Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Writing: Expectation Vs Reality…

I was having a sort out in my room the other day, in the aftermath of nanowrimo and all, and I found something I wanted to share with you all. I don’t … I don’t really know what the lesson is here, but I suppose if we go through it all together, maybe we can figure it out?

So I found my first notebook from way back in the very beginning, at the point when I decided I’d quite like to write the series. Wow, that was a long time ago now…

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Anyway, I dug it out and I sort of wanted to share it with you? As you can see, it’s a bit battered and it’s definitely stuffed to bursting! I carried it around with me on the ride to and from work, which I bring up because the writing’s weirdly neat for me and my bus-writing!

It wasn’t anything ground-breakingly original, nor anything very complex in it’s conception either. It was essentially just a collection of pictures I’d found online (me having no artistic talent whatsoever and thus being incapable of drawing my own) that vaguely fitted either the general vibe of the stories I was looking for, or an effort to try and get a fix on what I thought various characters looked like, how they acted, what their backstories were, all that jazz…

I started work on it initially, if I remember rightly, because I had some many images and ideas and little fragments and flashes of inspiration floating around in my head and I wanted to tie some of it down in one place. I wanted to see what the common threads where, what my imagination was driving at, and having it all down in hard copy in front of me was very useful in that regard.

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At first it was all pretty well-organised; just a few notes, some snatches of Old English and translations, the odd place-name I’d decided on…

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But after a while, things got a little out of hand! Even the notes were trying to escape the confines of the notebook!

One of the more interesting things about having a ratch through this old thing, after several years of it being tucked away safely in a box, has been seeing what ideas I have kept largely unchanged since the very start of this whole endeavour and what has changed, sometimes quite radically!

Whole character arches have been completely altered and swept away, whole others have only had small additions or subtractions made. Sometimes I’ve even stumbled over characters I came up with way back when which I’d since forgotten about entirely, only to realise I’d been trying to recreate them from scratch because my stories still needed them! Talk about inadvertently reinventing the wheel!

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I suppose the big question is: Was all this cutting and sticking worth it? Well…

I feel that it would be dishonest to say that this has been a practice I’ve continued into my writing endeavours today. Just as an example, this is what my current notebook looks like!

I know, glamorous, isn’t it?

And you might be thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, but surely that’s just the outside, right? It’ll be full of pretty pictures on the inside, naturally!’

Nope! ‘Fraid not!

(Sorry Mam, I know my handwriting’s … distinctive!)

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It’s not pretty, but it works!

But that doesn’t mean that all that work on the old notebook was wasted effort.

For some people, I understand that world-building is quite literally the process of building a whole world from the ground up and then populating it with characters to explore it. For others it’s a case of having a bunch of characters and needing to build a world for them to fit inside of. For yet others (and I realise this might not be how most people think of world-building, but I reckon it still counts) the whole thing starts with the story and they build the world and the characters as necessary for the story to take place.

But none of those broad models works for me at all…

The beginning of my writing journey was a mess of origin stories for people I didn’t know would be main characters (and indeed rather suspected would not!), a single clear crystalline image of three wildly different castles, some flashes of scenes in no particular order, and a smattering of world-mechanics for travel and magic and culture. And through of of this, the certainty that it would all fit together perfectly if I could only find a way to fill in the blank bits!

Filling up a notebook like this was a helpful first step towards filling in those gaps. Getting down everything I knew I knew, not worrying about what order I knew things, not worrying about whether I was being wildly different to everyone else, just pushing all that swirling mess inside my head out onto paper and making space for carrying new ideas… It helped me feel like I was getting somewhere, even if – in the strictest of writing senses – I was doing no such thing!

Come the New Year, I think I’ll be dipping into the old notebook a bit more and sharing some choice chunks with you all! Some ideas that sounded good in principle but just didn’t quite stick the landing, some characters I realised I hated already and they hadn’t even made it through the story yet, and one huge integral feature of world-building that made it through several drafts before I realised I’d almost created a monster I couldn’t make myself stand behind.

After all, if we don’t share out mistakes, other people have to go and make them for themselves, don’t they?

Have any of you found old notebooks lurking long after you’d finished with them? Did you find buried treasure or ghouls best left forgotten?

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

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

So You Want To Draw A Map? Part 1

Welcome back everyone!

Guess what? We’re going to be talking about maps!

…Now that I think about it, the title may have given that away a little…

Anyway!

