Monthly Archives: January 2015

Worldbuilding reflections: ancient networks

As part of my 2015 reading challenge, I am currently reading 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H Cline (and yes, as a Brit, writing “civilisation” with a Z physically hurts me). I’m not far thorugh yet but something that struck me in my reading so far is the reach of the networks between the cultures that existing in the centuries prior to the titular collapse. Rulers whose capital cities were hundreds, even over a thousand miles from one another were sending each other gifts of things like leather shoes. Craftspeople from the Minoan culture on Crete travelled to the major cities of cultures all around the Mediterranean and beyond to create fresco wall paintings because it was fashionable.

"Knossos bull" by ArtStudy version 2.0 (Saskia Ltd, Thomson Wadsworth). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Knossos_bull.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Knossos_bull.jpg
“Knossos bull” by ArtStudy version 2.0 (Saskia Ltd, Thomson Wadsworth). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was 3,500 years ago, before advanced shipbuilding techniques existed, before the road infrastructure of the Roman empire – or indeed the city of Rome itself – existed. It’s difficult not to think of them as primitive, because of how long ago this was and how different a world it was to what I am familiar with, but really it is still human culture. The people of this ancient time were no less ambitious, no less curious, no less vain than their descendants in classical Greece, with which I am more familiar, or the Roman Empire, or the Middle Ages or the Age of Exploration or indeed the modern day. They had different circumstances to deal with, sure, but every generation has different circumstances than their parents.

It seems to me that when I am working on stories I often think in very constrained geographies and economies. I think of trade as happening between two neighbouring countries, maybe between two countries separated by one other country in between or by a small sea. I struggle to think of alliances and diplomacy and trade and the movement of skilled craftspeople over long distances between vastly different cultures. I manage to think “oh yes, this country exports this metal” but I don’t ever get to the point of thinking, “this particular region is the only known source of this metal, so it gets exported to everywhere”.

Economy is something I need to work on. I tend to think in terms of what gets exported, what’s high quality, what needs to be imported, but I don’t think about the human level when I’m looking at economies. I don’t think about skilled craftspeople moving to where they think there are opportunities. I don’t think about rulers interacting with one another through the sending of gifts and envoys, or restricting the export of materials they don’t want their enemies getting their hands on. I don’t think of the different merchants through whose inventories individual items will pass on their way from one culture to another, and what those merchants have or haven’t seen of the cultures where these items originated or are destined for.

It’s a whole new layer of complexity I have missed until now. A whole new area of human interactions that could provide me with stories to tell.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I started reading The Ocean At the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman on Sunday evening. I stopped reading it when I could no longer keep my eyes open, having got more than half way through. Yesterday, on Tuesday, I finished reading it half an hour after I got home from work. So it’s safe to say I enjoyed it.

ocean at the end of the lane coverThe Ocean at the End of the Lane starts with George, a man in his forties, having come from a funeral and returning to visit the place where he grew up. What he finds there is a duckpond which is also an ocean, and the key to memories of a time when he was seven and he learned that the world was more magical, and more dangerous, than he realised. The book contains menacing beings, enchanting visuals and a family of very intruiging women. And also several cats.

It is a powerful story about memories, about childhood, and about how perspectives change between childhood and adulthood. I also think it is about belief: belief in friends, in oneself, and to a certain extent in things that aren’t seen.

It’s taken me as long as it has to write this review because it’s very difficult to come up with new and different ways of saying “it was awesome” for the length that I usually like to write a review. When writing is this good, it’s hard to pick out anything in particular to comment on; it’s hard to think about the writing at all, when it is written so seamlessly that mere words go unnoticed within the magic of the story.

So I suppose that makes a good starting point: the flow and pacing were spot on. There was no part where I felt the writing moved too slowly or too quickly for the content of the story. I finished this book in three sittings, and at the end of each I stopped for reasons which are not the fault the book – sleepiness, dinner being ready, and, okay, yes, the third one is the fault of the book; there was none of it left.

The only occasions I did have enough self-awareness to notice the writing was twice when I noticed how well chosen particular phrases were to give an impression of a visual in a masterful economy of words.

