Map Till You Nap

Keneburg Small

More fun than a barrel of monkeys.  Though I suppose most things are, really.

It’s been a very busy week. Seriously, you have no idea. But I’ve still had time to read, here and there. I’m working my way through Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, which is very good. I’m about 80% of the way through, and I just discovered that one of my favorite characters isn’t dead after all. Which wasn’t really much of a surprise—I had a feeling he might still be alive. It wasn’t hard to guess, really. When someone gets stabbed, and his friends leave him, assuming he must be dead, that’s almost like when they say, “No body was ever found,” on a soap opera. But anyway, I’m enjoying the book.

I also listened to The Book of Three on audiobook. That’s the first book in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, of course. I should probably have read all those books when I was a kid, but I never did. In fact, I’m not even sure I knew they existed, which is a shame. If you read through the reviews on the Goodreads page, you’ll see a number of people grousing about how it’s full of fantasy clichés, or about how it’s a “blatant” Tolkien rip-off. Which I think is a bit unfair. Clearly Alexander is just drawing from the same sort of mythological sources that Tolkien used.

Also, Tolkien, no matter how awesome he may be, never had a female character like Princess Eilonwy. I like her a great deal, and I am quite serious when I say that she pretty much singlehandedly lifts the story from being run-of-the-mill YA fantasy. One reviewer on Goodreads, several pages in, calls her “an irritating twit,” only with a different vowel, and I suppose it says something about the sort of characters I like that my first thought was, “So, what’s your point?”

But it’s not just reading that’s been keeping me busy. This is our last full week of Camp NaNoWriMo, and we’re still in the middle of planning our next big novel. We have the whole thing outlined, and each chapter has been broken down into 400-700 word chunks. That takes a good deal longer than you might expect. When I do this by myself, I wouldn’t try to fully outline more than five or six chapters in a single day. It really just makes your brain melt. And that’s because, as I like to tell people, the outline is really the first draft of the story. It’s just the one where you don’t have to worry at all about how you phrase things. You just think about the plot and the character arcs. And it’s easier to see where things are missing (“Hey, this guy is supposed to be a main character, but he’s disappeared for ten chapters now”).

Now that we’re done outlining, you might imagine that it’s time to get started writing. Or rather, you might imagine that if you’d never met us. No, it’s not time to write—it’s time to make maps!

Last night, we started making a map for Leornian, one of the main cities of our Myrciaverse, and the ancient capital of Myrcia. It’s a city our characters have visited many, many times in many, many books, and yet we’ve never gotten around to finishing a map of it. I mean, we started a map, eight or nine years ago, but looking at it now in the sketchbook, it seems that we got about a quarter of the way through and then stopped for some reason. Maybe we went to take a nap or something.

Anyway, we’re finishing it now. Or rather, we’re starting from scratch, using that good old standby of fantasy mapmakers: blatant theft. We’re taking a map of Florence, turning it around, and moving things around in GIMP to match the image of the city in our heads. As I’ve noted before, this is a much faster way of doing things, and in some ways, much better. Adapting real maps of real places helps to keep your maps grounded in reality. You have some assurance that the city you’re planning is possible, because you know for certain that a city like it exists.

Using a real map as a starting point also helps to keep things more or less to scale. We have a cathedral in our universe that’s over 900 feet long—far, far larger than any real cathedral—and that mainly happened because we forgot to check the scale when we drew it. Since then, we’ve rationalized and lampshaded so that a 900 foot cathedral makes sense (wizards built it, I imagine), but yeah, if we could do it over again, it would probably be smaller than that.

Of course, if you need to change the scale, you always can. But very carefully. This weekend I finished the map for a different one of our cities, which will be a major location for the book, as well. That’s the map at the top there. It’s based on Carcassonne, France, though I changed the scale a bit, making it quite a bit bigger than Carcassonne.

Once we’re done with the maps, I suppose it will finally be time to start writing. Assuming we don’t find something else to do. Some people might think this is all a waste of time, but it’s not. If we’d taken the time to finish that stupid Leornian map seven or eight years ago, we wouldn’t be doing it now. And if we take the time to finish it now, we’ll be thanking ourselves seven or eight years from now, when we need it again.

J

Castles in the Air

Moving Castle

Like this, only not.

