Monday, December 23, 2013

A Sprinkling of Faith: Seasoning the Fantasy Genre with Religion

(This is a guest post I did for Melissa F. Olson on December 10. You can see the original posting here.)

What place does religion have in fantasy novels?

I’ve noticed that many young adult urban or paranormal fantasy novels exclude religion for the most part; it’s easier for the protagonist to accept magic if God doesn’t play a part in it. For example, you hardly see Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen turning toward an established religion for help in solving their problems. Likewise, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone has seraphim characters, but no connection between them and a Creator. And honestly, I can’t blame them. After all, if I were the protagonist in a book about the sparkling undead, the entire novel would be focused on my internal struggle as I try to level that idea with my Christian beliefs, not on me falling in love with a friendly vampire who looks like a Greek god. It completely changes the story.

Despite this, religion can play a significant role in fantasy, especially in stories that take place in new worlds (i.e. epic/high fantasy). Religion can be found in some shape or form in all cultures—in fact, in many cultures past and present, spiritual beliefs come first (this can be seen among the Shi’a and many Native American tribes). Religion plays a monumental role in setting, even for those who don’t practice a specific faith.

A great example of religion in fantasy is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Alloy of Law, which has four separate religions that all formed based on characters and events from the original Mistborn series. Not only do these religions (all fictional, in this case) play a major role in Sanderson’s characters’ lives, but we as readers actually get to see how the belief systems came to fruition.

Religion is also used to explain natural phenomena, such as the ancient Egyptians’ belief in the sun’s death and rebirth to explain sunset and sunrise. Jennifer Fallon uses such a strategy in her novel Lion of Senet. In this book, Fallon’s world never sees darkness, as it has two suns—a brighter one that shines at “day” and a fainter one that shines at “night.” A certain religious sect claims this is the work of a goddess, and works to appease her through human sacrifice and sacred orgies. Fallon also plays the science card in the novel, which makes it that much more interesting.

The balance between the religious and the non-religious in fantasy is a tricky one; for me, it mostly depends on the story I want to tell. I will always include religion in an epic fantasy, even if only in the background, as it helps mold the world I want to create. All cultures have a creation story of some sort, a myth that explains where mankind came from, pre-Darwin.

For non-epic fantasies, I use religion where and when I deem it will help my story. For example, in my novel The Paper Magician (47North, 2014), I use Anglican Christianity as a means of character development for my main male lead: he’s someone who wants to believe in something, but doesn’t know what. His questioning spiritual beliefs reflects back on my protagonist who, living in 1902 London, has Christian roots, albeit a more universal view of God.

Even in an atheist setting, establishing that there is a prominent lack of religion (and how that came to be) can go a long way in world- and character-building. All people, fictional or not, believe in something, even if it’s just the number 42. (Imagine what Star Wars would be like without the Force!) Religion, if nothing else, is a psychological tool for explaining the unexplainable.

Pi Patel: “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

Mr. Okamoto: “That's an interesting question?'

Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”

Mr. Okamoto: “Yes. The story with animals is the better story.”

Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.” –Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Does religion have a place in fantasy? Where have you seen religion work well in the genre, or fall completely flat?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Worldbuilding for Speculative Fiction

(This post is a revamp of a guest post I did for author Michelle C. Eging in March 2012. You can read the original post here.)

Many stories, especially those under the umbrella of "speculative fiction," must have a clear setting before they can bloom. Revered science fiction author Orson Scott Card says in his book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, that he first starts with the world itself. Why? Because characters grow from setting, and story grows from characters. The setting, at least for Card's stories, is the seed for a novel:

“I didn’t have even the seed of a good . . . story until after I had a clear idea of the world in which the story would take place” (p 27-28).

Setting affects all aspects of the story: how people live, what they eat, what they wear, and how they get from place to place. Take any popular book, change its setting, and you change the story. (Twilight, for example, would have been very different if written in the Bahamas. There would have been a lot more hiding, a lot more secretiveness, and a lot more sunburn.)

Many writers don’t just create a new town (such as Clayton in Dan Wells’s John Cleaver series), they create whole worlds, whole planets. Everything from where these planets are located in their solar systems to how close the protagonist’s country is to the equator affects the story. What minerals and materials are to be had? Those determine the kind of house the protagonist lives in, the tools he can make. If the country is flat, he'll have to worry about tornadoes. Mountainous? Earthquakes. You get the idea.