One of those visuals, of a scattering of candle flames and silk, really encapsulated one side of the magic of the world: it is full of enchantment and wonder. It is beautiful and beyond reason, and there is a comfort to its presence. The other side of the magical world mirrored it perfectly, with sinister creatures which felt genuinely creepy and dangerous, even before they actually became dangerous.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane gives also a very good example of how a prologue and epilogue can be used effectively to frame a story, while being both relevant to it and slightly outside it. They brought the story full circle, and gave insight into the characters and the world which could not be told from the perspective of the seven-year-old George.

This is a book I want to read again. It’s definitely going on my favourites shelf (the top shelf, alongside Howl’s Moving Castle). I am not at all surprised that it won the National Books Awards 2013 Book of the Year award. And after everything I have written above, I suspect you will not be surprised when I rate it 10/10.

Worldbuilding: Lessons from the Inca

The BBC has recently started broadcasting a new history series, called The Inca: Masters of the Clouds, presented by archaeologist and British Museum curator Jago Cooper. I enjoyed Jago’s previous series, Lost Kingdoms of South America and Lost Kingdoms of Central America, which looked at lesser-known cultures in one-hour episodes, so I was excited by the arrival of more great TV from him. And that excitement was well deserved, because the first episode was fascinating.

The thing that stuck out for me from the first episode was the bowl terraces. The Incas used circular terraces at this site at Moray, Peru, to create massive bowls of agricultural land with their own microclimates. The thick stone retaining walls absorbed warmth from the sun and radiated it back out at night, preventing the ground from freezing. The terraces were constructed with loose stones at the bottom for good drainage and fertile topsoil on top. And the overall structure, shaped like a bowl, reflected warmth down to the bottom so that while (during Jago’s visit) it was 16°C at the top, it was 23°C at the bottom – meaning that different levels could be used for different crops according to what kind of climate each crop preferred. It’s masterful manipulation of the land.

The terraces at Moray, Peru. Picture source: Wikimedia Commons.
The terraces at Moray, Peru. Picture source: McKay Savage.

(You can read more about these terraces, and see more great photos of the feature, here if you’re interested.)

It made me think more about how we humans use the land to our own advantage. These days there’s a push to preserve the natural order of things for the sake of biodiversity and stable ecosystems, in order to protect the environment and prevent climatic changes which will have a net negative impact in the long run. But past cultures didn’t have much of an idea of how their manipulation of the land could impact the global or even local environment. A lot of cultures, particularly in areas with geography that makes agriculture difficult, used terracing to make the most of available land. Chinese rice terracing is one well-known example. Where land has been arid, people used irrigation, with massive irrigation ditches from hundreds or even thousands of years ago still visible in landscapes today in regions all over the world.

All of this is to create food security. If the same land can produce more crops, and higher quality crops, it can support more people and those people can be healthier, with a surplus created to help those people weather the bad times, the droughts and famines.

So how can I apply this to my stories? Food security, and manipulation of the landscape to increase food production, isn’t really something I’ve considered when worldbuilding. I’ve thought about national boundaries and religions and militaries. I’ve thought about the spread of the neolithic revolution, and of the progression technological ages – the bronze age, the iron age – from where they first developed outwards. I’ve thought about magic, and social structures and forms of government.

This inspiration from the Inca civilisation has been a spur to think more about how the cultures in which I set my stories produce food and ensure that short-term climate change isn’t going to leave them starving. Do they have numerous massive storage barns, like the Incas, to supply their need in times of shortage? How do they make sure that their food production can support an urban population of craftspeople, traders and administrators in addition to the farmers? How do they change the land to increase production – and what impacts do these changes have, on the people working the land, on society overall, and on the local climate?

These are the questions I’ll be thinking about as I continue to develop a particular world I’ve been working on. And as The Incas: Masters of the Clouds series continues, I’ll be looking out for more lessons to learn. If anyone has any good book recommendations, I’m very open to adding them to my A Year for More Reading challenge!