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So… Why Are We Doing This?

So I’ve mentioned before that I’m not naturally artistic. Some people draw for pleasure and they produce really inspiring work, and I’m very envious of you people! I have at best a really functional style and the last time I had any formal technical training I was fifteen.

So… why set about drawing maps for my books?

Well, for one thing maps are very interesting and beautiful works of art! Even the most prosaic maps are a fun bird’s eye view on the world and especially historical or fantasy maps have some beautiful flourishes! They also tell you a lot about the people who drew those maps and what they thought of the rest of the world, and their place within it. (Note to self: do a post on this…)

But maps can be useful as well as beautiful!

Back in Uncharted TerritoryI talked a little about why I think maps-in-books are useful things. Sure, they are fun and cool for readers, who get more of a sense that your world is 3D and that things exist even when the story doesn’t go there.

But maps are absolutely fantastic tools for writers.

The advantage of drawing a map for writers is possibly not immediately obvious, but that just means it’s actually your secret weapon! In terms of world-design and -building, drawing a map of your world literally forces you to confront some of the weaker spots in your ideas, and – despite how much we all hate that at first – that’s always a good thing.

For example, if the country you are telling me about is described as being huge and prosperous and has a lot of allies and trading partners, and yet it only has one major city… Yeah, I have questions and they aren’t going to be fun ones. Alternatively, if the country is a very militarily aggressive one, but it hasn’t got a whole lot of fortifications and there isn’t a close and well-placed network of guard-houses, fortress, and assorted whatnots, that country is similarly going to give rise to some probing concerns.

It’s easy to forget about such details when you’re busy coming up with a fun story and cool characters; and that’s totally understandable because that’s what your audience is there for, after all. (See World-Building and Why It Really Does Matter for ‘The Holy Trinity of Narrative’ to discuss further.)

But if you want to make use of a larger world later then you definitely need to think about and, if you can, set up those elements as early as possible to avoid throwing your readers a googly. There’s nothing worse than being three books into a series and suddenly someone turns around and casually mentions something which is apparently intrinsic to the story’s society yet has never come up before and no one addresses this.

So as I delved more and more into various things I needed to think about for my own novels, I realised that drawing out a few maps was going to be vital in ironing out some weak spots. And as always, I will be sharing anything useful I learned with all of you lovely people.

Now, as always, this will not be a ‘How To Draw Your map’ kind of thing. If you want tips on how to draw mountains or sea-charts and things, then check out Uncharted Territory for my personal recommendations on people who’ve already produced some great guides on drawing maps and different stylistic options you can use. I’ve lent the book I talk about to several other people, and they have also found it to be helpful, so I’m sure you will too.

Nope, as always we’ll be looking at how to make choices in drawing you map; where do you put your island? What inspiration can you pull from? How do you know what to include from the start? What are you even making this map for anyway?

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For better or worse, we all know this feeling, don’t deny it!

This page is a Masterpost (should that have be capitalised? Not sure…) for all things mapping related, for anyone who would like to come back and keep up to date without having to trek back through the rest of the series.

Next up, we’re going to be taking a close look at other people’s maps to see what we can learn from them, because as always, it’s worth taking a look at what works for other people before setting out to reinvent the wheel!

Prologue – Uncharted Territory – In which I try out drawing for the first time in forever, and recommend things that I found helpful.

Part 2 – Map Effect Sooo… Why are we drawing this again? Taking a look at Narnia, Westeros, Middle Earth and more!

Part 3 – A Kingdom for the Oak King – Tackling the hard parts first and working with Scotch Mist

Part 4 – No Map is An Island – Sometimes all you can do is keep drawing until you get it right…

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Uncharted Territory

Updated with more maps 29/01/18

Totally against type, this year I have actually managed to keep one of my New Year’s Resolutions (so far.) I know! I didn’t think that was something that really happened either, but here we are.

So this year I promised myself that I was going to try and take up my drawing again. This is something I haven’t done since I was in secondary school, which is far longer than the ten years ago I would like to remember it being! I’ve regretted stopping for a long time, and I’ll admit that starting this blog has left me often wishing that I could draw something to illustrate my Ghosts & Gowns series, or just share some world-building ideas through pictures. And I always say that if you keep on thinking ‘I wish I could take that up-‘ then you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try!

