Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's That Time of Year For Me

The year is coming to a close and it's time to sit down and reflect on how it's all gone. Frankly, I've had a fantastic year. It didn't always feel like it at the time, but that's what hindsight is for, right? This year I published my epic fantasy novel A Sign in Blood, and put out two short story collections, All Claws and All Souls. My novella Getting Ahead was accepted to MuseItUp Publishing, and I got some fantastic rejections. (Writers always understand what I mean when I say that. It's a pretty much unique to us, though. :-D Trying to explain "good rejections" to non-writer friends is always interesting.)

I wrote... Less than I wanted to, but when isn't that the case? I've got a double handful of short stories I need to finish up in the coming year, as well as two revived novels to edit, one novel to second draft, and one novel that still needs a finished first draft. I didn't finish NaNo, but I did get about 25,000 words. And I moved home.

Just that last item is huge. We had to leave after Katrina and our long, strange odyssey was... Well, long and strange. Getting back here might have been accomplishment enough, but getting A Sign in Blood out there, getting All Claws and All Souls out, and getting a start on Getting Ahead, has been wonderful.

And that's still not all. I've written some good words, researched some fantastic topics, and--best of all--made (and become reacquainted with) some fantastic friends!

So, I hope all of you out there have a wonderful holiday season if you celebrate (whatever you celebrate), and a wonderful end of the year if you don't. One way or another, I also hope next year rocks twice as much for all of us!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Writing: Action Scenes: Group Movement

A common issue I see in action scenes (and in general) is a tendency toward group movement, wherein characters are all grouped together and move in synchronicity. They do the same things, are identified by the same adjectives and adverbs, and generally behave as a group rather than a set of individuals. Now, this isn’t always a problem. There are some instances where it can be an effective technique, but in action scenes it can drain your story of tension.

For example:

The mask-clad figures closed in, reaching for Sarah, Jane, and Smith. Smith and the others stumbled back. He shouted, but the figures didn't even slow. Their masked faces hid their expressions, but their eyes were cold and hard.

While this expedites the process of describing the action, it also takes away a lot of the character and the potential for tension, and the description and details which can really make an action scene. Because the attackers are written as a group, you can only be so specific about what actions they take. Unless all three attackers grab the wrists of all three defenders, which feels artificial, you can't delve into the details. Writing the scene this way steals its thunder.

Consider the scene written with more individual characters:

The mask-clad figures closed in, one reaching for Smith's hand. He shouted, stumbling back. One of them grabbed his wrist and he tried to yank himself free. The attacker squeezed hard enough to bruise, his eyes cold though his mask hid the subtleties of his expression.

You can be more detailed this way, and while we don't have the details of what Sarah and Jane are doing, if we're in Smith's POV, it's more likely that he'd be aware of what was happening to him and fuzzier on what was happening to the others.

However, group description isn't always a bad option, but like most things it needs to be employed at the right moment. For instance, if your POV character only has a few seconds to take in what's happening, and there's not a lot of movement or description involved.

Jane looked out the window, her eyes fixing on the mask-clad figures as they stood still and silent beneath the streetlight. She turned back into the room, already running.

In this instance the figures can constitute a group because there isn't anything to distinguish when, or time for Jane to notice any but the most obvious details.

Another reason for this kind of description is the desire to communicate everything that's going on, but action scenes are best when the reader can feel the fear or tension or excitement of the characters. The best way to accomplish that is to focus in on the details, on individual characters and their feelings and actions at the time.

It's all right if the reader doesn't know exactly what happened with Smith and Jane, if the POV character is Sarah. It's fine to sum things up with them, but you have to immerse the reader in what's happening with Sarah. For instance:

Sarah stalked up behind the masked figures. One of the men was demanding that Smith or Jane reveal her location, and Sarah used the shouting to cover the sound of her footfalls. Her heart pounded in her chest, so loud she felt sure the closest figure had to hear it. She tightened her grip on her gun, taking a deep steadying breath as she pressed it to back of the figure's neck.

"Not a word," she whispered, her lips all but pressed to the shell of his ear. The man stiffened, the tendons in his neck tight enough to string a violin, but he said nothing.

For most of this bit we have no idea what's happening with Jane and Smith, and we don't know exactly what's being said to them. Sarah's actions are what's important, as well as how she's performing them and how she feels about them. That's what draws the reader into the scene. Jane's and Smith's reactions and situation can be given a moment later, through Sarah's POV. For instance:

Sarah looked up and caught Smith's gaze. Smith looked back to the figure in front of him before he could give her away. Jane stood glaring at the masked leader, her eyes blazing as she spat at him, unaware of Sarah's rescue.

That's a bit stiff, but you get the point. When a group of characters move as one, you lose the opportunity to provide details. That’s not to say you should never use it, of course. Group movement can be wonderful way to communicate a lack of individuality among the characters. It can be used to create the sense of a group mind, or lack of individual will. I’ve also seen it used effectively in love scenes in which the details were meant to be glossed over and what was important was the emotion of the moment.

The important thing to remember is that it’s a trade off. Details, especially personal character-related ones, draw the reader in. So, if you’re going for tension, as with an action scene, specificity is often the best choice.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 6

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Truth vs Fiction

There are a lot of things that we see on TV or read in books that is just there because we think it should be. TV and movie sword fights especially have this problem because the visual nature of the media sticks in our minds. We think, "Well, they're two actual people with more-or-less actual swords, so that must be what it really looks like when two people with swords go at it." Well, we're wrong. TV and movie swordfights are all choreography, they're just as prone to the myths of sword play as book writers, and they play to what they think will look good, even when that's not what would or should happen.

