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.



Research Findings

sorrow thereof collage

S’s pics from research trip to Cleveland. Clockwise from top left: The Cuyahoga River; ex-hubby’s apartment building on St. Clair; boss’s apartment building in the Flats; heroine’s apartment above shops in Little Italy; heroine’s grocery in Little Italy.


For anyone who doesn’t follow us on Twitter, I just wanted to stop in and report that our trip to Cleveland was wonderfully productive. We found an apartment we think would be suitable for my heroine, rode the train to where she works, figured out where her ex-husband lives, where her boss lives, and what her favorite walk is along the Cuyahoga River. We bought a bottle of wine at the local grocery where she shops, ate what is surely her favorite pizza, and decided the coffee house down the street is way too hipster for her. In other words, it was genuinely helpful, and I think my novel will be better for the trip.



Brooks Bothers


Pictured, L-R: Amberle, Will, Djibouti, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Eretria. 
Not pictured: Chemistry.

Over the past few weeks, we have been group-watching MTV’s fantasy series, The Shannara Chronicles, with some online friends of ours.  The show is apparently based on Terry Brooks’s The Elfstones of Shannara.  I say “apparently,” because, the title of this post notwithstanding, neither of us have actually read any Terry Brooks.  Consequently, we have nothing to compare it to, and we have no idea whether the problems we have with the show are inherited from the source material or not.

In any case, as writers, we try to learn something about storytelling from pretty much everything we watch or read.  And here’s what we’ve learned from Shannara so far.

1. There’s no substitute for chemistry
I don’t want to say anything unkind about the actors in the show; I’m sure they’re doing the best they can.  But I think it’s apparent to anyone watching the show that there is a serious lack of chemistry between the leads.  We’re now at episode 8 (of 10), and the show has been trying to set up a love triangle between Will Ohmsford, Princess Amberle, and Eretria.  But I honestly don’t buy that any one of those three people actually wants to get together with either of the other two.  When you compare them to Richard and Kahlan on the much-missed Legend of the Seeker TV show from a few years ago, it’s not even a contest.  That show was a real testament to how good chemistry can elevate cheesy material.  Without chemistry, all you’ve got is the cheese.  And I love me some cheese, but cheese gets stale after a while, and too much of it gives you indigestion.

2. Don’t forget your character introduction
Another thing that has been bothering us, as well as the friends we’ve been watching the show with, is the devolution of Amberle into a damsel in distress.  Now, I have no idea what’s coming up in the last two episodes of the season.  Perhaps the princess will shock us all and prove to be strong, independent, and resilient.  But so far, she’s just gotten into one scrape or another, and has to be dragged out of them by Will or Eretria.  What makes this particularly galling is that the writers seem to have forgotten the character introduction that they gave her.  We first meet her, in episode 1, qualifying as one of the Chosen who protect the Ellcrys tree.  We’re given to understand that this is something like making it into the elven special forces.  She’s not just a badass; she’s a super-duper badass.  And yet Will, who is frankly something of a doofus, consistently seems to know more about how to negotiate the world around them than she does.  It’s very odd.

3. “Fantasy is actually post-apocalyptic” does nothing for me
This is just a matter of personal preference, but the notion that the Shannara world is actually earth after some nuclear war just seems silly.  Not that this is the only series that uses that conceit, of course, but frankly, neither of us has ever liked the idea in any form.  Is this supposed to trick sci-fi fans into wanting to read fantasy, or vice versa?  Is it supposed to make fantasy seem more “realistic,” somehow?  Because it doesn’t, really.  As fantasy authors, we’d rather authors just be bold about it: here’s a fantasy world; take it or leave it.  If you’re going to write fantasy, it seems to me that you should just own the fantasy elements.  There’s magic and wizards and dragons, and once you go down the dark path of trying to explain how dragons are physically possible, it’s just one short step to midi-chlorians.