I had the pleasure of talking to Isaac Stewart (mapmaker for Brandon Sanderson and others) at LTUE 2012. I took notes on everything he said and compiled them here (to inflict on others, of course). Feel free to check it out—he said some interesting stuff.

But setting is more than just jagged coastlines and a volcano or two. What readers want to know is, What makes your world different from ours? Why should anyone care about the world you’ve created?

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from Brandon Sanderson’s creative writing class at BYU, when he told me to think of my setting as a character. What makes it an individual, and what are its quirks? What are its points of conflict? When I think of my world as a person, I start to care about it a lot more, and if I care about it, I can assume readers will, too.

That being said, there’s also the cultural side of worldbuilding. The cultural side is just as important, if not more important, than the physical setting. For example, when I think of ancient Japan, it’s the culture—the samurai, the geisha—that spring to mind long before I consider Mount Fuji and vast oceans. If the earth beneath the characters’ feet is different from our own, their society likely will be, too.

But be warned—the more imagination you put into your world, the slower the pace of the story. The higher the risk for info dumps (which should be avoided at all costs). And, though you may know every last grain of sand in your world, the reader doesn’t always need to. (I imagine Tolkien had a lot more to say about Middle Earth than what he laid out in The Lord of the Rings.)

In the end, remember that a good setting can make you shine. Geography, race, government, social roles, economics, religion, and technology all make the pieces of the next great novel. The only question left is, what will yours be?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Pain Lexicon: Using Physical and Emotional Descriptors in “Painful” Passages

Today I’m partaking in a mini blog series with Juliana L. Brandt and Lauren Spieller—writing pain in fiction. Together we've created the Pain Lexicon, which provides a sort of thesaurus for strong words to denote pain. (Because sometimes “that hurts” and “this was painful” just don’t cut it.)

It’s crucial to give painful moments in a book, whether physically or emotionally charged, solid descriptions to relay them to readers. While we certainly don’t want readers’ eyes to start bleeding as they peruse a story, we do want readers to feel something. We’ve all read those books that make us hurt inside, and it’s those books that we dedicate our time and devotion to.

When it comes to pain, I really want to get the sensations across—I want to describe exactly what it feels like internally and externally, and I want to hit familiar cues with the reader. If they’ve felt similar pain, I want them to think Yes, I remember that. If they haven’t, I want them to think they have. At the same time, I want to steer clear of clichés.

Let’s start with physical pain; I’ll make the physical the main focus of my “scene.” People are always being stabbed in books, right? Let’s make that the starting point:

He took the steak knife and stabbed me in the shoulder.

Ouch. Those are serrated, too.

Now, using the Pain Lexicon as a help-meet, I’m going to add some detail:

He took the rusty steak knife and jammed it into my shoulder, digging into the chapped, cracking skin of my burn.

Now I’ll extend the scene a little and drive to up the “pain stakes,” again leaning on the Pain Lexicon for support:

Paul slammed into me from the side. My feet skidded over the wet tiles and we crashed into the table and fell into a tangled heap on the floor. He took the rusty steak knife and jammed it into my shoulder, digging into the chapped, cracking skin of my burn. The thin blade bent back and forth in my muscle, ripping and clawing as he yanked it free. I screamed, feeling tendons tear like the wet cords binding a roast. My own blood bit me like acid, but I couldn’t wrench myself free.

Finally, though this is a passage describing physical pain, I want to throw in some emotional pain too, since pain is never entirely one-sided. Since this isn’t attached to any existing story, I can just make it up:

Paul stepped into the light, revealing himself. I had only a moment to register his face before he slammed into me from the side. My feet skid over the wet tiles and we crashed into the table, falling into a tangled heap on the floor.


Air wheezed from my lungs. My head banged against the table leg. The jolt gave me a moment of clarity.

Not Paul. Anyone but Paul.

The first tear didn’t have a chance to slip over the corner of my eye. He hefted the rusty steak knife and jammed it into my shoulder, digging into the chapped, cracking skin of my burn. The thin blade bent back and forth in my muscle, ripping and clawing as he yanked it free. I screamed, feeling tendons tear like the wet cords binding a roast. The tip of that blade pierced my very center, a venomous tongue licking away the final grains of hope residing there.

