Thursday, July 28, 2011

Weapons That Define Them

Aside from trying to differentiate the races by their interactions, I noted that most cultures can be defined by a predominant weapon that comes to define them; the samurai’s katana defines Japan, the scimitar generally denotes an Arab or Turkish soldier. Although grossly over-simplified for the purposes of television, the Deadliest Warrior (DW) show proves the point. It was during a DW marathon that I thought about the symbolism of the weapons and how they would define the races in Ihr’Vessen.

Katana: Certainly not the only race to employ this weapon, this is the symbolic weapon for the J’in Empire. A blade of finesse and honour, it requires countless hours to manufacture and equally arduous years of practise to master the weapon. It is the heart and soul of the samurai warrior, both a symbol his position within society as well as his honour. To lose a katana in anything other than combat would be unacceptable, an insult only recoverable by taking one’s own life. This symbolism and honour represents the Empire as a whole, where the code of bushido is the backbone of the culture.

Sagaris: Employing two different methods of attack, this peculiar weapon requires neither finesse nor the complexity of construction of the katana. This makes it an ideal choice for the Plainsfolk. A hand-and-a-half battle axe, it could be used with equal ease from horseback or on foot. One on side we have the axe for slashing and cutting, the other tapered into a spike for brute penetration. The dual nature of the weapon also suitably represents the culture that shows the most capacity for barbarian class warriors.

Long Bow: Representing the Elves, the long bow finds its most lethal use by their elite rangers; other races use bows, but never to such effect. The long bow is a stand-off weapon, its range allowing archers to engage their enemy without risking direct physical contact. This seems to best fit how I wanted the Elves to be portrayed. The lone superpower, they deal with the ‘lesser races’ from a distance, allowing them to develop and stumble on their own.

Kilij: Rivalling this katana for lethality, it requires neither the complex forging process nor the exacting training required. The kilij is a weapon of war, its weighted and curved blade able to penetrate heavy armour. This was most appropriate for the Free States, who deal with the ork slavers as their primary threat.

Warhammer: Although I detested the idea of falling into the trope of “hammer wielding dwarves,” it seemed to make sense given the above-mentioned symbolisms and racial contexts. Living in the mountain realm of Naro, they are artificers of note, which requires mining. This would necessitate hammer and pick. Given their location and the threats they face, it seemed appropriate then to symbolize the race with a warhammer that, like the Sagaris, employed a pike on one side, the hammer head on the other.

Spear/Javelin: Not detailed for some time in the Ochra Cycle, the ratmen live in a swampy region betwixt the dwarves of Naro and the humans of the Free States. With few resources, the use of complex metal weapons made little sense. The use of a spear fit perfectly with their environment; a hunting weapon doubling as a weapon of war. From low-tech sharpened sticks to more complex throwing constructs, this weapon symbolized ratmen the best.

Chinese War Sword: This massive weapon could only work to its full potential in the hands of an ork. What would likely be seen as a mid-sized sword to any ork would require two hands for any human of Elf. More like a cleaver, its weighted blade and heavy shaft make it the definitive weapon for a race who brutalizes its victims and takes slaves of the survivors.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Worldbuilding and other such endeavours

One of those traps that I see referenced throughout the Web is the apparent near-addiction quality of worldbuilding (okay, is it world building, or worldbuilding?). Now, most fantasy authors and budding-authors will likely mention they grappled with early on. “How do you worldbuild? What level of detail do you get to? Do you start at the micro-level and work up? Macro-level and work down?” To be honest, the best fantasy series I’ve read that apparently did this with no seams to speak of were Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Orson Scott Card’s Ender series and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry.

