Posted in Oxford Odditites

That Time When No One Talks About The Unnamed Guardian…

For those of you who haven’t been to Oxford before, this is Oxford’s train station…


It’s not the most glamorous place in the world is it? I remember hearing when I first moved down here that the town wasn’t at all keen on this whole ‘train’ idea, and many people were sure it wouldn’t catch on at all. So rather than build a nice swanky train station like London has in spades or York, they just sort of… shoved it out onto what was at that time the outskirts (ha! Oh, urban sprawl, you aggressive weed…)


And for a long time I sort of believed this story too…


No more shall we calmly accept this mundane tale! No indeed! We shall instead acknowledge the battle of a brave soul who has for so long gone unrecognised!

For if you go to Oxford’s train station, and you walk into the main hall and look up, you will see a small figure, sitting above the main doors…


She’s only small, and you can easily miss her, but there she is… the Guardian.

There she sits, watching over us all. No matter the season, the time, or the weather, she remains at her post through it all, unstinting in her duty of care.

If you ask a member of the station team, you may be given a name for her. But if you ask more than one for her name, you will find that you get a different name every time. This is only sensible, I suppose, for Names are Important, as we have discussed here before.

Now you may say to me, ‘Cameron. You’re being ridiculous. She’s a plastic owl to ward off a few pigeons; this isn’t a big deal.’

But that’s where you’re wrong!

For one thing, if she were there to simply ward off a few pigeons, she’d be hilariously bad at it! I didn’t actually manage to get a photo of the feathered terrors perching on top of our girl, contrary creatures that they are, but I assure you that there were plenty of them doing so! And the good people of Oxford train station wouldn’t keep her around if she didn’t function! What do you think she is? One of our ticket barriers?

So she must be there to ward off another threat, a bigger threat than mere pigeons…


Now you might wonder to yourself, what possible dangers are there hanging around at train stations, but I urge you to remember your folklore for a moment…

What are the places you must be most careful of, the places where a moment of unwary complacency can cost you all that you hold dear?

Graveyards, yes, ruins and standing stones, sure, but also? Crossroads.

Nothing good comes of being too relaxed by a crossroads, does it?

And what are train stations but big, modern crossroads? Oh, sure we don’t tend to bury our unquiet dead there, but train stations are where large groups of strangers are pressed closely together, no one looks too hard at another’s eyes, nor do we count their fingers. Everyone’s in a hurry, no time to ask enough questions, lots of quick decisions being made. And then we’re off! Never looking back, never sure who the person we just spoke to was or whence they came…

Train stations might fool you with their florescent lighting and their pop-up coffee shops, but think about it even a little and suddenly they look much more Otherworldly, no?

But fear not!

For at Oxford, there is one who stands guard against the Lord and Ladies of the Otherworld! The silent sentinel figure of the owl…

Photo by Agto Nugroho on Unsplash

She is an apt choice in many ways. In the North of England, my own place of origin, it is said to be good luck to see an owl, and if you’re are at either the beginning or the end of a long train journey then I can assure you that you’ll take any piece of good luck you can find!

On a less … owl-friendly note, owls have long been associated with evil and wickedness owing to their nocturnal habits and liking for the quiet of graveyards and ruins. In Kent it was said that the owl kept to the nighttime hours because she had once won first prize in the animal kingdom’s beauty competition and the jealous losers punished her by only allowing her to come out at night. Poor love.

More to our purposes here, since the early Roman times and continuing right up and into the 19th Century, it was considered that nailing a dead owl to the door of a house or barn would ward off evil and ill-fortune (I think out of the idea that an owl caused the ill-fortune so an owl could jolly well take it away again.) And while that’s clearly awful and you should never do such a thing to the noble and majestic owl, a plastic owl is a perfect modern replacement, don’t you think? Can’t get more dead than being made of plastic now, can you?