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Maps have been a part of the fantasy from even before Tolkien, and it’s easy to see why. They give a sense of the scale of a world the author has built, they give a sense of purpose and direction for the adventure – you can see where the started off from, where they are going and how far (literally) they’ve come. They’re also a great way to introduce little Easter Eggs and teasers for other stories; there was no reason for Our Heroes to travel to the Ice Palace in the Northern Wastes, but you can see it on the map and therefore you can wonder what that place must be like. Who lives there? Will we get to see it in another book?

Ch.22 - So You Want To Draw A Map - Part 2As writers, I think that drawing maps for your story is incredibly helpful because doing so forces you to define your world and think about its logistics. How far is Point B from Point A and therefore how long is it going to take to travel? Is Country X to the north or the east of Country Y? Is the capital city surrounded by mountains, or a lake or is it on the sea?  It also forces you to be consistent; if the map says that your city is on the coast, then we’re really going to notice if the story says it’s surrounded by mountains and no water in sight.

Now, you might think that this isn’t going to affect your story in any real way, but it comes into play more than you think.

For example, what’s the easiest way for people to travel? If people can’t simply walk to where they need to go then chances are that there are a lot of insular communities because people won’t bother. In which case your communities all need to have a distinct feel from each other. If travel is really easy and quick then there’d be a lot more intermixing between communities, so fewer variations. But then you can’t have a plot-point that rests on people not knowing what’s going on in another community because they surely would simply go and check?

To this end, I cannot recommend Jonathan Robert’s post on ‘Worldbuilding By Map’ highly enough. It is a great, practical guide to drawing a map and various things you’ll need to think about, from dividing up your countries, to where to put your towns and cities, via mountains, rivers and coastlines. I found it just so, so helpful, and I hope that you’ll get something out of it too.

Fantasy Art & RPG MapsFor those who, like me, are unsure of their artistic talents in general, I also recommend How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps: Step by Step Cartography for Gamers and Fans’ by Jared Blando. It’s a great book, easy to use and full of inspiration. For every common feature of a fantasy map, he includes multiple variations to pick from, so you never feel that all your maps have to look the same. The book covers landscapes and landmarks, such as towns, or ancient ruins or magic portals (which I had not even considered could be marked on a map until it was suggested!) as well as heraldry customs, marking political allegiances and various lettering too. If you’re drawing maps for your stories at all, I definitely recommend checking this book out.

The impetus for taking up map-drawing may, I confess, seem a little silly. Mind you, I think a lot of what writers get up to can seem a little silly when you say it out loud!

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I always picture Herne’s Halls, or Herle’s Howe as it is more properly known, as looking a lot like a stave church from Norway and Scandinavia. He’d doubtless call it a modest dwelling, since it’s built from wood unlike the stone of other king’s palaces, but it’s hilariously not!                             Photo by Yuriy Garnaev on Unsplash

Anyway, I have this idea of a character’s home, called Herle’s Howe for reasons we’ll get into in another post, which in every appearance is in a completely different location. One time it might be on the side of a mountain, and another it could be an island in the middle of the sea, and again it could be sitting in the middle of a swamp, or in a clearing in a forest. I currently envision that this could be something of a running gag throughout the story; no one knows why this house moves around constantly, and the character never ever provides an explanation for this. Since the character is so strange even for fairyland, I would like to experiment with various ways that he can be distinguished as decidedly weird for a world of magic.

The thing is, I’m not sure if it will work out, so by drawing little maps of possible surroundings for Herle’s Howe, I can see if there’s enough variety to make the changes really stand out and be interesting for the reader every time they encounter the house. If I can’t think of enough settings that feel like they would fit the character’s temperament, then I’ll abandon the idea, of course. That’s always the risk of an experiment. Still the idea’s currently still making me laugh a little!

When I’ve drawn some other options, I’ll add them to this post, but here is my first piece of drawn artwork that I have done in over 15 years!

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This map attempts to depict the Howe standing in the fork of a river and surrounded by marshes.
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Trying to master shorelines and waves by placing the Howe on  a small island. Obviously there are sea monsters, because a map with a sea and no sea monsters saddens me…
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More mountains this time, and I’m not at all sure about the way I tried to draw the lake in the bottom-right corner, but I liked drawing all the mountain ranges! I will definitely need to work at really depicting a home sitting on the top of a mountain, but I suppose that you could still ‘find’ the Howe from the map?

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 3

Do you have any tips on drawing fantasy maps? Please feel free to share them int he comments below!

