11 Things in Fantasy/SF That I Don’t Promise Not to Use (or Keep Using) in My Writing

August 15th, 2006

1. Saving the World

Because the stakes don’t get any bigger than this!

2. The Prettiest! Girl!! Evah!!!
I just finished writing my version of this character in Spirit Gate, although I hasten to note that the character has no Special Powers (see #3).
The inspiration for her came, in the most general sense, from an actual young woman who sold fruit at a street stall in the small Mexican town where we lived for six months while my husband did archaeological research. People really did talk about her as the most beautiful girl in that town. And she really was.

3. Special Powers (see also #2 above)
When I was 16, I desperately wanted Special Powers. Now and again I indulge my 16-year-old self.
On second thought, forget my protestations of maturity. All of my protagonists have Special Powers (except the character referenced in #2, above), although I suppose I could argue that my mandate for what constitutes a Special Power is broader than otherwise. Or perhaps I am just saying so to make myself feel better and so that you all will take me seriously (and avert your sophisticated eyes from the Chosen Ones and Lost Heirs cluttering up my tales).
I like to write about people who are at minimum competent at several things, and preferably highly skilled at one, which is a kind of garden variety Special Power.
My secret crush? Someday I want to write a super-hero story. I love super-hero/ines, and their Special Powers.

4. Beauty = Virtue and Ugliness = Evil
Compress this to drop out the center, and you get Beauty = Evil.
At its heart this can be just as cliched as either of the others.
Still, I had way too much fun with this in Crown of Stars.

5. Elves
I am a total sucker for elves, the sense of the perilous, the high-mindedness, the aesthetic eye, the built-in environmentalism, the gorgeousity and the athleticism. Orlando Bloom!
Oh, all right, sometimes they might seem merely like super-model jet-setters who are oh so talented with music, in which case, I am not so much interested.
And on that note:

6. Too many hot men and/or hot women as main characters.
Are you kidding? This is fantasy, isn’t it? Just be thankful I don’t try to write kinky sex.

7. Special Animal Companions
Dogs rule! How I love their slavish adoration of their masters!
But I admit I am not so fond of the special telepathic communication skills. However, I’m sure I would write a story of special animal companions with telepathic communication skills if I could come up with a way to do so, which I so far have not.

8. Failure to Abuse the System
When people don’t make or take obvious shortcuts or mess with the technology/magic in non-standard ways in order to keep the plot in line (see Kevin’s post).
When I don’t do this, it’s not because I want to keep things orderly to keep the plot in line, but because all too often things don’t occur to me that might occur immediately to others.
Like: “well, gee, couldn’t she just have hit him in the head with the axe?” “Oh, gosh, so she could have; why didn’t I think of that when I was writing that scene?”

9. Changing the names of coffee and tea.
Because you just can’t win in this situation.
If you use “coffee” and “tea” in the context of a “non-Earth” fantasy world, someone will criticize you for using Earth-specific terms in a fantasy world. And if you don’t, then you’re stuck with what can admittedly become tiresome attempts at made-up words.
Of course, I have used other “Earth-specific” names for creatures and plants and objects, so feel free to call me fickle or a hypocrite on this position.

10. Dumb Naming Conventions
Sorry. I’ll try to do better next time.

11. Stew
Hey, I like stew.

32 Responses to “11 Things in Fantasy/SF That I Don’t Promise Not to Use (or Keep Using) in My Writing”

  1. Monaon 15 Aug 2006 at 2:34 am

    And the great thing about the Crown of Stars, Kate, is that Alain does not fit into any of the above category, remaining one of the most enigmatic characters in the fantasy fiction, (at least in my opinion).
    I’ve read five books and I am still no closer to finding out what his deal is but definitely ready to carry on reading to find out.


  2. Katharine Kerron 15 Aug 2006 at 5:03 am

    Those who rail against the prevalence of stew in fantasy fiction forget how expensive cookware is when the local blacksmith has to make each piece by hand. One good kettle and a griddlestone was about all a poor family could have — if indeed they could afford the kettle. (It was probably an heirloom). This means stew, porridge, soup, etc, all cooked in the same pot though hopefully not all together.

    Another thing that should be on one of these lists: the department store. There weren’t any till about 1850 AD . . . The Romans invented the shopping mall, sure, but all the stores were small and sold only one type of thing. Especially can you not go into a big store and buy a complete kit of armor and weaponry.