Spring is here at Chez Unicorn, which means the trees are budding and the lilies are sprouting.  This is probably the last weekend we’ll have without the threat of yardwork until July, when it’ll be hot enough to stunt everything.  We’re celebrating by having pork roast and sauerkraut.  And we’ll probably do some writing later.

Earlier, we were out hunting for new glassware.  We’ve been pretty hard on our glasses lately, and we need new ones.  The problem is that everything we found was too small, too ugly, or came in massively large quantities, like 8 or 16.  I mean, we break glasses pretty often, but not that often.  Seriously, Walmart, just let me buy these tall ones in a set of four, for crying out loud.

This is also the last weekend in March, and that means that next time you hear from us, Camp NaNoWriMo will have started.  I’ve got my outline ready, and I’ve done my character profiles and prompts.  For the past few days, I’ve been making a floor plan of the castle where the majority of the action takes place.

Old Wealdan Castle

Behold the fruits of far, far too many hours’ labor.

Some people (well, actually most people) would probably say that this level of preparation is unnecessary.  But personally I’ve found it really helpful.  It’s easy, particularly for fantasy authors, to have a pleasantly vague idea of your setting in your head.  But when you have to sit down and start drawing it, you’re suddenly forced to make decisions.  And you see where certain ideas you had are actually impossible.

Part of the plot of my story, for instance, requires that there be servants’ corridors and secret stairways in this castle.  The moment I started making these floorplans, though, I realized the vague picture I had in my mind of these passageways was completely impossible.  There simply was no room for them.  So I had to spend time thinking about the problem and come up with a practical solution: interstitial servants’ floors with hidden staircases that go up and give access into the public areas through hidden doors.  Now, instead of just secret passages, I’ve got whole secret floors of dark, creepy rooms to play with.  It’s very exciting, actually.

This is all in keeping with one of the longest-running themes of this blog: why planning is better than pantsing.  S and I have found that the more you plan, the easier the actual writing becomes, and the less you have to dread revisions.  Obviously, not every setting requires a detailed map or floorplan, in the same way that not every character requires a lengthy character profile.  But whether it’s setting or character or plot, it’s all too easy to fool yourself and say, “Oh, I know what I’m doing here,” only to discover later that you didn’t really know at all.

So if it’s important to your plot to know, for instance, that Susan’s bedroom is over the garage, with a view over the garden in the back, and the stairway is halfway down the hall and leads to the kitchen, which is next to the den, then it might be worth doing a quick little sketch, just to make sure that’s possible.  You don’t even have to be able to draw well to do a floorplan—just make lines on a page.  It helps ensure your castles are grounded in reality and not, you know, floating on air.

J

And Away We Go!

de_efteling_pegasus

Where we are now, metaphorically.

National Novel Writing Month starts on Tuesday, which means that we’ll be spending every available moment working on our novels. We’ll try to post updates as we go along, as always, but don’t be surprised if the entries are a little shorter than usual.

I’m finishing up my usual NaNo prep, so I spent last weekend and the first half of this week writing character prompts. I’ve blogged about these before—you write about the character in some random situation that has nothing to do with your plot. It’s a way of focusing on the character alone, free from the restraints of your outline or the necessities of your story. You can just think, “What would Susan do in this situation?” rather than thinking, “Well, Susan has to decide to do this, because otherwise the plot won’t go where I want it to.” I’m constantly changing the list of prompts that I use. These are the ones I’ve used this time around. (I’ve given credit where I can; some of these I can’t find online anymore except in older posts of mine.)

  1. Write a scene in which your protagonist is stressed due to a death in the family, a financial crisis, or an unraveling relationship. Place your protagonist in a grocery store at the express lane for customers with fewer than 10 items. Have a lady, pushing a cart full of groceries, jump in line just before your protagonist. “Sorry, but I’m in a hurry,” she explains.
    From here.

  2. Background and Family
    -Unearth your character’s roots. What is the character’s ancestry or cultural background? How does ancestry shape your character? Is the character at odds with family traditions?
    -Write a series of short paragraphical biographies of each of the character’s closest family members: spouse, children, parents, grandparents, siblings, close friends, etc.
    From here.

  3. Where Leaving Takes Us
    Sometimes we are emotionally imprisoned by the ones we love. Overbearing parents, paranoid spouses, and needy children can make us—and our characters—feel trapped in an intolerable life. Write a scene where a character in your writing leaves a loved one behind and begins life anew. Use details to express relief, guilt, and anger.
    From here.