All around the world, owls are often credited with powers of prophecy, wisdom and being the messengers between this world and … others. I can certainly think of no better guard against the inherent evil of public transport terminals than our dear Oxford Owl! She’ll see through any mischievous being who tries their luck on the unwary, that’s for sure! And any who have seen the talons and beaks of an owl will know that her vengeance will be both swift and vicious indeed!

So when you next pass through Oxford’s train station, look up on your way out and tip your hat to our noble guardian. She’s doing a hard and thankless job up there, but we are all safer for her presence.

Does your local train station have a guardian? What is it? As I travel around the country in the coming year I’ll keep an eye out myself…

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Oxford Odditites

When There’s An Actual Magical Building Down That Back Alley…


For those of you who are familiar with Oxford, you may recognise this photo as the alley at the back of the Clarendon Shopping Centre.

For those of you whop aren’t familiar with Oxford, let’s just say that it’s an alley I’ve walked past just about every day for at least seven years. There’s dozens of alleys just like it in every town and city in England and very probably around the world; nicely built at one point, but long-since forgotten about while the front facade gets updated every decade or so.

It’s totally ordinary and unremarkable, I always thought.

You’d think by now – this being Oxford and all – I would know better!

Because the other evening I was walking past it – running late as always and keeping a dear friend waiting for dinner – when I suddenly noticed something…


Why is there a stained glass window sandwiched there between the fire escape and the bike shed? I mean, I’m sure that there’s no wrong place to put a stained glass window and all, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice, I’ll tell you that!

And wait… Is… Is that…?


Yes, that is indeed an angel looking back over its shoulder at us like it’s in The Office, apparently 1000% done with the sea serpent. Look at them! You can absolutely hear the exasperation in the angel’s voice, can’t you?
Sidney, I say, Sidney will you stop flashing your fangs around? No really, they’re completely unnecessary, old thing. The poor artist’s already struggling to get your whole body in frame what with all the coils, do you think you could just… not?

I mean, why not have an angel and a sea serpent in your windows, right?

Makes complete sense, that does.20190222_180317

Naturally, I had to investigate a little further…

Sure enough, over top of the skip (because of course it was over the skip!) there was another stained glass window! It’s a little unclear, I know, what with being so high up, but I think that’s St George, mercifully without his dragon up there:


Yep, there he is! Valiant steed at the ready and everything!

Now, I know what you might be thinking: Cameron, why are we looking at this building? And fortunately, I do have an explanation which in turn explains so much about Oxford!

Because it has been my personal belief for some time now that there is a magical department hanging around somewhere in Oxford, even if I could never quite figure out where it might be. The Bodleian was too obvious, and besides, have you ever actually met an Oxford librarian? They are specially trained to take out a potential book-scribbler at a thousand paces! You even think about crumpling the pages and they will have your hide, never mind trying to do any magic around their books! Any of the museums are out for similar reasons, although one does also have to factor in the various Outreach activities to get kids into History they have going on: there’ll be no doing of magic while the PVA glue and glitter is right out, it doesn’t bear thinking about!

20190222_180429.jpgAnd at last! I have found it! It’s perfect! Right next door to a gardening and DIY shop too, which I’m sure will come very in handy for iron nails and oak wood and things. They probably have an extra room at the back with the cauldrons in…

After a bit more searching, I finally found the front door, and look! Definitive proof if I do say so myself!

I mean, if you were designing the head quarters of the Magical Faculty of Oxford University, what else would you stick over the door? Naturally it would be an owl!

Alright, so the sign next to the door says it’s the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, but that is just what you would say, isn’t it? What other crowd would be more at ease with magical undergraduates, huh? They’ll all have their cover stories at the ready; when they say that their DPhil topic is the correlation in accounts of dragons and witches in the 15th century, you’re not to know that either of these things really exist, are you?

I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to have finally found confirmation of the Magic Faculty after all this time! And to have simply stumbled across it too! Mind you, isn’t that always the way it happens in the stories?

Coming to you next time with further wonders, miracles and mysteries of Oxford…

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) – Part 1

In which there are many ways to plan out your novel, but why bother taking all that time?

