The Siege of Gordul Nor, Part 2

Hello, internet!

I hope you all enjoyed Tuesday’s instalment of my ongoing story, The Siege of Gordul Nor.  Without any further ado, I present part two – and I hope that you’ll come back on Sunday for the finale!


 

Crimea Barricade Corpse

“I wouldn’t advise that, sir,” Bournclough managed to articulate, after several moments of stunned silence.

“Nonsense!” said the nob. He was still inspecting the parapet of the trench with a glint of zeal in his eyes. “I shall only be making a quick inspection. I can’t imagine that I’ll come to any great harm.”

Bournclough shared a look with Corporal Mogget. There wasn’t much that could distract Mogget from his rollups for more than five seconds, but this nob was managing it.

“Well,” Bournclough began, in the gentle voice used to explain things to officers. “Not to tell you your own business, sir, but wouldn’t it answer better to take a look during the day? Safe and sound behind our lines, like? With a spyglass?”

“Oh I’ve already done that, Colour Sergeant,” the nob laughed. “But I need to get a close look at the enemy cannon, and I should hardly think that they’ll be keen to let me do that in broad daylight. I must approach their lines under the cover of darkness.”

Bournclough fell dumb again. He returned his pipe to his mouth, but it had gone out. If this nob was mad enough to want to visit the enemy positions at night then he would be better off going west to the Gavilonian lines and finding one of their all-elf companies, the somnambules who could cross the mud without leaving a footprint or making a sound. But the nob seemed to have every intention of going by himself. Bournclough watched wordlessly as the engineering officer retrieved a fur-lined cloak from a sort of satchel that hung at his waist, shook the cloak out to its full length, and swept it over his shoulders. Once it was tied, he peered away down the trench.

“I believe the approach line is that way, isn’t it?”

Bournclough could think of two answers to the nob’s question. The first was “yes sir, and are there any valuables you’d like to leave with us for safekeeping so we can flog them on the sly for drinking money when you don’t come back?” It was the question that Mogget wanted him to ask. But when he looked at this bright-eyed, cheery, innocent nob, he didn’t quite have the heart to ask it.

It was a funny thing. He’d always assumed that his conscience was something that he’d misplace after he spent long enough in the army. But he’d been in the army a long time, and his conscience had stuck with him like a stubborn case of gout.

He steeled himself, wondered what he was doing, and asked the other question.

“Yes, sir. Would you like company, sir? Can’t let you go off by yourself, now. Might lose your way.”

Just for a moment, the nob looked surprised. Then he looked cheery again. “How thoughtful of you to offer, Colour Sergeant. Let’s not waste a moment. The night won’t last forever!”

The nob started off towards the approach line, careful not to step on any more of Bournclough’s men. The men watched him go, and then Bournclough felt their eyes turn on him.

“Stay warm, boys,” he said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say in the circumstances. He fastened his cloak around his shoulders and swung his pack onto his back, bearing the weight as well as any man despite the fact that the pack was almost as large as him. He emptied his pipe and tucked it into his belt. Then he picked up his musketoon and checked the flint.

Dry as a bone.

He’d been hoping that he might have to replace it, because that would have given him one more thing to do before he had to set off after the nob. But he’d exhausted his options. He wriggled his moustache, sniffed, and set off down the trench.

He’d only managed to take two steps before someone said “Sarge.”

Bournclough stopped, and turned around. It was Mogget. The skinny corporal rose to his feet and sighed, casting the glowing dog-end of his rollup down into a puddle. “If you’re going then I suppose I’m going too, aren’t I?”

Bournclough snorted with humourless laughter. “Not if you don’t fancy it.”

The corporal shrugged. “Well I’ve just thrown my light in a puddle, haven’t I? Might as well come with you now.”

Bournclough smiled. “Truer words, Pat…”

“Oh sod off. Let’s get after him before I come to my senses.”


 

They crossed the valley as quietly as they could, listening for each other’s movements to avoid losing each other, and trusting Bournclough’s sense that they were heading in the right direction. It was hard to get lost as long as they kept going uphill. The land rose unevenly towards the hill where the defenders of Gordul Nor built their great redoubt, and the ground underfoot was strewn with loose rock, blasted clods of soil, and the hundreds of cannonballs fired by both sides almost every day for the past three months. There were bodies too. Bournclough saw grey hands emerging from the soil, a lone boot still containing a substance that had once been a foot. He had to grab hold of the webbing on Mogget’s back to stop him from sticking his boot through the gaping chest of a dead elf. The elf lay there in his powder blue Gavilonian tailcoat, looking pale and forlorn in the way that only a dead elf could. Elves always looked like they were in a painting, even when they’d been festering on a frozen hillside for three weeks. Bournclough felt oddly jealous.

“Must have copped it in that last assault,” Bournclough muttered.

“Yeah,” Mogget muttered back, “him and half the 34th.”

Bournclough hoped it wouldn’t be his regiment that was picked to lose half its men in the next attack. As far as he knew, the concordium had landed in Myrmogosh with the plan of marching straight into Gordul Nor and sending a polite note to the Malign Emperor, suggesting that he could have the city back without a fuss if he agreed to give up some of his favourite hobbies, such as slaughtering the penitent and sending back the limbs of ambassadors enclosed in rusty hunting traps. Bournclough didn’t know whether the Malign Emperor would be quick to accept that arrangement, but the plan hadn’t got that far yet. Gordul Nor still stood. The city fell away to the north, protected by heavy batteries that stopped the concordium’s ships from sailing into the harbour, which meant it was the infantry’s job to attack by land. So far they hadn’t had much luck. The old High Elf ruins had been turned into a fortress, with guns that overlooked the valley, defended by legions of orcs and a good few regiments of Pyromanian riflemen. Bournclough didn’t want to see another attack go as badly as the last one. If this engineer nob took a good look at the enemy cannon, maybe it would help to make the next attack go better. That was why he was out here risking his hide. That was what he told himself as they neared the orc lines.

He knew that they were getting close when the stone head of an old elf king appeared out of the gloom, one cheek submerged in dirt, his free eye pleading for some good soul to set him to rights again. Stone heads meant they’d reached the ruins. And sure enough, a little way uphill of them, Bournclough saw the first of the enemy batteries. Stones steps rose to the lowest tier of the old elf temple, where mounds of rock, earth, and straw had been thrown up as a barricade among the fallen columns. Bournclough could hear nasal voices from the other side. Hideous faces flickered in the dim light of a hanging lantern, but they weren’t the faces of men or orcs. Bournclough had been fighting orcs for long enough to know that all of their cannon were cast with dragon’s teeth or demon’s eyes, grinning as they belched fire and rained down shot upon their enemies. These were the cannon that the nob wanted to see.

The nob was crouching next to Bournclough, peering over the ear of the fallen king. He hadn’t spoken once since they crept out into the valley, but now he took an intake of breath, and whispered, “How close can we get?”

Bournclough glanced at Mogget, then back at the nob.

“How close would you like to get, sir?”

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Sick Day Story Challenge

sickWell, yesterday, I came down with some variant of the flu. It’s the sort of illness that invariably makes one feel as though one is not going to survive it. Even though I’m feeling better today, everything still aches abominably and I’m moving very slowly. Still not convinced I’ll make it through alive, but then, I’m a pessimist anyway. Anyways, being sick yesterday included a massive migraine, and so I spent most of the afternoon in bed and then went to sleep early in the evening, and I quite forgot that I was supposed to post today. So as to not deprive you of a post this fair day (if it’s as sunny wherever you are as it is in Poznań, Poland right now), I’m going to leave you with a story challenge. You all know the rules: I give you a story idea, and you write something using that basic plot, using whatever characters and twists you care to bring in. Make it fun, and if you feel like it, post your results in the comments below.

Your challenge: we often look at major events in history and wonder what would have happened if one variable had been changed. What if Stonewall Jackson had been present at the Battle of Gettysburg? What if Caesar had eaten some bad fish and ended up with chronic indigestion on the Ides of March? And so on. So, your challenge is to take a significant event history, and imagine what would have happened if one of the major players involved had taken a sick day at that particular time. It can be any event and any person involved you like, but someone needs to be ill and thus forever change the course of history. Happy writing!

Scene Challenge of the Week

de-rerum-natura-latin-text-lucretius-stanley-barney-smith-paperback-cover-artSo, lately I’ve been reading Lucretius’ On The Nature of Things which is a bit of Roman metaphysics. Lucretius was a late Epicurean who presented one of the earlier ideas of development through progressive change (i.e. evolution, but very different from Darwinian evolution). On top of this, Lucretius was a poet by trade, so he writes his metaphysics in a highly florid poetic style, which makes him a very interesting mix. He’s writing a philosophical essay, but writing it in a style reminiscent of some of the better Roman poets (Virgil comes to mind) such that On The Nature of Things becomes something fairly different than either. It’s worth a read if you have the time and interest, and its not particularly long. Further, it makes for a interesting twist on this week’s scene challenge. Instead of using a novel, as normal, I want you to see if you can find something that is somewhere between a novel and a work of history or philosophy (Voltaire’s Candide or Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra come to mind for me, as does More’s Utopia). Anyway, I have a scene challenge for you and you all should know the rules, but just in case: 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 challenge: Choose one of your favorite scenes from a novel. After reading the scene a couple of times, rewrite it in your own style and voice. The characters and basic elements of the scene should remain the same, but the way it is written should reflect your voice and style of writing, rather than the original author’s. This can be very challenging, so don’t be too disappointed if you need a few tries to go it well.

Details: History

One thing that really brings a story to life are the details. These can be pub songs, pipe smoking habits, religious factions, and other small tidbits that aren’t required, are certainly not center stage, but most certainly allow readers to live in the world. It is that touch you put on something where you wrote more than required, show less than you created, but the reader respects that, whether or not they realize it. Why do you want details? Because otherwise everything is a two dimensional way to display ideas, instead of an immersive portrayal of a world in your head.

Before we delve into this, however, a reminder. Despite the fact you’re creating all these neat details, info dumps are evil. Seriously. If there is a villain in your story, it’s three pages of detail delivered with all the grace of a two by four upside the head. Have characters notice little things, or simply state there was a statue for some guy who did something long ago. You don’t need to tell us more, as your characters would find it natural. Now on with the show.

For any world building, history is the foundation of all that is and was. It’s why an empire was created, why ruins exist, why a planet is now an asteroid field, and so on. It’s really easy to start at the point in history where your story begins, and leave everything else out. Your readers won’t even notice. They will notice, however, if you include history.

When I create history, I have a story concept. I let it ferment in my head for months to years. There is daydreaming, I may write a scene or character sketch here or there, but most of this will end up in the garbage. Orson Scott Card backs up the idea that any good idea should be allowed to sit in your head, with a few physical manifestations, for six months or more. It allows the ideas to form more fully, and you can ensure a higher chance you even have a story to write.

So the brew of imagination is ready to boil over and you need to sample the goods. Sometimes I will jot down random ideas, but it all eventually comes around to the history. I sit down for an hour or two in order to complete the task. Any more time than that and I’m wasting time.

I come up with dates and why the calendar system exists. Why is this important? There are countless calendars in our world, and each one is based on major events, the edicts of emperors and kings, or other reasons. The reason for how your people tell time is very showing of who they are. I’ve never created full week calendars, only seasons or years. From there I start to insert major events.

Could you imagine coming up with every hour for a name? Picture courtesy of an awesome friend, because internet laws scare me.
Could you imagine coming up with every hour for a name? Picture courtesy of an awesome friend, because internet laws scare me.

In the past six months, I’ve already figured out most of the events even if I haven’t assigned them years. Now and then I’ll throw in something random, especially if I go a thousand years without something note worthy. Most are blanket and very general, but give enough information it makes sense and creates a sense of setting.

Viola, you have a brief history. It can lead to short stories when you want to pop out something quick as a distraction. It’s also great for hooks. It can create festivals when you need a celebration. Perhaps a fallen tower destroyed a century ago becomes the perfect place for your MacGuffin plot line where the protagonist needs to find an ancient spell or artifact.

Before you get too carried away, there are three major points to keep in mind when creating history. First, your original vision of the culture for your story needs to be malleable. Creating the history may enrich what you already created, and don’t fear that.

Next, your history is malleable. If you find you need to revise it for the plot to function, whether adding or removing, do it. Your timeline is in the background and no one actually knows how it flows.

Finally, do not over share your history. It took you an hour or two. Use one or two tidbits and it’s time well spent. Do not, for all that is benevolent, share your entire history. The only exception is if your history is of the utmost importance, you become ridiculously famous, or you share your short stories about those moments on your blog for publicity. Otherwise, in the novel, do not share.

With that, go forth and make history.

There are several more of these detail oriented posts to come! Do you make histories? If so how do you incorporate them? If you write science fiction, do you make them for each planet? That would be maddening, but aren’t we all a little mad? Have a fantastic holiday season!

The Ages of the World: Part 1

This is another post from Katherine Jones! I think I forgot to mention that last Tuesday…

A few examples of stone age tools.

So, at Tobias’ request, I am going to do my best to provide some research on the different ages of civilization*. Now, what needs to be remembered is that first, I am not an expert in ancient civilizations. Second, there are several different views out there concerning how civilization started, and third (this is the most important, at least in my mind) that this is what scholars think took place in the progression in our world. However, you are writing your own world so you can do whatever you like with it.
One thing that does need to be remembered when you are creating your world is that first there have to be tools, then the domestication of plants and animals has to happen. Without food there is no life. From there you can take it however you want, but here are the classic Ages of ancient through medieval civilization that are commonly accepted (I’ll cover the renaissance through modern civilization in my next post).

According to scholarly consensus, civilization started in the Fertile Crescent which is what we call the Middle East, mostly Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Israel, and parts of Turkey (Cool, right? You hear of all of these ancient places, but don’t realize that they still exist…sorry that was a random side note). Remember that certain things have to happen, and that there will be some overlap between eras, and sometimes different cultures will effectively be in different eras.

The Paleolithic Period/ Old Stone Age: 600,000-10,000 B.C.E
These first humans made and used tools from materials that were easily available to them such as wood, bones, and stones, hence the name: Stone Age. It is believed that many of the most useful tools were made out of stones, and that they were generally nomadic living off of the land; moving wherever there was food to be found. It is also believed that by the end of the Old Stone Age humans populated what we know as Europe.

The seven great wonders of the ancient (Pre-Roman) world.

The Neolithic Period: The Beginning of Agriculture 10,000-3,000 B.C.E
This is what is known as the New Stone Age, but it is also known as the Pottery Age. Here is where we start to see the beginnings of civilizations as we generally think of them. People start to cultivate the land, and to domestic animals and plants. The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals made it possible for larger people groups to stay in one place permanently, or at least for a longer time. With the increase of food there is a need for storing it, and pottery is born.

Bronze Age: 3000-1200 B.C.E.
The Bronze Age was the first time that people started using metal for tools and weapons. It was here that both copper and Bronze were used. They also saw a growth in trade due to the fact that workers were now needed to mine the ore. If ore is being mined then there are probably going to be tradesmen who know how to smelt the ore and craftsmen who are needed to create the different items made with metals.

Iron Age: 1200-500 B.C.E.
This is the last of the three beginning stages of civilization. Around 1200 there was a scarcity of tin (which is used in the creation of bronze), it is largely assumed that this scarcity was due to widespread warfare at the time. Iron was, however, relatively common, but raw iron is not much stronger than copper. However, around this time metalworkers discovered that when it is heated in a charcoal furnace the carbon binds making carbon steel. This particular age continued some believe until The Roman Empire and the Early Middle Ages for Northern Europe.

I need to make a note here: up until this point the developments have been fairly (though not entirely) global (for instance, the Native Americans were still essentially living in the New Stone Age when the America’s were colonized by Europe, but across Eurasia these ages were nearly universal). If you want to fashion your world after a particular region I suggest that you do research for that area. I am going to look more at European and some North American history. Also, remember that Ages can overlap and also people differ on when certain ages ended.

So, focusing on Europe and the Ancient Near East:

Ancient Rome: A place of wonders.

The Roman Age: 600 B.C.E-476 C.E.
This is the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Here we see the Age of the Roman gods, and the birthh of Christ and the events following. The next few “Ages” get a little fuzzy with the date because what historians call the Middle Ages covers over a thousand years of history, but there are sub-ages.

The Dark Age: 450-800 C.E.
The reason that it is called the “Dark Age” is because of the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of ‘Barbarian’ tribes, which led to a significant loss of scientific, mathematic, and philosophical knowledge. It was a time where people were “ignorant” of things. Towards the end of the Dark Age you see the start of Feudalism in hopes that some sort of order would be restored.

Lacking other powerful structures, the church exercised a great amount of authority throughout the middle ages.

The High Middle Age: 1000-1300 C.E.
The dates are the peak points of this age. This is where you start to see feudalism dying and kings being to have enough money to have standing armies; where they are not so strongly relying on the serfs (or peasantry) to defend to the land. It is in the High Middle Ages that agriculture production increases to a point where cities begin to reappear as we would think of them today. Trade once again starts flourishing and trade guides are formed to regulate the commerce. They were also one of the first unions that helped to protect the rights of the workers. Trade becomes a multi-continental as goods from the Middle East begin to reappear. The development of coins starts to replace the long-standing barter system.

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*I need to give a disclaimer the dates that I am using are ones that secular historians use. I do not necessarily agree with the dates used here, but these are the ones commonly used.

Memories Alive

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words; however, my experience is that most of the words are meaningless adjectives by themselves:  it is only when the thousand words are strung together in coherent sentences that they attempt to explain the picture.   And when these sentences are strung together, they create a memory.  So, it is memory that truly brings life to a picture; it is memory that tells the tale of why that moment in time was captured.

Neptune, Virginia Beach

I am looking down at a picture of my first trip to Virginia.  My dad and I are on the waterfront in Virginia Beach posing by a gigantic statue of King Triton, also known as Poseidon.  In the picture my hair is blowing and I am wearing my letter jacket and two layers of clothes.  These pictures only capture one-second snapshots of my adventure.

By itself  the words I can use to describe it are cold, windy, ocean, statue, but when I recall that day I remember the awe I felt as the birds constantly hovered above me, noisily waiting for me to throw them my last remnants of fries.  The wind was sharp and cutting, blowing salty ocean spray into our uncovered faces.  I remember jumping and laughing as I tried to touch the oncoming waves with just the tips of my fingers, hoping not to get soaked.  I can hear my dad complain about the cold while all I wanted to do was stay at the ocean’s edge staring off into space.

I desperately wanted to see dolphins playing in the horizon.  I wanted my dad to realize that our trip was not a waste of time.   The dolphins, I thought, would help him over his disappointment in driving ten hours for a restaurant that had closed years ago.  However, the dolphins never showed, but King Triton did.  A towering piece of art, the statue both intrigued and enthralled our imagination.  It was absolutely wonderful.  We left both happy and content.

Memory is the key to life; pictures and words are just the tools used to record memories.   Because as time goes by memory fades and is sometimes lost all together, pictures and word stories are vital in preserving memories.  My mother has no memory of a complete 18 month time period.   She can remember childhood friends and stories and songs, but her memory for a year and a half years is completely empty.  Not even a picture can help her remember those days because there is no basis on which to establish a mental connection.

That is how I know that memory is the key to remembrance.  Pictures say nothing, they know nothing.   Capturing the outward façade only they cannot express the joy or sorrow that lies underneath lying eyes.  They cannot tell the tale of the day.  Only memory can.  And through that memory, word stories.

As writers we have a powerful tool that many people do not possess.  We have the ability to capture memories and bring them to life for people.  The best biographies and the best histories are not the ones that clearly convey fact after fact.  No! Rather, the best ones are those that can transport the past moment into the present, evoking all of the sweetness and amazement or all of the tenseness and bitterness that existed at that time.

Scrapbooks are nice.  They are helpful for reminding us of our past.  But, written documentation of those moments is so much more powerful, so much more poignant, and so much more necessary for preserving and sharing memories.  You have within you the words to take a memory and bring it to life.

Aurora shooting victims. This picture belongs to The Hollywood Gossip, and this blog and its writers claim no ownership.

Two weeks ago I referenced a news article on the Aurora shooting.  I had seen pictures of the crime scene and had heard the news reports online and had felt disgusted, but it wasn’t until I read this news article that I truly felt the pain and sadness of the situation.  That’s because words hold memories, and memories hold power.  This memory is not mine.  I had no connection to it in any way.  But, as author Brady Dennis described the emotional turmoil, the confused and hurting thoughts of one of the victims, I was able to connect.

“But then he felt the molten buckshot of a shotgun blast pierce his neck and face. His left arm went limp. He collapsed onto the floor in front of his seat as chaos unfolded around him. As he lay bleeding, Barton heard the sounds of the movie yield to more primal sounds of terror. The screams of the wounded and dying.”

This is a memory.

Writing Historical Fiction

One of the most popular genres in our literary world  is historical fiction.  Like science fiction and fantasy, while there are different ways of writing historical fiction, there are some common practices to follow.  The downside to writing historical fiction is that, while the story itself evolves from the inner-recesses of your mind’s labyrinth, the environment surrounding your story is very much (or at least WAS very much) a reality.  Unfortunately, this is a concept Hollywood has yet to get.  But YOU can!  While writing and plot are as important as ever in historical fiction as in any genre, what really makes or breaks a story is the accuracy in the details.  The following are some common and common-sense rules to follow when writing historical fiction as well as some tips to improve your story.  However, despite their overt value, many authors still tend to ignore them.

Yes, because unwashed, historically accurate characters would not sell near as well without all the glitter and gold.

Read other literature from your chosen time period BEFORE writing your story.  This is tip is not so you can write like Homer, Chaucer, or Dostoevsky, but so that you can know what the world was actually like during that time.  Historians find works like Homer’s The Iliad invaluable because he describes the type of clothing worn, fighting techniques used, and geography.  So, when you start writing your book about the servant girl who falls madly in love with Paris, you will know that she would not go to bed at night, but to to [the] floor.  More than likely she is barefoot.  Chances are she probably hasn’t seen her family in months, if not years, unless they work in the “palace” too, and even then it would be a rare moment here or there as she would not live with them.  Also, pay attention to materials used for clothing, buildings, and weapons.  Will your character have a stone “knife” or a one made of metal?  If metal, what type?

Read actual history articles and books on the cultures,customs, and events that took place during your story’s setting.  Even small details, like clothing matter.  If you are writing a book set in 18th century England, you are not going to use the word “knickers.”  You will need to know the differences and meanings of words like crinoline, corset, petticoat, etc.  For men, know the difference between jacket styles, hat lengths, suits, etc.  It may seem like a small thing, but when you write that the above Trojan servant girl is wearing a purple tunic, you just proved your ignorance (unless you explain how this poor, ignored, and looked-down upon piece of humanity ended up with enough money to purchase a piece of clothing in such an expensive color), or if you wrote that a married Roman woman wore a toga instead of a stola.

Personally, I always love reading about a medieval noble woman washing herself in some sort of bathtub concoction.  It’s as if the author realizes that normal tubs did not exist, so they fall back on a wooden washbasin or something.  What they don’t realize is that medieval nobles (and commoners) consider bathing to be unhealthy, and therefore, rarely ever bathed.  This means that they would NOT smell like roses, lilacs, or any other flower unless they were actually wearing flowers.

Furthermore, each culture and time has specific traditions that make it unique.  Names are a huge reflection of this.  Not only of people, but of places.  Names hold meaning, and many cultures used names to reflect a different meaning.  It is important to not only know the popular names in your culture, but also how names are passed on from one generation to the next, what the names mean, how did they for nicknames, etc.  Even things like adoption practices can be relevant to your story.  On a similar note, colors are also symbolic.  Knowing what the appropriate mourning color is (Hint: it’s not always black.) will tell your reader that you know what you are talking about and not just including random details.

It is especially important to know the major characters, locations, and political issues surrounding your main character.  If I’m writing about Catherine the Great (or someone in her court), I will need to have characters named Peter (or Petrov), Orlov, Potemkin.  I will need to know the names of the ambassadors in her court.  These things cannot be made up.  I would also need to know that Catherine was not Russian.  Her real name was Sophia.  Even the fact that she never slept with her husband during the first nine years of marriage would be important to the story.

As far as events go, make sure you know what happened.  Include details like wars, treaties, famous murders/murderers/criminals, etc.  Example: If my time is during the gilded age in American history, I would probably want to include the Chicago World fair, the serial killer that lived in the area.  I might even drop a few names like Mark Twain, the Vanderbilts, Andrew Carnegie, and John Rockefeller.  (FYI: If you are writing about Chicago during the late 1800s, the nickname “White City” would be more common than “Windy City.”)

No caption needed here. You get the picture.

Like I previously mentioned, most of these rules are common sense, but many authors, especially new authors, don’t really think about it.  But remember, the devil is in the details.  And since nowadays, everyone is a critic (sorry for the run on cliches, but hey…), it is especially important to make sure that your reader gets into your story and isn’t counting how many inaccuracies you have.  After all, every bibliophile loves finding and correcting authorial mistakes.  Unfortunately, historical fiction makes it easy for authors to make numerous mistakes if they do not know their period reference, or if they are not paying attention.

Or, if you really don’t want to go to all the trouble of researching your time period and culture, you could just go to your local bookstore or library, find one of those steamy, harlequin romances, read it, and then write the opposite of everything that author did.

So, go forth and read. Read. READ.  This way, you will never, EVER write that Billy the Kid, while riding with Jesse James’ gang, fell in love with an Apache Indian woman named Sacajawea who had his son named Lewis Clark.

Time to Start Writing

Spears are fun!

Alright, so if you’ve been following along with the character creation posts, then by now you should know your character fairly well.  Either you’ve taken the time to talk to your character, and to find out about his/her personality, or you’ve answered a ton of questions about the character.  Your character should also have a set of things that he/she is good at, or that he/she is bad at.  Now it’s time to start writing, but the first thing to write is not what you want to use the character in.  You see, the best character’s have history – a backstory – and you’ve only started to develop that.  Now you want to start fleshing it out.

This is where the two models of character creation merge into one.  You should pick an important event in your character’s life (something that the character told you about [natural method], or a question that you have already answered in brief [ordered method]) and write a story about it.  This doesn’t have to be a long story, it could be as little as a few hundred words, or as long as a few thousand, but the key is to write the story of something important to the character.  Don’t just do this once, do it several times.  Take the time to write out several of the most important events in your character’s life – his wedding, his father’s death, how he left home, or where that giant scar on his back came from.  This allows you to get to know your character even better, but of equal importance is the material that it gives you for later stories.  Remember that references (even in passing) can make a character come to life – mystery makes things interesting.

Remember that whether it's a character or a location, a little mystery can make a story a lot more interesting.

This mystery can be introduced by just making stuff up – Kellin has a scar on the back of his hand from the battle of Jacink – but this leads to the question, what happened at the battle of Jacink? What were they fighting over? How was Kellin involved? If he was the general of the victorious army, then he might wear the scar as a badge of pride, but if he was a bystander caught in the middle of a fight, then he might be bitter about it.  These details don’t have to make it into the story that you want to write, but they will affect how the character reacts to certain situations.  If the scar is a badge of pride over winning a close battle, then Kellin might display it, or even draw attention to it.  If it is a reminder of a horrible event then he might refuse to answer questions, or even try to hide it.  The details of the character’s life will help to lend the character reality, even if you never tell your audience what those exact details might be.

These small stories can also help in other ways.  For one it is a way for you to get to know the character better.  The more you write about the character, the better you will know how that character will respond to a given situation.  They can also be polished, and later used as advertising material (if you are self-publishing) or sold to magazines.  This kind of writing gives you a backlog of stories that can come in handy in any number of ways, and even if they never get used – it’s fun to write them.  Try to write at least three to five stories about a new character.  That way you have a sufficient number, without going overboard and setting the rest of your writing too far back.