Plot Challenge of the World

Well, very slowly reading is getting done and I am getting used to sleeping five hours a night. However, if you’ve ever done something like this, it isn’t a lot of fun, and it takes some getting used to, so I’m afraid I don’t have a lot left for the blog today. Anyway, I have a plot challenge for you today. I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to develop a part of your world based on what you see. It should be a setting that is believable in your world, and that has potential for stories in it. Here’s you’re picture:

bridges fantasy art cities_wallpaperswa.com_47

So, I don’t know how many of you love either P&P RPGs or miniature models as much as I do, but I just backed this kickstarter. It looks to have a well-developed world, some great art, a fun system, and the miniatures are just beautiful. Take a look at it, if it looks like you’re kind of thing, back it with me. The basic pledge levels aren’t overly expensive and you can get some cool stuff out of them. That being said, I have a post for you. Anyway, I have a writing exercise for you today, but if anyone wants to chime in with ideas, please do. For today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world:

med

Plot Challenge of the Week

Okay… test is done. Traveling is almost done (one more trip next week and then we’re done with that). We’re exhausted. Life will get back to normal(ish) soon… until we have to move for a Ph.D. program anyway… July is probably going to be a crapshoot of a month. That being said, I have a post for you. Anyway, I have a writing exercise for you today, but if anyone wants to chime in with ideas, please do. For today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world:

japanese_village_12-0

Plot Challenge of the Week

Alayna and I were able to spend a rare afternoon off yesterday just enjoying some time together. It was really, really nice. Really nice. Honestly, I’m amazed that we both work so hard and so much and then complain to each other about how lazy we are (calling ourselves lazy, not calling each other lazy, just to clarify). It was nice to just walk around a park together and read together at a coffee shop. Anyway, I have a plot challenge for you today. I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to develop a part of your world based on what you see. It should be a setting that is believable in your world, and that has potential for stories in it. Here’s you’re picture:

2D-Art-Ioan-Dumitrescu-Alien-Planet-Crash

How to avoid cultural appropriation when writing historically-influenced fantasy stories

Hello, internet. I have another slightly philosophical post for you today.

Following up from my last post, I’m trying to force myself back into the habit of writing a solid 500 words every day. I currently have two book concepts in the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to work on both of at the same time. I might have to drop down to one if juggling two books proves to be too much of a hassle, but at the moment I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to hop between worlds, or to focus exclusively on one project for a while if I’m having trouble with the other. It also means that I can’t use the excuse of ‘book problems’ to slack off from writing.

One of the projects that I’m working on is a continuation of the story that I shared with you last month, set in a fantasy world that shares a lot of parallels with 19th century Europe. I’m essentially taking the Crimean War (the original one in the 1850s, not the more recent Crimean conflict) and adapting it into fantasy, with fantasy analogues for most of the belligerent factions and major events of the war.  This is a fun concept and I’ve been enjoying the process of fleshing it out into a complete story. But a while ago I started to wonder if there were some awkward problems with the initial concept.

My story features a large empire which resembles an industrialised, centralised version of Sauron’s empire from the Tolkien legendarium. In the events of the story, this empire plays the same role that the Russian Empire played in the Crimean War. Due to events that occurred before the start of the narrative, the orc empire is at war with an alliance of other nations who have landed an invasion force on the empire’s shores and laid siege to an ancient city. These events are intentionally similar to the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol, and the allied forces are fairly transparent fantasy analogues of Britain and France. But I’m concerned that my story might have unintentional racial undertones if the Russian Empire is ‘replaced’ by orcs, whilst the British remain mostly human. I’m not trying to use my story as a piece of anti-Russian political commentary and I’d hate for any Russian readers to think that I was comparing them to orcs, at least in the common cultural understanding of what an ‘orc’ is like.

Orc
Boo

My own depiction of orcs is quite sympathetic, but that’s the sort of nuance that might not make much of a difference to someone who’s angry with me for appropriating Russian history.