Greetings everyone!

So, I know I’ve had a lot of time away from all you lovely people, but in my defence I have been doing Actual Writing for the Novel! I know, I amaze myself sometimes…

Ch.23 - Plotting for Non-Super VillainsAnyway, while I’m buried under a pile of trying to remember how sentences combine to make chapters, I thought I’d share with you some of the ways in which I planned my novel; what order I tackle things in, and how each method helps me. Obviously, as I have been repeating since the beginning of this series, this is in no way intended to be any kind of ‘How To’ on the ‘correct way to plan a novel’, because I generally feel that no one should ever look to me for guidance on the right ways to do anything (I have far too much trial-and-error, with a strong emphasis on the error!) but if you are currently plotting out a story, or trying to, or will want to some time in the future, then hopefully this will prove useful!

Part 2 of Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) can be found here.

Why Plot Ahead?

So you know how it goes: you get this really great idea for a story, and you just know it’s a strong one, and you’ve got all these great characters to go in it, and there’s going to be all these exciting twists and turns and you want to just start writing immediately! Get going while it’s all fresh in your mind. You might forget the best bits otherwise! And you’re all fired up with enthusiasm and muse-vibes!

Why risk all that by taking a step back and wasting time with planning it all out on paper before you get going?

Now, I do have to acknowledge, here and now, that plotting out your story before you write it isn’t for everyone, that there are amazing cryptids out there called ‘pantsers’, as in they write by the seat of their pants. For those of you not familiar with these magical beings, these are writers that can just sit down at their keyboards and just know what to do without struggling about and they just… they just write a novel. Without planning. Or like… needing to know what comes next!

To all of you such magical beings out there, I am in awe of your mad skills but I really don’t know how you do it!

Failing such wondrous gifts, I feel that planning out a story before you sit down and devote time and effort and everyone else’s sanity to it has several advantages:

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

For one thing, I find that having a whole story planned out means I’m far less likely to abandon the project. (This may or may not have been a common issue in my early writing career. And my current career. Um.)

Ch.22 - So You Want To Draw A Map - Part 2
Before we dive into designing our own maps, let’s take a good long look at other famous maps and see what lessons they can teach us all.

I can’t lose my train of thought if Life gets in the way for a while and I need to put the project down for a few days: my train of thought is already there in the broad strokes and the writing process just fills in the details. Jotting everything out in as much detail as I can while the ideas are fresh, shuffling them hurriedly into order while the shape of the story is there right behind my eyelids is a great help. I’ll have a beginning, middle and end of the story all laid out and even if I get a bit lost in the middle (more on that in a minute) I’ll still have signs and clues to get me back on track.

As a result, I don’t get discouraged so easily, and can at the very least force myself to bash out the roughest of rough first drafts to fling at a friendly beta reader who can try and explain where the madness has crept in!

What Is My Story Anyway?

Terry Pratchett once said of first drafts that they were “essentially just telling yourself the story.” That’s how I feel about writing up my plan for a story.

I might start off with some initial ideas, but it’s only by jotting all those ideas down, shuffling them around and generally corralling them until they start making sense that I can find the story that’s been floating around in my head for ages. And having told myself that story the first time, I can start to get a better feel for things like; what kind of story is it? What kind of tone should I aim for? What kind of audience? Where might it fit with other stories of mine?

It’s also a useful stage for me to try and identify any weak points in the plot, any areas where I might have made a leap of intuition or just have left a big gap in my plot which needs to be thoughts about and fixed.

For example, I find that it’s common for me to easily plan up to the middle of a story when things are about to pretend to go right for the protagonist, or the tension’s the highest, and then… well I know the ending! I have the last chapter! But no, I have no idea how we got from Point F to Point M.

Not a single clue!

Alternatively, I might have a character with a big role in the first half of the book who has apparently completely disappeared around chapter 9, never to return! Well, if he vanished like that, did I really need him at the start? If not, I could maybe combine his character with another person with a role in the second half who maybe showed up around chapter 7. If he did in fact need to be there the whole time, is there any way he can be tied to the end? If not, I can still make a note that I need to write him out properly.

