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Sunday, 29 September 2013

Welcome To My World (Part I)

World building is a really important part of story construction. So - how d'you do it? 

In the next few blog posts, I'll be looking at this question from a few different perspectives. I have TWO - yes, people, TWO - published authors guest blogging about their personal experiences of constructing worlds, starting with Laura Perry next week, talking about her new book, JAGUAR SKY

Perry is a non-fiction author, but JAGUAR SKY is fictional novel set in Belize. Perry will be discussing how to world-build in real life, and the research involved in using a contemporary setting. 

Later, Ken Magee, author of DARK TIDINGS, where magic meets the internet, will be talking about building fantasy worlds that merge with the modern day. 

         I've got a mix of worlds in my stories. The world of the Faustine Chronicles is high fantasy, but uses a mix of cultures and mythologies to create the setting and shape the characters. 


"Cantium" is, of course, the Roman name for Kent, England. It was originally called the kingdoms of Cantium, and I fell in love with the name. I quickly realised, as I sculpted the world of Cantium and its capital, Brising, that I wanted it to be a mixture of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. It's a fusion of the two, and I drew upon my own experiences of Athens and Rome (mainly Athens!) to create the atmosphere of the city. 

The problem is, when you start borrowing from cultures and their mythos, you are also limiting yourself by establishing parameters of behaviour, social convention and mentalities, all of which are shaped by environment, political systems, history and the evolution of that culture. When you start saying, "They believe this," and "they have this attitude towards that", you have to then create a reason for this to have happened. The reader doesn't need to know why, but you do. That's the only way to keep things consistent. 

Cantium has temples, villas, a caste system based on hair colour (I don't know why I decided this) and the people think that they are superior to most other nations because they used to have an Empire. That allows them to live in denial about the current state of their economy, which is pretty poor. Because of the way their proud history is presented, they still think they are more or less untouchable. This is not true. Having a king who is somewhat in denial and not of very sound mind does not help, either. 

For example, the crux of the novel is the raid on Brising where Elsa, the main character, is taken as a slave. 

How were the warships able to enter the harbour?
Why did this not provoke a war between Cantium and Jamtland?

The answer to this is that Cantium has a joke of a navy, and its army is terrible. They used to be a formidable power, but they are now very weak. That is going to have a knock-on effect on the economy. So therefore, my main character is (a) dirt poor and (b) works her butt off. It also means that she can be taken in the raid, and no one really cares very much. 

How can the Jamtish be sure of Cantium's financial state?

They must have sent someone to find out. Presumably an ambassador, and they must also have a spy network. This means that the political systems and processes of international diplomacy are taking shape. The reader doesn't need to know this, either. But you do - even if it's just a throwaway line to set the scene for the reader. 

          I have a whole intricate political system and web of factions and alliances figured out for both courts, but the reader will never ever need to know any of it. But it all started with the above three questions, and my very brief brainstorms and sketching out of ideas. 

However, for some unknown reason, traces of Dickensian London crept into Brising, and I ended up with a place with Pratchett-esque universities that had started to gradually admit women, and I'm still not even sure if that works or not. Even in fantasy, there's only so much messing about you can do with cultures and societies and keep it believable


Jamtland is the name of a real place - it's a Swedish region. The Jamtish, of course, are almost completely based on Viking and Goth culture. One of my huge problems with modern fantasy set in these sorts of cultures is that the status of women in these societies tend to be confused with "equality" in a Twenty-First Century sense, which is also applied to gender and sexuality, race, and all sorts of inappropriate things. I started reading a book about werewolves set in a Viking world, where the warleader of a raiding band reflected on the pain of childbirth and thought how much stronger women were than men. 

I stopped reading.

That's not the story I'm interested in telling. Very few people in fantasy, except for the obvious exception of George R R Martin, and even then I've heard people (genuinely) call his books "the sanitised version" of a Medieval setting - give a voice to the ones who, throughout history, faded from memory because they just got on with it, and played the hand they were dealt. 

There were (and are) millions of people in the world without voices, all with their own individual hopes and dreams and feelings and traumas and joys and experiences, some forced into situations, some accepting them, and most of them just getting the hell on with it. These include countless women and young girls, never feeling anything for their spouse other than revulsion, popping out legitimate children for a whole plethora of reasons. 