Other writers tell me that I worry too much about this sort of thing, but I think it’s very important for authors to consider that their work can have unintended cultural aftershocks. Even if I’m only intending to write a harmless swashbuckling fantasy novel, it still has the potential to cause offence, and that’s not something that I want to do. Some people roll their eyes at ‘political correctness’, but for me being PC just means ‘wanting to upset the smallest number of people that I possibly can’, and I don’t want to belittle or dismiss things that are hurtful to other groups of people. I’ve read enough to know that turning someone’s culture or history into a piece of set dressing in a fantasy novel can be very hurtful. Just today, JK Rowling has come under fire for appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new short story. You only have to look at the responses from Navajo Americans to see why they are upset, and why this isn’t something that Rowling should have done. Navajo writer Brian Young wrote “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”  The people of Russia aren’t a marginalised people who survived colonisation, but the same principal applies. I’m taking part of Russian history – a war in which many Russians lost their lives – and using it as the inspiration for a fictional war in which their sacrifices will be attributed to inhuman fantasy creatures.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that writers in my situation can do to make their writing more culturally sensitive. The most obvious way is to avoid homogeneous depictions of any factions or races within my fantasy world. A lot of fantasy writing doesn’t do this very well, and it’s hardly surprising, when we’re all just following the example set by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein’s orcs and goblins are uniformly nasty, brutish, savage, and deformed. His humans are mostly noble warriors, with a few odious exceptions. His elves are mostly wise and fair. His dwarves are mostly avaricious and argumentative. This obviously isn’t very representative of reality: “racial attributes” are the stuff of tabletop roleplaying, not real life or nuanced fiction. I’m going to do my best to present orcs as nuanced characters rather than savages. I’m planning to present many of our own cultural stereotypes about orcs to be racist misconceptions. When we think of ‘orc’ we think of the caricatures from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptations – slimy savages with foul habits and no morals, who are born out of holes in the ground. I’m going to present this image as propaganda. Ordinary soldiers in my story will believe these things about the orcs as well, the same way that soldiers always believe their enemies to be murderers and rapists who roast babies on spits, but these ordinary soldiers will find out that they’re wrong. One of the things I want to say with this story is that misconceptions and generalisations of other cultures can lead to unnecessary suffering, and I hope that message  is enough to make amends to any Russians who might be upset by my initial decision to replace them with orcs.

Another step that I can take to make things more realistic is to diversify all of the factions in my own story. Different factions in fantasy novels are often divided along racial lines – there’s not much overlap between different races and political entities – but this has never been the case in real world history. If the armies in my story are made up of human and orc soldiers, it would reinforce a lot of unhealthy colonial attitudes that still linger in our cultural subconscious, which I’ve talked about this before in a previous post. To combat this, I can make sure that each army has a varied racial makeup: the allied army has humans, but it also has dwarves, gnomes, half-giants, reptilians, or whatever other interesting fantasy races that I want to throw into the melting pot. The opposing army has orcs, but it also has humans. This doesn’t just increase the cultural sensitivity of my writing, it also makes both armies much more interesting, and much more realistic: a ragtag, multi-ethnic army with a diverse racial makeup is much more fun than an army made up entirely of orcs or humans.

 

I’m running out of space, but I hope I’ve made you think about how you can avoid cultural appropriation and racial homogeneity in your own writing. If you want to read more, there are lots of places that you can go online to educate yourself about the issues. Tumblr is a good place to start: blogs like Writing with Color are a great resource for finding out how to handle these concerns sensitively, and also a great place to go and remind yourself of exactly why authors should be so careful to avoid cultural appropriation: the team there are very eloquent at setting out the issues, and they are very quick to inform you if they think your story concepts contain anything problematic.

That’s all from me today, and I’ll see you on Sunday!

The Siege of Gordul Nor, Part 3

Hello, internet!

It is Sunday, and here is the final piece of my latest story that I’m going to share with you. I’ve written more of it, and may share the rest with you in future posts, but for now, this is all you’re getting. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.


