Category Archives: Fantasy discussion

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 -
“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.

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!

Character Study: Zuko

I’ve started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender again. It’s one of my favourite TV series of all time. I think this is watch through number six. I have long thought that Zuko’s arc through the three seasons of the show is one of the best arcs ever written, and one of the (many) things that makes the series so great.

If you’ve not seen the series, I heartily recommend it. This article is of course going to contain huge spoilers, so if you don’t want the series spoiled, stop reading now.


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Interview with Jonathon Dalton, creator of A Mad Tea-Party and Lords of Death and Life

While my writing focus has mostly been in prose, it’s important to remember that there are a lot of different media by which to tell a story beyond the novel and short story formats – movies, TV serials, plays, radioplays, and comics. Today I’m interviewing a webcomic creator Jonathon Dalton about his latest project, writing for the comic format and running a Kickstarter campaign.

a mad tea partyHailing from the vicinity of Vancouver, Canada, Jonathon splits his time between making comics and teaching primary school. He has been posting comics on the internet since 2002. His first graphic novel, Lords of Death and Life (which I loved and highly recommend), was printed in 2010 with the help of a Xeric grant. He is the vice president of Cloudscape Comics, the British Columbia comics society, and has been working on his recently completed project, A Mad Tea-Party, for over nine years.

So what does Jonathon have to say?

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Why you shouldn’t bother writing a prologue

The prologue debate is one that sticks its head above the parapet in writing circles every now and again, and since I’ve come across that debate again recently, I thought I’d take the time to sketch out my thoughts on them.

If you’re a new writer, just don’t bother with a prologue.

Don’t get me wrong, prologues done well can work, but the vast majority I’ve read don’t. And even when they work by themselves, within the context of the rest of the novel they often mess something or other up. Some people don’t even read prologues – assuming that they’re either irrelevant, info dumping, or just plain badly written.

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Using worldbuilding to make space for diversity in fantasy

The topic of diversity in sci-fi and fantasy has been making the rounds recently. They are genres dominated by white casts with maybe token non-white characters – and these usually male. It’s hardly inclusive. And that’s a problem.

Fantasy is a genre where anything can be possible. It’s a medium by which messages, challenges and debates that would otherwise cut too close to the bone can be addressed. So why do so many people claim that having a character with black or brown skin would be tokenism or unrealistic? Excluding groups of people from your cast on the basis of “realism” in a genre that is defined by its being set in a world that is not our own is just stupid.

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A cash cow is a “Fantastic Beast”, right?

It’s been reported recently that JK Rowling is to write a screenplay called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, based in the Harry Potter universe around the young wizard’s text book of the same name, and, presumably, the fictional text book author’s adventures in researching for it. You can read the book if you want – along with Quiddich Through the Ages, JK Rowling write it as a mini companion to raise money for charity Comic Relief.


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Some cool fantasy themed videos from the Internet

There’s some really cool fantasy-themed things people have done amazing things with and uploaded to Youtube, so since I’ve not been hugely active in the last few weeks – thanks to a week in France and some long days at work recently – I thought I’d post a few to fill the gap until I can get some other content together. So, in no particular order, here are a few of my favourites:

Skyrim – Lindsey Stirling and Peter Hollens

Lindsey Stirling has some great fantasy-themed videos with beautifully-played music, cool costumes and breathtaking landscapes – not to mention some energetic poses – but I think this one if my favourite because there’s a bit of a story to it, the costumes are just way awesome, and I just generally love the Skyrim theme music.

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Inspiration, Archaeology and the One Ring

It has recently been reported that a Roman ring, suggested by some to have inspired Tolkien when he was writing The Hobbit, has been put on display at The Vyne, a Tudor house in Hampshire, in association with the Tolkien Society.

I have some reservations about this story, both from the perspective of a writer and as the holder of a degree in Ancient History and Archaeology.

The media reporting this story, as well as the people at the Vyne and in the Tolkien Society, display a lack of understanding of how inspiration works for a writer. In fairness, I can’t speak for other writers, but I find inspiration is never about one thing. Inspiration comes from a thousand sources, and the way I link my experiences to one another.

The Roman Ring on display at the VynePhoto source: National Trust
The Roman Ring on display at the Vyne
Photo source: National Trust

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What’s with all the kings and queens in fantasy?

Royalty are more a staple of fantasy stories than dragons, elves and possibly even magic. Royalty appears in some form or another in almost every fantasy franchise set on another world: Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Elantris, Discworld, the Farseer Trilogy, Prince of Thorns. It’s all got royalty in there somewhere. There’s even a king in Howl’s Moving Castle, though his appearance is brief and his impact on the plot minimal.

In a world dominated by politicians, councils, parliaments, senates and so on, a world of democracies and republics, a world where monarchs are figureheads only in the Western world – and the Western world is suspicious of those royalty who are more than figureheads – why is royalty so popular amongst writers and readers of fantasy?

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