Charting my webcomic journey 1

A while back, I decided it was time I started drawing again. I used to be quite involved in a webcomics community, The Webcomic List forums, and occasionally draw a few pages here and there, one or two for a comic that, because of my own lack of commitment, didn’t get far, and a few for a “webcomic jam” where different members of the forum took it in turns to produce the next page in the story. I was not, at that stage, ready to make a webcomic myself; I tried a few times, but struggled with plotting and general dedication to the drawing side of things.

However, after November’s decision to start drawing again and my return to those forums at the same time, I’ve resumed my interest. And while brainstorming this evening for a story to go along with my Phoenix article, I wondered if I could try my Phoenix story as a webcomic. For my first comic, though, I want to keep it short, so I developed a simple plot in which a young girl witnesses the rebirth of the phoenix, which I’ve based on ancient accounts as I’ve read in my article research, and tries to help the phoenix out by feeding it. It refuses all offers of food (again, in line with what ancient sources say), and grows from a tiny worm thing (yep, ancient sources again) to a full adult phoenix in a couple of days, then flies away. It’s a brief plot, and I think I’ll try making it wordless and just depend on the visuals to tell the story. My outline, which I don’t think is wholly unrealistic, puts it at a managable 14 pages long.

The next step is to get some drawing practice in. I haven’t been drawing quite as much as planned, but now I’ve got some material to go from I can target my efforts: little girls, arabian palm trees, and various types of bird that have been linked to the phoenix as I develop the design for it, as well as various young birds to show the growth of the phoenix between “worm thing” and adult phoenix.

Once I’ve got a good idea of how each element of the story will look, I’ll sketch things out panel by panel, working out how I want each panel to look, camera angles, etc, and develop a page-by-page rough draft. Then i’ll start drawing, then inking, then colouring.

For each stage on the way I’ll post relevant updates so you can see how I’m getting on. It’s gonna be a fun new project.

Delving into myth

One of my New Year’s Resolutions relates to the articles I write for Mythic Scribes. In 2014 I started working on a series called Magical Creatures for Magical Worlds, in which I am looking at mythical creatures that are sometimes used in fantasy fiction. It’s a topic that interests me because it involves delving into the stories of past cultures and finding out how those stories changed over time and were reinterpretted by modern authors and creators. It gives me the opportunity to use things I learned at university – and books I purchased for my degree.

mythic scribes header

The problem is that in 2014, I didn’t really push myself on those articles. I wrote them in a hurry, a few hours in the days before the deadline by which they were meant to be published. What resulted was research which was too shallow – someone even accused me of sounding like a Wikipedia page for the Fairies article. With the Minotaur article I was definitely more in my home territory, because Greek myth is something I have looked at before in the course of my studies, but even that was rushed. And that’s not the approach I want to take.

For this year, I’ve set as a goal that I will research and write one article on a mythical creature per month. I will also use that mythical creature as a prompt to write a short story.

The goal here is to give myself enough time to research properly – one month – and end up with articles which are good quality for publication. Given that the schedule for articles on Mythic Scribes means that each article team member puts out approximately one article per quarter, this will also mean I have some buffer, and if there’s a dud in there, an article I’m not happy with or didn’t have the time, that month, to give proper attention to, then it doesn’t matter. I don’t  have to submit it. I can assign another month to have a second shot at it and submit something else.

I have already made a start, yesterday, on my first article on the Phoenix. I did a little digging and found passages from Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, Ovid, Claudian, Aelian, Pope Clement I and more to start things off. I found a book, a lot of which can be read on Google Books, which has some more information, proper academic research, which I will be looking at next. This is the way I want to approach these articles: by finding primary sources and modern commentaries, reading and comparing them, then building up an article based on what I find.

Phoenix-Fabelwesen

It’s interesting, actually. I mean, obviously it’s interesting, or I wouldn’t be doing it. But I was surprised by what I found out about the Phoenix, even in just a few hours’ research. I’ve been aware of the concept of the Phoenix for a long time, having read different version of it in books ever since I was a child. Fawkes from the Harry Potter books was perhaps the main influence on my image of the Phoenix, and because, hey, it’s a firebird, that’s cool, when I first ventured onto the internet I called myself Phoenix. But I had no idea that in classical mythology there was thought to only be one of it, just one solitary example of the species – which, given the way it rejuvenates, shouldn’t really be a surprise. Several of the accounts I’ve read also mention that it is not known to eat or drink anything in the mortal world. That wasn’t even something I’d thought about before.