Crimea Barricade Corpse

Stealth had worked tolerably well for them so far. It had stopped them from being picked off by sharpshooters as they crossed the wasteland, or gunned down dead in open ground as they climbed the last fifty yards towards the enemy’s positions. They covered the last few yards on their bellies, but stealth was only useful up to a point, and they reached that point as soon as they reached the enemy fortifications. The barricades were mostly wicker cages, shovelled full of rocks, sand and mud, then set down in rows and stacked four high, just like the concordium’s fortifications on the other side of the valley. They could stop bullets or even cannonballs, but they were also fairly easy for Bournclough to climb over, by clinging to the wickerwork and jamming his toes between the different rows of baskets. Mogget followed him, and the nob came behind them once he’d seen how it was done.

The time for stealth was behind them. Bournclough reached down to shake hands with Mogget, then vaulted over the barricade, not advertising his presence with a yelp or a cry. He landed on his feet, gripping the barrel of his musketoon in both hands and wielding it like a club, the way he wielded it whenever he actually needed to kill someone. He was in a small, well-lit battery with earthworks on all sides and four orcs in the middle, sitting around a tripod stove and cooking something that smelled of moss. All that mattered to begin with was that one of them had their back to him. He raised his musket above his head and brought it down again with a hoarse shout. There was a steel plate screwed to the butt of his musket for just such bludgeonwork, and the edge of it came down a little below the orc’s pony-tail, cracking his skull like an egg. The orc tensed, shuddered, then fell off his stool.

The other three were already scrambling to their feet, horking and grunting in surprise. They weren’t dressed in the fur or leather strips of tundra orcs, but the black frogging and shako hats of the Malign Emperor’s artillery regiments. That might have meant that they weren’t carrying cleavers, until one of them proved himself to be a traditionalist, reaching to his belt and pulling out a nasty-looking butcher’s knife the length of Bournclough’s arm. All three of the brutes were twice Bournclough’s height, and they all looked ready to kill him, but Mister Cleaver looked the most like he could do it. He bared his fangs, flared his nostril slits, and stared down at Bournclough with hateful yellow eyes. He snarled something in Orcish, and the other two stepped back a little, letting Mister Cleaver have his fun.

Bournclough tested his grip, ready to try and swing his musket down to knock the knife out of Mister Cleaver’s hands, but he knew it would be awkward. A musketoon with delusions of being a club wasn’t an especially good weapon for parrying with. Mister Cleaver kicked over the stove to give himself some room, spilling the orc’s broth into the dirt, and he was about to lunge at Bournclough across the fire when Mogget came sailing over the barricade and landed on top of him. They fell to the ground in a tangled heap.

One of the other orcs used the moment to lunge at Bournclough, trying to drag him down as well, but Bournclough swung his musket once again and caught the side of the orc’s face with a categorical thud. The orc cried out and stumbled back against the barricade, not dead but barely conscious, holding his face in his hands. Bournclough glanced over at Mogget and saw him kneeling on top of Mister Cleaver, driving his own dirk knife repeatedly into the orc’s chest with both hands.

Then it was over, as quickly as it had begun. Gildersleigh leapt off the barricade with his curved officer’s cutlass raised over his head, and brought it down clumsily across the chest of the last orc, stumbling as he landed. It was clumsy, but Bournclough heard the sound of metal parting flesh. The blow drove the orc down to his knees, with the blade stuck somewhere in his shoulder. They remained that way for a while, Gildersleigh clutching the hilt of his sword very tightly and starting at the orc with wild eyes, not sure what to do next. The orc stared back, choking. They looked equally surprised.

“Go on, lad, finish it!” Mogget hissed, forgetting the officer’s rank.

Bournclough hadn’t really thought about how young the nob was, until then. He couldn’t have been more than five and twenty. Taking pity, he set down his musket, prised the sword from Gildersleigh’s grip, and drew it back, feeling it grind along the underside of the orc’s collarbone. If it had been a straight broadsword then he could have made a nice clean cut to the heart, but it was a sabre. Only good for slashing. He sighed, then raised the sword in both hands and brought it down at an angle through the orc’s neck.