My own blood bit me like acid, but I couldn’t wrench myself free. Though he held the bloody blade over me, I couldn’t connect his hand to the handle. My disjointed thoughts throbbed in time with my shoulder.

Paul. I had no one left.

Regardless of the pain emphasis, both pains should be present. A man fighting for his life should feel something emotional—desperation, hatred, fear. A woman nursing a broken heart will feel something physical—pressure, soreness, rawness. Emphasizing both in a pain-filled scene will help readers emphasize with the characters and their situation, and help the moment come alive.

A few other tips:
  1. Find someone who has had a similar injury to what you’re trying to write and interview them (I did this once when my protagonist broke his collar bone).
  2. Jot down what thoughts might go through the character’s head when he is in pain. You don’t have to voice all of them in text, but it will give you a good vantage point to what he’s experiencing.
  3. Don’t forget pain. If you’re character gets beaten up in chapter three, she’ll still be feeling it in chapter four. You don’t have to dwell on it, but most pain worth writing about is not fleeting.
  4. Feel free to throw in metaphors. Sometimes the best way to relate a sensation is through comparison.
I also recommend checking out The Emotion Thesaurus—it’s a great reference book for emotional pain.

For more on the Pain Lexicon, check out Juliana's Show vs. Tell: The Pain Lexicon and Lauren's post The Pain Lexicon: Let's Make It Hurt.

What tactics do you use to describe pain? What books or passages have you read that conveyed pain from page to person?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What Place Does Religion Have in Fantasy?

Today I'm guest-posting over at Melissa F. Olson's blog as part of a "Faith and Fantasy" blog series. Please stop by if you have the chance!


Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Writing Process Blog Tour

G’day mates.

Today I am taking yet another opportunity to talk about myself by participating in The Writing Process Blog Tour, where I answer a handful of questions about my writerly ways and then force three other authors to do the same. Splendid.

The torch has been passed to be courtesy of Steve McHugh, author of ALL THESE BOOKS.

So. Onto it.

1. What am I working on?

Not being lazy.

But seriously. I’m working on working harder. Putting more effort into what’s on my plate. The current entrée is THE MATERIALS MAGICIAN, the third book in my unnamed series that I can’t call The Magicians because that’s super taken already. My deadline for this book is a ways away, which may contribute to said laziness, but I would like to get the first draft out before I birth my spawn.

On the side, I’m planning stories. Not sure what will suit my fancy once TMM is off the RADAR.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

Hmm… good question. It sits in that still semi-awkward New Adult/YA-crossover genre. I like to think TMM, along with its predecessors, are a tad on the quirky side, sort of Howl’s Moving Castle-esque, albeit with a historical flare. That, and one of my side characters is a paper dog. That counts as different, right?

3. Why do I write what I do?

I’ve dabbled in many different forms of fantasy—epic, romantic, YA—but I always write fantasy because for me, writing is about going outside the walls of our world. While I like to read a contemporary or historical every now and then, I want to delve into stories that can’t happen on our earth. Stories that don’t appear on the news. My brain likes to linger among the incredible, and when I can’t find exactly what I want in a book, I must create it myself!

4. How does your writing process work?

Well, it starts with an idea.


I get an idea, usually involving a magic system or a specific character (for TMM, it was the magic system; I liked the idea of working spells via origami). I let the idea sprout in my brain and write down notes of how such and such would work, or what the bigger plot line would be. Frequently I store these ideas away, but if an idea is gripping enough, it gets pushed to the front of the line.

Then I outline. I’m a big outliner, and I keep notebooks on hand so I can jot down any plot idea or character or whatever that comes to my mind, because I hate the idea of forgetting it. Lately I start my outlines by storyboarding them Save the Cat style, AKA on my wall with post-it notes.

Then I write. Nothing too secretive or fancy going on here. I take a chunk of my outline and paste it into a Word doc, then reference it as I create each chapter. I’m usually pretty boss at drafting if I’m excited about the idea.

When I’m done, I fork the raw meat over to my alpha readers, other writers who will read it and tell me all the BIG problems. I take a break while this happens, and once I get all the feedback, I make another draft, which goes to my beta readers, or non-writers who will read the book and help me with smaller things, including grammar.

Then I proofread the thing myself and throw it at my agent. Or something. Very business-like, I’ll have you know.


Oh look, I'm done talking about myself.