If you found this post interesting, let me know and do check out the rest of the series here. See you all next week!

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Worlds Within Worlds: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

So you want to write a book and you need a world to go into it. Where on earth do you start, and what do you need to think about?

When I started out designing a world I could place my stories into, I quickly developed a system which I hope will be useful to other aspiring writers. First, look at what ideas are already out there and see what works for you, then look at your own ideas and which ones you feel are the strongest and most interesting or original, and finally put these things together and locate what else you need to come up with to glue it all into coherency.

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Uncomfortable Bedfellows

So if I were to be totally honest, I’m still in two minds about whether I gave myself a huge handicap right off the bat. I suppose time will tell and all that, but the more I struggle with keeping my ideas tonally consistent, the more I suspect that there was an easier way to do this…

Firstly, I had a whole lot of characters that were straight out of the dark and grim world of the old folk-stories I had grown up listening to, and original characters who fitted in with them. Fairy queens who steal children and entrap the unwary men; giants that eat people; river spirits who drown people. Curses which are broken by daring deeds and enormous personal sacrifice, and blessings which are only useful in the hour of darkest need. That sort of thing.

Ok, good start. Classic fantasy set-up right there.

However…

This meant that I couldn’t simply set it straight into the ‘real world’, especially in modern times, as that would take me into the world of urban-fantasy and for a fairy queen to fit in there, she’d need to be a very different person. She would probably have needed to have a dating website that ensnares the unwary man looking for a casual hook-up but unaware that he was flirting with a much more deadly power. That sort of thing.

And there are several authors who have done this to great effect and I’ve really enjoyed a lot of urban fantasy, but since that wasn’t the sort of story I wanted to write, it was best not to set myself up for it.

But I didn’t want to divorce these characters completely from the real world either. I wanted to have ‘normal people’ interacting with them and responding to them, so I couldn’t just go off into a different world like Middle Earth or Westeros. Hmmm…

Riding in to the rescue, for me at least, was folklore. I know that folklore and fantasy as a genre has a reputation for being somewhat backward looking. It’s always set in a world that is based on Medieval Europe, at least to some extent, and many of the customs, values and characters are lifted from those histories wholesale.

But folklore is, at least to me, a reflection of people struggling with real-world issues of the day, and most of those issues haven’t really left us. We still have dangerous people who hide in the shadows of poorly lit back-streets. We still teach our children not to talk to strangers, and for good reasons. We still need to be suspicious of people who offer us bargains which are simply too good to be true and therefore probably are. Life hasn’t moved on that much.

This was what gave me hope that I really could find a way to bring fairytale monsters and heroes into a recognisable, normal human world, with a bit of tweaking. With that in mind, I set about digging through a variety of stories about magic and men living together to see if I could find inspiration. As I have said before, strong ideas last longest, so looking through older stories for strong concepts is, I feel, a great way to find good building blocks to begin construction.

I needed a way to have a world of magic and a world without it in the same story. I needed ideas for how to travel between worlds. I needed a sense of how long was reasonable for any travel to take. Physical and magical practicalities to pin everything else on to. Fortunately these problems are new or unique to me either, and there was plenty of ideas and solutions out there to draw from.

Myth and Legend

Back when I was researching my thesis in the Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity (it’s much more hilarious than you might think, honest!) I uncovered several articles on the Anglo-Saxon superstitions surrounding why there were monsters in the human world.

In Saxon folklore, there was a belief in two worlds; the world of men which we currently inhabit and an Other world filled with magical and supernatural beings. There were gateways between these two worlds which were most closed in the clear light of day, and most permeable when you couldn’t see very well: at night when it’s dark, in heavy rain or fog, or when travelling over large spaces of land or water when you lose sight of all landmarks which tie you to home. There were also seasonal variations, with solstices being generally a good time to assume that things were able to cross between the worlds.

Folktales and Fireside stories

When I was a small child adults around me would tell stories of people who tried to sail to Wales or Ireland and lost their way, ending up in the land of the Fairies by mistake, or how people would lost their way on the mountainsides, be taken in by kindly (or not so kindly) goblins and may or may not be seen ever again. I think she was trying to teach me about the importance of properly navigating and not getting lost in bad weather, as her elders had doubtless done before her, and it had always left me with a sense that fairyland was a place one really could just stumble into, given various factors.

