Holy Bagpipes!

bagpipesnew columbia university

As a Librarian, I can’t really condone this behavior. (pic from Columbia University.)

Here at Unicorn HQ, the unpacking is pretty much done except for the books. Of course, the books always made up the majority of our boxes, and since we have bookcases in multiple rooms on multiple floors instead of a single library here at the new house, it’s going to be quite the undertaking. But we’ve already started putting some books at least near the shelf they will eventually live on. This includes what we refer to as our “Ready Reference” (technical Librarian term there), and several of the Ready Reference books are our favorite writing books. Now, I know we’ve shared some of our favorite books on writing before, but I want to share some of them again because of a post I happened upon this morning on tumblr.

This tumblr post was complaining about the abundance of writing advice out there, some of it contradictory, much of it seemingly designed to discourage people from writing in the first place. The post ended in exasperation, the author forced to use the delightful phrase “holy bagpipe” in order to express her frustration with writing advice. Personally, I think it’s great to know rules, real hard and fast ones, as well as the mere suggestions, all of which the writer who has a handle on proper writing can feel free to throw out the window in exchange for stylistic choices that make the work better.

But how do you learn the rules, the real and the personal preferences? The right books, of course. So, here’s a few of our favorites focusing on the nuts and bolts of writing as opposed to specific how-to-write-fiction books. Enjoy them while we both get back to our Camp NaNo projects, which are coming apace. Oh, and unpacking our library.

  • Strunk and White (Classic.)
  • Woe Is I (Helpful and a ton of fun. A lot of people would recommend Eats, Shoots and Leaves as the fun grammar book, but I have a place in my heart for this one.)
  • How Not to Write a Novel (It’s really not just for fiction writers and has a lot of great stuff.)
  • Chicago Manual of Style (It doesn’t matter which style manual you choose, but I recommend picking one and living by its decisions when in doubt.)
  • Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (If not this dictionary, then some dictionary, should be your go to for settling disputes. Actually, it should be this dictionary if you’re writing American English. I’ll give you style manuals beside Chicago, but I really believe in this dictionary.)



Founding a Dynasty


Just like this.

The big writing news today is that S just finished writing Fiat Justitia, the third Oleg Omdahl novel. We visited her mother today, and I drove so that she could get some writing done. She literally finished the last sentence as we were pulling into her mom’s garage. It’s very exciting. Maybe we’ll have gelato to celebrate later. And perhaps she’ll post something about it sometime soon.

In other news, I’m continuing with various reference projects in the Myrcia ‘verse. At the moment, I’m inventing the various noble dynasties that took part in a long-ago civil war. This is a somewhat mindless task that’s easy to do in the evenings while we’re watching TV or something. I’m going through and giving names and dates of birth, marriage, and death for each generation. Like so:

Bob, Duke of Earl
(b. 420, d. 482 of consumption, duke from 440)
Married: Susan, daughter of the Earl of Warren (b. 423, m. 445, d. 460, of ague)
Fred (b. 446; m. Joan, daughter of Baron LeChrysler, 469; d. 508 of ennui)
Stacy (b. 448, m. Frank, son of Sir Loin of Beef, 470; d. 473 of intense mortification)

Then I do a similar entry for Fred, and then one for his heir, and so on. I don’t worry about Stacy’s kids (if she had any). And I’m not really worried at this point about their personalities or physical characteristics, or anything at all about them other than the bare fact of their existence.

The reason I’m doing this is that I’m planning to write some novels that take place during this time, and I want to know who the main political figures of the era will be. Someday soon, perhaps next year during Camp NaNoWriMo, I might be looking for story ideas to write about. I can look over this list and say, “H’m…. It would be fascinating to know why exactly Stacy died of intense mortification in 473.” So at that point, I can do actual character sheets for her and for her husband, Frank.

Or suppose I decide to write one novel set in 435, and another in 450. I can look at this sheet and know immediately that if Bob shows up in the first one, he’ll be a 15 year-old boy. In the second one, he’ll be a 30 year-old married man with three kids. I don’t have to waste my time planning all this out, because it’ll already be done, and I’ll just have to look it up.

Plus, because all this information will be in a single file (backed up and saved in the cloud, as always), I know right where to find it. If I decide to write a third novel, set in 470, I don’t have to go frantically searching all the way through the previous two, wondering, “Wait a minute, did I ever name his daughter? And is she even still alive at this point?” I just have to open up this one file, and I can see that her name is Stacy, and that 470 is the year she marries Frank.

Ah ha! Maybe the wedding takes place during the novel!