So I’m feeling pretty good about this goal for my Magical Creatures series. I’ll learn something interesting, I’ll produce work I can be proud of, and I’ll get some fiction written along the way.

And it doesn’t hurt that it gives me an excuse to delve into my much-thumbed, heavily bookmarked copy of Herodotus some more either.

Reflections on One Corpse Too Many (Cadfael Chronicles) by Ellis Peters

This is not a review. Not wholly. I’ve committed to reading 26 books in 2015, and blogging about them, and while this book wasn’t and isn’t on the list (I started it in 2014, and only read the last tenth or so today) I want to blog about it anyway. This is the second book in the series, which I only started reading relatively recently. It’s a series I’ve been meaning to get to for a while, partly because I’ve seen the adaptations with Derek Jacobi on TV, partly because it is set in a location that’s not too long of a drive from home, and partly out of a desire to branch out more into historical fiction, which I consider a sister or at least a cousin to fantasy, and can inform it.

I found One Corpse Too Many easy to get into, as I had with A Morbid Taste for Bones. What I notice about the prose is a tendency to slightly archaic syntax and sometimes vocabulary too, and occasional telling. The narrative is third person omniscient, usually looking from Cadfael’s point of view and within his thoughts, but with the points of view and internal thoughts of other key characters too. So overall rather at odds with the way I usually write, and yet it remains compelling.

My impression before I picked up these books, based on hazy memories of the TV adaptations, was that these were murder mysteries set in a medieval abbey. And to a certain degree, they are, but these stories take things further than finding out whodunnit. There is an element of everyday drama within them, where Cadfael’s goal isn’t merely to solve the murder, but to solve the other problems of the community of which he is part (or, in A Morbid Taste for Bones, to which he travels) to the satisfaction of all worthy of it. And while, on the back of two books, I have the impression that Cadfael is in some respects too perfect, the conclusions perhaps too neatly arranged at his urging, there is definitely satisfaction in the solutions he contrives.

In my own writing I have worried about endings – and worried rather more about them than I have written of them. I seek to find that balance, where the ending is satisfying, but not too tidy, because life in general isn’t tidy. In these Cadfael books I have read, the ending is eminently tidy, where the key players generally get what they deserve, murder victims excluded, and the younger characters end up in love with the right people. All ends with relatively little grief, except for those who are dead, and no expectation of future drama or imperfection. I think this leans a little too close to tidiness, the loose ends too neatly tied. It leaves it feeling too much like a story. In my own writing, while I certainly enjoyed the satisfaction of how one plotline in particular turned out, I would not imitate this wholly. A satisfyingly tied up plotline at one juncture is uplifting, but in all plotlines feels cheap, sickly sweet perhaps.

More visible here than perhaps in other books, what drives the story is questions to which both Cadfael and I as the reader want answers to. Not just who is the murderer, but several questions about who did what, went where, and why. Questions about how things will turn out, how Cadfael will get his answers, and how the mess of several linked situations will resolve themselves. I don’t tend to think, in my writing, about questions and answers, of mysteries and the revelations of their constituent parts. Maybe there’s a lesson to be drawn in this book about that.

There’s a lesson, too, in one particular character who in the first half of the book is set up to seem one thing, and only revealed, along with his motives, half way through to be quite different from expectations. His motivations were not at all what I expected, but were very human and ordinary. It was a reminder to me that characters don’t necessary have to act based on their ambitions and desires, working towards a personal goal, but can also have goals which are nothing to do with their larger ambitions and long-term hopes, which have an element of selflessness to them, but be no less important to them. I think when I write my characters lack that humanity. I get stuck into this idea of “this is what they want” and don’t leave space for nuance, for different motivations, for goals that have nothing to do with one another while being worked towards simultaneously.

I’ll definitely continue reading the Cadfael series; I’m enjoying the prose and the mystery of them. And in my writing going forward, there’s a little more for me to think about.