Of course there are also a whole slew of stories that feature more concrete doorways between this world and worlds of magic; fairy rings, caves, sacred clearings in the woods or abandoned buildings have definitely all been used to great effect before.

Related to that, as I started reading more widely into the folkloric traditions of the British Isles and what other people had to say about the Fair Folk and the land they lived in, Tir na Nog, I found that another aspect kept cropping up again and again. Many storytellers told tales which said that Tir na Nog was not bound to such human concepts as physical space or time. One storyteller I heard spoke of ancient times when kings would pay the fairies grand and elaborate tributes because Tir na Nog’s gateways could open up wherever they wanted and, if angered or not appropriately bribed, they might be persuaded by one’s enemies to transport their army right past your defences to where you were most vulnerable.

(For anyone wondering, these tales tend to contain some dishonest trickster stealing one or more kings’ gifts and what I can only call ‘Hijinks’ promptly ensue until everything can be resolved happily. Having said that, there are also the more tragic versions in which the theft of the tribute is the reason given for people getting turned to stone, or changed into the animals which are eaten by their tribe’s feast, or whole regions being flooded, giving rise to oddly-shaped seas of lakes, so it doesn’t all end happily…)

The idea of magic messing around with time has enjoyed a wide forum of employment since the days when bards first used the concept. Time, as we were told so wisely by Ford Prefect, is an illusion (Lunchtime doubly so.) It’s hard enough to keep track of with modern time-pieces, and so it is no surprise that magic messing around with time was a common theme when telling tales of fairies and magic lands.

C.S. Lewis has probably written the most famous modern example with the Chronicles of Narnia, in which (for anyone who might possibly have missed it) however much time you spend in Narnia – be it an afternoon, several months or a lifetime – no time at all will have passed in this world.

Traditionally, the results of such magic are less fun; one might join the fairies in dancing and drinking for one night, only to find that a year and a day has passed for men and your friends think you dead and murdered. In the darker-still versions, one tends to find that your best friend who saw you last has been tried and executed for your murder, usually with you returning only after that friend has died, for maximum dramatic impact. In others, you might spend a night with the fairies only to find that over a hundred years have passed, your friends are all dead, and the world is completely changed and incomprehensible to you now. Again there are darker versions of this tale in which it seems that fairies either can or choose to only flout time for so long and all those decades you were missing for catch up with you at once and you age and crumble to dust in a few minutes. Yes, folklore did it before Indiana Jones and yes, it still sounds like a horrible way to die to me…

Children’s Books

Magic that can take you anywhere has been around for forever too, from magic carpets to disapparation. But as a child the first examples I had was a whole series of different stories with doors which could open instantly onto wherever you wanted to go. Mr Benn, for example, with the door in the fancy dress shop, or Morwen’s house in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. In this series, Morwen’s house has two doors, front and back. In theory. In reality, the back door opens to wherever Morwen wants it to, be it her library or her backyard. But only Morwen can command the door; it’s her house after all. This idea of portals which can only be commanded by one person really captured my imagination too.

My favourite example of squiffy time-and-space travelling used on a grand scale is in The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. In the land of Fantastica (I know they call it Fantasia in the film, but it’s Fantastica in the books, I swear!) the rule is that if you want to go somewhere, you just set off in any random direction and you will arrive where you wanted to go. But if you actually wanted to go somewhere else (subconsciously, say) you will end up there instead. I have yet to figure out how the children in Fantastica go to school when they have exams. Maybe I’m thinking about this too hard…

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So, having collected all these different ideas I liked and had seen could definitely work in a narrative context by others, I boiled them all together in a strong brew of late-night tea and biscuits, left them to stew for a lunar cycle and dried it off in the raging sun of a British summer!

And now comes the harder parts; coming up with some ideas of my own and making them work. Inspiration is a great place to start, but sooner or later you have to make some decisions of your own and build your own world, not keep playing in other people’s sandpits!

Found this post interesting or helpful? Check out the rest of the series here.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Fantasy Idioms: A Shortcut to Writing a New Language!

If readers take nothing else away from this series, I really hope you take any this top tip: When reading anything, keep a stack of post-its and a pen next to you at all times. As I read, any phrases or turns of speech that I really like get jotted down and stuck to the bookshelf next to my chair. Later they get collected and stuck into a note book so I can’t lose them. Continue reading “Fantasy Idioms: A Shortcut to Writing a New Language!”