more than one very strong female warrior in that period of the warring papal and city states.

 Hopefully, Best Served Cold is the stand-alone work it appears to be.

No Visible Means of Support. Please.

August 18th, 2009

In the days when I was reading slush (unsolicited manuscripts to the fortunately uninitiated) we had a rule of thumb: the more “supporting materials” came with a fantasy manuscript, the more likely the MS was to be rotten. This wasn’t a hard and fast rule: some manuscripts that came with this stuff were okay; few were top-notch. A beginner mistake is to assume that, as finished books have these things, it’s necessary for the aspiring writer to provide them.

Really: no it’s not.

First of all: it reads like a newbie mistake (see above). Second of all, the more detailed and lavish the supporting materials are, the more likely the story itself has been shorted, because the writer has gotten so wound up in providing the schematics for the world (and showing you that they’re all, all there!) that she has forgotten things like logic, character, and wordcraft.

This does not mean that the writer should not do her homework, keep charts and research files and maps and whatever else makes it possible for her to construct a world.  But, as I think I’ve said before, 9/10ths of the worldbuilding iceberg should be underwater, unless you want your manuscript to sink like the Titanic.  Even when the work is finished, think carefully about imposing too many maps, etc. on your reader. 

Of course there’s a reason I’m thinking about this.  I just finished reading a quite satisfying fantasy novel, second in a series set in a big, sprawling elsewhere.  The worldbuilding is generally quite satisfactory.  Two problems:

  • In the first book in the series the author included a pronunciation guide so that readers would understand how to say the names of characters and places.  The problem with this is that once I read the arcane rules of this language it meant that every time I met a new character I not only had to remember what she looked like, but that her name was pronounced so that the first H was aspirated but the second H was not*, and that U was always pronounced long, as in you, but A was always short as in aaaa. This means, for me as a reader, that I’m doing the equivalent of walking through a new country with a guidebook in my hand, rather than getting involved in the story. In the second book there is no pronunciation guide, but (sadly) I still remember it, and kept trying to sound out the names in the new book by the same rules, rather than just getting into the story.
  • Both books have maps. The first book takes place entirely on one continent, and it’s pretty easy to follow the peregrinations of Our Heroine and her dauntless companion once they leave her hometown and set out to save her people from invaders.  But in the second book–because there were maps (not only of the continent but of the world itself) I kept referring back to them. In the second book Our Hero and his dauntless band sail off to save some captives and wind up saving the world and…it’s a good story, full of cool worldbuilding and action and angst and stuff.  Only, I kept trying to figure out where they were on the maps, and got hugely frustrated because I couldn’t: the larger map that compassed his travels did not include the names of the places they visited, so I still have no idea where they started from and only a rudimentary one of where they ended up. But every time the author gave me a new place name I leafed back to the front of the book and tried to find it. Once again, having that supporting material available was a distraction, not an aid.

Not everyone reads as I read, I know.  Many people would skip right over this stuff, or wouldn’t be bothered the way I was.  But some people will be, and for us, it’s a drag.  So think carefully about including your supporting materials with your work, either in ms. form or in the final book.  If someone proposes it, ask yourself (and the proposer) what you want the map to accomplish.  If you’ve built your world solidly enough, readers might not need a map.  And if there are specific reasons (you want a visual reminder of how close the enemy city is to Our Heroine’s wee tiny cot in the woods, or to give some visual cue as to why the journey from Hither to Yon takes six years by carrier yak), make sure that the map is set up to be useful. Because human nature is such that some people are going to try to use it, and hold it against you if they cannot.

 

*The real pronunciation rules have been changed to protect the innocent.

Fort Freak, and Writing in the Cities You’ve Never Visited

May 14th, 2009

As before, news and a rumination.  The news is that Fort Freak, the latest volume in the ongoing Wild Cards cycle, has been announced over at George R.R. Martin’s blog, and I’m among the writers tapped to write it.

Fort Freak

Fort Freak

Aside from the good feeling of having a proposal accepted, there’s also the writer’s anxiety about writing about something you don’t know and fear of getting it wrong.  Mary Anne Mohanraj (also among the writers, and new to Wild Cards) was writing about the same thing, relative to Fort Freak being a police story, something she knows little about beyond what she’s seen on television.  My knowledge of police dealings has a slight benefit in that one of my best friends had studied to be a cop (until health issues made him change to lawyer) and his brother is a cop, and I have other friends who work in law enforcement, so I have people to run legalities by so I won’t run too far afoul of Sjöberg’s Law of Cinematic Inaccuracy.   (“Movies get everything wrong. Hacking-based movies are laughable to hackers, military-based movies are laughable to members of the armed forces, and Indiana Jones movies are laughable to archaeologists.”)  Or, as it’s recently been termed on tvtropes.org, having a story “Dan Browned,” a subset of the trope “Did Not Do the Research.”