  3. Sherwood Smithon 15 Aug 2006 at 5:15 am

    But there WAS stew in them thar days!

    Hot men, special powers, woo! Add in magic and what’s there not to like?

  4. Aquilaon 15 Aug 2006 at 6:04 am

    Thank you!

  5. Ericon 15 Aug 2006 at 10:55 am

    On your coffee and tea point…

    I remember reading the DragonLance books as a teenager, and there was mention throughout of the famous “Otik’s spiced potatoes” — Wait, they have potatoes?

    But to be realistic, I don’t expect authors to invent entire new plant species with every novel. Part of the problem with this is the temptation to describe the plants in Earthly terms. “It’s like a carrot, but…”

  6. Marie Brennanon 15 Aug 2006 at 10:55 am

    I call BS on people complaining about you using the words “coffee” and “tea.” Do they object to “beef” or “cow”? How about “oak” or “stew”? If they have those things in your world, then use the words we use. I see no point in calling them shmeerps.

  7. rettersonon 15 Aug 2006 at 11:19 am

    Hear! Hear! on #11 and #9.

    What culture doesn’t have stew? I never buy the uni-culture stuff (language, etc.), but stew appears to be a Universal Truth.

    It’s the content of the pot that makes or breaks.

    Okay, I know — let me amend lest this post send all the inventive minds wander here — what culture that has a) pots, b) water, and c) food doesn’t have stew or soup?

    How about a short story about a culture that lacks pots and water, and therefore, sadly, lacks stew? It would be a tragedy, I think.

    The same might be said of infused beverages: pot + water + leaves = tea.

    You can’t say “tea,” I’ve been told. Well, yes, you can. It’s just not made of “tea” leaves. It could be a weird chamomille-sage hybrid with encrusted dilithium crystals. But if it’s an infusion and it’s a beverage, then it’s tea.

    Merriam-Webster sez that tea is: a (1) : any of numerous plants somewhat resembling tea in appearance or properties (2) : an infusion prepared from their leaves and used medicinally or as a beverage — used usually with qualifying adjective or attributive.

    So, anyone for stew and tea on the lido deck?

  8. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 15 Aug 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Well I’ve certainly never objected to stew, unless it’s being used as a generic substance: “They ate stew and bread and cheese.” Uh, what type of stew and bread and cheese. “Rich stew! Hearty bread! Cheese cheese!” I’d like to know what type of meat is in it, even if it’s the cliche/reality of “unidentifiable chunks.” However, since stews can also comprise pottage, cassoulet, chili and gumbo, it can sometimes be a cop out.

    Tolkein did a bit of silliness when he changed “tobacco” to “pipeweed” because he thought “tobacco” didn’t sound English enough, but left in “potato.” Then again, I’ve heard speculation that the “pipeweed” was in fact pot and thats why the hobbits always have the munchies.

     And there is a generic word for “herbal tea” that hasn’t completely fallen out of usage: tisane.  But given that there’s also roobios/redbush, honeybush, yerba matte, mint and a whol number of other leaves that are used for “teas,” I don’t sea a problem.  I like chamomile tea, to give a European example.

  9. Lennethon 15 Aug 2006 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks for this list. All the negativity was bringing me down, man. 😉 I also heart elves, stew and hot people, and refuse to ever give them up. :)

  10. domynoeon 15 Aug 2006 at 2:34 pm

    Writing is escapism for the author as much as for the reader even if the writer has to pay more attention to craft. So bring on #1, #2, #3, #5, #6, and stew.

    Hey, I never understood the “we can’t use it because it’s cliche” attitude anyway (not for this kind of stuff and not for the whole, cut out all of the adverbs revolution). If you love it and it works for the story, then use it! Just make it yours. Works a lot better than deciding to limit the options and tools avilable to us as writers.

  11. Mitch Wagneron 15 Aug 2006 at 4:48 pm

    Hey, I like Stew. Who doesn’t like Stew? Stew’s a great guy! Although I think he prefers “Stewart.”

  12. Erin Underwoodon 15 Aug 2006 at 5:05 pm

    If you are up for a bit of Evil Overlord fun, I highly reccomend reading Theresa Nielsen Hayden’s piece “The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot” on Viable Paradise’s web site.

  13. Diana Pharaoh Francison 15 Aug 2006 at 6:19 pm


    I like other words for coffee or tea, mostly because I start imagining this cross between chocolate and coffee with sugar . . . Oh, my bad starbucks habit is showing. So in my Path books I used kohv. But in the current books, it’s tea, and pretty much strong black tea.