  4. Write a brief summary of a critical moment in the character’s life. This is a pivotal moment, something that shows why the character is the way he or she is today.

  5. Motivations and Goals
    -What motivates your character? Money? Love? Truth? Power? Justice?
    -What does your character want more than anything else in the world? What is he or she searching for?
    -What other characters or events are interfering with your character’s goals? What obstacles are in the way?
    From here.

  6. Flaws and Fears
    -What is your character’s single greatest fear? How did your character acquire his or her fears?
    -What are your character’s flaws and weaknesses?
    -How does the character’s fears and flaws prevent them from reaching their goals?
    From here.

  7. Appearance
    -What does your character look like? Make a list and include the following: hair, eyes, height, weight, build, etc.
    -Now choose one aspect of the character’s appearance, a detail (bitten nails, frizzy hair, a scar) and elaborate on it.
    From here.

  8. Personality
    -How does your character feel on the inside? What kind of person is your character and what does the character’s internal landscape look like?
    -We don’t always present ourselves to others in a way that accurately reflects how we feel inside. We might be shy or insecure but come across as stuck-up and aloof. How do others perceive your character?
    -Write a scene with dialogue that reveals your character’s external and internal personalities. Good settings for this dialogue would be an interview, appointment with a therapist, or a conversation with a romantic interest or close friend. Write the scene in third-person omniscient so you can get inside your character’s head as well as the other character’s head; this will allow you explore how your character feels and how he or she is perceived.
    From here.

  9. Job Search
    Write a brief job description for your character. What is his or her job? How did the character get it? How long has he or she held it? What does he or she like and dislike about it? What kind of language would a person with this job use? What kind of equipment? Where would the office be located? Who would be the boss? What would the job title be?

  10. Synopsis
    Come up with a short synopsis of the novel.

And here’s the synopsis that I wrote for A Tincture of Silver, the first of the two novels I’m doing this time around:

Seeking to escape their families, two young ladies dress as men and sign up to fight as mercenaries in a distant war over vast new silver mines. When they are captured, one makes it her business to escape; the other isn’t quite so sure she wants to. But with the war reaching its inevitable climax, she might have to be rescued whether she likes it or not. The world’s greatest spymaster sends his lover and best agent to investigate, even as their relationship falls apart. Our heroes learn that sometimes running away actually can solve your problems, and that in war, there’s no silver for second place.

So now that I’m done with character prompts, I’m just reading through my outline yet again. I’ve probably read it five or six times in the last week, once I finished my character prompts. And I’ve been doing a little work on my maps for my story. I’ve got a general view of the region, a narrow view of the valleys and towns where the story takes place, and then a map of the castle where much of the story takes place (I based it on Himeji Castle in Japan).

Good luck in your own noveling, and if you haven’t gotten signed up for NaNoWriMo yet, go do so posthaste!

J

Let Me Draw You a Picture

hovedby-detail

Giant dry erase board–most important tool in my process.

I’m finally close to finishing Oleg Omdahl 3, Fiat Justitia, and I, in fact, wrote most of the climactic showdown last night. (Although I went to bed before I had to write a character death. I was tired and it was past midnight, and the character deserves my full attention.) Once I finish up that chapter, there are just two chapters of denouement, and draft one of the book will be written.

But before I started the showdown, J helped me draw a map of the area where it would be taking place. There’s some fighting and wizard spells flying around and all that good stuff, so I figured it was finally time to get an exact picture of the area and stop settling for, “Well, you see, there’s this alley, and the building is somewhere in these few blocks.”

This was helpful so I understood the space and also so I could have references to help the reader know where the action was taking place. Also, since we needed to fill the area, it finally gave us the opportunity to place the offices of a company we’ve been writing about since J invented them about 5 years ago, and we’ve both now mentioned multiple times.

Yes, maps take time, and they can be a distraction, but I’ve never failed to find some important detail that makes my story better when drawing or looking at them. In fact, the entire plot of the second Oleg novel, The Science of Fire, came from me looking at the original map J and I made when we first created the Myrcia ‘verse. Until I really looked at the map, I’d never noticed a little quirk in the border of two countries, but once I saw it, well, it changed everything.

Now, the real question is how much trouble could I get into if I start learning 3D imaging like I keep threatening?

~S