And just like that, I’ve got ideas for a subplot in my novel, just based on a couple lines and a few quick dates that I made up randomly while sitting in my comfy chair and watching an old episode of Community. This is why I like doing background reference work like this in my spare time. It saves so much trouble and effort later on, when I’m actually trying to be creative.


Yet Another Camp Update

Aramis and Anne

Aramis gets busted sneaking into the girls’ cabin.

We’re still at camp, and today we’re at Panera having a write-in with some friends from the local NaNoWriMo group.

S is still moving along, and she’s almost certainly got enough words to win, except that first she needs to get it all typed up so she can validate her word count. If you’ve never done NaNoWriMo, the way you win is to copy and paste what you’ve written into a window that then counts your words and verifies that you’ve got enough. And that’s perfectly simple for people like me, who compose at the keyboard. But for people like S, who prefer to handwrite with a pen in a journal, there’s always the challenge of getting everything typed up.* I’ll be helping her with that in a little while, once I’ve finished writing this blog post.

As for me, my novel has been finished for a while now, and I’m working on a reference file on the history and culture of one of the imaginary countries in the Myrciaverse. We’ve done a number of these files over the years, starting with the very first ones, which we were working on before we even had names for the countries. Somewhere in the basket by S’s chair at home, there’s a journal that still has headings in it like, “Bad Guy Country” and “Other Country.”

Doing the research for this sort of thing is usually pretty fun. All our fictional countries are, to a greater or lesser extent, based on real places. So reading up on, say, ancient Chinese nobility or the types of Viking ships, is always a good time. And, on the occasions when it gets a bit tedious, I can always just remind myself that I’m saving myself time later on, someday when I write a novel that takes place in this country, and I can just open up the file and find what I need to give the story a little local color, rather than trying to make it all up on the spur of the moment.

So that’s what I’ll be working on later today. But for now, there’s typing to be done.


*Technically, NaNo allows you to have a friend count the words and then you can use a Lorum Ipsum generator, but that’s a lot of work to put in when it needs typed anyway. ~S

Winding Down Our Vacation

vacation end

Where we are now, metaphorically speaking.

S’s vacation is coming to an end. We’ve both been working on various writing projects. S wrote some more fanfic before doing a brilliant little mashup of The 100 and Battlestar Galactica called 100 Galactic Battlestars, and if you happen to be a fan of both shows, you should really check it out.

I just finished working on my Myrciaverse books and lit file. It took a bit longer than I expected, frankly, because I was trying to make sure to put down every place we’ve mentioned each of the books or stories or poems. The idea is that in the future, if we’re writing along, and we suddenly think, “This character should be reading a romance novel in this scene,” or something like that, then we can open up the file and see if there’s something appropriate among the fake books we’ve already made up.

I’m not really sure what I’ll be doing next. I’ve got some other reference materials I could be working on, or I could start thinking about what I’ll do for Camp NaNo this spring. It’s never too soon to start thinking about April, after all.

Tonight, as we watch the Golden Globes, S is working on Fiat Justitia, the third Oleg Omdahl novel.  And when she’s done with that, she’ll be carrying on with her epic Musketeers fanfic series.  Her fans can be assured that she hasn’t forgotten them—she’s just making them wait to heighten the anticipation.


The End is Nigh


Tomorrow is the last day of November and hence, the end of NaNoWriMo.  It’s been another winning year for Team Unicorn: I finished the two novels that I planned, and S got her 50,000 words last night, though her novel is going to be much longer than that eventually.

Since finishing my second book back on the 22nd, I’ve been revising.  I’m checking for consistency of voice and just generally smoothing out any wording that seems a bit rough.  Sooner or later, S and I will read through what we’ve done, and then I might revise some more based on that.  It’s funny how no matter how much revision you do on your own, when you go to read it aloud, suddenly there are glaring errors that you can’t believe you missed.

I’ve also been updating some of our reference materials.  For example, we keep a running list of all the in-verse music and literature that we’ve made up over the years for our books.  That way, if a character in some future book needs to hear a song, or read a book, we could look through the list and see if there’s something that already exists that would fit the bill.  That kind of consistent imaginary world of arts and literature gives the ‘verse a sense of realistic depth.

Anyway, both of the novels I wrote this November mention some of the in-verse books that we’ve mentioned before, and I even included summaries of them and even “excerpts.”  Those were fun to write.  So now I need to update our list of literature so that it indicates where I can look, in the future, to find those summaries and excerpts if I ever need to find them again.

Hopefully, if you did NaNo, you’ve won or are at least close to winning.  And if not, then there’s always Camp NaNoWriMo in April to look forward to!