Aren’t I glad that I’ve spotted that at this initial stage?

What Is My Story Actually Saying Though?

Ch.21 Hide and Seek MacGuffins
When you need to hide the Magic Thingy, but you don’t know where? Well, we have a few suggestions…

Finally, plotting everything out in details allows me to try and identify any themes or ideas that I especially like and would like to develop more fully. We writers can really mine gold-dust out of our subconscious given half a chance, but we don’t need to leave such gold-dust in its raw form. Spotting something I really love at an early stage allows me to try and make the most of anything that will make my story stand out and shine among all the others, and the earlier I find it, the better it can be integrated.

Conversely, it is worth acknowledging – as I will also discuss in more detail in another post – that some of our ideas, once we write them down on paper, are terrible. Now, I know that everyone’s criteria for something they neither want to write nor read will be different. But I am currently trying to properly unpick how I managed to write in a major over-arching theme into the whole series of my novels that I flat-out disagree with and will not stand behind.

It’s not that I set out to write a theme that in the cold light of a new day is kind of xenophobic, because of course I didn’t! But it can happen that you have one idea, and then another one, and another one and individually none of them are bad or even questionable at all. And then they all start coming together and make up a pattern between them that… well, that could raise some eyebrows, let’s say.

The point I’m making is that one of the reasons I think many creators respond defensively to audiences of their work objecting to certain themes which they did not intend to be in their work lies in how much blood, sweat and tears they’ve expended in making that work. No, they might not agree with every aspect of their own creation, but trying to back down from a completed piece is extremely difficult. You’ve spent months and years slaving over that work, and it can be extremely difficult to look at the finished product and acknowledge that there’s something kind of messed up lurking right there in the middle where you didn’t spot it.

I’m sure I’m not alone in the level of personal investment I have for my work, even when it’s terrible and bad.

Ch.9 Fantasy Idioms - A Shortcut to Writing a New Language
Creating your own Colloquialisms: a shortcut to writing a new language! Have fun with words…

But by planning everything out in detail, in the event that I notice something I’m not going to be proud of myself for writing, there’s a lot less of a connection to any single part(s) of my whole. As you’ll see in Part 2, which is full of pictures of my personal planning process, although unpicking a particular plot-thread is difficult and time-consuming, it’s also not so emotionally draining. Either I’m discarding bullet-points in a document, or colour-coded post-its, and neither of these took a lot out of me in terms of eloquent word-play or refined story-telling. They were ideas, and on consideration they weren’t that good.

Essentially, planning – for me, at least – is the practise run. It’s the equivalent of speaking your ideas out loud and checking that they all sound as good outside of your head as they did while still inside of it. If story-telling was dress-making, it would be the mock-up.

And for me at least, no matter how tempting it might be to just sit down and get writing straight away when I have a good idea, I think it’s the most vital step you can take.

Part 2 of Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) can be found here.


If this is your first time on this blog: Hi! Chronicles in Creation is an on-going series in which I discuss various aspects of writing and world-building in more-or-less real time, screw ups and all!

If you’d like to see some of my actual original fiction; check out the Ghosts & Gowns series and see what you think!




Posted in Uncategorized

RIP Peter Firmin…

As I get older, this keeps happening to me more often; I look up the news of the day and someone I know has passed away. Then I feel sad for a bit and get on with things.

Peter Firmin Guardian)
Peter Firmin with a Clanger and the Soup Dragon. Photograph: Toby Melville/PA, via The Guardian

But this morning, when I got the news that we have lost Peter Firmin, aged 89, I was struck by how much Peter and his colleague Oliver Postgate (whom we lost in 2008) had influenced me and the stories I grew to love. When I think of the series I would regularly watch as a child, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and the Clangers stick out to me alongside Michael Bond’s creations; The Herbs and Parsley, and of course Paddington Bear.

Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate
Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin filming The Clangers, 1968. Photograph: Smallfilms/Victoria and Albert Museum

Of course I wasn’t alive for these tiny masterpieces to be around the first time, but my parents had loved them so much that they would seek them out in reruns and on VHS tapes to share them with my sister and I. Because of this I learned that stories, good stories, are meant to be shared with the people we love, passed down and remembered fondly, not to mention that strange moment as a child when you realise that your own very-grown-up parents were children too once upon a time! Madness!

In honour of the joy that Peter brought to me and many others as children, I thought I’d list a few of the things I took away from his programs and have applied to my won writing over the years.

1. Keep it short

The herbs
Lady Rosemary, Sir Basil, Parsley the Lion, Sage the Owl, and Dill the Dog, The Herbs

The episodes for shows like The Herbs, Noggin the Nog and Ivor the Engine were only about 10 minutes long. That’s not a lot of time, especially when you have to factor in the introductions and the credits at the beginning and end. But like a lot of children’s shows, the stories didn’t really need more time. They were well-told shorts, any more time and they’d have felt bloated and over-stuffed with padding.

I bring this up particularly in a age of big-budget remakes, especially for the big screen of cinema, in which plot-lines are stretched out and over-complicated far beyond what relatively simple concepts can support. Sometimes your story isn’t a nine-hour epic. Sometimes shorter is better.

When I sit down to write, I always find that I start out planning something the length of The Order of the Phoenix and it’s only thanks to kind writing-buddies with sensible questions that I come to realise that my plot will only really stretch to a novella.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Bigger isn’t always better, we need smaller stories too.

2. Inspiration can come from Anywhere

Neasden_station_roundel2In an interview, Peter Firmin is said to have come up with the name of Noggin after travelling on the London Underground and seeing Neasden Station, which made him think ‘Noggin’. I’m not entirely sure I follow this, but it obviously made sense to him, and he’s the only one who needed to follow that anyway.


Visually the show was inspired by a trip Peter and Oliver took to the British Museum, the look of the characters drawing heavily from the Lewis Chessmen.

In 1969 (the year of NASA’s first landing on the Moon), the BBC asked Smallfilms to produce a new series, but crucially they neglected to specify a storyline. Oliver Postgate adapted an idea from one of the Noggin the Nog stories ‘The Moonmouse’ in which a spaceship crash lands in the new horse trough and its waistcoat-wearing mouse pilot needs fuel to get home, and behold! A series about knitted pink mice-like creatures living inside the moon was born. And naturally they would speak only in whistles. The connections are so obvious!

The-Clangers-010.jpgI do remain sad that Star Trek never visited the Clanger’s moon… I always wanted to see Bones interact with the Soup Dragon, but that may just be me and my weird brain…

I suppose where I’m going with this is that, as any child knows, anything can be the basis of a new story. Anything can spark an idea for a good plot. Be always on your guard and alert to new possibilities, for plot-bunnies lurk around all corners, for those swift enough and watchful enough to catch them!

3. Don’t take yourself too seriously

Noggin the Nog was one of the biggest early influences on my writing and the stories I wanted to tell, because it was a very skilful blend spine-tingling atmosphere and folkloric gravitas while being utterly aware of its own absurdities too.


I know that in the years since Nogging the Nog made his way onto the television screens, there have been a lot of humorous takes of the myth and fantasy landscapes – Dealing with Dragons being a personal favourite – but often such works are all comedy and they never feel quite like a tale told for centuries, like Oliver Postgate’s opening narrative makes me feel:

“In the Lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale…”

It sounds so epic, and yet this is a show in which the titular character is called Noggin the Nog, King of the Nogs, husband to Nooka of the Nooks. You can’t even read that with a straight face, can you?

Fantasy is inherently a little silly; there are dragons and goblins and the logic behind the magic and world-views are pretty strange and arbitrary. You could treat it all as a super-serious subject, but you’re going to lose something in the process. I have a Green Man who is literally all green, and another character with horns sticking out of his head in my stories, and no matter how epic the plots end up becoming, I will always be happy to embrace the ridiculous image that conjures up for me!