Black blood hissed and the orc fell forwards, and then the three of them were the only ones alive in the battery, with the possible exception of the orc who Bournclough had clubbed around the side of the head. He’d wake up with a powerful headache, if he woke up at all.

“Well, sir,” said Bournclough, after a moment. “Is this close enough?”

Gildersleigh returned from somewhere far away. He looked around, and seemed almost surprised to see the three great cannons sitting behind him on their carriages.

“Yes, Colour Bournclough,” Gildersleigh replied, in a faltering voice. He stopped to wipe his mouth on the cuff of his jacket. “I believe this will suffice.

 

Plot Challenge of the Week

I was at the graduation ceremony tonight for a friend of mine who just graduated from her training to be a fire fighter. Now, I’ve been to plenty of graduations over the years, and so there generally nothing new, but I’ve never been to a graduation in which they played heavy metal as a part of the ceremony. Another friend who was sitting next to me kept saying ‘this is a hard core graduation.’ The fact that he said this several times amused me. Still, I found the heavy metal graduation (which is what I might refer to it as from now on) to be fairly interesting overall. Anyway, I have a writing exercise for you today, but if anyone wants to chime in with ideas, please do. For today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world:

This piece is by a German artist who goes by Celarx on Deviant Art. You can find more of his work here.
This piece is by a German artist who goes by Celarx on Deviant Art. You can find more of his work here.

Taking notes from history

Hello internet!

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m on a quest to move away from the books that I’m familiar with and branch out to other writers, to see if it has a positive effect on my own writing.

So far, I’m sort of cheating. The first book that I’ve delved into since Tuesday isn’t actually another fantasy novel. I want to write fantasy  but for whatever reason I’m bad at actually getting myself to read fantasy novels by other authors, and so I have a wide variety of award-winning fantasy books lying around my bedroom in unread heaps. It would have been easy to pick up one of these and get stuck into it, allowing the author to transport me into the world that they’d created. But instead, I prized open the covers of a book so heavy that it could be used for construction purposes.

Honourable Company

The Honourable Company is a 475-page narrative history of the East India Company, written by the journalist and historian John Keay. It’s a comprehensive, entertaining history of the early expeditions that led to the establishment of the trading company which eventually bought control over most of India and Southeast Asia.

I’m ‘cheating’ by reading it because I’ve already read the first few chapters, and because I love reading books like this. I studied history at the University of Manchester, and when I was in a productive frame of mind – rather than procrastinating or panicking under the weight of imminent deadlines – there was nothing I loved more than selecting a weighty academic tome off my course reading list, checking it out of the library, and plunging head-first into history. (I enjoy learning new things, but only when I’m not expected to write an essay on the subject.) There’s something wonderful about reading the culmination of somebody else’s painstaking research, knowing how much effort they put into scouring through history and recording it, with the honest intentions of simply producing a book that would improve other people’s understanding of the past. I also find history very entertaining. Perhaps this makes me a huge dork, but history isn’t necessarily dry and boring, particularly when it’s written by an author who has a sense for the ridiculous, which John Keay certainly does.

I’m of the opinion that everyone ought to read as many history books as they can. Defeating your own ignorance about the complex history of the human race is always a good thing, and studying the efforts of the generations that came before ours can lead to a renewed appreciation of the world we live in. History also has a habit of repeating itself, and forewarned is forearmed. But history is especially valuable to aspiring authors, no matter what genre you’re writing in.

Firstly, history provides us with exquisite morsels which can be shamelessly plundered and inserted directly into books. John Keay’s book has provided me with several of these which I’m almost reluctant to share with you, lest you steal them. For example, in the early days of the East India Company, when poorly-coordinated expeditions often led to ships sinking, sailing to the wrong parts of the world, losing most of their crew to scurvy, or bringing back merchandise which had gone down in price on the London markets, the company decided to improve their internal communications by leaving a single man on an island off the coast of South Africa, for several years, with only penguins for company.