4. And yet, it’s still fun to watch TV with friends
And in spite of all that, we’re still having fun watching the show.  Manu Bennett is fantastic as Allanon the druid, and John Rhys-Davies is as awesome as he always is.  And there is some interesting visual design stuff going on that makes it pretty to watch a lot of the time.  But we’d probably have stopped watching if we weren’t watching it with our friends.  There’s a lot to be said for a group watch, assuming you can work out schedules so that everyone can watch together.  And assuming your internet connection permits you to stream video reliably (I’m looking sternly at you, Time Warner Cable).  There’s nothing quite like watching a cheesy, middling TV show with friends and amusing each other with your commentary on it.  I’m honestly looking forward to seeing the last two episodes of the season.


You Have No Idea

Pictured: an awesome story, just waiting to be written.   You're welcome.

Pictured: an awesome story, just waiting to be written.
You’re welcome.

This is October, which means it’s time to start planning our NaNoWriMo novels in earnest. If you’ve never done NaNoWriMo, then this is the year to start. It’s good fun and a chance for you to hang out with other writers. And if you stick with it, you’ll have at least a first draft of a novel when you’ve finished.

Possibly you’ve got a book you started, and you’re planning to work on it. Or maybe you’ve already got a story in mind that you’ve always wanted to write. If so, then that’s great, and you should totally do that for your novel. But what if you don’t know what you’re doing? What if you’re trying NaNo for the very first time, and you can’t think where to start? What if you have no idea for your book? Then this blog post is for you. This is the first in a series that we’re doing this month, talking about how we plan our novels, and hopefully you’ll find this useful.

Some people will tell you to just “Pants” your novel—to write it by the seat of your pants, in other words. There are those who maintain that the true spirit of NaNo requires that you start writing your book on November 1 with no idea at all of what you’re going to write. I would never say out loud that those people are wrong, but I’m sure thinking it as hard as I possibly can. Particularly if this is your first NaNo, you will almost certainly have more fun, and be much more likely to finish, if you try to plan a little first.

So how do you come up with an idea if you don’t already have one?

For some reason, there have been quite a number of people who, at various times in my life, have told me their ideas for a book. I’m not sure why they pick me to tell. Maybe I’ve just got one of those faces. Or maybe it’s like meeting a priest; when they find out I’m an English teacher, they feel compelled to confess their literary sins. But it goes back even before I started my current career. I once had a guy who sat next to me on a train coming home from college, and he spent most of the length of Pennsylvania telling me about the book he was going to write someday, if he ever had the time. (One would think that, for example, a long boring train ride would be the perfect time to start, but I guess that didn’t occur to him.)

Anyway, when people tell me about their “idea” for a story, I’ve noticed that most of the time what they really have is one of the major elements for a story: plot, setting, or character. (Another way of thinking about this is Orson Scott Card’s “MICE” Quotient: Milieu, Idea, Character, Event.) People will say, “I’ve got this idea for a steampunk world where everyone lives in submarines.” Or, “I want to write a dystopian novel about a conspiracy to impose gluten-free food on everyone.” Or, “I’ve always wondered what would happen if a medieval European knight fought a samurai.”

This is my advice if you’re having trouble coming up with something to write about: try to think of just one of those three (or four) elements. Don’t try to think up a whole story, fully formed, right from the very beginning. Don’t try to think of an opening scene and work out the plot step by step in your head. That can come later. For now, just try to come up with an interesting character, a fun setting, or some incident or event that you think would be cool in a story.

There are various ways to do this. If you want to start with a character, try the exercise from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story that we’ve mentioned before on this blog. Think of a character with an unlikely adjective or ironic attribute: a compulsively honest lawyer, for example. Or, in my story, a barely-competent, unmotivated secret agent.

Another way is to think of some inversion of or twist on an existing story. “It’s like Gladiator,” for example, “only the main character is a woman.” Now you’ve got a character, and (depending on exactly what you mean by “it’s like Gladiator”) maybe some plot, too. You can do the same thing with settings: “It’s like Middle Earth, only it’s in space, and the heroine’s culture is based on Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.”

One formula that gets used a lot (some would say overused) in discussing movies is “X movie meets Y movie,” as in “It’s Gladiator meets When Harry Met Sally.” That already tells you something about plot, and maybe about setting and character, too.

Maybe this seems like cheating, but it’s not. Don’t get hung up on trying to make your story completely new and original. I mean, you don’t want to blatantly rip people off, but don’t sweat it if your story sounds a little like something you’ve read before. I guarantee you that no matter how radically different you try to make your plot, no matter how fresh and unusual you think your characters are, at least one of your beta readers will look at what you’ve written and say, “Oh, yeah. That’s just like [some book or movie that should have been obvious].”