4. Roll with your weirdness

Something which really stuck with me about a lot of the shows I watched as a child was how they had such utterly bizarre premises, but never felt the need to overthink any of them.

The Herbs has a premise of ‘Herbs are all alive and they have personalities and adventures’ and just throws that at you without explanation. These aren’t magic herbs, they are merely herbs in a herb garden, which must be opened with the magic word: Herbidacious. What?

The Clangers are these weird little pink knitted aliens that live in the craters of the moon, and heck yes there’s a Soup Dragon! What? How else will the Clangers get the green pea soup they live off without him? Huh?


It’s a similar feeling to the opening of The Hobbit for me. The books begins with this:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

And goes on for several paragraphs before we get this:

What is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no…

It’s terribly easy, especially when you’ve put a lot of thought into your world-building to over-explain everything. You want to make sure that you don’t lose people, and so you carefully hold their hands and take them in tiny steps through the premise until you’re absolutely sure that they must have got it.

Ivor the engineThese shows, and indeed many good shows made for children, don’t not explain everything in great detail because it’s being saved up for a mystery later. They just dispense with it all as unnecessary. Explaining why Ivor the Engine has a personality would be redundant, all we need to know is that he does have a personality, and free will, and that everyone around him knows that, and off we go. There are stories to be telling here, who cares why the train engine has a soul?

Have a bit of confidence in your weird premise, chuck it with confidence at your readers and trust them to catch up. So long as you’re consistent in your weirdness, so long as everything has some form of weird logic, it just doesn’t matter how everything works.

I like to call it the ‘Just Roll With It’ principle. As in, whenever I throw a new strange thing into my stories, I write “[Just roll with it]” in the body of the text to save myself from wanting to throw a paragraph of exposition after the strange concept. Then I give the story to my beta readers and see if any of them really can’t keep up without some form of explanation. If no one questions the thing, I take out the little note to myself and move on.

5. Dragons Make Everything Better


Tarragon the Dragon
The original puppets from The Herbs. Discovered and photographed by the wonderful people over at The World of Ivor Wood



Idris, Ivor the Engine2
Idris, Ivor the Engine


Noggin the Nog Ice Dragon
Grolliffe, The Ice Dragon, Noggin the Nog, The Dragon’s Friendly Society

What TV shows do you remember as a child? How did they influence you? Please say I’m not the only one who remembers these little treasures?

Catch you next time on Chronicles in Creation!

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

So You Want To Draw A Map? – Part 4

No Map Is An Island

Sorry about the title; I tried, really I did, but I couldn’t resist!

Anyway, we begin this post with a moment of silence for the unexpected perils of a writer’s life; in this case that moment when you’ve been researching maps in your lunch-break, then something goes wrong and you call in the IT crowd. They come up and start minimising windows and there’s a brief moment of confusion because emblazoned across the screen all of a sudden is the word ‘MAPPORN’.

To be clear, as I hastened to explain to a colleague now laughing so hard he’s crying, Map Porn is a twitter account filled with – what else? – historical and fictional maps. There’s also a reddit site, but I don’t understand how to navigate it so you’ll have to check that out on your own if you’re interested.

This is like that time we were all explaining to our IT guys that ‘Bookshelf Porn’ was genuinely just a website full of pictures of especially nice looking bookcases, isn’t it? (Does anyone else remember Bookshelf Porn?)

Anyway, the result of this is that my Star Trek-critiquing buddy IT guy now thinks I may be too nerdy for him.

Writers: We wrote the book on weird. Literally.


First Things First…

So, why do I need to draw this map?

So in my last post, wherein I flailed around drawing a map for a king without a kingdom, I mentioned that sometimes the only way to draw the maps that you want is to start drawing and keep doing so until you reach something that looks right.