In my actual work I study Thirteenth Century gentry families, and I do wonder about some of the wives and daughters my research covers. I'm not actually writing about any of them other than their strategical benefits and how advantageous their dowries were to their in-laws. But I do wonder, when I find them a little later on married to someone else with a teenage son by their first (now dead) husband, whether anyone even cared what they thought about it, or whether they were attracted to their husbands (or even to men at all) and the fact that we will never actually know anything about them. They left no personal records, and government records do not show you much, other than what gifts or grants they received, or where they travelled, or which part of the country they lived in. 

I'm not a gender historian, for the simple fact that I really don't care about the "plight" of Medieval women, to be honest. But I do know some really good historians who do, and who have produced some excellent studies. However, I'm very interested in fictionalising the voices who will never be heard, and see what happens when they get onto a page. 

The problem is, as distasteful and horrific as that is to modern-day sensibilities, if you've chosen to write about a culture that acts in a certain way, then you have to be prepared to tackle its mentalities, too. If you're going to develop your fantasy society and get it moving along the path to something better and more enlightened, it's going to take a hell of a lot more than a freedom fighter armed with some impressive rhetoric. 

Remember your political systems? 

Just because the good guy with the sword kills the bad guy with a sword doesn't mean a damn thing. 

The good hero is walking into a maze of courtly factions, heirs to the throne with their own agendas, and various skilled politicians and master-manipulators who have stayed afloat throughout the regime by being excellent middle-men. It really doesn't matter how bad the antagonist is... look at the parameters you have created by establishing the society. Now look at a comparable situation in any given time period. Why? Because people are people, and fiction has to make sense. Real life hardly ever does, but readers won't buy into the randomness of life if it's written down as a novel. So, take a look at how people really react in certain situations, and how events really happened following big, dramatic events! Then make sure it follows the rules of cause and effect, and give it some kind of narrative that ties into your story. 

You may find that the only logical option is for the hero to cut his losses and change sides, or to be executed as a traitor, or to be exiled, or to become a Machiavellian figure with finely-honed survival skills s/he would have balked at using at the start of the story. This is a case of the environment that you have constructed shaping the character and having a hand in the story's outcome. 

That's why all my characters evolved so dramatically from one version of my story to another. It's also why I realised very quickly when writing the very first draft of the plot that killing the antagonist would not make any difference. It couldn't be your standard classic sword-and-sorcery where the good guy gets rid of the bad guy and everyone cheers. Fortunately, most fantasies have moved away from the cut-and-dried endings and are playing about with consequences. It's the consequences that make things interesting. 

           On the other hand, if the characters and story arc has come first, then your world has to take shape within those  parameters, and not the other way around... As you edit and revise your story, however, they will start to inform each other. 

Jamtland became Jamtland purely because I based Kristof on Vlad the Impaler, the real life Wallachian (not Transylvanian!!) prince. This meant that it had to be a little like Romania, and I wanted him to berserk in battle, which led me to a Viking warrior culture. However, the Impaler's psychology had to develop too, and I needed a lot of strong environmental factors to help shape that. Of course, if these factors shaped Kristof, they had to have had a similar effect on others, too. So what about the other characters who were native to this country? What about their experiences? How and why did they turn out differently to Kristof, and to what extent is that nature or nurture? 

... The hardest thing I ever had to write was Kristof's back story. I tried to cut it. I tried to turn him into the Impaler a different way. It didn't work. Kristof, like Vlad, has an obsession with that particular form of execution because of what happened to him as a child. And that meant that I had to borrow the "bad bits" of the cultures I was stealing from, as well as the "cool" bits. And that had a knock-on effect that impacted all the other characters, too, because they had either (in the case of Hardrada/Oléta) had a hand in creating that society and perpetuating that culture, or had been immersed in it since birth. 

I guess that's one of the keys to world building, though. 

You have to be brave and follow through, or be prepared to change everything because of the addition/omission of small details. 

You have to put a lot of effort into the research, and then do something original and creative with what you find. 

You have to keep in mind cause and effect at all times, and try to create a realistic sense of the society WITHOUT succumbing to the dreaded info-dump. I fail with this all the time. :(

I'm looking forward to Laura and Ken's posts in the next few weeks, to see what the pros make of this topic! 

Excited? Yeah you are. ;)

I'm going to leave you on that note, with a bit more of possibly the best Viking Metal band ever. 

**Amon Amarth**

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Show Time!

Well, the time has come to look at the world-building aspect of story construction. Without a world - even a modern setting and fictionalising of a real place - your story cannot be constructed at all. Just as your story requires a plot, and the plot requires three-dimensional characters, the story will not stand unless you have a sense of where they are.