Getting Schooled



It’s mid-September, and that means it’s time to start thinking seriously about our NaNo novels.  Yes, some people just start writing on November 1 with no idea where the plot is going, but as we’ve mentioned before, we both believe in planning our stories ahead of time.  Outlining, after all, is half the fun.  I’ll probably be writing two novels this year, as I have done the last two years, and starting early like this will give me plenty of time to fully outline both stories and make profiles for all the characters.

In addition to outlining, though, there’s also reference work to be done.  And part of that for me this year will be coming up with a new school.  The heroine of my second story is going to be obliged by straitened family finances to become a teacher, so I’ve got to design the school that she will be teaching at.

Luckily, we already know something about the educational system of our fantasy world.  Three of the four main POV characters in the Quartet meet at an elite boarding school, early in the first book.  This was one of the very earliest ideas that we had when we were first outlining the Quartet.  So you could say that we’ve been thinking and writing about a school in our ‘verse for the better part of eight years now.  One of the first scenes S ever wrote for our story, in fact, takes place at that school.  For my first NaNo novel, I wrote Guardian Winter, which tells what happens at that school during the war, while our POV characters go off and have exciting adventures together.

But that’s the super-elite school, where brilliant people and princesses and wizards-in-training go.  What about the other schools?  Obviously, in a medieval or renaissance-based world, any school at all will be, to a certain extent, an elite institution, since there will be large numbers of people who don’t go to school at all, or are apprentices, or who are tutored at home.  But not every school is going to be quite like the school where the king sends his beloved daughter.

So now I’m trying to come up with another school, bearing in mind that everything there should be a bit less grand than at the school we’ve already seen.  Fortunately, there’s a lot of information on the web about education in the renaissance and about fancy boarding schools in general.  Over the years, for example, the Wiki pages on Eton and Winchester College have been a surprisingly fruitful source of ideas.

There’s the matter of curriculum, as well.  Not that I’m going to make my readers slog through long transcriptions of lectures, but it’s good to have a sense of what characters at this new school would be learning.  Especially since the main POV character is going to be a teacher.  What sort of qualifications would she have to have?  Presumably to get a teaching job, she would have to master the standard curriculum.  So what sort of things is she supposed to know?  Luckily, the content of a medieval or renaissance education is pretty well known.

In our ‘verse, people study literature and foreign languages, too,  not just classical texts.  We gave our characters a grounding in foreign languages because that makes it easier to explain why they can all talk to each other.  And we have them study contemporary literature, even though that’s a decidedly modern idea, because we’re both former English majors, and that way we can draw on our own educational experiences.

As with a lot of worldbuilding, there are two competing pressures that determine what kind of educational system you have in your ‘verse: the needs of the story, and the logical consequences that flow from the kind of society your characters live in.  If, for example, I need a teenage character to be able to speak Swedish, I can just say that she happens to have attended a school where they teach Swedish to everyone.  There’s really nothing that couldn’t, hypothetically, be part of a school curriculum if you really wanted it to be—gymnastics, magic, gardening.  You name it, someone somewhere could teach it.  But then you have to consider the implications of that curriculum.  What kind of a school has a mandatory Swedish-as-a-foreign-language program?  What does it say about the town where my heroine lives that it could support such a program?  What sort of place is this where teaching the kids Swedish in school would make sense?  (No offense, Sweden.)  School curricula aren’t always a perfect reflection of society, goodness knows.  But at least to a certain extent, what’s taught in school is basically what adults think kids need to know in order to be decent adults.  So you can learn a lot about a place by considering what they would want to teach their kids.

I’ve come up with a brief history of the town and the school already, and I’ll probably be making a map soon.  My goal is to make sure that I have a sense of what the school is like, so that when I put my POV characters there, I can describe it without too much trouble.  My hope is that it feels like a real place, with sufficient character of its own that the reader won’t just dismiss it as “Hogwarts-lite.”


Getting Religion

After the service, be sure to join us for the covered-dish dinner!

After the service, be sure to join us for the covered-dish dinner!

S and I are back from Gen Con, which was loads of fun.  We attended a bunch of panel discussions on topics ranging from constructing magic systems to “What Editors Want.”  There were a couple of lectures, too, including a very entertaining one by Scott Lynch on writing realistic trauma and death in fantasy and sci-fi.

One of the panel discussions we went to was on inventing religions, which was very useful for me, since that’s what I’ve been doing since finishing The Path of the Son in the second week of July.  A few of our main cultures in the Myrciaverse practice different denominations of the same religion, and the conflict between these denominations is a major causus belli in the Quartet.  Here’s the thing, though: we’ve never spent much time actually nailing down the differences in church doctrine that separate these people.  So that’s what I’m working on.

