Writing Excerpt: The Ice Diver.

I’ve been playing around with this story. I like it. I like it so much I made a little cover for it, just so it looked fancier on my page. What do y’all think? Basic premise: Aunat of High House lives out a bleak exile on Falen Island, where folk of the Warm World banished her ancestors over a hundred years ago on counts of treason and sedition. When a mysterious young man is shipwrecked on the island, Aunat begins to question her place, not only on the island, but in the Warm World denied her people. If she makes the decision to leave, however, she’ll find that there’s much more keeping her on the island than bad weather and tradition.

I’ve always been fascinated with traditional hero’s journey type stories, and have never understood why the traditional hero’s journey couldn’t be made to apply to a woman. The ‘heroine’s journey’ you see offered as a consolation sop is mostly a sad and boring story of self-sacrifice and self-discovery: well, fuck that, I want ladies with swords earning respect and place in society. I don’t understand why that’s apparently weird.

Photo by Rajmund Barnas, at freeimages.com. Ruined by myself.


There was a house on the side of the mountain, beside the rocky hills known as the Jaggers. It was not a remarkable house, being roofed in turf and built of stone just like every other house on the island, though it was a little bigger than some of them. The only thing that made it interesting, in fact, was that it was over an hour’s walk from the village, and therefore the house of an outcast.

The folk of the village stuck close together. It was, after all, a matter of them against the icy wind and frozen tundra of Falen island. There were perhaps a hundred people in the village, and there wasn’t a one of them who didn’t have some dealings with the other ninety-nine. The village loomed below the caverns, humped turf-roofed houses and the mead hall and the flat postage stamps of farmland, icy white in the winter and green only for a short time in Scythemonth. The villagers were a hard people, low-slung and hearty and always working. They had a smithy, for the land of Falen Island had proven rich in iron ore, and when it was especially cold the whole village would cluster around it, cheeks pinking in the white-hot fire of the forge.

The owner of the house by the Jaggers had not been born in the village. She had been born in this house, High House, as had her father, and his father before him. The people in the village did not remember why this was so, but so had it always been–there was always a Lord in High House, or, at least, there had been until Karmike Redshouldered had the bad grace to die after issuing only a girl. Now they treated her with a sort of benign neglect, visiting only to trade: no one was sure, really, what to do about Aunat of the High House.

They did not quite trust her: she was not, strictly speaking, of the village. But it was a small village, and there was no one else, so they were obliged to have some dealings with her. She was an ice-diver, the best in the settlement, and when a village family had ikli on the table it was like as not because of her diving.

So they said this about her: you cannot trust Aunat of the High House, but her ikli are fresh, and she does her part.

It wasn’t a compliment, but it was as close as they were going to come.


It was strange, Aunat thought, how human memory worked. From what she had observed in the village, folk had two types of consciousness–extremely long term, and extremely short.

The extremely long term consciousness remembered the sagas of the Elders, the pain and agony of the Naysayers cast from their home in the Warm World. It remembered the ancient smithing songs, the chant of harvest, the slow and seeping ancestral guilt of a castoff people.

The short term remembered, more or less, what the person possessed of said consciousness had been doing five minutes ago. It remembered such a thing for just long enough to complete the task. It remembered precisely what was in the storehouse, but not how it had gotten there, or what trades had been made to get it.

What was missing in the village, Aunat thought, was the middle ground. For instance–when Sevil the Icebreaker owed her trade for threestone of ikli from last winter, Sevil the Icebreaker was likely to forget until some divine agency, such as herself, reminded him.

Right now, he was looking around her living area, at the tall black hearth and the skins on the floor and the battered shield over the hearth, the only ornament Aunat had allowed herself to keep. He was thinking, doubtless, this is a rich house, richer by far than mine. He would be bitter, deep down, over the high portion of wood this single woman claimed when it came time for the lumber expeditions to the spruce islands in spring. He would not remember why, by Naysayer law, she was allowed to claim such a portion.

“I have to get by too, you know,” Aunat said at last. “It gets cold up here. No more until you pay me, Sevil. I am sorry, but you know the law.”

Sevil sighed. “Each has his own,” he recited. “And no one else’s. Yes, Aunat Icediver. I know. But I have no memory of such a debt. If, perhaps, there was a record–”

Aunat smiled at him. She smiled mostly because, if she didn’t smile, she would be rushing for the big sealskin book in her trunk, and she would shove the written record of his debt under his nose until all he could smell was cloudberry ink.

But that would do no good, and she knew it. Sevil was illiterate, like most of the village: as a rule, only those in the High House and the priests of the Watcherblad knew their letters.

So she smiled. And smiled. And smiled. And she reached for the whale vertebra she used as a stool, and pointed to where the three carven lines of Sevil’s debt had been engraved on it with a knife and sealed, in the style of the Naysayers, with three drops of his blood.

“See,” she said. “Three lines, put there last Frostmonth. One for each stone.”

“Ah,” Sevil said, as though that proved everything. “Yes. I remember. I apologize for forgetting–the frost-sickness touched me earlier this winter, and I’ve yet to quite recover. I’ve some seal fat frozen at home–would twostone of that and a pebble of salt be equal payment?”

“It would,” said Aunat, knowing she could expect no better. Besides, she was low on salt.

It was a delicate dance, with the villagers. They didn’t trust her any more than she trusted them, and they were always testing her–forgetting their debts, packing light stones, performing payment tasks poorly or not at all. She had learned to account for herself, up here. She had to, to keep her life comfortable.

“Then the debt is washed away?” Sevil asked, a note of hopefulness tinging his voice.

“It will be washed away,” Aunat said, emphasizing the important parts, “when the fat and salt are delivered to my door.” It was a poor trade, but the villagers had not done as well this last Scythemonth as they often did, and Aunat did not wish to be unfair. Every steading needed nourishment and warmth. Otherwise, all suffered.

“It’s a long walk up here,” Sevil said, wheedling. “Cold and rocky.”

“It would be the same for me, coming down to the village. It’s your debt, not mine.”

Sevil sighed. “As you wish. Look for me tomorrow, during the suntime.”

They shook hands, in the manner of the Naysayers of old: palms stiff, fingers extended, only thumbs locking over each other. A fair deal, the handshake was supposed to embody. Nothing hidden.

Nothing, Aunat reflected wryly, except years of animosity and necessity.

“Would you care to stay for a cup of tea?” Aunat asked, as the ritual required. “I have golden root, left over from last Scythemonth.”

“I shouldn’t wish to deprive you,” Sevil said. The politeness ritual required, and no more.

He left quickly, and Aunat watched him began the downhill journey from her stone porch. He moved rather quickly, she thought, for a man whose excuse for an unpaid debt was frost-sickness in the limbs.

It was pleasant, standing outside. The sea breeze pinched at the small strip of her face left exposed, and each breath was like ice crystals in the lungs. Not very many people, perhaps, would have thought it pleasant, but Aunat knew the secrets of such a day: blue porcelain sky, clear and hard as an upturned bowl. Snowcapped rocks of the island thrusting up to meet it. The sealine below her was quiet, a deep and brooding blue. The village beside it, turf-humped houses clustered fearfully together, didn’t bother her one bit.

It was a good day for ice-diving. If she went in before the sun set, there would be many ikli. They liked this sort of cold, dry weather, where there would be little sediment stirred up on the ocean floor.

If the ikli liked the weather, Aunat liked it, too. Such were the lessons of life in the High House: men were fickle, prone to schemes and betrayals. Only animals spoke the truth, with their movements and habits, and the truth of animals always led to food.

Occam’s Phaser: Simplicity in Fantasy

Photo from wikipedia. Text from the sick depths of my soul.

Occam’s Phaser


All right, people, I want you to take a moment and appreciate the fact that, after long practice, I may have just typed the nerdiest letters of my career. Occam’s phaser. Sheesh. Shove me in a locker, somebody, cause I ain’t makin’ it to senior prom.

With that out of the way…

(Occam’s phaser! Hurr!)

I want to have a serious talk.

You guys have all heard of William of Occam, right? Born in…well, probably Occam. A mendicant friar and a logician of the 14th century, who posited, among many logical principals, the idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. There’s more to it, but that’s how we non-logicians usually express it.