    I like elves too. I don’t write elves, mind you, but only because I like to read what other people do with them. I’m a sucker for them.


  14. rettersonon 15 Aug 2006 at 6:46 pm

    I would be happy in a world where all elves looked like Legolas or Arawyn (sp?) — the movie versions, of course.

    But when they are small and cute, they scare me. I always imagine they’re going to start biting my ankles.

  15. Madeleine Robinson 15 Aug 2006 at 7:45 pm

    I stand foursquare against ever making promises about things I won’t do, because I never know when I’ll find it absolutely imperative that I break them. I may find it unlikely that I’ll ever write a sweeping heroic fantasy, but I’m not going to rule it out just because I can’t imagine it.

    By the way: I believe wholeheartedly in stew.

  16. LauraJMixonon 15 Aug 2006 at 9:10 pm

    I promise never to promise never to do something in my fiction.


  17. Muneravenon 15 Aug 2006 at 9:15 pm

    I don’t like elves. They get all the good press. Dwarves are terribly overlooked and everything you have ever been told about them is a falsehood.

    At least that’s what the dwarves (who will kick you if you call them that) in by book tell me.

  18. Sherwood Smithon 15 Aug 2006 at 10:02 pm

    There are some authors out there doing fun stories with goblins (Jim C. Himes) and trolls (Charles Coleman Finlay) in case one likes a little species variation.

    (The species speculation that made me blink was a fanfic penchant for vampire elves. I suppose this would be the end point for some in the “Beautiful but Deadly” , er, stakes, but what it leaves me trying not to imagine is Elrond with death breath. Gag-o-rama.

  19. Madeleine Robinson 15 Aug 2006 at 10:56 pm

    Ooo. Elrond with sharp pointy teeth!

  20. Laurieon 16 Aug 2006 at 2:47 am

    I love the super-hero stuff! I was browsing at the book store during lunch and saw a new run of Astonishing X-Men written by Joss Whedon and illustrated by John Cassaday. The story grabbed me immediately and the imagery was just gorgeous. It had been years since I had picked up a comic book, and I’d forgotten how much of the story the art conveys.

  21. jayon 17 Aug 2006 at 7:29 am

    Well stew is a kind of universal food. Even other species….aliens…call them what you will, would probably have eaten stew….but only if they had arms and mouths. So what would the amoeboid types of aliens have eaten??? I have read a few sci fi’s over the years and have found a few with those types in there…so it’s kinda a valid question!

    As for the tea….I agree that bowl, hot water and leaves= tea of some description. But I can’t remember what the name of the author that wrote the Chung Quo series name is….but it was based on a futuristic society of Chinese, or similar influence. Well he, (I think the author was male, not that it matters for my point) but he simply called his tea ‘Cha’…I do know that that’s a Chinese tea….but there was no description given…so if you give a beverage an individual name …and say that it’s a spicy smelling herbal beverage…the reader will , I’m sure gain the hint and not have their intelligence insulted, or have any reason to nitpick.

    One more thing. There are definately more ugly people than beautiful people in the world. Let’s face it our genes aren’t perfect! But there are still quite a few people put there that almost look otherworldly in their beauty. So if you want your character to be physically perfect and unbelievably beautiful….go for it….Just include other characters that aren’t as attractive to balance thing out…seems fair to me….

    I think when you’re writing the only thing that you should worry about is if you’re upholding the 11th commandment!
    “Do what the F*^$ you want!”
    hehehehe 😉

  22. Carol Bergon 17 Aug 2006 at 4:04 pm

    Hooray, Kate! I am with you. Well, ok, I don’t do dogs or elves. And we only have stew when it can cook for a while, but soup is another matter.

    But hot characters and special powers – I’m there – and I’m heavily into royalty as well. I think “never say never” is an excellent maxim.

    Carol, just back from HOOOOTTT Texas and ArmadilloCon and drowning in all these great posts…

  23. Mark Tiedemannon 18 Aug 2006 at 8:34 am

    Now I know. It’s the stew. I never liked stew. My mother made it when she couldn’t think of anything edible. This is why I have deep, pre-conscious aversions to fantasy.

    All these years, I thought it was the feudalism I objected to.

  24. Hughon 18 Aug 2006 at 1:10 pm

    Dumplings. How many Earth cultures have some sort of dough wrapped around some sort of filling and boiled in water or broth!