Last year at Context, S and I picked up a book on worldbuilding called Eighth Day Genesis.  The chapter in there on religion is by Maurice Broaddus, and I highly recommend it as a starting point for anyone who is trying to figure out how to do a fictional religion right.  Sadly, even though he was at Gen Con this year, Maurice Broaddus wasn’t on the religion panel.  Maybe next time.

So here are a few things I’ve been trying to keep in mind, both from the book and from the panel discussion we attended, as I make up doctrines and ceremonies and ancient schisms:

1) Everyone is the hero of his own story.
As a general rule, both in religious and secular contexts, bad guys don’t know they’re the bad guys.  Even if a religion is “evil,” even if it’s headed up by horrible people who do horrible things, those people probably think they are the good guys.  They have to have some sort of motivation besides just making life miserable for the hero.  They’re just trying to make the world a better place, one human sacrifice at a time, and they can’t understand why the hero won’t just get with the program and join them.

2) Religion is part of your culture, not separate from it.
Religion affects how people see the world, so it’s important to think through the consequences of doctrine.  If you’ve grown up going to Sunday School, and you’ve been taught that X, Y, and Z are terrible, terrible sins, then that’s going to inform your reaction to X, Y, and Z for the entire rest of your life.  You’ll think they’re icky and wrong.  Or maybe, if you reject the faith you were brought up in, X, Y, and Z will seem especially tempting and exciting.  But in either case, you’ll never see those things the same way you would have without those Sunday School lessons.

3) What do your POV characters know?
Obviously it’s nice to have the whole religion planned out, but when writing a story, the important thing is to ask what the characters know.  If a POV character is, say, a priest or theologian, then he knows pretty much everything there is to know.  In the Quartet, some of our young POV characters go through a Confirmation-like process, where they have to memorize catechisms and things like that.  So they have a fairly good idea of the major doctrines.  But it wouldn’t be odd for them not to be aware of the full history.  And more importantly, they don’t really know all that much about the doctrines of the other denominations.  They just have a vague sense that those other people do things differently.

So, anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to.  I’m almost finished with the second of the four major denominations, but school will be starting up again in a couple weeks, so it might be a while until I get finished.


Hypothetically Speaking…

Hypothetically speaking, S might possibly be working on my birthday present. I wouldn’t know anything about it, of course, but if I did, I imagine she might be writing me a short story depicting an important moment in the life of a major historical figure in Myrcian history—the guy who will be the protagonist of Magnificent Kingdom when we get around to writing that.

So, what I’m saying is that, once again, we’re going to have to put off our list of Best Fantasy Characters. Honestly, we really do mean to get back to that sooner or later.

What I’m doing this evening is to work on reference material. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve got files with background info on all the major countries of our ‘verse. But the problem is that it’s all very Myrcia-centric. That is to say, we know everything that a given country does that affects events in Myrcia, but we don’t know very much about what happens in those countries at other times. So I’m going through and trying to fill in some blanks about the big Empire to the north. It’s the country that Sabrina serves in My Private War, so I think having some more of the history worked out will help when we want to revise those books.

Anyway, that’s what we’re up to tonight. That and going down to the basement periodically to make sure it isn’t flooding from all the rain we’ve gotten today.


Part of Our World

The other day S and I were sitting around, looking at stuff online (as we do), and we couldn’t help but notice that other blogs have lots of pictures.  And we were jealous.  So S suggested we might want to start posting our own pictures of places we have been that have inspired our writing.  Here are four to start off with.

S and I went to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague in July 2007 for our honeymoon, and I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that we started writing fantasy novels after getting back from Europe.  At the very least, these locations provide a shared frame of reference when we’re discussing castles, palaces, and cathedrals.  S has been to a few places I haven’t (like Denmark and Luxembourg), and I have been some places she hasn’t (like the UK, Italy, and Russia).  But if I say, “I think this part of this church looks a bit like St. Vitus in Prague,” then we both know what it looks like, since we were both there together.

St. Vitus, Prague

St. Vitus, Prague

Our hotel in Budapest was right up in the Castle district, which was really convenient and gave lovely views over the city.  This was right around the corner, for example:

Fisherman's Bastion, Castle Hill, Budapest

Fisherman’s Bastion, Castle Hill, Budapest

How could you see that every morning and not want to write fantasy novels?

Buda Castle was particularly important in the development of Wealdan Castle, one of the main locations for the Quartet.  It’s where our heroine was born, and it’s where two of our other main characters spend a great deal of time in the first and second books hanging out together while romance blossoms.