And a bunch of people took offense to that. Wouldn’t you? I mean, you’ve got this fancy theorem that took you like five years to embroider into factfulness, what business does this punk monk have coming around and going naw, simpler is better, dawg, and then you’re all like my name is Immanuel Kantstopdis, and I think nature is diverse as hell. And then, they see you whip, and possibly nay-nay, and by God–

Okay. Overcompensating. I’m going somewhere with this, I swear. Or I’m trying to.

Occam’s razor is the idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. Occam’s phaser, which is my idea, is the same general principal applied to your fantasy novel: the simpler you keep it, the more your story is likely to work.
We’ve all read those epic fantasy novels. You know, those ones. Where there’s a thousand pages of scenebuilding before you get to the plot, where you need the Cliff’s notes to keep up with the list of characters, and where everybody, everybody, gets paired off with either a romantic partner or a small country by the end of the novel.

When you write your Amazon review for this novel, it probably features the phrase ‘excellent worldbuilding’, mostly because, well, somebody did spend a lot of time, and that much literary real estate has to be worth something. Trick is, you can sell an acre of swamp and call it ‘real estate’. You can sell a shotgun shack (doors and windows not included) and it’s still fricking real estate.

But that’s not what you want real estate to be, is it? You want your novel to be in Beverly Hills, to have a midcentry modern dream house on it. You want lights to turn on when you clap. You want Jennifer Lawrence next door, and you want her to bring you casseroles when you move in. (Or organic cruelty-free parsnip chips. Or whatever hip people eat now).

My point is, you only need to:

1) Have a character in your story if that character is necessary to the plot,
2) Describe the setting in detail if the setting is plot-crucial or particularly unique,
3) Add in a plot twist when that plot twist is natural, and doesn’t take a lot of work to fit in.

That’s it, baby. That’s Occam’s phaser.

It’s easy to get carried away with your own descriptive powers whilst in the throes of composition. Problem is, it isn’t readable to do so. We don’t need to know the name of Lord Aston’s squire if this is the only scene she’s in. And a few descriptive terms–surly, for instance, or sunny–will probably suffice, if you need them at all. When you spend a paragraph or two describing this squire, you’ve indicated to the reader that she’s going to be important later on in the story. That’s what description does. And when you make that promise too often, and don’t stand by it, your reader doesn’t know what to pay attention to anymore.

Same goes for settings. As an adult human being, I know what a field of grass looks like. I know what an oven looks like. Now, unless there’s something important about this oven–the main character’s mother has cooked every dinner he’s ever eaten on it, and it represents his sadness over leaving home–or something unique–it’s a magical oven that only cooks children–I don’t need more than a little bit to know what I’m looking at. Woodstove might tell me enough, or gas oven, or big white oveny bastard brooding in the corner.

And plot twists? Oh, Jesus, plot twists. There is nothing, nothing more annoying than an unneeded plot twist. Ask yourself, always: is there some question here that hasn’t been answered by the course of the story so far? If there is, twist the night away. If there isn’t, hold off. It’s just going to throw your reader off balance, and leave him expecting a major shift in the plot…which, since your plot twist doesn’t go anywhere, you’re not going to give him.

So. Only have Bertie the Bertblandished carried off by the dragon if it’s going to change your plot. Does it make him see the importance of fire-proof wizard’s robes? Does he become friends with the dragon, take him back to the castle to help them win the war? Does he realize, uncomfortably, that the dragon is actually his mother, and maybe that’s why everyone he has a burping contest with seems to spontaneously combust.

If it does one of those things, that’s great. But even then, it better do one of those things because that question has been raised in the natural course of your plot. Maybe this annoying wizard-chickie has been harping on him about fire proof robes for the entire story, and now he gets the reasoning, and starts to talk to her more–and it turns out she’s just awesome, an incredible person, and she has a lot of really good ideas for defending the castle, and he winds up marrying her or something. You get the idea: a plot twist has to answer a question and move the plot forward. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time going retrograde. Remember Ptolemy? Time waster. Yeah, you heard me.

(If you got that joke, please join me on this schooner full of people who aren’t getting dates for prom. It’s warm here, and we have twelve-sided dice.)

So, when you write, consider the beauty of simplicity and pare accordingly. But remember: even William of Occam didn’t mean something had to be bare bones to be correct. Embellishment can be beautiful and effective, too–as long as you keep it in moderation.

Why Money Matters in Fantasy


One evening, I fell asleep. The next morning, I didn’t wake up.

Well, that’s not quite true. Obviously, I woke up eventually. Just–not by natural means. I woke up with a syringe in my arm and four strangers looking down at me.

The syringe was full of glucagon, and the strangers were EMTs. They saved my life. They were at my house because my boyfriend called 911 when I wouldn’t wake up to his usual morning poking and prodding. I’m a Type I diabetic, and I was having what the fancy folks up on the hill call a hypoglycemic episode: my blood sugar was in the teens (normal range 80-120), and my body had, in an effort to keep me alive, shut down most of its higher functions.

This is, obviously, a serious thing. Four EMTs sort of serious. If a hypoglycemic episode continues long enough unchecked, it can result in brain damage or death. And the worst part was, I had no idea why it happened. I hadn’t been drinking or eating anything unusual the night before. I had taken the right amount of insulin at the proper time. So, when the nice people who just saved my life asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, I said yes.

Now here’s the part I’m not proud of. Saying yes only happened after I thought about it for a few minutes.

You see, I was pretty broke at the time. And my first thought wasn’t about saving my own life, or making sure that this never happened again. My first thought wasn’t Definitely Not Dave’s peace of mind. It wasn’t even that we were short at work, and my boss would need me (I think I was off that day, actually).

No. My first thought, ignoble though it may be, was:

I can’t afford this.

That’s right. I could have died, and my first thought was about money.

It was horrifying to realize. Just as horrifying: should the zombiepocalypse happen, the first thing I’d probably do is go rob a pharmacy of all its insulin. I’m not an evil person, and I certainly don’t think crime is the proper solution to anything. But when you suddenly need a decade’s supply of an expensive medication or you die, crime starts looking much more viable. You don’t have the money to live, otherwise, and your insurance certainly doesn’t cover extra vials in the event of flesh-eating manbeasts.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Because I want to talk about money in your story. Especially your fantasy story. You see, all those years your parents told you money didn’t matter were cruel, cruel lies.

Money does matter. Money matters more than anything.

It’s one of those unpleasant truths we realize early on in adulthood. Somewhere in your mid-twenties, at the latest, you stop being able to get away with the shit you got away with earlier. You’re no longer young and inexperienced. You’re no longer going to school. You’re no longer living with your parents, paying nominal rent whenever you can afford it and sneaking Mom’s Triscuits out of the pantry when you want a snack. When you get your first three hundred dollar heating bill, you realize why Dad always guarded the thermostat like a national treasure. When you get your first two hundred dollar water bill, you realize why Mom always shed a solitary tear every time you washed your soccer uniform and just your soccer uniform.

Now, my dear, starts a long, grey adulthood. Enjoy plugging all your appliances into the same surge protector so you can unplug them easily when you leave the apartment. Enjoy taking baths and not showers because of the four dollar difference on your water bill. Enjoy not washing your jeans until they stand up without you. Enjoy never visiting your friends in the country because it costs ten bucks in gas just to get there and get back.

Unless you’ve led a very privileged life, some of these things sound familiar to you. Deprivation and conservation are the story of being a grown-up, for most people. You’ll make more money and get out of it, eventually–hopefully. But when you don’t have a lot of cash, your own poverty rules everything you do.

Which is part of why it surprises me–even shocks me–that people in fantasy world never seem to be poor. Even when the author says they’re poor, money just kind of materializes. Stuff just kind of materializes. And the possessions these supposed ‘poor’ people have: well. They don’t always match up to the poverty described.

Consider, for instance, a family of subsistence farmers in a medievalesqe village within a make-believe Arctic Circle. These people obviously have a hard life, and most of it is probably lived in several feet of snow. So, two things they probably won’t be doing, that your silly ass might try to make them do:

1) Living in wooden houses, and
2) Owning horses. 

At first, a wooden shack and a Shetland pony seem pretty in keeping with what we know of a classic Anglo fantasy-type world. But if it’s really cold, you need to think about such things twice before you do them. If they live in wooden houses, where the hell are these trees coming from? Not a lot of timber, within the Arctic Circle. (You might want to, likewise, consider what they’re making fires and tools from. Hint: it’s probably not wood.)

And the horse? What are they feeding this thing? A big animal like that is expensive to keep up and would be difficult to keep warm in a frosty climate. You could trade the horse in for oxen or reindeer, but you’ve still got the upkeep problem. These subsistence farmers more than likely run that plow by themselves, and, for that matter, probably can’t do too much crop-growing anyway. Breaking up the almost permanently frozen ground would be a toughie. Their diet is probably heavily meat based, and they probably have all the health problems you’d expect from that (or would they? Many Inuit cultures didn’t.).

I think the place where we get confused is the idea of value versus actual paper/metal money. Just because a society doesn’t have a lot of gold pieces floating around doesn’t mean things have no value: a cow, for instance, might be worth three gold coins, but in a tiny village on the outskirts of the world, the likelihood of someone having those coins is low. They might, however, have two goats, or thirty yards of fabric, or a winter’s supply of firewood. Therefore, the value of a cow is a little mutable, but oh buddy, it is still value.

So please, when you’re writing a fantasy world, do consider your monetary system. Consider what things are worth and why. Consider that our cow, plenty valuable in green pastureland, might actually be less valuable in a desert or the Arctic, where no one has the necessary resources to use said cow for its true value. And consider that a young person starting out in the world is going to actually need money, and will probably make some decisions based on funding (or lack thereof).

Fantasy has this tradition of treating the mercenary as a figure of questionable moral fiber. But sometimes, my friends, to go on the quest, you need to raise money to buy the horse. And then, once you’ve bought the horse, you need some money put aside for feed, and a good saddle, and a horse blanket, and stable fees. Your peasant-turned-princess doesn’t just need a gown to go to the ball, if she wants to blend in: she needs a footman, and a carriage, and etiquette lessons, and dancing lessons, and a hairstylist, just to name a few.

Money is the blood in the veins of your fantasy world, just as it is in this world. There’s no escaping it, and you shouldn’t try. If your character is of a lower class, you can’t simply forgo the realities of living in that class. People do things solely for money all the time. (Be honest with yourself, boo boo. Why do you go to work every morning?)

Adventures are expensive. If nothing else, you wind up using a ton of vacation days.

(A note: for a great example of how to use money in a fantasy story, check out The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, if you haven’t already. There is, to be honest, a lot I don’t like about Rothfuss’s writing, but this is one thing he gets spot on. And, in spite of having to think about money constantly, Kvothe has plenty of fun adventures. The way he learns to get around his own poverty is, in fact, one of the chief character-building themes in the novel.)

Fantasy Homonyms


Fantasy Homonyms

Starting this blawg with a story. (Do I even know how to actually spell ‘blawg’ any more? I’m just asking because you’re probably asking. The answer is no.)

When I was twelve, maybe thirteen, the first Lord of the Rings movie came out. Was it the only thing that happened that year? No. The Twin Towers fell, and I think I got leg hair. But it was, by far, the most important to me.

(Cue crazed patriotic backlash over opinion statement. Get over it, I was twelve.)

I’d read the books. They were all right. I had always been, and always will be, more a fan of the Hobbit than LotR, but LotR was all right. The scenes in Moria kept me awake at night. I cheered for Eowyn. I was involved.

I did not, however, turn into the screaming, wheezing, mouth-frothing geek I have been ever since until viewing the movies.

To this day, I’m not certain why they struck such a chord with me. Maybe my shabby twelve year old pubescent existence needed heroes and glory. And swords. (It definitely needed swords). And all my friends had something to obsess over, why not me? I was, at twelve, too old for boy bands (in my head, at least,) and too young to go to concerts.

So I obsessed. I read the trilogy like twenty times. I read the Silmarillion and, to my surprise, enjoyed it. I developed a fondness for Feanor and his sons. I wrote poetic and terrible Feanor fanfiction. Surprisingly, I don’t think I had many pimples, but I did have a pretty gnarly set of braces. Eventually, I got a boyfriend. He didn’t share my fondness for terrible and poetric Feanor fanfiction. I was deeply disappointed. Why couldn’t I just live in Middle Earth, where everyone knew who Feanor was. Etc. You’ve been a preteen. You know the drill.

I’ve diverged somewhat from my original point here, which was to talk about a single phrase in what I think was the first LotR movie, which floored me then and still floors me now. It was:

They will raze Minas Tirith to the ground.

Okay. Now, imagine you’re twelve. You’re stuffing your training bra with toilet paper at the school dance; the biggest book you’ve read is Great Expectations, and that was mostly for the Accelerated Reader points, which you hoard like a dieter hoards Hershey kisses.

Raze is not a word that exists for you. It’s archaic: it’s old-fashioned. But you sure as hell know what raise means, you didn’t get all those reader points for nothing. So, just hearing it spoken, it sure as hell sounds like Boromir is saying they will raise Minas Tirith etc. Which is awfully confusing.

You’re an only child, and your friends aren’t out to play because it’s raining and they’re boring, and this is before the internet was a total thing. So you go to a dictionary. And you spend an amount of time adults might call ‘unhealthy’ looking through the RA section.

A light goes on in your dopey little twelve year old skull.

Holy snickers bars, Batman. There are words that sound like other words but mean different things. How can you trust the world now. How can society continue.

These words, you learn during the five minutes of computer lab where you AREN’T mindlessly playing Oregon Trail, are called ‘homonyms’. Or, to be honest: homophones. For more on the potential difference between the two, check out this link here. I’ll use them interchangably, because I can’t make up my mind about anything more than what to have for dinner without planning.

I still think the phrase ‘razing (Minas Tirith) to the ground’ is one of the worst word choices in cinematic history. I guess, in some ways, I’m just as much of an unimaginative pedant as I was when I was twelve.

But the fact is, at least the script had ‘raze’ in it. They knew what they meant and they knew how to spell it. This is not, unfortunately, a thing I see constantly in independently published fantasy novels: I ran across a high fantasy character in a book last week who took a bridal off a horse several times, and I’ve been thinking about that raise/raze moment ever since.

One of the most difficult things about writing fantasy is the fact that, for verisimilitude, some archaic/infrequently used words have to become commonly used for you. Unless you grew up with horses, you probably haven’t had to type ‘bridle’ very often. You might not understand that Aunt Cynthia’s tea cozy horde and the oncoming horde in your novel are different things. And we won’t even talk about affect/effect: the internet has done that for us, often snottily.

So, please. If you’re self-editing, check your homophonic spelling. Make sure you’re using the right word. Because if one more person tells me they’ve hit the motherload on Facebook, I’m going to go batshit crazy.

Here, collected just for your pretty selves, are twenty fantasy-esque homophones that you need to outright master. I’ve seen about half of them wrong in print, and when you put a bridal on your horse in print, children in third world countries starve to death.

If you want to view more shiny homonyms, this is a good list, and includes, as far as I could see, most of the ones I talk about here.

Raze–to destroy, to burn down.
Raise–to build or raise up.

Council–a group of people offering advice.
Counsel–a single adviser, or sometimes the advice itself.

Altar–That thing in the church people worship and get married at.
Alter–to change a course of events.

Load–a portion of something, usually to be carried.
Lode–a source or supply of ore (note: motherLODE.)

Affect–to change somehow.
Effect–the result of that change.

Blonde–yellow haired (female).
Blond–yellow haired (male).

Reign–a rule or regency.
Rain–water that falls from the sky.
Rein–a thing you control your horse with.

Ale–delicious beer.
Ail–to be sick or ill.

Gorilla–large grunty primate.
Guerrilla–non-regulation soldier, often a rebel.

Manner–a fashion of doing things.
Manor–a large house.

Bough–a tree limb.
Bow–that bending motion you make to important people. Also, pronounced differently: that thing with a string you use to shoot arrows at people.

Hoard–a large collection of items, or the act of collecting these items.
Horde–an invading army.

Bear–a fuzzy animal that might kill you. Also: to carry a burden.
Bare–to shed clothing or layers.

Yoke–a holster of sorts.
Yolk–that orange thing in the middle of an egg.

Exercise–something you need thirty minutes of a day, at least.
Exorcise–what you do to the demon inhabiting cousin Clara’s body.

Grizzly–a type of bear. Also–having a weathered, unkempt look.

Capital–the foremost part of something. Raleigh is the capital of North Carolina; moving out of it is a capital idea.
Capitol–a specific type of government building. Psst–there’s one on Capitol Hill.

Bridal–things relating to the woman’s part in a wedding.
Bridle–that thing you put over your horse’s face.

Faint–weak and unobtrusive; to fall down in a swoon.
Feint–a move intended to mislead an opponent.

Fourth–what comes after the third.
Forth–moving forward, going out into the world.

Fantasy Worldbuilding: How-To


Worldbuilding: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why

I don’t talk about worldbuilding much on here. A lot of that is because I one hundred percent don’t believe in the traditional fantasy worldbuilding approach: I don’t think you need your whole lineage of kings written out, I don’t think you need a map, and I don’t think you need to pause and describe every landmark your characters pass. I think, if you do this, you’ve essentially written a travelogue for an imaginary place. And, trust me, I don’t even like to read travelogues about places I’m going.

What you need to do, instead, is flesh out your world. That sounds simple, right? Surprise, surprise: it’s not.

The first thing you need to do, when building your fantasy world, is consider this question: what constitutes ‘flesh’?

The ‘flesh’ of your built world is a series of details that perform a double purpose. ‘Fleshy’ details–the good, meaty stuff–do more than show the world around your characters as you picture it. In addition to showing, they also explain: for instance, if there’s a statue of four soldiers made up of lapis and granite at the gates of the city in which your main character lives, your MC has been passing those statues every time he goes into/out of town his whole life. What do they mean to him? Did he meet a girlfriend at the foot of the statues once a week for a whole summer, until her father found out? Do stonemasonry students from the city university attach expertly carved penises to them every Fool’s Day? Do your MC and his father bet every time on which statue will be gifted with the largest set of bait and tackle? (I told you these details were fleshy).

(A note, about ‘fleshy’ details: the very best ones are bombastic. They are memorable. If you’re just going to drone on about Ghern heir of Kern heir of Bernie, I’m not interested. Why should I be? I’m not a history major. Mention in passing, instead, the great rule of Ghern the Incontinent, followed by that of his son Kern the Bladderblaster. And why are we hearing about them, anyway? Is this story about bathroom humor? It better be. Otherwise, I don’t want to know at all).

The building blocks of your world aren’t just static things, to be removed and changed at your convenience. Gods, statues, customs, clothing–your characters interact with these things. They have opinions about them, inclinations towards or away from them, friends who have been helped by them, friends who have been hurt by them. Women disappointed in love might traditionally drown themselves in a river outside of the village called Talia’s Tears: do you think this would make people of the village less or more likely to draw water from that river?

Recapping: your characters live with this stuff. They don’t just hate the Empire or love the Empire, believe in the gods or not believe in them. People are more complicated than that. Even a character who believes firmly in the grace of Plougtagh the Magnificent is going to have his faith tested every once in a while. And why does he believe so firmly, anyway?

Which is going into my main bit here. Cliched as it sounds, if you want to worldbuild, you need to ask these grade school questions:

Who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Because your religion, your economy, and your lineage of kings don’t exist in separate vacuums. They’re shaped by one another–they build one another.

Let’s start with an idea I had the other day. I was reading some articles about freediving (which is, actually, fascinating) and came across some stuff about the Ama of Japan, women who dove as deep as thirty feet underwater with no gear whatsoever, in the early days. They were able to hold their breath for two minutes, and would often dive near-nude in below freezing water in search of pearls and food.

Badass, right?

I started to think to myself: what if I wrote a story about a freediver in a pre-mechanical era where the climate was extremely cold?

I started picturing it: a woman in a hand-stitched skin suit caulked up with some sort of pitch, probably, diving through a hole in the ice. She’d only have a small amount of time before the shock killed her, and how would she see, and who the hell is she anyway, so I had some questions, and where did I turn?

That’s right. Who, what, when, where, how, why.

I’m going to try and verbalize this process, just so you can get an idea of how to answer these questions yourself. Look at the way I do this–there are rules to the way I answer my own questions.


A young girl, obviously. Strong, agile, small, but probably with a good insulating layer of fat on her. She’d have to be trained to do this–by whom? There must be a lot of people doing it, if there’s training. It isn’t the sort of thing you just learn to do on your own, without great need.

So who are these divers? Are they some sort of archaic first responder, saving shipwreck victims? (Maybe there are fjords. Lots of wrecks around fjords). Are they diving for something valuable–a food item, or something worth a lot of money? (It would have to be expensive and/or a great delicacy. These dives obviously take up time and resources for this community). Or–maybe there’s a religious reason. Maybe their god is a grey whale, or something, and these girls leave him offerings (in which case, why THESE particular girls?).


Let’s talk about this suit. This is a premechanical society, so it’s not a fancy manmade fabric. The best thing I can come up with is skin–leather of some sort. Now, they’re in the far north, so where does this skin come from? Maybe it comes from the same thing she’s diving for. I don’t know. Hell. But they’ve stitched it together somehow, so they’ve probably
pitched up the cracks, or put wax of some sort in them. How does she get into this suit, anyway? It isn’t like they have zippers. I guess she puts it on with buttons or eyehooks as fasteners, and someone else caulks that seam up.

Which means there’s more than one person involved in this dive. Well, I already knew that, she’s got to have a trainer. I’m starting to think this is an Ama-style dive for valuables more and more–it sure is taking up a lot of time. Maybe their economy is centered around whatever she finds underneath the ice.


I’m picturing Vikings. Well, not exactly Vikings, but something Vikingesque–so these folks won’t have much in the way of technology yet. I’m picturing Dark Ages shit here. Honestly, I imagine this society is kind of isolated anyway, a la early Icelandic settlers in Greenland, so when doesn’t concern me too much yet. However,


Is a pretty big issue.

This isn’t civilized society, though there is some sort of society in place. I picture a cold and horrible place, a small village isolated from the rest of the country (maybe it’s a colony, or an outpost). Life’s obviously pretty hard here, which is what makes me think this girl of mine is diving for something of physical value: perhaps what she’s diving for is the only dependable food source for her people. (Which reminds me–there are all sorts of health complications possible with freediving. Do these girls usually die young? Do they do it of their own free will, even?) Maybe there’s a heat vent on the ocean floor, and the water’s warm enough to support life on the rocks just under the ice. Maybe she harvests some sort of scallop-y creature for her people to eat there.

I think it’s unlikely she’s diving for religious purposes, given this cold barren location I’m picturing. I imagine the gods don’t get that sort of sacrifice, when people are so hard up. And ships? There probably aren’t many. So it’s either food, or something they use to procure food. Though, if that’s the case, where the hell did she get the skins for the suit?


Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Maybe the women dive under the ice, while the men take boats out and hunt seals. Sealskin would be pretty good for that sort of thing, all the blubber and stuff. Though, god, that would mean the skin was uncured. She’d smell awful. Rancid blubber. Hell yes. I know I’m on the right track when there are smells involved.

And, as you might have noticed, all of this leads us to the most important question, the one you really want to answer.


Why, why, why would a small village exist in this location? Why would these people go to so much trouble just to get food, when they could move?

It’s not like the Icelandic settlers. Those guys thought they had a pretty good thing going, and then a mini ice age set in, and poof, time to die out or move. Why aren’t these people doing the same? They’ve obviously got a system worked out for living here. Why?

Well. If they have to stay there, they’re either exiles, or they’re trapped.

I like exiles. Maybe this is like a fantasy Siberia of sorts, where people guilty of some crime in the kingdom proper are sent to live out their days. In which case, why are they sent there? Was our girl sent there, or was she born to people already living there?

I like the idea of a long-ago banishment. Maybe these people took place in an uprising or a rebellion, a hundred years ago, and they and their descendents have been doomed to live in this awful (but probably very pretty) place for the rest of their days. But–oooooh, here we go, we like buts–maybe the new king is young and of a different kind. Maybe, though these people don’t know it yet, the political climate is ripe for their return.

And with that, we have a story. The action opens when a messenger comes from the capital city with news of the old king’s death, and the rule of the new king. It doesn’t mean much to them at the time–they’ve lived through a few kings–but the arrival of the messenger would be an event. They don’t get many events.

So they send their young girls diving, to get food for the feast. Scallopy creatures, seaweed, etc. The men are out hunting seals, hoping for a whale maybe. And when our girl dives, she finds something that might change the course of history for her people.

What does she find? I have no idea. But I’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, see how that works? Not far along at all, and I already know some things about these people. I know they’re resourceful, and tough, and hardy. I know that, at some point, they were rebels. They live in a place of stunning but inhospitable wonder, and they probably love it more than they hate it, since, after a hundred years of exile, they don’t know any other life.

And I know their king, or grand vizier or whatever he winds up being, is a decent guy.

Or maybe he just has a use for them.

Either way, progress has been made. We’ve got some sensory details, some answered questions. Now, to write.

How to Name Things in Fantasy


Accents and Names in Fantasy Cultures Part I: Names

Be consistent.

See? I just gave you like a thousand words’ worth of advice in one golden two-word sentence.

Now, of course, I’m going to follow it up with another thousand or so words.

This is going to be a two-parter, so hold on to your seatbelts. It’s going to be an invective-filled stunt ride of epic proportions, because these are two subjects where I hate. I mean, HATE. A lot of the advice I see online about them.

We’re going to start with names, because that’s the one I have the biggest bee in my bonnet about.

And the advice I see that I hate the very most:

“Don’t go with anything TOO funny-sounding.”

Funny sounding to whom, asshole?

There are a lot of different languages in the world, a lot of different dialects, a lot of different pronunciations, even regionally in the same country, for the same words. If you name a character Xilx, it looks pretty odd to an American, but there might be somewhere in Estonia where Xlix is actually pretty easy to pronounce, and really similar to a common name.

Here’s my thing, though. If you name a character Xlix, and you passionately want people to pronounce it Thomas, be prepared for no one to know how to pronounce it, ever. Whether you’re all right with that or not is up to you, but it’s just how it’s going to be. You’re writing in English, and native English speakers aren’t too familiar with Xlixian pronunciation. If you MUST spell it X-I-L-X and pronounce it T-H-O-M-A-S, you have two options:

1) Make sure that never, ever actually matters in the course of the story, or:
2) Write a scene detailing the pronunciation INTO the story. You know, something like this:

“Xlix Morton,” the Lector called, peering down at his name on the bottom of the scroll.

Xlix shuddered, as he did every time someone pronounced his name. Zlicks, usually, or the even more awkward Zliz. And who could blame them?

It was a horrible sound, like a sneeze through several layers of snot. Like flies buzzing, landing on somebody’s carcass. Had it not been so horrible, Xlix might have gone his whole adult life allowing people to mispronounce his name. Because, of course, this was unfailingly the conversation that followed:

“Actually, sir,” Xlix said. “It’s pronounced Thomas.”

The Lector’s lips compressed into a flesh-colored thread. “You’re putting me on,” he said. “How d’you get ‘Thomas’ out of that?”

And there it was. Unwillingly–furiously–Xlix’s mouth formed the nonsense words his mother had given him, every time he cried about it, every time he complained, every time he tried to stay home on the first day of school, knowing the conversation that was soon to follow:

“All the letters are silent,” Xlix said, hating himself. “And there are a bunch of letters added in.”

Poor Xlix, right? If a name’s that different from its apparent pronunciation, there’s a story behind it. A story, undoubtedly, full of hatred and embarrassment. And your readers should know that story–otherwise, they’re missing a key ingredient in your narrator’s character. Why is ‘Xlix’ pronounced ‘Thomas’? Is his mother from another planet, where names are crafted in writing for aesthetics, but pronounced however you please? Did his mother tell him that’s how his name was spelled as a joke when he was little, and she hasn’t had the heart (or–been alive) to correct him?

So, unless there’s a story that needs to be told, try and write your funny names in a way that can be pronounced phonetically with little difficulty in the language you’re writing in. Jin’s full name, for instance, is Evinanjin–which looks a little funny, sure, but you can sound it out and get close enough to know who I’m talking about.

There are some occasions, however, where I think unpronouncable names are just fine. An unpronouncable name can, in fact, signify alienness, or otherworldliness: a magic spell, for instance, might be full of unpronouncable words, or the name of an alien dimension. In these cases, the very unpronouncability of the words puts space between the reader and the name–and you WANT space. You WANT mystery. So maybe that’s okay. In my new novel, Little Bird (which is coming out in less than a month, by the way), the force of evil over the river Darking is called the d’r’j inaj. Why? Because I want it to be a secretive thing, mysterious, terrible. Something the western part of Aurian and Jin’s world is unfamiliar with: therefore, they can’t bloody well pronounce it, and neither can you. (Though, if you want to: dah-raj inaj is how I do it (the raj being pronounced the same way as the British one, the inaj rhyming).

But here’s the thing. If you have one alien from planet Zth named Arrlx, and one named Bthw, you can’t also have one named Joseph. Or, if you do, there needs to be a reason for it–maybe they’re from different continents?

Names create feeling and background, and you have to stay consistent with them, especially in fantasy. Think about it as relative to Earth: you know Mandy James is probably a girl from an English-speaking nation. Jimena Gonzalez, on the other hand, is probably Hispanic. Soobin Kim is probably Korean. Fumiko Nakamura is probably Japanese. Or, if that doesn’t help, picture the five people with these last names:

1) Sarkisian
2) Filipov
3) Chen
4) Knudsen
5) Giordano

Very different pictures, eh? No, you’re not being racist. You just assume, given context, that Mr. (Miss?) Chen up there is probably Chinese–and if he’s not (maybe he’s adopted? Maybe his family moved to Denmark when he was a little boy, so he’s actually a Danish citizen? Maybe she married a Chinese man?) there needs to be a reason.

The same in your fantasy world, please. Xlxtr and Brian can’t share a state of origin with no good reason. And you can use those names to serve as a quick indicator for personal appearance if you’ve kept them consistent, just like Chen quickly indicates a person of Chinese origin, or Knudsen a person of Norwegian.

So, to recap: make your names as funny as you damn well please. People are reading, after all, and not reciting in front of a critical audience. While you might not want to make a name superlong, just because you have to keep typing it over and over again for the rest of your novel, no one other than a hideous uneducated hick-creature is going to stop reading your book because the names look funny. However,

1) Keep your names consistent with place and physical features, and:
2) Make sure they aren’t TOO similar. If your main characters are Jennifer and Jinnever, that’s going to cause some people some trouble, and rightfully so.

A last note, before we commence part dos:

Y’know who the king of difficult-to-pronounce fantasy names was? JRR Motherfucking Tolkien. That’s right. Anyone remember Maedhros? He was the eldest son of Feanor, in the Silmarillion?

No? I’m the biggest geek in the goddamn room? Okay. Anyway.

That name is pronounced MY-throse.

Not shitting you.

So, case in point. You can be successful and use cray pronunciation. When I found that out, I didn’t throw my book across the room and regret ever finding out what happened with those damn Silmarils. I just went: “oh. Wow.” And went on with my day.



Just wanted to let you Aurian and Jin loving kiddos know, I wrote a companion piece to A&J a while back. It’s about Morda, Bonemaker and Emperor, and his rise to power through, well, what winds up being a lot of blood and gore. I’m posting it in installments on Wattpad, for your free and fancy enjoyment. If you miss Aurian and Jin, you might want to have a looksee.

You should also read The Antidote. Because Jin.

This is Bonemaker. THIS IS SPART–wait, no it isn’t.

Writing: Women in Fantasy


Writing: Women in Fantasy (and Four Common Tropes I’m Bored With)

I know, I know. It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these ‘Things I’m So Damn Tired Of’ posts. And you guys have been so lonely without them. So very, very lonely.

Today’s liberal dose of hatred and despair is leveled at four fantasy heroine types who, especially in YA fiction, have become alarmingly prevalent. Now, mind you, there are good ways to do everything, and even these four maidens of mystery can be done well. But what I describe here is not the right way to do them. It’s the right way to make my fillings ache.

A brief note about ‘how to characterize women in fiction’, a subject I see touched on periodically, and grace with a brief chuckle every time I view it: you don’t have anything special to prove, when you write a woman. You don’t have to go out of your way to make her ‘badass’. Women, like men, have a remarkable range of personality traits, and a woman is no more likely to be weak or unlikeable because she’s a seamstress than a man is because he’s a tailor. A girl doesn’t have to be a tomboy or hold a sword to be awesome. A lady can, in fact, be ‘strong’ and ‘badass’ with four kids and a job as a laundress. It’s one of the weaknesses of the fantasy genre today, I think, that folk feel the need to shove a sword in someone’s hand and wrap her in chainmail to make her ‘strong’.

On the other hand, if your lady is a fighting lady–make sure she really is a fighting lady. Not everyone in a medievalesque fantasy universe runs around with a sword and fighting skillz–why did your fighting lady choose this path? What’s made her a soldier? And, for the record–it doesn’t always have to be revenge. I mean, think about it–you probably have a few friends who’ve served in the armed forces. Did they join the military for revenge?


…or did they do it because they wanted to serve their country? For the pay, maybe? Because they came from a military family? Because Dad said it was either that or go to college? Or maybe, maybe, just because they wanted to. Not everyone clutching a hauberk has to be doing it for some Great Noble Purpose.

Anyway. Without further ado:

1) Princess Hellion
She’s a princess. Which is great and all, except she totally would rather be out in the woods fighting and stuff. Except when she’s forced into fancy (usually elaborately described) gowns, has to use all those somehow-still-considered-useless Courtly Deportment lessons, and attends balls which, for reasons unknown to the plot, take up like a whole chapter. Where she meets Prince Charmingly Not Like All Those Other Men Who Expect Her to Wear A Dress All The Time. And engages in witty and pleasantly hostile repartee. Because she’s badass, which means she Says What She Means. And she’s also a princess, which means she expects to have her own way all the time, which is what princesses are like always, right?

The Breakdown: I’m so tired of the plucky princess trope. Princesses learn to behave, too–probably more seriously than the rest of us, since being shitty and offending the NExt Country ambassador can have serious consequences. If she’s really that much of a spoiled pill, guess what? People–probably the whole court–are going to despise her. No one likes a brat. Especially not as many people as like this particular type of character in fiction. Her father always adores her, Prince Charmingly Et Al. falls in love with her. Why?

How to Do It Right: Aerin, from Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, is a little Mary Sueish, but she’s still one of the best heroines of this type. She’s a princess who likes to fight, sure, and she’s got a temper–but she’s also a genuniely likeable person, and she works hard for her dragon-slaying rights. She gets scarred, gets hurt, and makes sacrifices to save her country and earn the respect she deserves.

2) The Tortured Waif
It’s A Tragedy, Whatever Happened.

It’s a tragedy, because it left this young woman with total, like, scars. Not real scars, no. Those make people ugly. But emotional scars, totes. Usually, this is a princess or duchess or some other purebred lovely floaty ladything. Often, for reasons I can’t figure out, she’s associated with magic.

The Breakdown: Something happened, and now a whole major plotline just has to be devoted to this girl getting over it. Because there is nothing more fascinating than watching pretty people not-cry in public after weeping in private. (The villainess version of this, by the way, is even more common: the Lady Twisted With Revenge).
But she’s so strong, you know? So strong it takes her three hundred and fifty pages to ‘let go’, whatever that means.

How to Do It Right: Gonna be straight up honest, I can’t think of a single good example of this being done well right now. Usually, it’s employed more in soppy fantasy romances, anyway. My long term feelings are, if you need Great Trauma to prove how strong your character is, enough attention hasn’t been paid to characterization.

3) The Innocent Rogue
Her eyes twinkle, her fingers are nimble. She usually has freckles (and she is, entirely too often, an unknowing heiress to something or other, hidden away or abandoned at birth, etc.). She’s got a set of daggers on her, when she’s scaling buildings and scampering along roofs in the underbelly of the city. When she’s acting as the blind at a fancy ball (because there’s always a damn fancy ball in these stories) she’s charming and devastatingly beautiful and full of bon mots.
But, much though she loves a rogue’s life, she never really does anything nasty. Because thievery, as long as it’s happening in a fantasy world and not to you, is charming. Right? Right? It’s okay. She’ll save the world somehow in the end.

Breakdown: Why do people steal? Usually because they don’t have enough of stuff. This girl would either be a fairly unwilling thief, or have some nasty personality parts hidden deep, deep down. Either way, I don’t know that she’s the lady you really want as your queen later on, when she discovers her ‘heritage’ and suddenly goes legit. That whole ‘taxes’ thing is going to seem tempting.

Done Well: There were parts of this novel I disliked, but Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn deals with this character type well and believably. The main character’s brief life of crime happens first unwillingly, and then to a reasonable purpose. She’s also refreshingly clumsy at balls. Because, you know. She’s never been to one before.

4) The Woman Warrior
She’s mean with a sword. She’s struggled, sometimes quite a bit, to become The Woman Warrior (usually the only woman warrior in the story). She doesn’t have much truck with girly shit, like wearing dresses and balls and stuff (though she will, like fricking always, wind up at one eventually. Because even this attitudinal lady has to be seen in a dress. Because she’s a lady, and she has to have a softer prettier side for Love Interest to be Interested). Her movements are graceful, her sword is swift, her attitude is either repressed anger or more of those damned witty bon mots. She’s the fantasy world’s tomboy: and, like all tomboys, nobody would like her if she wasn’t still pretty. Right? Right?

Breakdown: A real soldier has spent some time being a soldier. If you’ve led a lot of campaigns, you’re probably sunburned, scarred, hoarse-voiced from shouting commands at all those assholes who don’t know as well as you do. Even if you’ve managed to escape all that, there are points when you’re on a battlefield killing people where you’re covered in blood and effluvia and your hair looks like shit. You’ve got some serious muscle, and, since you’re a warrior through and through, you don’t immediately lose your famed fighting abilities as soon as you gain a love interest.
Because no one really looks good in chainmail. No one.
I’m not saying a gal has to ugly up to do this, but come on. Soldiery is hard. Being in battle is hard. It doesn’t leave you with flawless moon-pale skin, and being around a ton of soldiers doesn’t leave you full of social graces.

Done Well: I’m going to be a self-promoting bitch and refer you to my own book here, of course. Because I do things well. I do.
The other thing that comes to mind, curiously enough, is from a YA series I loved as a kid: Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books. While Alanna gets irritatingly close to the word ‘plucky’ sometimes–and you guys can imagine how I feel about ‘plucky’–she fights hard and trains hard to become a knight, and her fiery personality comes across as a drawback as well as a bonus. And, though I think Pierce still pretties her up sometimes, she takes no shit. She’s also short, which I think is what endeared these books to me as a kid. Short people power.

Notice some trends here? These hated ladies are always pretty, always young, almost always white, usually noble, and there’s always a ballroom scene. (A ballroom scene, for those not operating at full capacity this morning, might not actually take place in a ballroom. It’s that reveal scene, where you see your ‘rugged’ heroine in a dress for the first time. You know the one. Oh, god, you do.)

There’s no proper way to portray a woman in a fantasy world. Laundresses, farmgirls, and servants are just as common–honestly, probably more common–than the nobility that makes up 90% of fantasy novels.

And another thing–women aren’t always young. Or single. Or childless. Or beautiful. ‘Strong women’ don’t always hate dresses and despise the court. I think it’s time we moved away from the pretty young tomboy and looked in on the other ninety percent of fantasy womanhood.

A badass is still a badass, even in pink–and I’m tired, so very tired, of that Disneyesque ‘ballroom scene’ where a tomboy has to dress up and let her hair down for some forsaken notion of ladyhood and ‘becoming beautiful’. When you do that one scene, you’re discrediting femininity terribly. You’re saying, essentially, that no one has noticed this woman is a woman until she puts on a dress. And, through elimination, you imply that there’s only one way to be a woman–and that way isn’t ‘strong’ or ‘badass’.

So, really. If you want to write a good fantasy female, take out the motherfucking ballroom scene. Tempting though it is, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t do anyone any favors. You can write a lady who is young, attractive, ‘plucky’, mysteriously parentless, and all those popular things. I’m not saying you can’t. But please, please, be realistic, and take a second before you do to consider the other ninety-eight percent of women out there, and whether or not you might have a stronger story with one of them.

Excerpt: Little Bird Prologue


Little Bird, sequel to Aurian and Jin, is out soon. Are you excited? Eh? WHY THE HELL AREN’T YOU?

I mean…something non-caps.

Figured I’d be a sneaky creature and post the prologue here, because, you know, three of you might want to read it. (A note: the first part of the first chapter is posted in the back of The Antidote, the Aurian and Jin novelette closing the gap between A&J and Little Bird, which you’ve totally read, of course. This prologue is before all that noise.).

You guys remember Beauland, right? That kid who healed Jin? Well, here’s what became of him.

The Beans of Mantic Fortitude

Thirteen Years Ago

Beauland Bornsson, newly returned from the Aithar Smiles Blessed Healing and Conscious Loving Coven in Kartok, was
about to become a coven master.

He was, in fact, sixteen days away from it–give or take a day, with an eighty four percent chance of relative accuracy (and barring, of course, Unforeseen Dimensional Flux (UDF)). He had it marked on his calendar with a little red star.

The current master of this coven–the coven, as it happened, formerly known as the Coven of the Ursine Shattermath–had seen this outcome as well, at seventy eight percent accuracy levels, and this was so close to certain that he had done Beauland the immense favor of getting the garden servantry to go ahead and dig him a grave, which he was currently napping in until teatime.

The grave, the coven’s current master had informed Beauland, was nice and cool and quiet. Dark, even in the daytime. Much more pleasant, in fact, than the shit Beauland would presently have to deal with–this last bit being said, always, with an old man’s knowing quaver.

Beauland was fairly sure the Coven Master had seen more than he had. He was all right with that–it was better not to know everything.

Beauland had spent the last few years of his life at the Aithar Smiles Coven, learning that the healing arts were, profoundly, not for him. It was strange to be back here, after so long away–the multi-dimensional effects of the place were even wearing on him a little, the constant white of the Gauntlet was blinding and mind-numbing. Yesterday he had caught himself trying to brush his teeth over the wash basin–which was a mistake, as every boy raised in the Shattermath should have known. The wash basins liked to bite. It was far safer to do it over your dresser, and trust the Spit Sentinels of Gorshdrkr Dimension to redirect as necessary.

Today’s multi-dimensional failure had occurred only seconds ago, in the lunch line. It was simply enough expressed, though it was having disasterous consequences:

Beauland had gotten the beans.

He sat now in the dining hall, fork raised, next move uncertain. The damage had already been done: he had eaten a few of them. They were Xyclian beans: he could tell from the meaty aftertaste. And Xyclian beans, for a fellow of his delicate constitution, meant gas. And ever since that Evinanjin woman had destroyed the Astartian Pact a few years back, magic was intense and unpredictable, so who could tell what else they’d mean?

Beauland liked exploring new dimensions. He liked the power-pinnacle destruction of the Pact had lifted him to. But there were nevertheless times when he missed knowing that the limits of a magical reaction were, in fact, limited.

His fellow Sights sat clustered around him, pity evident on their faces. Every single one of the bastards had gotten the cabbage.

In the dining hall’s high narrow windows, scenes from the streets of seventeen separate cities flashed, in twelve separate dimensions. With the strangely meaty bean taste still in his mouth, Beauland watched a merchant in the Xolitol dimension crash a cart drawn by two snail creatures into a tea shop nestled inside a hollowed out mushroom. As much as inter-dimensional episodes could seem like something, it didn’t seem like a good sign.

“This is going to be bad, isn’t it,” Beauland said.

“I wouldn’t say bad, exactly,” said the woman next to him, waving her fork. She had the facial tattoos of the North Darklands all over her cheeks and brow, and the bone rings of a Far North Headsplitter braided into her hair. This costume, when combined with pointed teeth and the bloody mess on her plate, did nothing to console him.

“Pardon me,” he said delicately. “But aren’t you a Darklander? Don’t you people like cannibalism, and violence, and such? Why’re you here, in a Sight coven?”

“Right in one!” The woman smiled. “Without violence, how’re you supposed to solve your problems? But that’s all neither here nor there. This Darklander is also a pretty talented Sight. And this Darklander says the beans aren’t bad for you.”

“If not bad, then what?”

“Interesting.” She extended a hand for him to shake, nails rimmed in something dried and black that Beauland did his very utmost not to turn his sixth sense upon. “Dax the Destroyer loves interesting, and those beans are from an interesting dimension. You’re about to fart so hard your parents’ll feel it.”

“My parents are dead.”

“I know. S’what I meant.” She pointed a grimy finger to her robes. “Sighted, remember?”

“Could you…could you be a little more sensitive, maybe?”

“Nope.” She picked up a piece of whatever the red stuff on her plate was and gnawed it. “Name’s Betz, by the way. They tried sensitivity training when I got here. I ate the instructor.”

“Oh.” Beauland looked back down at his empty fork. Aithar only knew how long it would be until the beans caught up with him–or how much of a warning he’d have. Just thinking about it caused an ominous growl to rise from his abdomen. “I’m Beauland.”

“I know. You’re the man who’s going to lead the Coven.” She rolled her eyes. “Apparently, I’m not a good choice, even though my accuracy rating is two and a half points higher than yours. Old Master seems to think I’m going to tear down the coven and eat all the apprentices, or something. Lies and calumny, o’ course. I never eat where I shit.”

Beauland, who was beginning to feel an unpleasant pressure building in his stomach, shook his head. “Higher than mine? Impossible. Mine’s the highest since Riktau Gaugh founded the place four hundred years ago.” Sights, who for obvious reasons weren’t fazed by much, got awfully shirty over accuracy ratings. It was the first thing Beauland had been asked, along with his name, when he returned. He had taken to the practice wholeheartedly–easy to do, as his was exceptionally high.

Beauland’s overall accuracy rating was, in fact, eighty-nine percent. The current Coven Master, napping peacefully in his grave, stood firm at eighty-five. Ratings in the seventies were considered respect-worthy, ratings in the low eighties impressive. High or mid eighties were the stuff that set Sights to whispering in the hallways. Close to ninety earned you instant forgiveness in the Shattermath Coven if you should, say, go off for a few years to study Healing, jump dimensions at night more or less just to explore what was around now, and come back, shrugging, claiming it hadn’t ever been serious, really.

Not that Beauland had done that.

But, if this Betz was two and a half points higher accuracy than he was, then…

…then she was in the nineties.

It was unheard of.

Literally. No one had ever heard of it.

“Quit gawping,” Betz said, not unkindly. “At any rate, all that’s about to change.”


“You’re about to have your anal awakening.”


“You heard me.”

Beauland was about to ask the fatal question–what precisely constitutes an anal awakening?–when he found out.

The gas, which had been building relentlessly in his intestine, released itself with dimension-bending vengeance.

It was funny, he thought vaguely, as the gale-force winds blew his chair out from under him. This hadn’t happened before, but he got the strangest feeling it had. Perhaps, in some other close continuum, he’d been doing this from birth. Perhaps, in that continuum, he’d eaten Xyclian beans every day. Perhaps, in that continuum, he was Xyclian.
He made a mental note to visit Xyclia, next chance he got, and find out. It was fairly rare, for a Sight to find a double of themselves in another dimension, but it wasn’t unheard of. He’d rather like talking to himself a little. He might be able to give himself some good life advice.

His attention meandered back to the present, where strange things were going on. For one, everyone in the dining hall was staring at him–their upturned faces, hovering over their blue Sight-robes, wore almost identical expressions of horror. Betz herself, who didn’t seem like she’d be scared of much, had her mouth half-open.

Beauland realized, suddenly, that his chair had blown out from under him, but he was still very much in a seated position. Hovering, somehow, three feet over the Dining Hall floor. He had spilled the beans, and the grey goop of them had turned the floor underneath him into a legume murder scene, an edible splatter painting of considerable scope.

“Don’t freak out,” Betz whispered to him, “but you’re glowing a little.”

Beauland opened his mouth to tell her he felt fine, he was fine, this was probably just some weird side effect of being Sighted and eating Xyclian beans.

Instead, he spoke in a deep gravelly voice and an ancient tongue. Or, well. The voice came from somewhere, and that somewhere was loosely around him.

It said:

When the King is a woman and then is a man,
The looming red light spreads over the land.

One becomes two and two becomes one,
Brother and mother, mother and son.

Backwards and forwards, black and white.
Grow it in darkness. Kill it with light.

The mage’s bright promise to end with the king;
A song, a fine hat, and a bird on the wing.

For a few minutes, there was crystalline silence in the dining hall. Even the extra-dimensional scenery in the windows seemed to be waiting for Beauland’s next move.

The Darklander, Betz, was the first to recover. She grinned, shook her head a little, went back to her horrifying plate of near-raw entrailery. She slurped up some small creature’s liver: the sounds of her enjoyment echoed throughout the quiet room.

“Nice,” she said, dabbing her lips with her napkin.

Beauland said the one thing left to say, in such a situation: “excuse me.”

The room dissolved back into its previous chattery atmosphere. The intrusion of prophecy, Beauland remembered from his youth here, was a regular fixture in the Coven of the Ursine Shattermath–though, to be fair, it wasn’t usually paired with indigestion. Young Sights interrupting a Maths lecture with rolled back eyes, a blue glow, and utterly useless information about the winners of a pigskins tournament fifty years in the future hadn’t been uncommon.

He’d done it himself, once or twice–faked it once or twice more. The problem with faking it, of course, being that someone in the Coven had doubtless had a mantic episode previously that foretold your faking. And, more than likely, it was the Coven apothecary.

This wasn’t fake, however. This had felt, in fact, very strange.

“I’d remember that prophecy, were I you,” said Betz. She had finished her plate, and was now sopping up blood with a crust of bread. “In thirteen years, there’s a high percent chance it’ll be important.”

“I guess I should listen to you,” Beauland muttered. “You’re in the nineties.”

“So’re you, now. Tomorrow, you’re going to check up with the accuracy reader. Mantic gases unblocked, you’re running at about ninety four.”

“No,” Beauland said weakly. “That’s impossible. That’s almost–Aithar bless, that’s almost one hundred percent accurate.”

Betz winked. “Yes, my friend. You’re very good. Of course, there’s still the occasional hitch–”

She was interrupted by three mournful horn blasts, some minor hubbub near the doors, and the appearance, in soil-stained blue, of an out-of-breath messenger.

“Hail,” the messenger panted. “Sad tidings, Sights of the Shattermath! Our Master, Rectix Vlarsson, has died! Nice and tidily in his grave, with a will left right next to the tombstone. Thank Aithar it happened before teatime. Oh–and long live our new Master, Beauland Bornsson.”

Beauland blinked. “But–”

“Remember,” said the Darklander. “Not quite a hundred.”

Writing Exercise: Worldbuilding as Motivation


Some Background

People spend a lot of time talking about building character. People create character sheets, elaborate motive charts, all sorts of ridiculous writerly bric-a-brac detailing the motive and inner turmoil of imaginary people.

This is all great, of course. Everything other people do is great. I have to say this, because being polite is, for some reason, important.

One thing that often gets ignored in our attempts to chart out our characters is, unfortunately, motivation. Not just what motivates a character–that gets talked about plenty–but why it motivates them, and how it happened. People don’t just start wanting things out of the blue–they want them because the necessity of societal obligations has, in some way, pressured them to want them.

So. Out of the places a character occupies in a society, which ones are important to that character? Which ones have caused them to want the things they want?

This is a more important question than it sounds. It is, in its own way, the basic building block on which individual personalities are built. It combines simple physical things (your character is a woman, your character is single, etc.) observable from a distance, with the deepest core of your character’s inner makeup.

And there needs to be more of that. Because who you are–who other people observe you as being–does have a deep inner impact on what kind of person you are. Sorry, nineties feel-gooders. It does.

Take a woman who has been fifty pounds overweight for most of her life. On the outside, this fact doesn’t seem like it would make much of a difference–doesn’t change whether or not she was born with money, whether or not she’s an aristocrat, etc. But people do judge you based on your weight, and if she’s been overweight for most of her life, you can bet she’s felt it.

Unless–unless the society she lives in considers obesity beautiful.

In which case, maybe she’s spent her whole life cramming one more helping than she can really stand down her throat at dinner, just hoping she can gain that extra five pounds to impress Prince Chargrill. Maybe she’s irritated at the dressmakers in her town, because it’s so difficult to find something small enough to fit her. You could write a whole story where the most important thing to this character isn’t her sex, or skin color, or social standing–it’s her weight. Maybe the story could end with her defiantly allowing her weight to drop at last, finally understanding it doesn’t matter.
And obesity is just one of the things which you notice about someone without any explanation, which might have to do with their inner workings too.

The Exercise

Take your character. Take a list of ten broad characteristics that might determine the place in society this character inhabits. This list of traits should include things you might know about this character just from observation, and not from conversation–for instance, you know if someone’s married by seeing them with a spouse, if someone’s a mother by seeing them with their children, where they’re from by an accent, etc. We’ll use Jin from Aurian and Jin for mine, since, you know, Jin. Jin is, in her fantasy world:

A soldier
A woman
From the Empire
A wife
A mother (by book two)
Of common birth
Fairly famous

Now, place those attributes in order. Which of these things matters most to your character? Which matters least? Why?

Now, this list might change, depending on what part of the story you’re talking about. For instance, Jin wasn’t a mother until the end of book one, and soldiery falls farther down her list of important things based on the peacefulness of the current time.

Jin’s list, from most to least important, at the beginning of Little Bird:

A mother
A citizen of the Empire
A wife
A soldier
Of common birth
A woman
Fairly famous

Like most people who have a spouse and kids, her spouse and kids are pretty high on her list of priorities. But Jin puts her people, and the welfare of said people, before her husband (or says she does, at least. In practice, the two would probably be better put side by side). Little Birdy, however, comes before the Empire: this relationship trivium actually creates most of the plot arcs in Little Bird.

The Empire, being a combination of tiny countries composed mostly of pale people, borders the North Darklands and the kingdom of Karakul, where people have darker skin. Therefore, being white (or black, or green, or pick your Crayola color here) hasn’t had much impact on Jin’s life, as the Empire regularly sees visitors and immigrants of different skin tones, and doesn’t make much of a fuss about it (believe me, you don’t make a fuss about the Darklands. It’s…unwise). Being a woman, while a notable disability in the Empire, hasn’t influenced Jin much–largely because, well, you have to get pretty close to tell she’s a woman at all. These facts haven’t caused her any problems, so they aren’t parts of her identity she thinks about much.

On the other hand, her birth (low) and her profession (soldiery) have shaped and changed who Jin is. They are not, however, something she fights for–they are simply influences, not something she protects or cherishes or talks about. (The fact that she doesn’t go to temple has, on rare occasion, bothered her. But it’s more for the social value of the thing than any deep religious belief, and she has other stuff to think about).

You get where I’m going with this?

These are the things that shape who Jin is, and they’re all external things, visible from a week’s close observation. What motivates Jin isn’t some aspect of her temper or personal being, it’s external stuff–what her husband and child need, what her people need, what her fighting skills enable her to do, whether or not folk in the poor quarters have enough to eat. In a different society–one where having pale skin, or being a woman, came with serious drawbacks–those things might be more important to Jin. But she’s fortunate enough to exist in a world where her profession is more important in her personal makeup than these two arbitrary attributes, so.

Jin is clever, quick-tempered, physical, and crude, yes. She’s all of these things. But they aren’t why she is like she is–she’s become that way, in fact, because of the way she’s had to act to get things she wants in her society. Women aren’t considered as valuable under Imperial law as men, so Jin’s not very traditionally feminine, and her hair-trigger temper has kept people from questioning whether a woman should do the things she does. Her low birth is a stigma, and she doesn’t think it should be, so she’s become (sometimes unnecessarily) crude in her expression, especially when talking to people of ‘better’ pedigree. A life’s worth of soldiery has left her apt to solve conflicts by throwing somebody through a wall. And her intelligence–well. That’s the thing that’s allowed her to survive in the first place.

When you look for character motivation, and believable character traits, don’t start plotting out adjectives. Knowing your character is afraid of snakes isn’t going to do you a lick of good, unless you know why. And the whys of your character are, often, buried deep in the rules of your character’s society–because people, regardless of time and place, grow where you let them, and falter where they have no support. Even the most self-sufficient person is dependent on the rules of the culture they live in, and the opinions of the people around them.

So don’t world build and then character build, or vice-versa. The two things are one in the same. And an exercise like this one can help you lay bare, not only your character’s motivation, but also the laws of the society he or she lives in.

I’ve shown you mine. If you want to show me yours, by golly, I’d say it’s only fair.