And this brings us to a major problem for a lot of authors.

The Info-Dump

The info-dump is a trap all authors will fall into at some stage of the process. You have so much information on your characters, your world and your concepts that you feel the need to tell the reader everything, all at once. 

Does this only apply to Fantasy authors who fancy themselves as the next Tolkein, itemizing every race, creed, species and geographical inch for the first fifteen pages without ever getting to the action?

What about SciFi/Dystopian authors who feel the need to explain every formula, every equation, and every way in which their post-apocalyptic setting is different to now without even telling us their protagonist's name?

And don't think the rest of you can get away with describing your characters in minute detail over the course of several paragraphs, ripping us out of the story to 'tell' not 'show'... And no, we don't care what colour the curtains are, or how many grey feathers are in the wing of the African parrot climbing his way up the outside of the large, plastic birdcage in the corner that Great-Aunt Josie bought for her sister for her fiftieth birthday. 

Yeah, you know what I mean...

Show Time!

So - here to talk about Showing not (always) Telling is Maya Starling, a writer who is dedicated to improving her craft. Maya is relatively new to writing, and English is not even her first language, but her talents have been recognised by the online community of wattpad. She was peer-voted the winner of the Non-Teen Fiction 'On the Rise' category in the 2012 Watty Awards, and her Dragon series has quite rightly attracted a number of fans. 

Dragon's Treasure (Book 1)Dragon's Prize (Book 2; Sequel to Dragon's Treasure)

Dragon's Treasure is the first novel and Dragon's Prize is the sequel; Dragon's Queen and Dragon's Quest are the third and fourth in the series, and coming soon.

Show, Don't (Only) Tell

Maya Starling

When I first started writing, I knew nothing about it. Since I write in a language that is not my native, and since I come from a very small country, creative writing classes were not something at my disposal, whether in English or my native language. I did read a lot, and at that point, it was a best way to learn for me. But not all the minutiae of writing can be grasped when you get pulled into the story and distracted by the characters. I barely knew how to properly paragraph my story, but I had to start somewhere.

So start I did. The first story I wrote was Dragon’s Treasure, I guess I did well since it won Watty Awards 2012, but now, when I look back, I see so many things that need to be fixed. I learned that the best way to learn how to write is to actually do the writing, to just practice and explore.

Once I started writing, I also started researching writing terms, styles, formats, rules, etc. But the biggest thing I learned was the ever famous Show, Don’t Tell, one of the most important rules to follow when writing. It also seems to be the most difficult thing to grasp for beginner writers, and for me it changed my whole out view on writing. 

What Does 'Show, Don't Tell' Mean?

The Definition

Show, don't Tell is a technique often employed by writers to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to experience the author's ideas by interpreting significant, well-chosen details in the text. (Wikipedia: Show, Don’t Tell – 12.08.2013)


The Why:
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” — Ernest Hemingway

The Balance:
"Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted." —James Scott Bell

The Warning:
“Needless to say, many great novelists combine "dramatic" showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out ... when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language." — Francine Prose

But, What Does It Really Mean?

Before explaining what the term means and demonstrating its use in writing, the distinction between Show and Tell needs to be made first.

Telling means stating the facts using simple exposition: Lilith was furious.

Showing means using engaging and evocative description: “He pushed me out!” Lilith screamed as she grabbed hold of the basin filled with water she had been using for her scrying. She closed her eyes, and inhaled through clenched teeth before flinging the bowl across the room.

Why is Showing better? Well, as you can see, it helps us envision the scene, and it plays out in our minds as if were watching it happen before our eyes, giving it a cinematic quality.

Showing forces the reader to become involved in the story, it allows them to see, feel, hear and experience what the character is experiencing. Of course, a proper balance between Showing and Telling needs to be implemented, which will, in the end, make the writing richer and more effective.

You need to be careful not to overdo the Showing though. When the goal is simply to inform, not to persuade or engage Telling does the job quite well.

Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress. A story that is filled with detailed descriptions could become tiresome, so just as you mix long sentences with short sentences to create variety and keep your readers interested, it’s often wise to mix sections that show with sections that tell to keep your story moving.

For example, if the weather is secondary information to the story, it’s okay to say “It was snowing.” But if you use it to set the mood or it will influence your characters and plot, and you want to give it more attention, then you might want to show it.