Penguin
A 17th-century sketch of a very sassy penguin

Keay writes that ‘Whenever a ship anchored in the Bay he quickly donned jacket and hose and pushed past the penguins with whatever messages had been left in his care’ by ships passing in either direction. If you’re in the business of writing humorous fantasy novels, or historical fiction, or even contemporary fiction – perhaps you want a quirky back-story for one of your character’s ancestors – you could have a character marooned for years on an island full of penguins. Or if you’re writing grimmer, more hard-hitting stories, you could create an impactful story about the loneliness or depression of someone struggling to stay alive in a similar situation. And that’s just one story from one history book.

Isolated incidents aren’t the only realm from which we can draw historical inspiration, however. If you’re struggling to add a sense of background realism to your fantasy, you can go and read up on real-world history and see if you find anything that fits your setting. Towns and settlements often spring up for odd reasons. The first British trading post in India was built in a harbour exposed to typhoons and blocked by a huge sandbar, which made it a terrible location for trade ships to land. It was built there because the leader of that particular expedition had managed to acquire a mistress in a nearby Dutch settlement, and he wanted to make his visits easier. Despite it’s poor qualifications for a trading port, this little settlement eventually grew to become the city of Madras, now known as Chennai, with a population of 6,000,000. Perhaps a city in your world could have similarly unlikely origins. Or if you want a story that’s slightly less absurd, history books are filled with geopolitical intrigues and details of the birth of nations, many of which might fit the story that you’re trying to write.

Finally, I also find history to be a source of insights into the kind of complex characters who I want to create in my fiction. Studying the history of real nations, real organisations or sub-cultures, is a good way of ensuring that we don’t fall foul to the crimes of stereotyping or creating unrealistic, monolithic portrayals of large groups of people. Even in a group of people like the merchants who worked for the East India Company – men who wanted to make money at other people’s expense and weren’t afraid to sail halfway around the world to do so – there is a surprising range of motivations and a surprising amount of moral integrity. It might be tempting to paint all historical figures with the same brush, and assume that even the most highly-celebrated figures from history held ideas that we would deem to be morally reprehensible in the modern age. This is the kind of assumption that fuels the current trend of ‘grimdark’ fantasy, where fantasy worlds are depicted as brutally indifferent to the fate of their protagonists, and most characters encountered by the protagonist are shown to be intolerant and unprincipled. Grimdark is, of course, a backlash against earlier tropes in fantasy, where fantasy authors brushed over historically-accurate unpleasantness such as plague, slavery, skin tumours, and open sewers. But it’s equally disingenuous to present history – or fantasy worlds based on real-world history – as wholly dark and unpleasant. Reading history shows us that even insides the most insidious organisations and maritime empires in history, most people were complex characters, and there were still isolated individuals who were acting commendably by our own moral standards as well as their own.

I’m not an apologist for the misdeeds of colonial empires, and it’s important to record the dark side of history – but it’s also important to make sure that we don’t make our fantasy settings into wholly bleak worlds, bereft of the kind of characters who act with good intentions. By reading history, we can learn about how real people acted in difficult situations, and we can use their struggles to enrich our own stories.

How well do you know your bookshelf?

Hello internet!

I have missed you. Due to the new schedule, it has been aeons since Tobias allowed me to post anything. But now my patience has paid off, and I have you all to myself for a week!

’tis the Christmas season, and if you’re a writer who goes through the gift-giving traditions of Christmas every year, you’re probably expecting to find at least one book under the tree.

I love acquiring books, and I am hopeful of my chances of acquiring some more on December 25th. But I seem to acquire them at a much faster rate than I can actually read them.

Unlike many writers, I didn’t really discover the joys of reading until I was already in my twenties. In my teenage years I fairly scorned reading (apart from Star Trek apocrypha) and thought, with the arrogance only possible in teenagers, that I didn’t have anything to learn from contemporary authors, even those writing the kind of books that I wanted to write.