SO. The tour goes on, hereby carried in the hands of the wonderful Ranee S. Clark, the astounding Juliana L. Brandt, and the fascinating Cat M. Scully. :)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Guest Post by Michael "Tinker" Pearce: Building a Fantasy World

Let’s talk about building a fantasy world, and let’s begin by admitting that I am nobody’s idea of an expert. My wife and I have created exactly one "world" between us, and the only things set there thus far are a single novel, a novella and a short story.  Our resume is NOT epic, so I can only speak to this subject from our own limited experience.

I make Medieval European-style swords, and when I started I was determined to do it right, so I studied Medieval swords to see not merely what they looked like, but why they looked that way. I discovered lots of things influenced their designs: the armor that they had to defeat, the metallurgical technology and Guild structure of the industry that produced them, on and on. The deeper I went down the rabbit-hole the more influences and connections I found.  In the end I realized that I couldn’t study Medieval swords without studying the Medieval period.  This principle carried over into creating the world of “Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman.”

Building a fantasy world is a lot like coding—there are a lot of “If X then Y” propositions. Let’s take on aspect of a fantasy world and look at how it affects everything else. I actually started building the world of our novel with the idea of Dwarven riflemen in a medieval fantasy setting.  The problem with guns in fantasy is that if one group had them, sooner rather than later everyone would have them.  Guns are not particularly complicated or hard to figure out once you have the concept; then everyone starts in improving them, and pretty soon you don’t have a medieval fantasy anymore.  So how do you prevent this proliferation?  The obvious answer was, “It’s a fantasy— use magic!” The simplest and most obvious way to employ magic is the ability to prevent gunpowder from detonating… or detonate it prematurely. 

This raises the question of how the dwarves prevent this, and my studies had led me down some pretty obscure paths, so I knew the answer: They use air-rifles of a type that uses a very particular technology. The guns are simple, but the technology to recreate them is very, very difficult.  But every answer brings up new questions, like why hasn’t some enterprising dwarf sold the tech for profit?  What part of their culture makes the dwarves so paranoid that they will employ the measures needed to keep the secret, and what history formed that culture?  More questions then—where did dwarves come from?  How did they get from there to where they are today? How does this affect the way they deal with other races? With each other?  Every question spawns more questions until you have a pretty complete picture of your world.

When I am selling a sword, if I told the customer every single detail of how and why it is the way it is and all the processes and research used to design it, their eyes would roll up in their head and they’d fall over before they could complete their purchase.  Similarly, if I gave out every single detail of everything that I’d figured out about the world of “Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman,” it would make for a very long and tedious book.  I know, because Linda made me cut a lot of that stuff out. Yes, I pouted, but she is wiser than I. “Does it advance the story?” “Do we really need to know this?” I heard a lot of that when I over-geeked.

Why does all this matter?  We may be fledgling writers but we are lifelong readers, and as such we know the importance of not breaking immersion in the story. Its easier to keep our attention if there are no jarring inconsistencies, nothing to break us out of the story and say, "Huh?"  The more logical and consistent the rules the easier it is to get out heads into that world. 

Our goal with "Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman" was to tell an entertaining story that people would enjoy reading.  But we also wanted to set that story in a world that seemed real and larger than the story. We felt the way to do that was to understand our world and to make it seem real to us.  We think—we hope—that we succeeded.  


Michael "Tinker" Pearce
Michael “Tinker” Pearce lives in Seattle with his wife and co-author Linda. In 1992 he settled down to become a sword maker, specializing in the blades of medieval Europe and the Viking Era. He is the author of “The Medieval Sword in the Modern World,” and the designer of the CAS Iberia Tinker Line of medieval swords and trainers. He is a trained theatrical fighter and choreographer, and a student of Historic European Martial Arts. He co-authored the Foreworld novella “The Shield Maiden” and the couple released their first novel “Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman” in early 2013. They released a sequel novella, “Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman: Rear Guard” in September 2013. Their second Foreworld Novella “Tyr’s Hammer” was published in October 2013.

Linda Pearce
The couple is currently working on their second novel, “Rage of Angels,” a hard-science military science-fiction story. They hope to complete this book by the end of the year. Future projects include the full-length sequel to “Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman,” “Lord of the North” is in the works for 2014 as is the Contemporary Fantasy "The Gray Man’s Journal.”