How To Do It

1. Use dialogue

Dialogue allows the reader to experience a scene as if they were there. Instead of telling the reader that a character is angry and annoyed, or describing it, let the reader hear it for themselves.

“Delilah, you’re daydreaming again!” Lilith snapped at her daughter.

As you can see, dialogue shows the reader a lot about the character, emotion and mood.

2. Use sensory language

In order to help the reader fully immerse themselves into your story, they need to not only see, but taste, smell, and touch the world around them.

Close your eyes and enter your scene.

What sounds do you hear? What smells are in the air? Is it hot or cold?  Can you feel the sun on your face or the grass beneath your feet? What expression does the character have on his/her face?

Adding such specifics will transport the reader to the scene you have envisioned in your mind. 

3. Be descriptive

Remember the earlier example of describing an angry character:

“He pushed me out!” Lilith screamed as she grabbed hold of the basin filled with water she had been using for her scrying. She closed her eyes, and inhaled through clenched teeth before flinging the bowl across the room.

Being descriptive takes us back to the elementary use of adjective and adverbs (no, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs, unless you’re a weak writer and don’t know how to use them, but that’s a whole new topic for discussion). Describing is more than just inserting descriptive words though; it’s about choosing the right words and using them the right way, and you don’t have to use only literal descriptions, because metaphors and similes can show your ideas as well.  Also, be specific and not vague, especially when describing how your character feels.

Here’s an example of using descriptions by Mignon Fogarty:

“Mr. Bobweave was a fat, ungrateful old man.”

That gets the information across, but it’s boring. It simply tells the reader the basics about Mr. Bobweave.
Here’s a way to create an image of Mr. Bobweave in the reader’s mind:

“Mr. Bobweave heaved himself out of the chair. As his feet spread under his apple-like frame and his arthritic knees popped and cracked in objection, he pounded the floor with his cane while cursing that dreadful girl who was late again with his coffee.”

Umm, I Guess I Get It

If you’re still not sure how to distinguish whether you’re Telling instead of Showing, you can spot Telling by looking for simple declarative sentences which often have the verb “is/was”, and Showing is using behavior (action, speech, thoughts) to illustrate what the character is feeling/doing.

Telling is dispensing information.

Showing is evoking experience.


In the end, you don’t want to report to the reader what is going on, but you want them to experience the story’s reality, and that’s what Show, Don’t Tell is all about.

Go and check out Maya's work! You can read drafts of her novels and short stories for free on wattpad, follow Maya on twitter @MayaStarling, follow her on facebook and tumblr, or check out her web and blog,!

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Happy Days Are Here Again


Hello again from the flipside of the August holidays! I've been away for a bit, and things are hotting up work-wise and such, so lots to be done! 

Right... now where were we? 

... Oh, yes. Writing, and such. 

Well, so far we've looked story construction and character development, and been treated to a whole host of guests from different genres and backgrounds. 

I've got LOADS more lined up for you, but first I thought I'd give a bit of an insight into what I've been up to lately!

Current Projects

1) First on the list is my ongoing editing of BOOK OF FATE. It's going to be a very different final draft to the version that some of you have beta-read for me! I'd like to thank all my readers for hanging in there, and I hope that the finished version will be something you would like to buy!

It will probably have a different title - BOOK OF FATE is a very common name, and I don't want mine to keep getting confused with The Elder Scrolls V (Skyrim), or Napoleon's Book of Fate oracle... or the book of the same name available on Amazon by Parinoush Saniee, a rare insider's view of life in Iran. 

THE GAME as a title is just as problematic. That's a film, a book, and a rapper. Keep an eye on my fb page and I'll post a poll of suggestions! Please comment if you have an idea... and Book 1 of the Faustine Chronicles may well be published under the title you've thought of! 

It has a different beginning, extended Faerie King scenes, and new insights into Lars and the von Ggarrét household. That's just for starters! I'll be revisiting all of it, cutting, adding, snipping here and polishing there... it's all very exciting. 

2) I'm leaving the first draft of BOOK OF TIME alone for the moment, and concentrating on writing BOOK OF CHANCE. This is going slowly, but it's coming along alright. The characters are driving the plot any way they want to at the moment, which is making it difficult to rein in. 