The cool thing about Buda Castle is that there are bits of the old medieval fortifications around, but there’s also a giant 18th-19th century palace there, too.  So this was a really helpful model when we were thinking about Wealdan Castle, where our heroine’s ancestors have been living for nearly a thousand years.  Here’s the new(er) part:

Buda Castle, Budapest

Buda Castle, Budapest

And here’s a shot where you can see some reconstructed remnants of the medieval fortifications:

Medieval fortifications, Buda Castle

Medieval fortifications, Buda Castle

Here’s a link to an aerial view (not taken by me, of course) that shows that same part of the castle.

In our minds, this became a sort of private park for the royal family, and an important location for our story is based on it.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the pictures.  No doubt we’ll put up more when we find the time to go through all the pictures we’ve taken over the years.


Worldbuilding: A Slacker’s Guide

This year for Christmas, I made up a new culture, a new religion, and a new city.

As we often do, S and I wrote stories for each other as gifts.  S actually started first, and at first she kept it a secret.  Eventually she had to break down and tell me, since she didn’t think she would have enough time to write if she only wrote when I wasn’t around.

Now, I had been mulling over writing a novel for her, too, and when she told me that she was already working on hers, I suddenly realized, “Oh, crap.  I’d better get started.”  I had a few ideas that I had been pondering for a while, but none of them were things I really wanted to rush.

So I needed something completely new.  I started with an exercise out of My Story Can Beat Up Your Story to build a story around an interesting protagonist.  First, name an occupation.  Then think of an ironic quality–something that you wouldn’t normally expect a person in that occupation to have: a sailor who is afraid of the water, for example, or a lawyer who is compulsively honest.

Several of our novels so far (including the massive million-word “memoir”) concern agents from an elite force of deadly assassins and spies.  These agents are all good-looking, smart, and above all, supremely good at their jobs.  But then I thought, what if one of them wasn’t?  Somebody has to be on the far left side of any bell curve, after all.  There has to be at least one agent who couldn’t quite hack it.  So I decided to make the story about her.

Where would such a spy be stationed?  Well, probably not anywhere important.  And that meant I wasn’t going to be writing about any of the locations we’ve ever used before.  It had to be somewhere a little boring and out of the way.  But it still had to feel like a real place.

My job was a bit easier because S and I have spent literally weeks of our lives making elaborate maps and fact sheets about different countries in our shared ‘verse.  Yes, this is a little like saying that the key to running a marathon is just getting through those first 26 miles.  I was able to slack off this time because I had already done an awful lot of work.

So how do you build a new imaginary country quickly?  You steal.

First, you steal from yourself.  I decided that since this country I was writing about was relatively small and was surrounded by larger, more powerful countries, it was the sort of place that had absorbed bits of its language, culture, and religion from them.  This alone saved me a tremendous amount of time, since I could just say, “This is just like this other thing I’ve already done.”  I decided, for example, that they had a syncretic religion, with the god of one monotheistic neighbor married to the goddess from another monotheistic neighbor.

Another way I stole from myself was by including a character from a previous novel.  At the end of Act II of this new book, my poor incompetent protagonist has really dug herself into a hole, and someone from the main office, as it were, of her spy organization had to show up and help her out of it.  Why come up with someone completely new?  This was the perfect opportunity for a cameo by an established character.  It really worked out well, and I think my readership (i.e. S) got a big kick out of seeing someone familiar show up in a new story.

In addition to stealing from yourself, there’s an entire real world to steal from, as well.  I have a bunch of pictures from the souks of Dubai that I took when visiting there a few years ago, and those strongly influenced one of the main settings of my book.  S and I had decided long ago that the language of this particular country was going to be based on Finnish (I think we picked that more or less at random).  So as I was writing, I kept a bunch of browser tabs open in Firefox with sites on Finnish culture and cuisine.  If I needed to say what someone was eating at lunch, for example, it would take just seconds to scroll down the page on Finnish food until I saw something interesting, which I could then put in the story.

I needed a map, too, so I would be able to keep track of where my characters were, how long it would take them to get from one setting to another, and what they might see along the way.  Normally I would draw a map from scratch in GIMP.  But knowing S was already hard at work at her novel, I didn’t want to waste any time.  So I just got a satellite image of a port city that was in roughly the right climate for my setting, flipped it horizontally, and added the names of locations in my story.  Thus, I had a working map of my city in about half an hour, rather than a day or two.

In the future, I will probably still take days and days to develop setting and character before writing, but in this instance, a quicker method worked pretty well, and it’s nice to know that it’s an option if I ever need to do it again.