Actual sword fights are much quicker and sleeker than what we see in television. Far too often, soldiers on TV are hitting their opponent's sword, and the opponent is hitting their sword in return. This makes no sense because the point is to hit the opponent. Blocking a blow is one thing, but when a strike is clearly intended for an opponent sword, it gives the sword wielder nothing. They've wasted movement and momentum on a strike that will mostly likely be pointless. Now, I can think of a few instances where it might be worth it to strike an opponent's blade, but most of them are more suited to a training session, or a soldier facing a weaker opponent that they don't want to hurt, but want to dissuade from attacking. The point is that, in a TV sword fight, striking for the opponent's blade is less likely to get the actors hurt, but in a real sword fight, someone getting hurt is generally the goal.

Also in TV sword fights we often see two soldiers locked in combat, pressing into one another as if they can't move any other way but forward. However, swords pivot around one another, slide against one another, and there's no reason to stay in a clench like that when you have a range of movement.

This can be a difficult point to visualize (I actually broke out the mop and broom and had the fiancé help me figure out the physics of the position), but imagine the scene for a moment. Two soldiers (A and B), pressing together in that clench. Soldier A will be the one taking action here, but in reality either Soldier A or B could do these things, further complicating the dynamics of the sword fight.

Soldier A's blade meets Soldier B's at one small point of contact, but there is still a lot of blade that is not in contact. Why simply push forward when Soldier A could turn their blade along Soldier B's, bringing it right into Soldier B's face? Not only that, but when Soldier A turns their sword, Soldier B's forward momentum carries them forward without Soldier A. This could put Soldier B off balance, but even if it doesn't Soldier A now has an opening to strike at Soldier B's side or back. Or, if their blades remain in contact when Soldier A turns, pushing from the side could throw Soldier B to the ground. In addition, Soldier B's legs are open to kicking/tripping because they can't defend the blow (too close quarters, sword and momentum engaged). Soldier A could also move backward, retreating to reset or to engage again from a different angle, or spin back and to the side, creating moment for a blow to Soldier B's back.

If an opponent is pushing their weight forward, their momentum carries them forward once the obstacle moves. So, a soldier is more likely to move to either side or backward than commit to a clench that offers them no advantage.

In TV and movies, you also see a lot of edge on edge contact. While such contact isn't always avoidable it's nonetheless a bad thing. It can nick and dull a sword's edge and swords are more likely to break if the edge is used to parry a blow. The flat of the blade is generally the best bet when it comes to blocking because it distributes the force of the blow, allowing it to dissipate along the length of the blade. Edges are such a small area of contact, that damage is more likely and the blow's force is more focused, allowing it to do more damage.

In closing, remember that, when writing swordplay, you usually don't want or need a blow by blow description. There may be times--particularly tense and/or important battle scenes--where you approach that, but it's the important moments that matter most in the writing. The moments when Soldier A almost goes down, or Soldier B gets in a strike, or when the momentum of the battle changes in one direction or the other. So, while it's important to have an understanding of the actual physics involved, you don't have to understand or describe every single moment of a given combat sequence. Just pay attention to the moments you do describe so that you can make them the best that they can be.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Yes, I Am Still Alive...

Hello all! I know I've basically disappeared from the face of the internet, so I thought I'd take a few moments while I can to let you all know that I'm still alive! The move to New Orleans became complicated, as such things do. On the drive here we were stuck for three hours in a traffic jam caused by an overturned cucumber truck! It sounds like a joke, right? As my lovely and witty friend Leslie said, we were in quite a pickle. :-D

Anyway, we finally made it home (and it is SO GOOD to be home! I really cannot tell you how much I missed New Orleans!) and things were further complicated by the fact that the modem and internet service we signed up for in Austin (which we were GUARANTEED would work just the same in New Orleans) doesn't work at all here. *sigh* Then, we moved into our awesome new apartment (which we both totally love) and found out that the old building (which is part of why it's awesome) is only partially wired for cable and internet services. I know, right? So, we're looking into options and figuring things out when OUR HEATER BLOWS! *Looks skyward* Did I offend someone up there? I'm REALLY sorry. Can I have heat and internet now, please? It's actually pretty cold here.

Luckily, my aforementioned wonderful friend is letting me come over to her place and sponge her Wi-Fi. Awesome, right? So, I'm online for the moment and I think there are some places around the new apartment that offer wi-fi, so I'll be on more often in the future. It will still be spotty, but it's better than never hearing from me... Right? Right? Guys? You still love me, right? :-D

Well, one way or another, you'll be seeing me around more often! I'm going to try to get the next (and final! Er, for now.) Swords and Swordplay post up by Saturday, Wednesday at the latest, and then I've got a post on writing action scenes and one on creating magic systems. There are a few others brewing, but we'll have to wait to see which bubbles to the surface first, you know?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 5

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Room to Maneuver

I'm going to talk about the two-handed great sword here because I think that it illustrates some very important points about swords and their use. Not all two handed swords are great swords. The great sword was (relatively) long and heavy, but it's also what I think a lot of people expect of all swords. However, the two-handed great sword is not at all typical of swords in general.

Take its description from Swords and Hilt Weapons: "Although large, measuring 60-70 in/150-175 cm overall, it was not as hefty as it looked, weighing something of the order of 5-8 lbs/2.3-3.6 kg. In the hands of the Swiss and German infantrymen it was lethal, and its use was considered as special skill, often meriting extra pay."

So, though at it's largest it is longer than 5 1/2 feet it only weighs about 8 lbs. and is firmly at the big-ass end of the spectrum. That's heavy for a sword (remember, average is between 2.5 and 3.5 lbs.), and it required special training even for soldiers. They were used to hack paths through pole-arms wielded by infantry, and to protect said infantry from that same tactic. They were also somewhat more effective against plate armor, but mostly, two-handed swords were for getting through the pikemen. They also had a long "ricasso," which is a flat, blunt section of the sword below the hilt (on the blade side of the guard) which allowed the wielder to hold the sword with the grip in one hand and ricasso in the other. This opened up a range of thrusting techniques, as well as allowing for easy half-swording.

Half-swording is a series of techniques in which a soldier grabs the ricasso in order to thrust the weapon like a halberd or spear, to parry a blow, or sometimes to entrap an opponent's limbs or sword. Not all swords have a ricasso, and most often it was the large swords--often meant to be wielded two-handed--which did. Generally, a sword with a ricasso meant for half-swording will also have a pair of projections above the ricasso which serve to guard the hand used to grasp the ricasso.

Remember also that these huge swords had their downsides: "In the infantry unit, the German and Swiss Landsknechts positioned the Doppelsöldner (Soldiers trained and paid to wield the two-handers) in the front ranks for a long time to strike down the opposing pikes and to hack out breaches into which one's own soldiers could penetrate. However it would become unusable, as soon as the opposing forces collided with one another, and there would be increased pressure from the back ranks onto the front ranks, which created a thick melee." (Kamniker and Krenn, p. 130)

In a close fight, 5 foot of sword isn't as easy to swing as 3 feet, and that's also a consideration if a soldier is fighting inside a building. If you don't have room to swing it, you can't use it as effectively. While a soldier may still be able to thrust--and with the two-handed sword would have had some pole-arm techniques open to them--confined spaces limit mobility, which limits the flexibility of the weapon. That isn't to say that you can't use a sword in a tight space, but it is a consideration, especially if it's not one particularly designed for thrusting. If your hero/ines are wandering through a space so small they can't walk two abreast, obviously a 3 foot long anything is going to be harder to use than a 6 inch anything.

Drawing the weapon is also a consideration. If the sheath is worn on the body, you have to take into account how long the blade is and how long the wielder's arm is, and figure out whether or not the arm is long enough to draw the blade completely from the sheath. I recommend trying this for yourself; take a long stick, broom, etc. and try to draw it like a sword. What length is comfortable (and possible) for someone of your height?

Longer or heavier swords are not always better. (You see my restraint? I'm not making any double entendres here. Not a one! I am calling your attention to that fact, so I suppose I lose some restraint points, but seriously!) In fact, one of the advantages of civilians using rapiers for self-defense was that they killed each other less. It's much easier to pull a blow from a rapier than from a knife. Knives, in close combat, are very lethal. It's pretty easy to stab someone deeply, regardless of training, and while knife fighting has techniques all its own, outside a battlefield knowing how to hold a knife is generally good enough to kill your average person. Much like today, actually. (Although all bets are off if your character takes a running start down the street while screaming threats with the knife raised over their head. :-D )

When considering what types of swords your characters and cultures might use, consider where they most often fight. Guards, for instance, may often be called upon to defend castle corridors as well as courtyards. Soldiers who fight in forests aren't going to want to get their sword caught on a tree, and fighters who spend even part of their time underground will have to take that into consideration as well.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Souls: Stories from Life's Fringe is out!

Okay, so it's actually been out for a little bit, but between internet troubles (now fixed!) that kept me off the net for 3 whole days (nearly lost my mind!) and NaNo (I'm currently at 9,209 and aiming for 12,500 today!) and packing (we're getting there!) and editing on Getting Ahead (meep.) I haven't had much time to do anything but sleep and eat!

A collection of three ghost stories about the souls on life's fringes: Blood Home (12,000 words) in which Addison tries to go home after the death of his brother, only to find that the ghosts of his past won't be easily laid to rest; Digging (2,500 words) in which Devin meets an unlikely friend in an unlikely place; and The Things We Pass On (flash) in which Samuel does not deal well with his father's death.

$.99 and available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 4

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Cutting vs Thrusting

Most fighting swords compromised between cutting and thrusting, and there are tons of ways to make a blade so that it can both cut and thrust. There are so many variations in sword shape that it's impossible to talk about them all here, but generally speaking blades curve in different ways to create different advantages, and to better balance the weapon or distribute its weight into a given area. As an example, some swords were designed to have a curved edge with a straight back, so that it had the cutting edge of a saber, but also a thrusting point.

There were, of course, those that specialized in one or the other, but who uses what is largely a matter of the needs, preferences, the style of the person wielding it, and the people against whom they most often fight. Even within a given culture and time period, there are often different styles of sword used by different people, just because the different weapons suit the different people. A weapon that can do both cutting and thrusting effectively is, obviously, more flexible than a weapon that can only do one, no matter which one it can do. If your soldiers need to be versatile they're more likely to have a sword that both cuts and thrusts. If they're dedicated to a single style of combat--mounted combat, for instance--or if individual types of troops dedicate themselves to specific techniques--i.e. this soldier is heavy cavalry and those are the tactics they know--you're more likely to get specialized weapons meant for that style.

A great example of a specialized weapon is the two-handed great sword, which was meant for the very specific purpose of cutting through, and defending against, pikemen. That's what it does. The length of the sword gives it reach, the design of the sword (specifically the ricasso, which is a flat, dull bit of metal on the blade side of the crossguard meant to allow half-swording) makes it possible to wield it somewhat like a pike or spear, and the thrusting point allows for good stabbing action. Yet, even with this specialized weapon, it can and would both cut and thrust.

This brings me to the topic of mounted combat because, generally speaking, thrusting from a horse is harder than slashing from a horse. That's just because when thrusting you have a smaller surface area that will do damage and it requires very good aim to hit the target where you want to. Plus, if you add the momentum of the horse into the equation, a slash can be more effective and not require the same precise aim that a thrust might need. There's more cutting area than thrusting area to a blade. A thrust goes deeper and is harder to treat than a slash, so it is more lethal

Another factor to take into account is the type of armor worn by the opponent. Thrusting into a lightly or unarmored opponent can also lead to getting your sword trapped and, if you're mounted, ripped out of your hand because it's buried in somebody's body. The same can be true of chain armors. Thrust the wrong sword into chain armor, and you'll have a hell of a time pulling it back out. Chain can trap blades that do manage to make it through the small gaps in the rings, and blades aren't going to cut through the rings.

However, you're unlikely to penetrate plate armor with either a thrust or a slash, that's kind of the point of plate armor. So if your thrust isn't going to penetrate the armor, and you're basically hoping to knock your opponent around, or get them off their horse, a slash is often your best bet. Making sure you hit the opponent and deliver enough force to give them a concussion, knock them to the ground, or batter them inside their armor is more important than attempting to pierce what will not be pierced. A thrust can do a similar job, but there's a reason lances were invented for thrusting into a mounted target.

Curved swords were preferred by most cavalry and mounted soldiers simply because the curve creates more slashing edge for cutting, which is easier to aim than a thrusting sword. This doesn't mean that all curved swords are meant solely for cutting. As I've said, most swords were designed to give some sort of balance between the two techniques. It's just more flexible that way.

In discussing these things with other writers, I've occasionally run into the perception that curved swords are "eastern," or create the impression of a more "eastern" culture. This is a ridiculous preconception. There are a variety of curved European swords (including the falchion, malchus, storta and messer) and many straight-edged swords developed by non-European cultures. The design of the sword is about what it's meant to do, not where it comes from. Beyond that, who cares? No, seriously, you're creating a culture here. If it makes more sense for them to use a curved sword (for instance if they often fight mounted) then that's what they should use, regardless.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 3

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Militia and Military Training

Training is the key element here, but that doesn't mean that only the upper classes would have wielded a sword. Anyone with military (or militia) training may have received at least some level and quality of sword instruction. This means that many commoners knew how to use a sword, and while not every peasant--or even most of them--would have been a swordmaster, militia training has been a common practice in many places throughout history.

However, swords are often expensive equipment. While that will depend on the resources your culture has, as well as what types of swords they use, the cost can be prohibitive to commoners. Swords were also often passed down through families, so if your character has a family history of military service, they could certainly own a sword (or swords). Consider the history of your world. Because military service often means training with and possession of a sword, cultures with more ex-soldiers (often a result of lots of fighting) may have more swords floating around. Of course, you culture may also reclaim any sword belong to a soldier who leaves the ranks, so that they can equip new recruits (and possibly save resources).

Once you've established how common swords are in your background, training becomes the biggest issues. Historically speaking, there were plenty of people who wanted other people dead. Or at least, wanted what the other people had, and since those "other people" weren't willing to just give it up... Yeah. Commoners fought with what they had--be that a sword or some other weapon--and they spent at least some of their time learning how to fight with what they had. That isn't to say they were necessarily up to the task of putting down better trained, better equipped marauders, but I doubt they were all that surprised when the marauders showed up.

Imagine living in the middle of nowhere in an era where you couldn't call emergency services, or even the neighboring village. Even if you sent the message that you were being attacked by pigeon (as opposed to horse- or foot-bound messenger) or smoke signal or magic, you've got a bit of a wait before anyone can travel the distance to come and help you. No ability to defend yourself means possible death, injury, kidnapping, or loss of anything you may own. Do you really think people would live like that without developing some defense? Would you? Or would you instead make sure that the people in your village could put up at least some sort of defense? And this is equally true in rural villages or bustling urban centers. Both present their own sets of dangers and the types of weapons and techniques would have varied, but if you're likely to be attacked you learn to defend yourself out of sheer survival instinct.

Some swords, notably the rapier, were specifically designed for urban civilian self-defense and were not meant for use on the battlefield. The difference is one of armored and unarmored opponents. Since people didn't generally walk around cities in full armor for the sheer fun of it, civilians weren't likely to need a broadsword to defend themselves. Rapiers are thrusting weapons, and thrusting weapons require less strength, and rely on speed and precise aim, while cuts rely more on strength and momentum. Deep puncture wounds caused by thrusting weapons are also more difficult to treat, medically speaking, and if you don't need to get through the armor first, a rapier can do a lot of damage.

What this also means is that, in addition to militia training, there were places where civilians could go to be trained in the use of such weapons. Having a rapier you can't use strapped to your hip is much more dangerous to you than to anyone else. The advent of the rapier for civilian self-defense mostly affected urban areas, where it's generally easier to find weapons and training, but obviously that will be influenced by your own worldbuilding.

Next post, we'll talk about cutting vs thrusting, and a bit about mounted combat.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 2

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Evolution of the Sword

Swords (and many other weapons) are thought to have come from the adaptation of farming implements. Farmers didn't just wake up one day and decide they needed a weapon. They developed sickles because they helped with the harvest and developed weapons such as swords because they helped with not-dying. Farming is at the heart of many organized "civilizations," the core of what allowed them to become organized, and swords--while later refined to their own particular purposes--may be another outgrowth of that way of life. Hunting, of course, has produced its own set of weapons (knife, bow, spear, etc.). And, indeed, it may be that the sword grew from the concept of the knife (what's better than a knife? A longer knife!), which was then refined.

While training is key in the use of the sword, and such training mitigates issues of "weightiness" and awkwardness, remember that not all swords are equal. While learning to use one will improve your chances of being able to use another, techniques differ as widely as the design and make of the blade. Not knowing the best techniques to use with the sword you've just picked up is a problem. It will limit the effectiveness of the soldier who picks up a sword style or design with which they are unfamiliar. It may not limited them much--depending on the degree of difference, the training of the soldier, and their skill versus their opponent's skill--but swords like the two-handed great sword required extra training to wield effectively.

Someone who was, for instance, trained only in the use of a thrusting sword meant for civilian self-defense may not be well-versed in the techniques and movements of a sword meant primarily for cutting. While, historically speaking, swords were more often designed to do both to some degree, a rigid training program which teaches only one method of swordplay is bound to engrain that one method to the exclusion of many others. This can be a disadvantage for obvious reasons. If the people a soldier has always fought are ill-equipped brigands, then that person may absolutely rock at that, and not be at all prepared for combat with a fully armored knight.

Methods and styles of combat evolve in response to outside stimuli. Fighting unarmored opponents teaches you to fight unarmored opponents. Fighting both armored and unarmored opponents with a range of styles and weapons teaches you versatility. However, methods of combat are also cultural, meaning that if a culture has fought a wide variety of opponents, your character (even if they have never left their own small town) is more likely to be trained in more generalized weapons. Swords, generally, qualify as generalized weapons. Hence their prevalence. It is the flexibility of the sword which makes it so useful.

I'd like to interject some worldbuilding notes here, because... Well, I'm always thinking about worldbuilding, especially with NaNo just around the corner! I think understanding the different types of combat (armored vs unarmored), and the different types of swords (cutting vs thrusting vs multi-tasker) could be used to good effect in many stories. It's a way to create conflict without reducing the capability of your character, or to create a character that is somewhat capable, but still has things to learn.

If your character is somewhat trained in the use of the sword, no one has to wonder how they became so good at it so damn quickly when they need to be trained. Perhaps they only received limited training, or their teacher only taught them the techniques necessary to deal with unarmored opponents, or they're more used to dealing with unarmored (or lightly armored) bandits than they are armored knights. Perhaps their culture has been pitted against the same enemies--or types of enemies--for so long that their style of swordplay has become "how to fight X" instead of "how to fight."

Considering the evolution of the sword in your own world leads you to a lot of possibilities. Who has it? Why did they develop it? What did they develop it to do? Who have they used it against?

The next post in this series will talk about militia and military training.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

All Claws: Stories of the Urban Werewolf is out today!

*wipes sweat from brow* I worked like a dog (hee!) to get this finished before Halloween and I'm thrilled to see it out there! I'm also working on a collection of ghost stories that I'd like to get out soon, too. We'll see how it goes, but in the meanwhile...

All Claws: Stories of the Urban Werewolf - A collection of three stories featuring urban werewolves: Best Friends (Flash), in which Matthew's best friend Jake has outstayed his welcome, at least Riley the Golden Retriever thinks so; Innocent Until Proven (Flash) in which, sick of jury duty, Amanda thinks she's looking forward to closing arguments, on a full moon; and Skinless (9,000 words) in which Albert's night out on the hunt turns into a scramble for his life which could leave him... Er, as the title implies.

$.99 and available at Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Smashwords

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 1

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Disclaimer: Swords are a sticky subject among writers and readers alike and there's a lot of debate on the subject. I don't claim to be an expert on... Well, anything really, and this is just what my own research has turned up. There are a lot of debates and questions out there. My advice to writers is to use this information as a starting point. Use your own best judgment, do your own research, and find the best sources you can. Then write it the way you want to.

Also, this series is split up into 6 parts, because it's quite long.


There's a lot of information and misinformation about swords and largely this comes from the fact that people's lives don't depend on them anymore. While they were the main weapon of the soldier for centuries, we are looking backward into history and extrapolating, sometimes from historical accounts or training manuals. These sources are not always accurate, especially historical accounts which could well be embellished or biased, and are sometimes contradictory.

Swords come from cultures all over the world and their social and cultural connotations differ depending on the area, the culture and the period. That's a topic for specific research, and here I'm just covering some of the basics, so I'm going to--mostly--steer clear of the cultural ideals and ramifications of the sword. Those are the things that are mostly likely to change in a written world context anyway. Your culture's views on the sword may not be the same as those from history, but even if they come out in the same way it should be through the building of your own culture that you reach those views and conclusions. So, I'm going to (try) to stick to the physical realities of the historical sword and its use.

Training is Key

Swords, while unquestionably deadly, are not elegant weapons in the hands of the untrained. That's an important distinction. Swords are versatile weapons in the hands of someone who knows how to wield them, but are difficult to wield effectively for those who have not had training. And if your army is made up largely of conscripted untrained peasants, other weapons are going to be more useful and less awkward for them. However, this is not as clear cut as it may appear.

Swords are hard on the untrained because there are so many techniques and body motions involved in their proper use. You can't just walk in swinging a sword like a club and expect you'll absolutely make it out again, especially if your opponent is trained. It isn't about the weight of a sword because most swords are much lighter than many people think. Generally, about 2.5-3.5 lbs. is the average weight of a sword meant for fighting, but there are many examples that weigh less than 3. (Parade swords and replicas often weighed more, but even ceremonial swords rarely weighed over 10 lbs. and these weren't meant to be used as weapons.)

Balance also plays a key role in swordplay, but it's not just the balance of the wielder. Two-handed swords have a long hilt (around 9 inches) in order to balance the weight of the blade. The dimensions of the crossguard are also meant to bring the weapon into balance, distributing the weight so that it's comfortable to use even at the higher weights. Poor balancing of the aspects of the sword can make it feel heavier and this is a problem with many modern-made swords, even replicas.

There's also a misconception that a soldier will grab the heaviest sword they can lift. The problem here is that too heavy a sword means it can't be moved with as much force and too light a sword can sometimes cause the wielder to feel the air resistance against the blade. So, a soldier wants a sword that they can wield with maximum force without feeling resistance, not the sword that is the biggest and heaviest. A sword that's so heavy as to be unmanageable will get the soldier's butt kicked, even if they think it makes them look big and bad.

In the next post, we'll look at the evolution of the sword, training and general styles of combat.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The State of My Drafts

Worldbuilding is lovely! I think I've worked past my snag (character related, but a little plotting has--I think--seen me through) and now if only the rest of my life would fall in line so easily!

NaNo is going to be a challenge this year, what with moving back to New Orleans within the first weeks, and possible editing on Getting Ahead as well. I can't spend as much time on worldbuilding as I'd like to because of packing, sorting, allergies (my cat cuddled my face and my eye swelled shut. I've had cats all my life and never been allergic.), and the fact that I'm putting out two short story collections for Halloween! Hee! I'm really excited about both projects, I love ghost stories and werewolf stories, and I have some previously pubbed, and unpubbed stories lying around. And when better to put them out, right? But, it means that I'm a bit pressed for time to ... well, breathe, for instance. Oh well, I work well under pressure!

Plus another short story of mine has sat up and demanded to be noticed. It's been languishing on my hard drive, needing only the ending scene to finish the first draft and now the MC has decided to complain. I think it's worse when the people *inside* your head won't shut up. *nods*

How's the writing going for y'all?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Worldbuilding: Creating Geography: Freshwater

Freshwater is drinkable water, which makes it valuable to cultures as well as plants and creatures. Even in non-desert conditions, drinkable water is often a protected resource. Secure locations, fortresses, etc. which have there own water source are more resistant to siege and less vulnerable to poisoning. A natural source of freshwater can also be healthier, when you don't have sanitation plants. However, historically speaking, freshwater was not always treated as a valuable resource. Often, rivers were used as dumping ground for all kinds of horrible things and could as often be a source of disease, especially in urban areas.

Even the oceans require freshwater if they're to sustain life. Without the influx of freshwater, the water of the ocean would evaporate, leaving its saline content behind and increasing the saline concentration to levels in which fish and many other sea creatures could not survive. Animals often migrate, following the water supply, and humans have often followed those animals. In addition, humans tend to congregate around water, just as other animals do. Sometimes it's the saltwater of the ocean, but equally they choose to live on the banks of lakes and rivers. There are several advantages to this setup. Not only does it provide a supply of freshwater, but there is a supply of all the creatures which live in that water, all the creatures which visit that water, and a ready means of transportation and trade.

Rain itself is a source of freshwater, replenishing lakes and ponds and rivers. However it can also be collected by humans, and if the supply is steady enough a culture can support itself by precipitation. However, rain is somewhat unpredictable. There are dry years, and a culture's demand often outstrips their supply. Lakes and ponds are, essentially, natural storage containers for freshwater and more reliable than precipitation alone.

Your cultures' views on their water sources can play a large part in worldbuilding, but first let's consider the sources of freshwater: ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, wetlands, springs--hot or not--snowmelt and rain.

Ponds and Lakes

Ponds can be small or large, however they tend to dry up for at least some of the year. The amount of different species found within a pond or lake is often dependent on how much contact it's had with other bodies of water. Some lakes (such as Lake Victoria) have changed size and shape and throughout the centuries have connected, disconnected, and reconnected with other lakes or bodies of water, making them diverse in the species they contain. Others have had little connection to other bodies of water and so contain a limited number of species, some of which may be highly adapted to that particular environment. Isolation creates specialization, while inter-body contact creates diversity.


Rivers most often originate in mountains, either from a spring or where rain and snowmelt run down and gather, growing as small streams collect into larger ones, which collect to form rivers. Most rivers end when they hit another body of water, be that a lake or the ocean or another river. Some rivers originate from lakes. Some rivers carve paths for themselves, while others veer around obstructions creating winding waterways and switchbacks. This is often a product of a lack of momentum. Rivers become slower moving toward their middles, or when they encounter certain conditions, making them less able to press through obstacles and more likely to simply go around.

A river's velocity is affected by three factors: river gradient, channel roughness and channel shape. Gradient is obvious, the steeper the slope of a river, the faster it will go. Channel roughness refers to the river's bed. A rough bed--say one strewn with boulders or littered with large amounts organic matter--generates more friction and slows the river down. Channel shape is along the same lines. Basically, it means that the more water that is in contact with its bed, the more friction there is, the slower the river. So, all other factors being equal, a wider, shallower river will move more slowly than a deep, narrow one.

Cultural and Worldbuilding Implications

Animals need drinkable water as much as people do, and so they tend to congregate around it, or to migrate from one source to another. This affects the circumstances of your culture in many ways, from which animals they have to eat seasonally to which animals they have to defend against. If there are a lot of different types of fish and mussels and such, they may not eat many land animals, or may eat them only at certain times of the year. Because of the troubles of transporting food over long distances, what's available fresh will be more common than what is not. And less expensive in general, although there are probably rare or expensive local foods as well, of course.

Water is also a big factor when it comes to trade. It's easier to move products, especially heavy products, over water. (Although it can be just as dangerous.) Boats can transport larger loads, more quickly, with need of fewer animals that need to be fed and cared for. Transporting people is easier by boat, and depending on the engineering skills of your particular people, canals and dams can create easily traveled waterways.

Waterways can also serve as protection. It's harder for sappers to get at the walls of your city if you've got water on some or all of its sides. It's hard to get soldiers to it as well, and sieging such a city requires a naval strategy as well as a land-based one. Depending on how wide the water is, catapults and ballista may have trouble getting within range, and defenders can be concentrated in areas the water doesn't protect as well. (Of course, history is full of people smart enough to find their way around the water, and the lack of defenders could turn into a city's downfall.)

Rivers and lakes make also serve as boundaries. This side is ours and that side is yours, but controlling the banks of a river or lake can also be a reason for fighting. If a particularly important resource comes from just one lake, whoever controls the banks controls the spice... er, I mean the resource. ;-)

It pays to consider the impact your freshwater sources have on your peoples and cultures, and how you can best use them in your worldbuilding and even your story itself.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Of Worldbuilding and Caffeine

I have been sucked into another world, hence my lack of postiness. :-D It's a fun world and I'm making lots of notes! I've drawn out my map and things are starting to come together. The characters are getting fleshed out--although they still need names!--and the world is taking shape, and I am loving it! Worldbuilding! *happy sigh*

The sword series is coming along, although a bit more slowly because I'm eyeball deep in my worldbuilding. The sword posts are now up to 3,000 words and there's *still more to cover*. I absolutely have to find a way to keep it simple and straightforward, but it's so hard to do that with swords. I don't know why, but it really is! I have another worldbuilding geography post I want to write up (fresh water) and if I can track down the post-it I wrote notes on there are other blog posts!

I've got research to do, and sketches of the architecture, clothing, creatures, etc. I still need to work on the birds and bird riders, and... and... and... *takes deep breath* Okay, I have a month to do all this. I should relax...

Yeah, like that's going to happen! :-D Worldbuilding! *bounces*

(What? Who's had too much caffeine?)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What I'm Writing

First, I apologize for the lack of posting this weekend. I started writing a post on swords and now it's 2,000 words long and I'm still not done. *hangs head* And it's not just me being long winded, either! There's so much to cover! So, obviously, I'm going to have to break it down into smaller posts. That's great in that I'll soon have a series on swords, but not so great because it means I still need to work on it. Plus, other random information keeps popping up when it really belongs in a post on say... armor, or non-sword weapons, or tactics or... Yeah. So, basically, the post draft is breeding like a tribble and I'm just trying to keep up. :-D

Other than that, I have finished Blood Home (Yay!! Finally!!), but I'm not sure that I'm happy with it. It's missing something. Maybe it's not scary enough? Maybe it's a little melodramatic? I don't know yet, and I haven't decided whether I would bring shame upon my house by posting it to be critted. I'll probably put it up anyway, but it may need another pass before it's ready. *shakes head* Is it any wonder a short story takes me forever? I find them so much harder than novels.

I've started working my way through Fated. It rambles in spots, and I can practically see how the cogs were turning in my head when I was writing it. I realized part of the reason I've had a problem with it was that the repercussions of some of my worldbuilding wasn't reflected in the world at large. Creative dissonance. *nods* So, I'll have to make some changes, and that's always dangerous because you never know when one little detail is going to mean massive rewrites. While I'm working through Fated, I'm going to write the last scene for the first re-draft of Glass and Steel, that way, even if Fated takes a while, I'll have two stories at least first drafted and nearly ready for crit.

I'm also working on the second round content edits for Getting Ahead. It's proving an interesting, if occasionally daunting, challenge! Sketching ostriches is oddly challenging as well. They're very... bumpy. :-D Technically I shouldn't be doing it until next month, because it's part of my worldbuilding for the NaNo novel. There will be bird-riders and I'd like to have some basic understanding of how an ostrich (and other large, flightless birds) move and look. Maybe I'll post my sketches next month and we can all have a chuckle. :-D

Lastly, a confession. I suck at Twitter. While I often bounce from one thing to another, when I'm working on something that's where my mind is. Tweetdeck flashes up in the corner, and it might as well be in the next room for all the attention I have to spare it. Sometimes, I'll sit back to consider a story and realize I've missed hundreds of tweets. So, I'll keep trying, but that's why I'm not the most talkative person when it comes to tweeting.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Author Interview: Chrystalla Thoma - Rex Rising

Today, I bring you Chrystalla Thoma, author of the science fiction treat Rex Rising!

Welcome Chrys! It's great to have you!

Hi dear Mary, thanks for having me today as your guest!

Tell us a few things about yourself.

I’m from Cyprus, speaker of Greek and eater of mousaka. I’m married to a wonderful Costa Rican, marine biologist and poet – Carlos. I am a reader and a writer, and my whole life revolves around these two things, which amount to just one: stories. I’ve had many different jobs, always centered around language: language teacher, translator, editor, writer. In the last ten years, I stopped writing fiction in Greek and only write in English, as I have come to realize that the English speaking public is more interested in the genres I write (mainly fantasy and science fiction) than the Greek one.

What do you do in your life outside of writing?

