Worldbuilding with a Twist

The art of rock 'n' roll.

The art of rock ‘n’ roll. (Photo credit: me.)

So, now that I’ve (finally) downloaded some of the pictures I took during my visit to Seattle at the beginning of the month, I thought I’d write a post about one particularly awesome part of my trip.

Apparently, there’s this place in Seattle called the “EMP Museum.”

Initially named the “Experience Music Project,”  the museum is more often known by its acronym “EMP” because it’s no longer specifically dedicated to rock music—although they do have a cool guitar sculpture in the building. Instead of just focusing on music, the museum has exhibits dedicated to the fantasy and science fiction genres (among other themes).

The week I was in Seattle, the museum also happened to feature a costume exhibit.

On Star Wars.

And yes, it was epic.

During the exhibit, the EMP Museum showcased the actual costumes from the original Star Wars set, as well as the set for the more recent trilogy. However, viewers didn’t just get to geek over the costumes of their favorite characters—including a terrifyingly huge replica of Chewbacca—they also got a glimpse behind the screen, into the mind of George Lucas and the various costume designers of the series.

Chewie? (Photo credit: me.)

Chewie? (Photo credit: me.)

I’ve always been fascinated by the costumes in the Star Wars films—even when everything else about Episodes 1, 2, and 3 left me sincerely wishing that I was still watching the original trilogy. How did they manage to get a costume to look so creative, and yet so fitting to that universe?

Apparently, by taking some aspect of real-life culture and history, and adding their own twist.

One costume in particular caught my eye in the exhibit: one of those over-the-top gowns worn by Queen Amidala and her decoy. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who was thinking “What in the world is she wearing?” when we first caught a glimpse of the Padmé sitting on her throne in the beginning of Episode 1.

But the designers were thinking when they made the queen’s costume—and they were actually thinking pretty creatively. Padmé’s dress may look a little ridiculous in the 21st century, but it probably wouldn’t have looked out of place at Mongolian court, or in 18th-century Japan.

The Three (Million)Faces of Padmé

Three Faces of Padmé (Photo credit: me.)

Photo credit: me.

Mongolian Princess (Photo credit: me.)

Photo credit: me.

18th-Century Geisha (Photo credit: me.)

The designers started with the concept of traditional Mongolian dress, and carefully added in a dash of 18th-century geisha to the mix. The result is something that looks very much original, but still has an aura of believability—at least, to the casual history buff.

So, now that I’ve rambled on about Star Wars for the majority of my post, what exactly does this have to do with writing?

Personally, I’ve always had trouble with worldbuilding. (Dialogue, I can do, but when it comes to setting and background, I’m more or less at a loss.) However, I think the designers’ approach to costumes in Star Wars can definitely be applied to worldbuilding. When you’re trying to create a nation in a fantasy world of yours, get inspiration from the real world. It’ll ground your work and add a little bit of believability. But don’t stop there—add your own little twist, make it your own. The results may just surprise you.

Story Challenge of the Week

Welcome one and all, and I hope that you’ve had a wonderful weekend! As the ring on my finger can attest, I have. Actually, Alayna (who is not a nerd), when she found out that they make gold-plated tungsten carbide Lord of the Rings ‘One Ring’ repilcas, suggested that I might want the one ring as my wedding band. So, yes… my wife is awesome… and drop-dead gorgeous to boot. Seriously, you should have seen her. Anyway though, enough of my sappy love life. You’re here for a story challenge. So, in case you haven’t done this challenge before, I’m going to post a picture. Your job is to write a story about what is happening in said picture. Feel free to flesh it out some, to add things to the picture (you’ll probably have to with this one), but make sure that your story is actually about the picture that I post. For example, if I post a picture of a dart competition in a bar, don’t write a story about slavers selling mermaids. If I post a picture of a sorcerer casting a spell at the top of his tower, don’t write a story about a fist-fighter competing in the ring. So, no that you’ve got a good concept of what your doing, here’s your picture. Remember, if your going to post a story here, keep it under 500 words. If you want to post a longer story on your own blog, feel free to post a link to it here:


500 Words-a-Day

Happy Sunday, one and all!

I have been enjoying my weekly spots here on the Art of Writing, and I hope that you have too. I seem to be bouncing back and forth between stories and thought pieces, and I enjoy the variety, so I believe I will keep that pattern going. Which mandates that this week’s post should be a thought piece.

Imagine if you will the author scratching his head like a species of undercaffeinated ape and trying to pin down what exactly he’s been thinking about lately.

The first thing that springs to mind is that the word count of the book I’m writing is now sitting prettily at just over 20,000 words. Here’s a gif which sums up my feelings about that.


I am very pleased to have reached the 20K word mark, but I am not pleased at all with how long it took me. Having written the first 11,000 words in a single month, back in April, the next 9,000 were a slow crawl. I had a long stretch of stagnation, self-doubt, procrastination, and outright slothfulness, which delayed my progress immeasurably. Perhaps it was just that England’s having an unwelcomely humid summer, but the image occurred to me of myself as an explorer sitting in my camp, knowing that the 20,000 word goalpost was hiding somewhere in the nearby jungle, eluding me. Instead of pressing out into the jungle every day and hacking a little further through the trees, as I did in April, I often just ended up sitting in my camp and…doing something that jungle explorers do in their camps which could pass as a metaphor for playing video games in my bedroom.

I also ended up reading a lot of books, which did eventually help to drag me out of stagnation and get me over the 20,000 word hurdle. No matter what you’re writing, I can recommend reading as a cure-all for your writer’s block. A lot of writers read voraciously anyway and won’t need this advice, but there may be others like me who have always been faintly intimidated by the fact that they don’t have the same obsession for reading that they observe in their peers. If any of those writers are reading this, I urge them to pick up a book which is relevant to what they’re writing. I’m writing about colonialism in a fantasy setting, and for research purposes I bought myself several weighty academic tomes concerning the history of European colonialism in South Asia. I can’t say that the content is always deeply riveting, but there are curds hidden among the whey, and history is replete with isolated incidents and longer sequences of events that can be readily adapted into entertaining fiction.

More importantly though, I feel like reading widely and robustly has the ability to completely recharge my writing ability. Once I am filled to the brim with insights that I have gained from my reading, I feel ready to discharge those insights onto the page as quickly as possible. But even that can still have its challenges. Even when I am extremely motivated to write, it remains all too easy to rest on my laurels – to think “I’ll write after dinner”, or “I’ll write after I’ve exercised”, or “I had a rough day, I can give myself a night off”, and eventually allow myself to feel justified going to bed without having written anything. And I think the secret to avoiding that trap really is just to get up in my metaphorical camp every morning, pick up my metaphorical machete, and then step out into the metaphorical jungle and start hacking away, slowly and methodically, at the trees. I might not find the elusive beast I’m searching for, but I will at least cut a little further into the jungle every day.

Personally I do my best to write 500 words every evening, but you can figure out the right word count for you. It may not seem like a particularly revolutionary piece of advice, but I think that when you’re writing the first draft of a book, the important thing is to write, or read, a little every day.

Write Well, everyone!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

I’m getting married today. Literally, as you’re reading this I’m either getting ready for the wedding, at the wedding, or at the reception. So, your philosophical challenge today is simple: what is marriage? Especially with all the controversy going on right now over gay marriage in the US, this is an important question to ask. Is marriage primarily a civil contract between two people who want to be legally joined together? Is is a divine covenant between two people whom God has paired? Is is a commitment between two people who want to spend their lives together? All of the above?

Is it about making the participants happy? About making them successful? About making them better? About ensuring the existence of a future generation? What is the intent and purpose of marriage? What is the nature of marriage?

All of the above questions point to specific answers given to this question by different groups of people. So, as always: write me a story of 1000 words that presents and defends you concept of what marriage is at its core?

Plot Challenge of the Week

1136853Well, it’s finally here. I’m getting married tomorrow :D. I might be just a little bit excited about that… really, not much… barely at all… Okay, so… I might possibly be much, much more excited than that. We have what is quickly turning into a very nice apartment, and all in all, life is going to be pretty awesome. However, for you all I have a plot challenge. Here are the rules for today’s challenge:

Your challenge: Take a movie, book, short story, play (preferably something religious) that you love, and identify each character and significant plot point. Now, identify the three most significant, pivotal events in the story, and work your way back through the plot, but change those three events. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet you might change the death of Tibedo so that he lives. Now, work your way back through the story step by step and figure out how the characters would react to those changed plot points. How would they react (in character)? How does this change the overall events of the story? Feel free to use this as an impetus to write some up a new story entirely, but the goal here is to see how character’s themselves help to shape the plot of a story.

State of the Blog

fourWell, as those few of you who have been with me since the beginning know, the blog’s anniversary is coming up soon (honestly… I don’t remember exactly when it is, but I know it’s sometime in the next few weeks…). When The Art of Writing started it was just me writing seven posts a week… which is a lot, believe me. If you look back through the archives you can probably find some of those original posts. I have to admit that I think there were some good ones in there, but some of them were written in desperation while sleep-deprived and it shows. We’ve been going for four years now, and a lot has changed. For one thing, I’m not the only author on here any more. Some amazing writers have come on board and helped make the blog a success. Some of them, like Selanya, have stuck around for quite a while, and others moved on pretty quickly, but all of them have been a blessing to me, and I hope to you.

The subject matter of the blog has also changed. In the beginning it was just me and my opinions about what good speculative fiction should look like, but as we’ve grown in followers and in writers new voices have emerged. Some of them have been yours as readers and comment-providers, and others have been ours as writers. This has led to some open discussions and disagreements, and I love that! One of my favorite things about how The Art of Writing has grown is that there are people who have different perspectives, different priorities, and different opinions, and many of them can converse well. This leads to a good variety of advice being produced on the blog, and some good discussion about what good writing is, what writers face, and how we best develop our craft.

I love this because I do not think that we can point to any one thing and say ‘that’s what good writing looks like, everyone should write like that’. Now, certainly there are some things that we can all agree are bad writing **cough**starwarsepisodeonethemovie**cough**, but good writing takes many different forms. John Grisham, Glen Cook, Frank Herbert, Michael Crichton and Terry Pratchett are/were all amazing authors and they all write very differently. I think that this blog reflects some of that spirit.

Agora_portfolio_2I also think that some of the best advice any writer, but especially any new writer, could get is this: ignore the critics (professional or otherwise) who tell you that you’re no good and you need to give up. Keep writing, and write what you want to write, but never think that you’ve arrived. Always strive to be a better writer, and always listen to those friends who are willing to tell you what they like and what they don’t like, but always take it with a grain of salt. My rule, when I’m getting something edited, is that if one reader comments on it, then I’ll look at it, but probably stick with my opinion. If a few readers comment on the same thing in different ways, then there’s an issue that needs to be dealt with, and I need to look at it carefully and figure out what it is. If multiple readers comment on the same thing in the same way, then chances are that I made a clear error and I need to listen to them and do what they say. I’ll admit that it’s not always an easy attitude to take because, as any of my friends can tell you, I can be an arrogant jerk and I don’t like admitting when I’m wrong. Still, I think that it’s important. Thoughts?

Scene Challenge of the Week

wyoming-mustang-tour-vacationsIt’s three days until the wedding! It’s exciting, and it’s encouraging, and it’s a little bit intimidating at times (especially when Alayna flat out tells me that I’m in charge of the finances… and then I’m all like… crap! I need to get on my A++ game… which maybe still isn’t very good). Still, together we can handle it. Anyway, it’s Wednesday, which means that you get a scene challenge. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your rules: You task this week is to write a scene of at least 150 words that is all one sentence. If you’ve been following the blog then you’ve seen this challenge before. Remember to make sure that the scene is grammatically correct, and that it flows well. Again, you might want to give it to a grammar nazi after you finish to make sure that your grammar is solid. Your cue: “Johann, what’s that thing…”

Writers: Take care of your body

I wasn’t going to do this. I was not going to write a “health and fitness for writers” article. Yet every time I tried to write, my shoulder tensed. My right arm throbbed. It seemed as if I could feel all the veins and tendons moving. It’s hot, I’m miserable, I want to throw up, and I’m crashing hard. Why? Because of poor life choices. I ultimately could sit and write a bunch, the ideas are unlimited, but there are a few really important health issues I’m ignoring, and those are slowing me down.

1) Write at the appropriate level

This isn’t your age or audience’s reading level. Your elbows are supposed to be dropped comfortably at your side, bent at a 90 degree angle. The screen should be eye level. Laptops make that impossible. My current real issue is my arms are up higher, causing pain in my shoulders. My forearms are angled higher than a 90 degree angle, resting on the table, which is creating pressure. Whoever created my office desk was an administrator of torture.

2) Get a nice chair

At home I literally have the perfect set up. The chair is firm, the right height to the desk, and it keeps my back straight. I inevitably write at my coffee table while on the couch, where I have to sit on the edge with my back curved. You should be able to sit flat against the back of your chair, you should not feel like it’s trying to eat you. I try to convince myself I’m at least doing a core work out.

3) Eat healthy foods

Pizza Hut? Yeah, I might as well kiss my afternoon goodbye.

Pizza Hut? Yeah, I might as well kiss my afternoon goodbye. (C) 2011 Rob_rob2001

I’ve been eating fast food. There comes an age where your body says, “You can’t eat that.” I am just crossing that threshold, and I keep pretending it didn’t say anything last week. I know a lot of us survive on energy drinks, coffee, and alcohol. We eat munchies because it doesn’t take 20 minutes to cook. Sometimes take that 20 minutes. Make a real meal. Use fruits and veggies as the snacks. Drink tea. Tea can both be calming, give energy, and even increase mental acuity if you are imbibing the right brews. You can obviously indulge from time to time, but a lot of what we use as writers for quick food or drink fixes end up causing us to crash hard, making us lose focus.

4) Control your environment

I sit here in humid, hot weather, wondering if my computer will melt. The computer isn’t the only heat sensitive piece of equipment involved in writing. You are as well! Try to keep the temperature comfortable. Too warm will make you uncomfortable and sluggish. Your ideas can get slow and you really just want to run around streaking in a freezer. At least I do. There’s no such thing as too cold for me. I’m not sure what I can suggest to help you out there.

5) Get physical

Physical activity is important. This doesn’t require you to go all out, but take a walk, play in a pool, and definitely stretch. When writing, most people are curled up in themselves, causing the pectorals and shoulders to tighten up. When walking through a threshold, grab hold of both sides of the door frame and lean forward, while keeping your feet at the threshold. Hold it for a couple seconds before walking through, and you will start to loosen up your chest, which is shriveling up as I write this. Also stretch your neck from time to time to try getting out or loosening kinks. For physical activity, I like to swim. There’s a chance for bikini glad girls who haven’t tried to lap swim before, attractive lifeguards, and some really interesting sights. You don’t need cardio or a hard workout, but I find it allows my mind to focus better, as well as letting me get to sleep easier. Speaking of sleep….

6) Sleep

Sleep is important. From what I can tell, somewhere between six to nine hours is ideal, though it depends on the person. I can’t seem to find studies which agree with each other, and they change every other week. I’m guessing they are sort of like text books: if you keep changing small details, people keep paying for new information. When I work out, I find a good strong six to seven hours is perfect. Best ways to fall asleep consist of not looking at digital screens before bed, try reading or some other wind down activity, do not do work in your bedroom, no horror movies (I will be up all night figuring out how to kill that sucker), drink tea, eat turkey, drink warm milk, or any number of other solutions that seem to work for you. Try to get your body so it wakes up naturally at least once a week. When I sleep in on Saturday and get ten hours, I know I’ve been depriving myself during the week, and I try to fix it. When I sleep six hours, the dump truck came early.


There is more to life than writing. There are also other influences on how well you write, or even how often you’re capable. Take care of your body and mind, and you’ll do just fine.

Story Challenge of the Week

Alright, it’s time for a story challenge and  I’ve got an interesting picture for you. I have a story challenge for you today. You know the rules: I give you a picture and you give me a story of 1000 words or less (at least if you want to post it here) that explains what is happening in the picture. Remember the lesson from last time, stay true to the picture. Let the audience know what is happening in the background of the picture without actually altering any of the picture’s own details. Enjoy:

The Tribe That Ruled a Continent

This piece was done by Angus McBride and was retrieved here.

An Ignominious Execution

I’m attending the wedding of my 84-year old grandfather this weekend, so here’s a piece I cobbled together hurriedly on Friday. I hope you enjoy:

Firing Squad

If Kirkcaldy had been the one in charge of his execution he would have made it a hanging. He’d always thought that a good Christian hanging was the only proper course for killing traitors. If he was honest with himself he had to admit that he’d been rather looking forward to it. With a hanging, there was the agonising period of waiting beforehand. The convict had ample opportunity to dwell upon their fate, staring out through the bars of their stockade with doleful lamentation as they watched the scaffold being hammered together in the square. Hangings had a grim ceremony to them. In his own case he’d modestly imagined being led out in the blazing midday sun, the road to the scaffold lined by a whole regiment of redcoats, struggling to hold back the multitude of women – and men of his own habits – who would be understandably distraught at the notion of his demise. The colonel and the governor would be sitting on their horses in the shade to mark the gravity of the occasion. A magistrate would stand, sweating beneath his wig and trying to ignore the flies. Kirkcaldy could imagine his charges being read.

Robert Kirkcaldy, the magistrate would say, with all the solemn gravity that a petty colonial official could muster on such a hot day, having been tried and convicted in a court of law and found to have wilfully acted in defiance of the laws of man and God, is found guilty of treason, conspiracy to commit treason, five instances of murder, multiple instances of theft, unnatural acts involving a goat…and so on…and had been sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead, in this place, at this hour, and may God have mercy upon his soul”. And then came the drop. Kirkcaldy had been in the crowd at more than a few hangings, had laughed with the same fascinated disgust as everyone else when that day’s villain swung from the gibbet and croaked his last breath, his head turning the colour of beetroot. That was the only decent way to execute a traitor such as himself.

Kirkcaldy was thus quite disappointed when he was turfed out of his cell without warning one dark evening and delivered into the hands of an unconversational file of marines, who marched him through the night to a yard behind the governor’s residency. It was the yard where the governor’s house slaves threw slops and rind from the kitchens, and the ground was slick, and the marines got their boots dirty while they were tying Kirkcaldy’s hands to a post that was probably unused to having white hands bound to it.

The marines – a mere five of them – formed their line opposite him, with their backs to the residency, below a dark balcony. A slave woman emerged from a door behind the marines, wiping her hands with a cloth. She took one look at the marines, and seemed to roll her eyes, before going back into the kitchen and bolting the door behind her. Kirkcaldy decided that he liked the slave woman, and he wished her well.

He didn’t think he liked the lieutenant of the marines. He looked a little like a horse, and he spoke in a plummy falsetto that Kirkcaldy found absurdly annoying.

“Make ready,” was the very first thing that the lieutenant said. It didn’t sound the way that an order to make ready should have sounded. Kirkcaldy had been on more than his fair share of battlefields and he had heard the same words bellowed in tones that sent shivers of suspense from his neck to his boots. This lieutenant sounded like a bank clerk beseeching his men to sign their names on promissory notes. But the marines followed their instructions, turning neatly and easing back the hammers on their muskets.

“Present”, said the bank-clerk lieutenant.

“Fire!” Kirkcaldy barked, stealing the word straight from the lieutenant’s open mouth. He was pleased with the strength of his imitation, doubly pleased with the outraged look on the lieutenant’s face, and pleased even more when the marines actually fired. There was a harsh patter of five flintlock ignitions, a rolling sound not unlike a black-powder pigeon taking wing, which reminded Kirkcaldy fondly of battles from his youth. The file of marines disappeared behind a wall of their own white gunsmoke, but not before the bullets tore into him.

He felt his sternum shatter. That was possibly quite bad. Parts of it lodged themselves into nearby organs, which seized horribly and drove an involuntarily cry from his lips, distracting him briefly from the sting in his arm and the shredding pains in his gut. He was overcome by an intense feeling of wrongness, of things being in places that they weren’t supposed to be, of the pressure being wrong in his bowels, and then a thick tide of blood welled up in his mouth and fell to the floor in a viscous string. His vision went blue.

He pitched forward, head lolling, hanging forward from his wrists. He felt very far away. But he could hear himself chuckling faintly, through the blood. That gave him some hope.

The marines, by now, had realised their mistake. They had fired before giving their lieutenant the chance to give them the order, thus coming dangerously close to exposing his redundancy. They were now more directly concerned with their lieutenant’s wrath than they were about the fact that the prisoner they’d just shot was still laughing. He would probably stop laughing as soon as he ran out of blood. The lieutenant might cut their rum ration, or worse…

The lieutenant, though, was more concerned with the prisoner. He drew his pistol from his cross-belt and stepped across the yard, his horse-features wary of some kind of trick. By the time he’d reached the prisoner, the laughing had stopped. He laid his pistol gingerly under Kirkcaldy’s chin and pushed his head upwards, so that he could stare the treasonous Scot straight in his dead eyes.

But Kirkcaldy’s eyes weren’t dead. He pursed his lips as if he was about to spit out more blood, but in fact a bullet rolled out from between his teeth. It struck the lieutenant’s gun and fell away. The lieutenant staggered backwards, not sure what to do with his pistol, and watched in horror as Kirkcaldy coughed up three more musket balls, rolling them between his teeth and spitting them out on the floor.

The marines, and their lieutenant, stood in silent dismay. The more attentive of them, who weren’t terrified out of their wits, might have realised that there were five of them in the firing line, but Kirkcaldy had so far only regurgitated four bullets.

Kirkcaldy gritted his teeth as though exerting himself, and then sighed in relief.

The fifth and final bullet emerged from the leg of his trousers, plinked to the ground, and then rolled indecorously away into a bush.

“Marvellous,” said the governor, from his balcony. “Quite marvellous…”


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