  25. kateelliotton 19 Aug 2006 at 1:27 am

    Hugh, that’s a good point about dumplings.

    jay, hot is as hot does. Some people have a narrow range of what they consider attractive and others a much wider range. I fall into the latter category, in that I tend to write characters who are in some manner – Hollywood-style looks least among them – attractive.

    Mark – I object to feudalism, too, although that hasn’t stopped me from writing books set in a time frame where some manner of feudalism holds sway. Since I write both sf and f, I find it interesting that certain readers have clear preferences between the two sub-genres, or approaches, or what have you.

  26. jayon 21 Aug 2006 at 5:55 am

    Hi everyone,
    just wanted to say something. It seems everyone is writing about stew…..just don’t forget you can hve broth too!

  27. Mark Tiedemannon 21 Aug 2006 at 9:18 pm

    Now broth I like…

  28. jayon 22 Aug 2006 at 5:54 am

    lol Mark,

  29. Wenchon 26 Aug 2006 at 10:13 pm

    Burnt stew… gamey goatmeat stew… gruel. Whatever. The reason you ought to use earth-type descriptions for food is that you want people to be able to relate to the food, adn we don’t relate to a description of “barmoose mash” the way we relate to “oatmeal with milk”. So if you want people to relate to the flavor fo the food, you describe it like people will recognize.

    Some exceptions work though. Alien foods deserve alien names – if you’re talking about something which is rare and you want to evoke the mystery of a flavor the characters have never tried before, or something that has no current real-world equivalent, a weird name works. Then you need to use the propper descriptors then – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, rich. (I use “rich” in place of the propper Japanese term, “Umumi”, because not many people know that one…)

    I guess it’s situational then.

  30. tchernabyeloon 29 Aug 2006 at 12:55 pm

    About the only thing in Diana Wynn Jones’ “Tough Guide To Fantasyland” I really argued with was the stew thing. As noted, stew is almost universal (I think the exception is the areas of China where fuel was a at premium and where stir-frying was invented – cook quick and hot, over flaring brushgrass etc, rather than simmering on a hearth for a few hours. Meat, remember, was not something you could have on demand; slaughtering one animal would have to feed a family for weeks or months, hence the need to preserve food, and preserving mostly means salting, and salting means you need to boil the stuff to cook it.

    But tea and coffee are other matters. If you want to have them, or their equivalents, fine, but recognise that you will have to have a world in which it’s plausible that they are prevalent. In a mock-Celtic mock-medieval milieu, where is the tea being grown? Establish trade, and in quantity, and you can get away with it. Otherwise… drop it. Accept that people in medieval times didn’t have coffee for breakfast.

  31. Evil_Maguson 26 Oct 2006 at 5:02 pm

    The arguments against stew (at least all of the arguments I’ve heard of) are not due to the fact that it’s eaten and exists, but the fact that it takes at least 5 hours (often-enough even longer) to make, and in very nearly every case of it, that much time is not devoted to making it. It’s just water in a pot, solids in the water, cook (for MAYBE an hour, oftentimes less) and you get a stew. No. That’s how you get soup. There’s a big difference between a stew and a soup.

    As for elves… they just annoy me because, often-enough, they’re Tolkienien carbon-copies used by lazy authors to add an element of ramanticism to their writing. If they have a purpose, then have at it. I’m REALLY tired of authors doing things just “because Tolkien did it”. Write your own story, not his. If yours happens to have elves, then fine.

  32. Shawna R. B. Atteberry » A great siteon 16 Jan 2007 at 5:56 pm

    […] I discovered a great site that I wanted to share with other sci-fi/fantasy writers on my site: DeepGenre. DeepGenre is a collabarative blog where nine authors give help, advice, and insight into the general writing business and the specifics of the sci-fi and fantasy genre. This is the entry that introduced me to the site: Contracts 101: Grant of Rights by Madeline Robbins. I now have an idea of what a contract will look like and be about when I see one. Fantasy writers don’t miss Kate Elloit’s 11 Things in Fantasy/SF that I don’t Promise Not to Use (or Keep Using) in My Writing and Kevin Andrew Murphy’s 6 More Things I Could do Without in Fantastic Literature and I don’t plan to use Except to Make Fun of. They also have a discussion board for those of us writing our first novels. It is well worth time to check out and read.   […]

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply