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I’ve reached a point in my Arthurian story where I’m going to have to start writing something about the (very limited) human magic systems. Merlin’s magic is based on draconic abilities and I can do anything I please with that. But any purely human magic systems in fifth-century Britain would be based—at least somewhat—on the original Druidic practices. Somewhat, because the Romans appear, uncharacteristically, to have done their best to squelch the Druids. (The Romans were usually fairly lenient toward local religious customs.) And, of course, because Christianity would have come to Britain sometime in the fourth century and that would have had some effect on how—and by who—the ancient practices were carried on.

So, I have tried to do some research on the Druids. Unfortunately, the only really reliable answer I’ve been able to arrive at is: Nobody knows. The bare handful of ancient writings by Greeks or Romans contemporary with the Druids barely say anything about their practices. And most of those are phrased by comparison, always unfavorably, to Greek or Roman practices, which actually says more about the attitudes of the writers than about the Druids themselves. Later writers appear to have made up a lot of what they say they know.

About the only thing that seems reasonably certain is that the Druids did have some methods of divination and might have also had some knowledge of healing and herbs.

So, it looks like I’m going to have to make up whatever magic system I use for the few humans who will have the ability. And, in this case, try to make it fit into a fifth-century context. Fortunately, I intend for any real magic (as opposed to herb lore, for example) to be fairly rare and somewhat limited.

Nevertheless, I thought now might be a good time to go into some of the questions I might ask myself in developing a magic system for one of my stories. These questions don’t always need to be answered in the story, but I may need to know the answers, even if my characters don’t. Also, some of the answers can be fodder for more conflict or obstacles for my story.

  1. Who can do magic?
  2. How do they acquire magic?
  3. Where does the magic come from?
  4. What is needed to perform magic?
  5. What can magic do?
  6. Are magic users organized in some way? How?

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Sometimes, it takes a while for ideas to percolate and then for me to voice them—to myself, first.

Another point Gail Carriger made in her book, THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY, is that readers or audiences of the two journeys are after different things. Those who favor the Hero’s/Warrior’s Journey are looking for excitement. Hairs-Breadth Escapes! Battles! Starships exploding! (Even in space, where there’s no oxygen, but . . . never mind.) Those who favor the Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey are not averse to excitement, but they’re looking for something else. She calls it comfort, which is as good a way to describe it as I can come up with. The satisfaction that things come out all right, happily, in the end—which the Hero’s/Warrior’s Journey doesn’t deliver.

However, when I think of LORD OF THE RINGS, I can’t help noticing something. Frodo is definitely on a Hero’s/Warrior’s Journey, but most of his solitary battle is internal, fighting against the growing influence of the Ring. After the breaking of the fellowship, almost all of the “exciting” bits—the battles—take place in Aragorn’s part of the story. Helm’s Deep, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and the Assault on the Black Gate. And, as I argued here, Aragorn is on a Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey.

Which leaves me thinking. If a Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey supplies enough excitement along the way . . . well, I suppose some of the adrenalin junkies might think the ending is sappy, but they got the excitement they were after, so they’re not disappointed. And those looking for the satisfying ending of the Heroine’s/Leader’s Journey still got that.

Is it possible to please both with the same story? It seems so, but I need to think some more on just how to make that work.

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Or, at Least One Modified Pantser

A meme has recently started going around in writer’s groups on social media:

There are three kinds of writers:

  1. Those who plot their stories.
  2. Those who discover their plot along the way.
  3. Those who know what will happen but their book is a bit feral still, needs a bath, has bitten and will bite again.

That wording for the third group is perhaps a little bit strong. I call myself a modified pantser and I think most of us in the middle have probably developed a few tactics for taming that feral story.

All of us have to find the process that works best for us, individually. Usually by trial and error. I’ve certainly been no exception to that.

The first novel I wrote (not counting that thing I wrote in college), I outlined. It’s been a while so I can’t remember exactly why. Probably I thought you were supposed to. Part way through, I noticed that I was spending a significant part of my writing time revising the outline as the story grew and changed in my imagination.

This is also the first story in which I had to deal with a full rebellion by one of my characters. I reached a scene, called for in the outline, and I just could not write it. After a couple of days of thinking about it, I realized that the problem was that the character just would not do what the outline called for. It was out of character for him. But, with or without the outline, I needed him to in order to get where I wanted the story to go. The solution, eventually, was to change the situation enough that the character would see doing what I needed him to do as for the greater good—and, bonus points for torturing my characters, still be very unhappy about it.

I also outlined the next novel. When that story diverged from the outline fairly early on, I closed the outline and just kept writing.

I did not outline my third novel. I was literally writing the last few pages when I looked up and said to myself, “But it doesn’t come out to a story.” I knew instinctively that something was missing. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out what because I wasn’t grounded enough in the craft yet. The problem was that the story wasn’t really centered around a story problem. The problem was there, but it wasn’t . . . featured, I guess is the best way to put. It didn’t create turning points (plot points) in the story. Once I realized that, it was easy enough to fix.

So, by this point, I’d demonstrated that outlines don’t really work for me. I’m not a plotter. But, neither does just plunging in and winging it—the stereotype of the pantser. And so my process evolved. I need to have signposts along the way—the major plot points like the inciting incident, the key event, the mid-point, and the climax. This helps to keep me from veering off too far (something that did happen in the third novel) and also helps to keep the story problem central to what my characters are doing. But it leaves me free to just let what happens in between flow naturally for my characters.

I also, now, tend to have at least chapter headings and a few notes set up for maybe three to five chapters ahead of where I’m currently working. Things like which character will have the viewpoint and a couple of sentences about what will happen in that chapter. Maybe a snatch of dialogue that came to me while I was washing dishes or walking the dog. In my current WIP, maybe a couple of research notes copied in for easy reference. This isn’t an outline. More like the headlights illuminating just enough of the road ahead. This usually works for me, but occasionally a story will require more—or less—structure to work. As my dog agility instructor used to tell us, “You have to be rigid about being flexible.”

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I’ve been thinking about the writing process—especially my writing process lately. We usually divide writers into Plotters and Pantsers, but the real world is rarely that black and white.

Plotters outline their stories, sometimes extensively, before they ever put Chapter One at the top of a page. Their characters may be built to fit the plot and, some would say, they tend to create plot-driven stories.

Pantsers, on the other hand, are said to write by the seat of their pants, discovering the plot as they go along. A pantser’s characters are more likely to lead them off script—or, at least, be more likely to be allowed to go off script. The result is often a character-driven story.

G. R. R. Martin likened it to the difference between architects and gardeners. An architect plans the rooms and where the windows and doors will be before starting to build. A gardener plants a seed and watches what grows.

But the real world is rarely that simple and there is a whole continuum of writing processes between the two extremes. I’d venture to say most writers are somewhere between.

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My previous posts cover my research, so far. Now I’m going to delve into some general thoughts about the legend itself–and how it got to be the legend we know.

A legend is defined as “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” But, we know that at least some legends, like the Trojan War, have been shown to have at least some historical basis.

So, some legends may have a kernel of historical truth at their core. Sometimes, it’s a very small kernel. And, sometimes, that kernel is not what most people think of when they think of the legend. If the legend of King Arthur has such a core, I think it is the fight by the Romano-Celtic Britons against the encroaching “Saxons”. In particular, the Battle of Badon Hill, which, in Arthurian tradition, is the decisive battle in which the Saxons were defeated badly enough not to try to take more territory from the Britons for several decades. (“Saxons” seems to be the term used for all Germanic tribes in the legend—even if they were in fact Angles or Jutes, rather than actual Saxons.)

Yes, I know the fight against the Saxons is not what most people think of when they think of the story of Arthur. Many modern versions of the legend either completely ignore the Saxons or dispense with them quite early and get on with the shinier parts of the story—parts that mostly were added later. Because what turns history into legend is that the story grows in the telling.

If that is the origin or core of the Arthur story, then we can place it during the Dark Ages, either in the fifth century or very early in the sixth century. It can’t be earlier than that because the Romans controlled Britannia from the middle of the first century until the beginning of the fifth century. The Romans were really, really good at a number of things—roads, aqueducts, military tactics, and bureaucracy. They kept records and wrote histories, most of which have survived. If the Romans had still been in charge when the Battle of Badon Hill took place, there wouldn’t be any doubt about the site of the battle. At the very least, we’d know what civitas it took place in. And, if there ever was a real Arthur, he’d be mentioned. It also can’t be later, for a couple of reasons. The establishment of the early Saxon kingdoms (other than Kent) spans from the late fifth to the early sixth century. And, besides, we have a mention of the Battle of Badon Hill, placing that battle probably between 470 and 500. That mention is found in Gildas’s On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain.

More about that and what history can be pieced together in my next post.

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Year Ahead

So, now it’s time to set some goals for the year ahead. There’s still a lot of uncertainty out there, but that’s no reason not to try to do better. The reverse, actually.

My main goal will be to try to re-establish some sort of regular writing habit. It doesn’t have to be the way it was before. Maybe it shouldn’t be. But I do need to insert some consistency, some dedicated time that I work on writing . . . something. Even if the current story continues to be sporadic for a while, I need to write something. For now, I’m going to start small. I’m going to shoot for half an hour to start–everyday. No diversions allowed. Half an hour where I have to either write or stare at a blinking cursor. No skipping over to play a game of solitaire. No checking the internet–unless it’s for legit research. Of course, when the story is flowing, I’ll write for much longer than that. But even on the days when it’s not, half an hour. Then, next month, my goal will be a whole hour. And so on until I’m actually making consistent forward progress. That’s the only way I can see to break out of this inertia. So that’s what I’ll do.

Beyond that, continue improving my diet and general fitness.

Read more widely. Try new authors and subjects.

Continue learning new things. I just started an online course about military blunders. Who knows what will come of that.

And have faith that the world will settle into a new normal, probably not exactly the same as before. But less fraught. More comfortable. And next year’s holiday season will be different.

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I’m taking a brief pause from my Arthur-related posts for this week and next to do my usual look back at my goals–and how well I did (or didn’t do) and then ahead to goals for the coming year. See this post.

So, this time last year . . . the world was different, for starters. Anyway . . .

My first goal was to refill my creative well by breaking out of my rut:

  • Stop re-reading my comfort reads and try something new, some new authors.
  • Make more of an effort to break out of my introvert comfort zone, go new places, maybe even meet new people.
  • Start a new fitness routine.

Okay. Well, I did pick up a few new-to-me authors, but, if there was ever a better time for comfort reads, I’m not sure when that would have been. As far as going new places and meeting new people, well, the pandemic and lock down pretty much put paid to that idea. The one item that has been a real success is the new fitness routine. That’s working out really pretty well.

My second goal was new learning to fuel new ideas.

That one, too, has worked out pretty well. (As my last several posts on all things Arthur might indicate.) But I’ve done online courses about a number of other interesting topics, too. Who knows where that will lead in the future.

My third goal was to break through my writer’s block.

I wouldn’t call this one an unqualified success. I am writing again–in fits and starts–but not consistently. Still it’s unfair to beat myself up with everything this year has thrown at us.

Third: Breaking through writer’s block. I’ve bought and started reading one e-book on the subject. Not everything in it will work for me, of course. You can’t expect that. Every writer’s process is different. But picking up some ideas is a good start. There’s another book by a different author I may try after this one.

My fourth goal was to possibly try a new writer’s group.

Yeah, no progress on this one.

My fifth goal was to clean my desk.

Well, yes. More than once. This is the sort of thing that has to be done periodically. Somehow, it just keeps getting messy until I finally do something about it. Pretty clean right now, though.

My sixth goal was to get back into a regular writing routine.

Not . . . yet. Maybe when things get back to some new semblance of order.

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Research

I’ve done it again, haven’t I. Almost a month since my last post. All I can say is that I’ve been head down in research.