Tolkein spent ages of his time developing whole languages (the stories of which need not be repeated), which nowadays would likely be seen as diving a little too deep into the worldbuilding. The end result of his work largely influenced everything thereafter and he defined much of the commonly accepted tropes we see in fantasy novels today. The Ender series, despite being science fiction, drives a spectacular balance between the training school scenes Ender spends most of his time dealing with, while his brother and sister deal with Earth-bound “issues.” The pace of Ender’s Endgame made this an instant classic and favourite for me. Finally, the Fionavar Tapestry, with its other-world Arthurian legend left me wondering whether I could ever accomplish something this diverse and detailed. The man wrote poetry disguised as prose – that’s about all I can say. I won’t ever be able to match it, nor will I bother to attempt it.

When asked how do I worldbuild for the Realms of Ihr’Vessen, I can’t really define any particular approach. It was a process. I developed a macro-level picture with the history that led to the point where the Ochra Cycle kicks off. Thereafter, I delved into the micro-level stuff when plotting the chapters out. This sometimes necessitated a return to macro-level, just to make sure things meshed together. Otherwise, I tried my darnedest to remain tacked to the story, not the worldbuilding.

Then I ran into these two websites:

Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions

Limyaael's Rants

Patricia C Wrede’s article (first link) is more a series of detailed questions. That said, if there is a checklist to refer to before diving too far into the plot, it would definitely be this one! I’m happy to think that I’ve answered many if not most of the questions therein, certainly some of the more crucial ones. How they come across to the reader may be different, of course.

Limyaael's Rants (second link), with 346 rants and counting, is pretty tongue-in-cheek some times, but valid arguments most times. I know I’ve read many of her rants and wondered the same things, or made specific efforts to address a similar issue with my WIPs.

As a bit of a diversion, they sometimes re-check my train of thought, or remind to include certain references within my own work, to make sure I’ve hit all the right spots. I figured if I couldn’t answer a question related to something these two references bring up, how could I expect a reader?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tropes, clichés and “isms”

We’ve all read them. We’ve likely all rolled our eyes as we came across them reading our favourite genre. As authors, budding or otherwise published, we’ve all strived to avoid them, or at least keep them to a minimum. I’m talking about the dreaded tropes, clichés and whatever “isms” seem to keep being attached and labelled to it. In the science fiction and fantasy genre, we seem to be rife with them; at the very least accused of using such a heinous “crutch.”

I recently re-read some of my older books, novels published back in the 80’s and 90’s. Most were fantasy, some sci-fi and what would now be termed urban fiction. What I found were a series of tropes and clichés that by current standards likely would not see publication. Then I look at the names and the dates of publication: Terry Brooks, David Eddings, among others, all with lists of publications I can only dream of accomplishing. Many of them are what I’d label as some of the great builders of the genre, after Tolkein of course. In the end, I remember enjoying them immensely.

So I asked myself the following: “What is the great mystery to the reactions about these dreaded tropes? Should I avoid them at all costs? Can I make something of them truly unique and transform a negative into a positive?”

I quickly realized how quickly down a rabbit hole these questions were leading. My initial response was “Just write whatever the heck I want,” so long as I kept it realistic; keep it within the margins I had set about writing within. I’m sure I’ve avoided the pitfalls of some of the more groan-worthy clichés out there. Have I chanced upon some of the tropes? No doubt. At a quick glance, I doubt a story could ever be written without delving into some tropes here and there.

As a story based in a Japanese-esque society, complete with a bushido system that underlies human culture and interactions, it includes the laundry list of races normally found in epic fantasy. Humans of various cultural backgrounds, Elves, orcs, goblins, dwarves, the list goes on. Already I’ve launched into three or four tropes. I’m also guilty of initially throwing those dreaded apostrophes into Elven names, something I’ve had to go back and edit out.

Are there things that make the setting unique? Surely, though macro-level world building aside, it’s the story that will see any WIP published. The differences I put into place to drive away from the “dreaded trope” may have some play in how things develop from a publishing standpoint, likely not nearly as much as I initially feared.