Of course, there are sins and sins.  Television budgetary concerns can excuse Television Geography and even “The Mountains of Illinois”, but novels and short stories?  Not so much.  I’ve read short stories set in San Francisco where people had a picnic in Candlestick Park (not realizing that it’s a baseball/football stadium) or walked from Alameda to downtown SF (somehow forgetting that not only is this quite a distance, but the bay is in the way).  And these were published too.

So, I’ll confess my failing: I’ve never visited New York.  Neither state nor city.  But I’ve written stuff set there.  Most recently for my story in Busted Flush (the scene cut for pacing and plotting, not inaccuracy), but before as well.  And now I’m about to do it again.

On the plus side, I’ve at least touched Connecticut brownstone (the Flood Mansion in San Francisco is built of the stuff, imported at ruinous expense back in the day) and being familiar with the architecture of San Francisco and other cities helps, in that what was built in one city was then reproduced in other cities of the era, often by the same architects.   (Driving around Mexico City a few years ago, I was getting deja vu, thinking at times I was in parts of San Francisco or New Orleans or even downtown San Jose.)  And with Wild Cards being an alternate timeline which diverges in 1946, there are structures which were knocked down in our Manhattan which can still exist in the world of Wild Cards.  Not tipping my hand too much, but I’m currently researching  one of those, both because it’s neat in terms of alternate history to preserve something rather than destroying everything, and because if I’m pulling from museum archives and photographs, I don’t have to worry that much about someone who actually lives somewhere looking up from the book and rolling their eyes about how I’ve got it wrong.

I’ll also be running the story by some native New Yorkers, so I can get the errors caught before publication.  But right now, it’s research time.

Lord Ooky Hellwrought’s Sixteen Unspeakable Utterances

March 25th, 2009

Lord Ooky Hellwrought’s Sixteen Unspeakable Utterances
(a Supplementary Lexicon for Lady Pixie Moondrip’s Random Craft Name Generator)

In her well-famed essay, to which I refer you for reference, the great loremistress lists the following thirty-one words as being the components of eighty percent of all craft names:

  • Wolf     Raven Silver     Moon     Star
  • Water     Snow  Sea     Tree     Wind
  • Cloud     Witch     Thorn     Leaf      White
  • Black     Green     Fire     Rowan Swan
  • Night     Red     Mist     Hawk     Feather
  • Eagle     Song     Sky     Storm     Sun
  • Wood

Aside from modern witches, Wiccans and neo-pagans, this list also holds true with the majority of witches and wizards in fantasy fiction, especially popular roleplaying games, and is thus of use and interest to the writers and readers thereof.  But with all due deference to the esteemed lexicographer, her rule breaks down in one crucial area: evil overlords and wicked enchantresses.

With the exception of the always serviceable “Black” and “Night,” few evil overlords or wicked enchantresses use more than one word from the above list in their craft names, seldom two, and never three.  The same holds true for the titles of books chronicling their black deeds.  However, this is not to say that the practitioners of the black arts are any more original than their white and off-white colleagues.  They simply draw from a second, but even more limited, word list.

After perusing my vast library of blasphemous texts and eldritch tomes (mostly the aforementioned fantasy novels and gaming supplements), I, Lord Ooky Hellwrought, have found the same sixteen soul-searing words repeated again and again.  Herewith, my addenda:

  • Bane     Blood     Bone    Curse    Dark
  • Death    Dire    Doom    Dread     Fell
  • Foul    Grim    Hell    Hex    Nether
  • Shadow

These words may be combined with those from Lady Pixie Moondrip’s original list in the same manner, or, for added effect, may be added to professional titles.  Dread pirates and blood ninjas can charge more than mere ninjas and pirates.  And while no one is much impressed by a merchant or thief, the same cannot be said of death merchants and shadow thieves.  (Lord Ooky Hellwrought notes that a few professions, such as hairdressers and proctologists, are beyond help.  Aspiring evil overlords and wicked enchantresses would do best to not list these on their resumes.)

The Fox in the Dollhouse

February 14th, 2009

After attending Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse panel at last year’s Comicon, I was eagerly awaiting the premiere.  So were friends, and there was even a party with a showing of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to get us in the mood for more Joss goodness.  And then….

Well, while I don’t want to give any spoilers, Fox has put Dollhouse alongside The Sarah Connor Chronicles in what makes sense as a scifi block, but had promos with Summer Glau and Eliza Dushku that, if the sound were turned off, looked pretty much like 976 commercials:  “SciFi girls want to talk to you.  Just call them.  They’re waiting….”

Regardless, there was talk at the party about how Fox had asked for revision up on revision so that the first few episodes had been turned into something other than what Joss was wanting.  Something with more cop drama and explosions.  But since I can’t really discuss the truth of this without spoilers, they’ll be there after the fold:

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Memo to Hollywood: How to do (and not do) an adaptation

December 31st, 2008

I have just watched The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, a year after it came out (DVR is your friend, except maybe in this case) and I’m gasping in horror at how bad it was, and for no good reason.  You’ve got all the elements that would seem to make a great movie:  Beloved children’s classic as source material?  Check.  Lavish sets?  Check.  Gorgeous costuming?  Check.  Actors ranging from competent to excellent?  Check.  Impressive and appropriate special effects?  Check.  Script by a competent screenwriter?  Um, well, I understand they got the guy who did the adaptation for Trainspotting, which I understand was a decent movie, but….

First off, let me make one thing clear: Departure from the source material is fine.   The Wizard of Oz dumped the scene in the Dainty China Country from the movie adaptation because it was boring, extraneous, and painfully lame.  Glomming the Good Witch of the North and Glinda the Sorceress of the South together makes sense from a dramatic perspective, though making her a bubbly airhead was a bit much (although the MGM version does have her fans).  Having the Wicked Witch of the West be responsible for the poppies is fine for purposes of drama, and having them be foiled by snow as opposed to field mice is likewise fine for purposes of staging.  Mary Norton’s The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks do not contain Nazis, musical numbers, a young Miss Price, or magical football matches with talking animals–though all of these things are very fun in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a movie I adored as a child and had to thank for introducing me to the equally good (if significantly different) book.  And Alfonso Cuaron’s version of A Little Princess took numerous liberties with the original novel, including but not limited to moving the setting from London to New York, making Becky black instead of Cockney, and most significantly, having Sarah’s dad not be dead of bad investments in India but instead poisoned by mustard gas and MIA in WWI.

The difference here is that The Wizard of Oz, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Cuaron’s A Little Princess are all great movies.   The reason The Seeker isn’t is not because elements were changed, but because elements were changed for the wrong reasons and the wrong way. Continue Reading »

Don’t You Wish You Lived Then? (Musings on Class and Fantasy)

December 4th, 2008

I used to get asked that question a lot in my Regency-writing days.  The short, simple answer: No.  No painless dentistry, eccentric provision for sewage, no penicillin and no concept of asepsis, and the condition of most women was not one that I aspire to.  But the women who asked the question usually had been complimentary about my writing, and I am weak, and did not want to blurt out the first thing that came to my mind (which would be: Whaddaya, crazy?) and so I’d say something like “Well, they sure knew how to dress, didn’t they?”  Because twenty seconds’ musing on why these readers of mine thought that the Regency might be a swell time to live returned the conclusion that they were talking about a fantasy of the Regency, in which they would be duchesses in pretty clothes, and always say and do the right thing, and they would get to marry a prince, and all their trials would be wrapped up by the end of the last act.

It was easy (particularly when I was younger) to see this as a rather childish wish; with the wisdom of age, give or take, I think that life is hard enough and if the fantasy of living in a magical then-and-there and being beautiful and clever and well dressed helps a reader get through the day, I’m glad to have provided that service.  For me, however, part of what I love about writing about the past, or the future, or fantastic societies, is the chance to play with the fallout from that most human of pastimes: organizing ourselves into castes.  

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On Fantasies and Kings

November 9th, 2008

In addressing the charge that genre fantasy displays a reactionary political bias by setting so many of its works in genre-medieval kingdoms, Kate Elliott aptly points her finger at lazy worldmaking instead. To which I would add the pernicious influence of the publishers’ marketing departments, who find it easiest to sell what they have sold so often before.

The question still remains, however: What is it about monarchy that seems to be so attractive to fantasy authors? Or conversely, what is it about fantasy that seems to find monarchy so attractive?

Fantasy is the oldest kind of story, rooted directly in myth, the tales of gods and other wondrous beings who did wondrous deeds at the beginning of time. Moreover, fantasy continually revisits its roots, seeking to revive and capture that primal wonder.

It is for this reason that there is always a backwards-looking strain in fantasy fiction, usually not because of any reactionary political leanings of the authors, but because this branch of fantasy seeks the divine, the numinous, the wonder of those times when myth was alive.

There is a limit to how far back we can go. Our species has lived on Earth for about a hundred thousand years, but the historical record covers only the most recent five percent of that time, and that incompletely. We know from the finds of archaeology that our distant ancestors had religious beliefs, that they entertained hope of an afterlife, that they probably had invented gods and worshiped them. But we can only conjecture about the actual content of their myths, the stories the people told about their gods. This is the realm of the imagination, the realm of fantasy.

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