So you’ve got a character, or some cool set-piece fight that you want to see, or a setting. Now what?

When someone corners me and tells me about the book he wants to write, invariably, the person will finish by saying, somewhat apologetically, “That’s all I’ve got.” Yes, that’s all he’s got, but it’s pretty easy to get some more.

Once you have one of those elements (plot/setting/character, or milieu/idea/character/event), you can start filling in the rest of them. Take my example of a knight fighting a samurai, for instance. That’s an Event, or part of a plot. Now ask yourself, who are these guys? What sort of a samurai is fighting a knight? What sort of a knight fights a samurai? Do you see the scene from both their points of view? From a third person’s POV? If there’s a third person in the scene, who is it? (That’s character.) What kind of world is this where people from opposite ends of the Eurasian continent managed to meet up? Is this some kind of alternate reality? Were they captured by aliens and forced into an arena? (That’s setting or Milieu.) How did they come to be fighting? Who will win? Will they kill each other? Will they become friends? If they were captured by aliens, are they going to team up to escape? (Now we’re filling in more of the plot.)

You can even write it out, if that helps you (and it probably would):

Setting: a steampunk world where people live in submarines
Character (what sort of person lives in a submarine?): ______________________
Plot (what kind of events happen on submarines?): ________________________

Once you’ve done this, and you’ve filled in those blanks, you’ve got at least the beginnings of a story. And frankly, I wouldn’t try to write a novel knowing any less than that. But we usually do a lot more than just identify our characters, settings, and plots. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking you through our planning and outlining process, as well as giving you updates in real time as we prepare to write our own novels. So keep checking in, and start planning your book now. Remember, the more time you spend planning in October, the less time you’ll spend pounding your head against your keyboard in frustration in November.


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.


Default Settings

As fantasy authors, we’re always conscious of the need to make our ‘verse fantastical.  The last thing you want to hear from beta readers is, “Meh, I just didn’t get any sense of the place.”  On the other hand, we need to have settings that feel real.  And that usually means stealing little bits of places that we’ve actually been in our lives.

In an earlier post, I mentioned our honeymoon to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.  Those are really important settings for us, because we went there together, and we both remember what those cities look like.  Another place we both know well is a certain Midwestern public university that we both attended.  It was, in fact, the place where we met.

I swear there are students at this school.

I swear there are students at this school.

I spent ten minutes in GIMP taking myself out of this picture.

I spent ten minutes in GIMP taking myself out of this picture.

Some of the oldest buildings at this not-especially-old school are in the northwest corner, stretched at the top of a low hill in a gentle semicircle, with a wide, tree-covered lawn in front.  It’s a really lovely spot, although it’s far enough from the dorms that people rarely ever hang out there.  I used to walk around the campus a lot, and the sight of that row of buildings always stuck with me, so it made its way into our Quartet as part of the school that our heroes attend in the first novel.

Of course, the buildings there are in the wrong architectural style—something that I guess you would call “Collegiate Neoclassical,” or “Early 20th Century American High School.”  The buildings in our fictional school are more likely gothic.  And when I think of gothic architecture, I always think of my undergraduate university—a place renowned (or perhaps notorious) for its massive, fortress-like gothic buildings.

Boola boola!

Boola boola!

I don't remember having plants on the table, though.

I don’t remember having plants on the table, though.

Promotional picture taken on one of the two sunny, warm days per semester.

Promotional picture taken on one of the two sunny, warm days per semester.

Yay!  My freshman dorm.

Yay! My freshman dorm.

None of this is to say that you can’t write gothic settings without having lived in a faux-Oxbridge dorm.  It’s just interesting how my ideas of what Myrcia looks like are based on places I actually know.  The upside of this is that I have a real sense of what the place looks like, feels like, even smells like.  The downside is that any time I look at pictures to remind myself of certain details, I run the risk of disappearing down nostalgic rabbit holes.

Hey, I can see the balcony where we had that party in the inflatable kiddie pool.

Hey, I can see the balcony where we had that party in the inflatable kiddie pool.


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.