And in the spirit of that idea, I tried to think of something I am not very good at in drawing and combine that with something I didn’t have much of a pre-conceived image to work from. Sort of a ‘two things that already taste bad but put together become tolerable’ exercise, I guess.

To that end I decided to tackle drawing a cluster of islands, an archipelago for the technical of you reading this, and combine that with drawing a land for my dwarves to live in.

Now dwarves have a little bit more in folklore for me to work from than the Oak King did, which is always nice! Though not originally Celtic, they did come along with the Vikings when they settled in the North, so I’m including them anyway.

Ch.22 - So You Want To Draw A Map - Part 2Certainly we know the Anglo-Saxons took the dwarves into their folkloric hearts, because there is a record of the charm Wið Dweorh (Against a Dwarf) in the Lacnunga (‘Remedies’); a collection of miscellaneous Anglo-Saxon medical texts and prayers, written mainly in Old English and Latin. The charm, which involved writing the names of the biblically mythical Seven Sleepers of Ephesus onto seven wafers, then singing an alliterative verse three times, appears to cure sleep disturbances, although the translation’s a little iffy and might instead be tackling fevers or warts. Whatever it was, you know a creature-concept has made it into folkloric canon when they are texts on how to get rid of it!

Also is anyone else kind of convinced that this is the Anglo-Saxon version of telling your child to count sheep if they can’t sleep? This definitely seems suspiciously familiar…

What we know of dwarves for map-drawing purposes is, as I say, more helpful than with the Oak King, but that’s saying little. It was said that there were originally four dwarves, named Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri (Old Norse ‘North, South, East, and West’) who held up the sky, although they also must have had hella mating skills, because the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda (our two main sources for Viking legends) contain mention of over a hundred dwarves by name.

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 2Their world was named Nidavellir (Old Norse for ‘Dark Fields’), no one is allowed to ask me how to pronounce it, and one of their other functions in myth was to guard doorways in the mountains which allow access between the worlds. It also seems to be the same place as Myrkheim (‘Dark Home’ or ‘World of Darkness’), and I am happy to say that we have directions!

Yes, you too may visit the dwarves, although why on earth you’d want to is up for debate. I mean, the things I would do to get my hands on the Mead of Poetry are many and terrible, but the risk of cursed treasure, being turned to stone or simple death strikes me as a little off-putting…

Anyway, the directions go as follows:

Stóð fyr norðan, / á Niðavöllom / salr úr gulli / Sindra ættar

Before you reach the north, A dark dwelling stands, In halls of gold, Sindri’s bloodline lives.

Völuspá (Prophecy of the Völva)

So compasses out, all you adventurers! Send us postcards, if you can because as we all know the directions of seeresses are easy to follow and never misleading at all.

It seems to be a charming place to live; not only characterised by its darkness (and therefore possibly underground) its other chief feature is the never ending mist. Another name for the place (welcome to folklore, where every time we mention something it gets a new name, despite clearly being the same place) is Niflheim or ‘Abode of Mist or ‘Mist World’.

The story goes that Niflheim was the second world created, and placed right next door to Muspelheim, the world of fire. Being naturally cold and damp in Niflheim, the end result was massive clouds of fog and steam. I did read one translation that called it a ‘creating steam’ so maybe it was actually a lovely place once you got there?

Stage One – Ideas!

Well, clearly we can’t just have a world populated four dwarves, that would be sad!

Alternatively, if I grouped dwarves into clans, then that sorts out the population issues pretty well. Four major dwarvish clans then, each lead by mighty warriors, named for their respective forebears. I like it.

And since the original dwarf myths are Viking, instead of drawing one big world for these clans to live in, I thought I’d go for a collection on islands. Island chains have very diverse cultures, as each island is encouraged by separation to develop their own very distinct societies, and you just don’t see enough sea-going dwarves in literature, which is an image I really like.

Ch.20 - The Magic that Walks Among UsSo the obvious first thing we need are four main islands, positioned in the North, South, East and West. Since the world of the dwarves had so many different names throughout the recorded sagas, I could see if I can name each of them after a different legend’s moniker.