In the end, I write because I enjoy the story I have to tell. If I ever luck out and get an agent willing to work with the manuscripts to make them better, I’ll just count my lucky stars, not the number of tropes I can find.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Of clerics and mages

Due to the narrative of Days of Reckoning, I didn’t really have to delve too deeply into the military formations or how clerics and mages were employed within the J’in Empire’s Jade Legions. As I dive into Nights of the Assassin, I’m drawn further and further into the complex details of what could only be described as battalion and brigade level warfare. Sokuru deals with a series of tactical level scenarios, building up to a significant series of battles where I’ve had to sit back from the narrative and think about how clerics and mages are integrated into the military.

It took a few days before I suddenly remembered a recent military career course. From the modern perspective, artillery and engineer units are never under total command of a brigade commander. Each of these trades provides him with senior advisors, who know the capabilities of their own troops and equipment far better than the commander could. As such, they are integrated into the overall construct of the brigade, specialist skills and equipment supporting the whole.

It suddenly hit me that this would provide an interesting way of organizing the cultural and military integration of the clerics and mages into the J’in Empire. By extension, the mages and clerics would be subject to their own authorities: priests and clerics to the High Priest, while the mages would report to a hitherto undefined chain of command in support of the overall commander; I had already addressed sorcerors back in Reckoning. They each retain their status as samurai, yet socially and militarily they are apart from the Jade Legions and others of their social caste.

The significance this posed on cultural norms to both clerics and mages far surpassed just answering the question of “How would a mage employed in the Legions respond to orders from a commander? How would their interaction be shaped?” I now had a different way of introducing them into later scenes, where the social interaction was the key. It also gave me a certain leeway on how these divergent parts of the samurai caste would or could interact with others; a shadowy sub-set of the samurai that are little understood outside their own circles, but still required to network with other samurai.

It’s an interesting solution to a problem, and a good example how one aspect of culture building (more finite than world building) can have a more significant impact on the narrative than initially perceived.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Researching for writing

Well, back into it.... I’ve really kicked off into the second book, Days of Reckoning out for agent review. I’m expecting a flurry of form letters in the near future. Not to be deterred, I’ve decided to bash on through with the second novel, carrying on the exploits of Reckoning and throwing in some new characters. I’ve found myself really getting into some of the new points of view, particularly Sokuru, who had a very minor appearance in Reckoning. I’ve written five chapters from his worldview in no time flat.

One of the problems I’ve hit is the limit of my research on oriental and far eastern cultures. One of the biggest problems was the cultural norms of samurai japan, which I’ve largely taken into account while writing the Ochra Cycle. One thing that I know some will pick at, despite the fictional nature of the Realms of Ihr’Vessen, is the caste structure of the J’in Empire. The easy out of course is that this is a fictional setting. Notwithstanding this, there need to be enough reference points for a reader to grasp.

Samurai have largely been presented in modern media as an upper class of people, born into their station. Peasants remain the same through birth, with no possibility for improvement. There seems to be no room for advancement or movement between classes; the only exception to this being a samurai’s fall from grace to become ronin, which is still oft-times simply portrayed as the lowest of the upper class, still better than a peasant. This is mostly indicative of the Edo period of Japan. I’ve made the conscious decision that this doesn’t quite match the vision I have for the J’in Empire, at least not at the period that Reckoning entails. The Sengoku period seems more fitting, given the social movement possible, as well as the absolute anarchy produced by the warring states across Japan.

Another aspect I’ve been having fun researching has been the ancient techniques of war from the Chinese. From the very beginning where defences were largely limited to ditches and burms, reinforced with stakes, to the more elaborate castles and leading ultimately to the Great Wall of China. Most of this leads into the limitations my writing has faced with Nights of the Assassin. Once I clarified certain points, ideas abound!

All to say that researching has put a crimp in the amount of time left for writing. This of course is countered by the fact that I’ve added a slew of new ideas and plot points to Nights of the Assassin and the remaining books in the series.

The writing is flowing again.

And I’m loving it.