And it’s paid off. I now have a shape, a plan for at least the first part of my story that feels . . . if not actually historical, then historically possible. Well, except for the dragons, of course. But they’re kind of the inspiration for my version of the Arthur legend, so the dragons stay.

But I now have a more-or-less historical basis in which to set my story, which won’t resemble the usual tradition in several ways. It simply isn’t plausible for Arthur to be King of all Britain. There wasn’t any such thing until after England and Scotland were joined under one crown–well over a thousand years after Arthur could have existed. There wasn’t even a King of England until Alfred the Great (one of those Saxons whose ancestors Arthur would have been fighting against) at least 300 years after Arthur.

And it’s not really plausible that Arthur was somehow defending all of what would become England, either. So this story is going to have a much smaller geographical reach. But the research has given me a good idea of the general area in which a Vortigern and an Ambrosius might have been operating. And why they might have been enemies. And an idea of where to slot my Arthur into that context. So, we’ll see how this works out. I think I’m even going to figure out how to have Arthur born in Tintagel, though not, of course, in the way Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote it.

This doesn’t mean my research is finished. Far from it. Mostly it’s going to change direction. I need to get more background for the world building. What would these people wear? What kind of houses would they live in? What would they do when they weren’t fighting?

And, I’m probably going to have to do a similar research on the Saxons, but that can come later. For now, I’m ready to carry on with the story.

 

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Another Step

celtic dragon_46947764

Progress so far has been slow on MERLIN’S GAMBIT. But this week for the first time I have made notes in the document of what happens in this chapter and the next. This might not seem like much.

I’m a discovery writer. I don’t outline. Except that I usually have these notes for three to five chapters ahead in my work in process. So, this one is beginning to come to life as more than just a concept and a starting point.

After a long drought, it feels good.

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Sideways Progress

While I continue to stew over various stymied home projects, I have made some progress on MERLIN’S GAMBIT–in a way.

In expanding my research, I came across something that was just too perfect to pass up. But using it meant starting the story a little later. It’s okay, the opening scene actually can be pretty flexible that way. So, I just rewrote a portion of dialog to make it fit the new time period.

Merlin’s Gambit is an alternate history (well, sort of) with dragons. And, well, I’ll just post the historical note that precedes the first chapter:

In the year 383, Britannia had been part of the Roman Empire for nearly four hundred years. Among other things, this meant the Britons enjoyed the protection of the Roman legions against raids by groups the Romans considered barbarians—the Irish from the west, the Picts from the north, and the Saxons from the east. In that year, the commander of the legions in Britannia, a man named Magnus Maximus, was proclaimed emperor by his troops. He took most of the legions with him to the continent to conquer Rome—or at least a significant portion of it. And he succeeded, for a while, ruling Britannia, Gaul, Hispania, and North Africa. Until he tried to add Italy to his domain and in 388 Emperor Theodosius I captured and executed Maximus and his son, though his daughters, Maxima and Sevira, were spared.

Britannia continued as part of the Roman Empire, though with reduced legions, until the year 410. An exceptionally cold winter a few years earlier had caused the Rhine River to freeze over and the barbarians who had been pushing at the northeastern borders of the Roman Empire poured across into Gaul. In 410, under the leadership of Alaric, the Visigoths sacked Rome itself. And the last remaining legions in Britannia were withdrawn, leaving the Britons on their own to defend against renewed raids. Britannia fractured into small kingdoms, echoing the Celtic tribal domains that had existed before the Romans came. But, with the experience of being part of the Roman Empire, they recognized that they needed someone to lead a common defense against the barbarians.

Little real history comes down to us from fifth-century Britannia, but there are legends. So many, many legends. Among them is one that claims that Magnus Maximus had married Elen, a Welsh princess. And that, when he left to make himself emperor, he left the sovereignty of Britannia to her father. Legend also says that Sevira, married a man named or called Vortigern, which, interestingly, means “high king”. Vortigern, though, made a serious mistake and it fell to an even greater legendary figure, Arthur, to preserve Romano-Celtic Britannia for his time.

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