The problem - and fun part - of writing the third book in the series is that all the characters from the first two books are much older, and their interactions have changed dramatically. Even Elsa and Kristof have changed  and grown as people through circumstance and experience, and their relationship has new dynamics that it is sometimes really tough to explore. Then, of course, there is the development of the children from BOOK OF TIME - they are not children anymore, and they are trying to carve their own paths while still in the shadows cast by their powerful parents. As if that were not enough, I'm also exploring Hardrada and Oléta, background characters in BOOK OF FATE but nonetheless established and familiar. Knowing how they end up and the society they created, which all readers are by now very familiar with, I have certain limitations and parameters to work with when writing about their origins. That's actually tougher... because I have to think backwards and fill in the blanks! 

Keeping it on course is more of a challenge that the other two, so far! 

3) Just for fun, and because it's a challenge, I'm writing about my home town in a low fantasy children's adventure story, FAIRY TALE. I'm writing it in English, but there's a smattering of Welsh and local idioms throughout. Each chapter has a glossary and pronunciation guide, though! I started writing it because I realised that the novels I'm writing so far are not really suitable for children, and I know quite a few children... It also occurred to me that I always got so excited whenever I found a book that mentioned my hometown, which I think is a grand total of one or two books. Ever. In the history of fiction. If I finish it, I will edit it and send it to a Welsh-based publishing house. I think it only really has a local market! But Merlin and Morgana do make an appearance, so there's my nod to mass appeal. 

Fairy Tale

I'm using Wirt Sykes's book British Goblins for research purposes, "British" in this case meaning "Welsh" (the Welsh were the original Britons), and reinventing Welsh myths, folklore and legends, including Arthurian elements. You can read British Goblins for free via Project Gutenberg, and I highly recommend it! I'm also using the Mabinogi, which is the name given to the corpus of Welsh mythology compiled and written down in the Middle Ages. A really good translation of this is Sioned Davies's version. She also did the Oxford World Classics translation, also available to buy in paperback. 

I'm drawing quite a lot of inspiration from my favourite childhood series by Jenny Nimmo, The Snow Spider Trilogy. Long before Harry Potter discovered he was a wizard, young Gwydion Gwyn finds out he is a magician and his Nain (grandmother) is a witch.

On his ninth birthday, Gwyn is given a brooch and told to cast it into the wind. Later he discovers the wind has sent something back: the snow spider. So begins Gwyn's journey as a magician. Against the shimmering backdrop of a magical domed city, Gwyn has to battle evil and heal a fractured family. A spine-tingling trilogy of stories, full of magic and power.

The picture on the cover of FAIRY TALE is of Cwmcarn Forest Drive, and all the places mentioned and described in the story are real, and a big part of my own childhood... I guess because I've never been able to find magic where I live. Magic for me resides in North Wales, or in Mid Wales, or West Wales, but not in the South East where I grew up. Which is crazy, because where else do you get inspiration from, if not from the things you absorb every day? Hopefully, in looking at my own area in a new, fantastical light, I will become a better high/epic/dark fantasy writer. It's as much about personal development as it is about story development!

4) Often when I'm incredibly busy, my synapses start firing ideas left, right and centre. I think because I'm being made to wait for Grimm Season 3 , and Dr Monday has been another long-running back-of-the-mind concept, I've been caught up in writing a new story, THE CROWS. I've never written horror before, and BLACK GABLES - unedited, first draft only and the only murder mystery I've ever written - is more cozy whodunnit than gripping thriller. 

The Crows

Cover by Maya Starling

BOOK OF CHANCE is pretty much always in my head, and the characters need a bit of time and space to walk around and grow so that I can sort them out and write them down. While they are merrily composting in the deeper levels of my poor overloaded mind, THE CROWS and its characters rose to the surface. It's kind of like a really messy see-saw in there. This came out of the Dr Monday short stories, The Woman in Black (film and play), and my friend deciding he now really likes horror movies and insisting we go and see them because that would be really fun. It usually ends with me crying with terror under the seat, and losing my phone somewhere in the cinema. Anyway. I digress. 

Writing the rest is a discipline, but the iron is hot with this one. So I've just got to carry on until it's done!

It's very different to other things, and I think my 'voice' is different in this genre to the dark fantasy series. Which is fun in itself. 

So, What Happens Now?

NEXT WEEK I'll be looking in more detail at the actual craft of writing, kicking off with the classic "Show, Don't (Always) Tell" rule. To explain more about this, Maya Starling will be guest blogging, and I'll be throwing in some examples from the BOOK OF FATE, including a sneak peak at some of the *new* stuff you've never seen! 

Exciting times, people!