It might not be an original interpretation, but it’s a start and this map could pretty much be summarised as ‘Hey, It’s a start!’

And we’ll need some smaller islands too, partly because archipelagos have those (I checked), and partly because it gives each clan something to fight for and lose to each other, and win back through feats of strength or cunning, which is good for world-building.

Stage Two – Start Sketching (Badly)

OK, so draw a circle and quickly draw in four rough shapes, one at each point of the compass.

Islands 1Top Tip Time: If you are anything like me and feel the inescapable urge to have everything be perfect on the first try, I recommend closing your eyes for this bit. No really, close your eyes when you draw. You’re only drawing rough shapes anyway, and it will help you combat the urge to over-think everything.

I always find it a lot easier to develop and ‘fix’ something that already exists than try to create the sublimely perfect on the first attempt.

Still, looking at it now: Urgh!

Whoever saw a cluster of islands so regimented? And what on earth do I do with all that blank space in the middle?

I suppose I could do something like add another island in the middle, but then I’d have to name it and find a use for it…

No, I don’t like that idea, let’s have another go…

Stage Three – If At First You Do Not Succeed…

Brief Philosophical Moment: In try not to apologise for my weird little drawings anymore – bad first drafts lead to good final drafts. Blank paper leads to nothing.

Keep trying until you find something that works for your eyes, and then you’ll have the confidence to share it with others!

Islands 2OK, Round 2; here we come!

So this time, I’ve tried to sort-of squish the islands together a bit, crowding out some of that blank space with islands I actually want to be there.

And I’ve tried to give the islands a bit of a curve, closing the loop a bit to give a sens eof a complete little world.

Down at the bottom I’ve tried to give a sense that these islands are at least a little bit the product of contimental drift, like how Africa was once joined up with South America.

I’ve tried to combat the sense that everything’s too artifical with a perfect circle formation by gently off-setting the islands so that none of them are truly North, South, etc.

Islands 3This isn’t a bad try, but I’m pretty sure I can refine it.

Hang on.

OK, Round 3 is up and running. Now we’re even more squished up, and un-regimented. What do you think?

I feel like this map really shows my patented ‘Close your eyes and scribble, it probably won’t be as hideous as you think’ technique.

There’s a weird sense of freedom when you try this, and especially when you don’t really know what you want, it’s a helpful starting point.

At the very worst, you’ll open your eyes and think ‘OK, not that then.’ Drawing by process of elimination is as good a technique as any, I say!

I’ve added in a few little islands here and there, but all in all I’m pretty happy with this, let’s make this sketch look like an actual map, shall we?

Stage Four – Details!

This exercise has mostly been about finding a way to draw a cluster of islands I liked the look of, so when I say ‘Details’ what I mean is ‘An outline that doesn’t look like abstract art’.

Islands 4OK? OK.

And here we go! If you’re wondering how we got from Attempt 3 to Attempt 4, then the answer is fairly simple.

I put Attempt 3 under a blank sheet of paper, so that only the barest outline would show through. No tracing paper or light-behind-the-page technique, as that only encourages me in my over-thinking and tendancy to try to copy as much as possible from the previous draft.

Then I took a deep breath, made sure not to hold the pencil too tight and tried for the absolute most wiggly outline I possible could!

I’m actually really proud of the end result, and I have a bad tendancy towards drawing these smooth, flowing lines for coastlines, and they never look even remotely real. Just check out my last map for a good example!

You can see (hopefully) that in places I strayed a long way out of in from my guidelines, but that only helps the disorganisation of natural forms, I think.

All in all, I’m really pleased with this! Not bad for not knowing what I was doing!

What Next?

So, the next step for this map is enlarge it, make several copies of it and then start trying out different internal designs. Where to put the mountains and rivers and things.

But that’s for another day, and another map!

If you liked this post, why not check out the mapping mini-series masterpost for more ruminations about drawing and a discussion about a few uses for maps in a fantasy story?