Since leaving university I’ve come around to accepting that I am the merest novice, and I’ve learnt to welcome the lessons in the art of writing that can be gleaned from devouring as much fiction as possible. As such, I buy a lot of books. If I see rave reviews of a fantasy novel by an author I haven’t heard of, I’ll usually order it on Amazon (or get my bookseller sister to get it for me half-price 😉 ). I also have a big back-catalogue of classic fantasy to get through. Until a year ago, I hadn’t read anything by Neil Gaiman or George R.R. Martin, and I have a lot of catching up to do to get through all of the excellent fantasy that was published during my arrogant teenage years, or indeed before I was born. And as a history graduate who wants to write fantasy that’s very historically-informed, I also buy a lot academic texts.

All of this tends to pile up.

My Desk
I apologise wholeheartedly to any readers with OCD

Currently, amidst the ever-expanding entropy of discarded chocolate wrappers, scrap paper, unwashed teacups, and loose change on my desk, I have unearthed:

  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Herodotus’s Histories
  • Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful Arabian-inspired fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon (artfully arranged here on top of a novelty flashing Santa hat)
  •  The City Stained Red by Sam Skyes
  • Simon Armitage’s translation of Le Morte d’Arthur
  • Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom
  • Marvel’s 1602 by Neil Gaiman, on long-term loan from my sister’s boyfriend
  • The Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
  • The Incorruptables by John Hornor Jacobs
  • The Terror by Dan Simmons
  • The Iron Ship by K. M. McKinley
  • Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
  • The 722-page academic behemoth Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James
  • William Shakespeare’s ‘The Empire Striketh Back’ by Ian Doescher

And (inexplicably) the dog-eared manual for Star Trek: Starfleet Command III, a PC game which came out in 2002, and which I haven’t played for at least half as long…

On top of all of those estimable volumes, though, is The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian, and therein lies the problem.

Thirteen Gun Salute

Out of that entire list of books, I have read only three from cover-to-cover: The Empire Striketh Back, (because it’s hilarious) Throne of the Crescent Moon, (because it’s amazing) and ThIncorruptables (because I read it one sitting and couldn’t put it down). The rest are lying about forlornly under sheafs of paper, in various stages of chronic neglect. Perhaps I can be forgiven for not having finished the meatier academic books on the list, but I feel a certain guilt about seeing The Iron Ship or The Promise of Blood accumulating dust when I’ve only peered inside their covers once or twice before putting them down in favour of another book. And the ‘other book’ is almost invariably by Patrick O’Brian.

I love Patrick O’Brian. The Times called him ‘the greatest historical novelist of all time’, and I’m not inclined to disagree. If you don’t believe me, just listen to award-nominated British YA and adult author Lou Morgan! (who I follow on Twitter!)

Lou Morgan
Heed her words

For those who don’t know (and there can’t be very many of you, given how many times I’ve mentioned him on this blog), Patrick O’Brian was the author of the Aubrey/Maturin books, a series of historical novels starting with Master and Commander and ending with The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey. It’s always hard to describe a series without bias (and without going into too much detail) when you think it’s among the greatest works of literature ever conceived by the human mind and committed into prose, but I’ll try.

At their core, the Aubrey/Maturin books are about a Royal Navy captain in the Napoleonic wars, and his friend, a surgeon and scientist who is also a shadowy operative for Britain’s intelligence services. The series is naval military history at it’s very best, but it is also so much more than that. Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin go on voyages around the world, confounding the naval enterprises of Napoleon, but also struggling to overcome the human faults that make them into such interesting characters. Jack struggles with his weight, his finances, and his conceptions of honour, while Maturin suffers the ravages of drug addiction, depression, torn loyalties, and an unstable marriage. Their adventures are a sublime journey through history and through the human condition, with bold forays into naval warfare, but also into romance, philosophy, scientific discovery, and abstract existential musings on every subject under the sun. They’ve become two of my favourite characters in fiction.

Most of the action takes place on ships at sea, which is a setting that O’Brian brought to life in vivid detail, drawing on his amazing reservoir of technical knowledge about the age of sail. His characters navigate the world, crossing oceans, rounding Cape Horn and passing through the freezing southern latitudes in almost every voyage, against a constant backdrop of everyday naval life:

‘the old pattern fell into place again, and the ship’s routine, disrupted by the violent, perilous race eastward through sixty degrees of longitude, soon became the natural way of life once more, with it’s unyaring diet, the cleaning of the decks before full daylight, the frequent call for sweepers throughout the day, the piping of the hands to witness punishment on Wednesdays (reprimand or deprivation of grog; no flogging so far in this ocean), the ritual washing of clothes and the hoisting of clothes-lines on Mondays and Fridays, quarters every weekday with a certain amount of live firing still, mustering by divisions on Sunday, followed sometimes by the reading of the Articles of War

…Day after day they travelled slowly over a vast disk of sea, perpetually renewed; and when, as the Diane was approaching Capricorn at four knots, Captain Aubrey ended church with the words ‘World without end, amen’, he might have been speaking of this present voyage: sea, sea and then more sea, with no more beginning and no more end than the globe itself.’

As a reader, it’s easy to let yourself be lulled into the same comfortable routine as the characters. The books are laced together with masterful character arcs and strands of overarching narrative that draw you gently onwards, making it easy to coast from one book to the next without intending to.

This can become a little bit of a problem, considering the length of the series.

O’Brien wrote twenty Aubrey/Maturin books before he died, leaving another unfinished. Twenty-and-a-half books is a lot of books. I’ve been reading this epic saga since January and I still haven’t got further than the fourteenth installment. It’s been hugely enjoyable, and I’m sure that my own writing has benefited immeasurably, but I’m beginning to wonder if too much exposure to one author’s writing style can start to be a bad thing. 

For writers, reading books is necessarily a case of monkey see, monkey do. You can tell what an author has been reading by looking for clues in their own writing, the same way that forensic scientists can find out what someone’s been eating by analysing their hair. After reading his books for almost a year, all of the clues in my writing point to Patrick O’Brian.

Everybody has a favourite author, but I think it’s important to diversify the books you read, just as it’s important to…diversify the foods you eat…if you want to have strong hair….?  This metaphor is creaking slightly, but I hope you understand what I mean.

The late great Sir Terry Pratchett said that authors should ‘read with the mindset of a carpenter looking at trees’, and the best way to do that is probably to venture out into the forest and look at as many different trees as possible, rather than admiring the same tree over and over again because you like it’s particular shape or the way that the moss grows on it. As such, I’m going to make a concerted effort to tear myself away from the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin, and launch some exploratory forays of my own, into the umplumbed depths of my bookcase, uprooting lost books from the bottom of piles and actually getting around to reading them. I may blog about the results. And I encourage you to do the same!

Plot Challenge of the Week

I currently find myself in a conundrum. My verbal and analytic writing GRE scores were excellent, but my quantitative scores were low. I’m fairly sure that, if I took it again, I could raise my quantitative score by 2-3 points (which would move me from around the 48th Percentile to around the 60th Percentile), but this isn’t guaranteed. I could do worse than I did the first time, which wouldn’t hurt my scores any (I can choose which scores universities see), but the test costs $200 each time I take it. Add to this the fact that I’m exhausted, everything that Alayna is going through with the pregnancy, and just life during the holidays in general and it makes retaking the GRE very stressful for both myself and for Alayna. Further, the Quantitative section of the GRE isn’t essential to my applications. I’m applying for non-analytic philosophy programs, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t count. Admissions committees often get many more applications than they have positions, and so even relatively unimportant factors (such as a quantitative GRE score) are often used to differentiate otherwise equivalent candidates. However, my overall GPA is also low (because I was a lazy bum in undergrad and my first masters program), so if I’m being differentiated from other candidates there is already plenty of reason to do so. So, I’m trying to figure out whether its worth the $200 and extra stress to retake the GRE in order to boost my score a little bit in order to strengthen the one part of my application that I am actually in control of. I’ve been praying about this decision for much of the afternoon, but I’m still not sure what to do. So, I have a writing exercise for you today, but if anyone wants to chime in with ideas, please do. For today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world:

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