Currently I just left my very stressful job as magazine editor and scientific collaborator of an international patients' organization, and am returning to my life as freelance translator. What else do I do? I visit my family a lot (I was away from Cyprus for many years and am only now catching up) and friends, go to the movies and read, and spend time with my husband visiting ruins and museums and exploring the countryside.

What's the best book you've read recently?

You mean, apart from A Sign in Blood?

*G* Thank you! But what else?

Let me think. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series. Wonderful, detailed worldbuilding, unforgettable characters – and talk of angels (let’s just say I have a small obsession with angels and all winged beings). I highly recommend these books.

I love those books, too. Do you write short stories as well as novellas and novels?

Yes, I write all lengths. Originally, I found writing short stories a tough challenge. As a reader, I usually find reading longer stories more satisfying. Since I am a reader above all – as part of my need to escape reality – I guess this makes sense. But recently I find myself drawn to short stories, both for reading and writing. They are a different species, and I love the challenge of creating a world in only a few pages, as opposed to the hundreds of pages of a novel.

Which is your most recent writing project?

Rex Rising, Young Adult Science Fiction novel. The story is about Elei, a young aircar driver in a world where parasites create new human races. He leads a peaceful life — until a mysterious attack on his boss sends him fleeing with a bullet in his side. Pursued for a secret he does not possess and with the fleet at his heels, he has but one thought: to stay alive. His pursuers aren’t inclined to sit down and talk, although that’s not the end of Elei’s troubles. The two powerful parasites inhabiting his body, at a balance until now, choose this moment to bring him down, leaving Elei with no choice but to trust in people he hardly knows in a mad race against time. It won’t be long before he realizes he must find out this deadly secret – a secret that might change the fate of his world and everything he has ever known – or die trying.

How much worldbuilding did you do before you wrote your book?

A lot. To me, worldbuilding takes up more time than writing a story (in most cases). Of course, that is also due to the fact that a lot of plotting and creating the story is intertwined with building up the world and history behind the actual story. For Rex Rising, the world building goes back many years before the story was jotted down. Many aspects of worldbuilding came to light before Elei was born. The world of the Seven Islands for instance was created around 2000 and the many ramifications of the origin of this world will come to light in the sequel (coming out toward the end of this year). The role of parasites became evident to me around 2006 when I was reading a lot of scientific articles and books on this topic, as well as on epidemics and viruses. The street violence and gangs were an aspect I worked on during the years I lived in Costa Rica, where I saw some of that violence and poverty live.

When's your next book coming out? What's it about?

I am currently writing the sequel to my novel, and it is called “Rex Cresting” (Book Two of Elei’s Chronicles). The story picks up exactly where Rex Rising left of. Still recovering in hospital on the north coast of Dakru, Elei is convinced that his part in bringing down the Gultur is over. Rex has infected the other race and their dictatorial system is starting to collapse. Not every Gultur, though, has been affected, and on top of that, inside Elei’s body, Rex has matured and goes through another transformation. Elei isn’t sure he can survive Rex’s new strength — but that is the least of his worries, as the Gultur descend on him again.

If you could have a meal with just one of your own characters, which would you choose?

I love all the characters of Rex Rising, but right now I’d love to have lunch with Elei so that he can tell me the rest of his story without interruptions! I am generally a plotter – I like to know where my story is going as I am writing it, and as a rule I have the conflict and the solution more or less set in my mind while I am writing. Nevertheless, my characters tend to talk to me while I daydream or write, and tell me things about themselves I never imagined. They take on a life of their own and sometimes, as a result, the story changes. I feel that Elei has a lot to tell me if only I pay attention...

I know that feeling! Where can one find you on the internet and read your stories?

Chrystalla: You can follow my ramblings and read about my writing and stories here:

You can watch the book trailer here:

Or check the book out at Amazon US | UK | DE or Smashwords.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


The short stories are going slower than I'd hoped, but I now have a very clear idea of how to finish Blood Home. I'm going to hit it hard (write, write, write!) and if I don't finish it tonight, I will tomorrow. I'm looking forward to throwing it to the wolves critters ;-).

Then I'll start on Fated, and hopefully that will go more smoothly. I realized while trying to finish Blood Home exactly how it needed to be rewritten. This happens to me in the middle of many of my short stories, actually. I have to stop and re-think what I'm doing and what I'm trying to say, you know? I think I did a lot of that for Fated already, so hopefully nothing new will pop out of the woodwork to bash me over the head. We'll see.

So many short stories, so little time!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Time Telling Timeline

Time has permeated our society. Most people wear watches, or have cell phones to tell them what time it is. They get stressed out over ten minutes and punctuality is a virtue (one I absolutely don't have), but secondary fantasy worlds are often set in lower-tech environments. (I don't think they need to be, but generally if there's more than modern tech it's called science fiction, one way or another.) So how is time measured in lower-tech settings?

The first time keepers were the sun, stars and moon, of course. Their journeys across the sky and through their different cycles were, for a long time, the very definition of "time." Days are still the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate, months are still 28 -31 days as they were when they were based on the lunar cycle, and years are still the length of the earth's trip around the sun. These are the things that help us define time. The Mayans relied on the movements of the planet Venus through the sky to develop their yearly calendar, and in 3100 BC, the ancient Egyptians based their year around the "Dog Star" (Sirius) because it rose next to the sun every 365 days, around the time that the Nile began to flood.

Most interesting is that the need to know what hour it was doesn't seem to have come up until societies began to become more formal and organized. Urban societies were more in need of clocks than rural ones because bureaucratic governments, organized religions, and formalized social activities required more precise daily time keeping. In fact, much of the early clock work was done at and by monasteries.

Sun Clocks

The sun clock started with the obelisk being one of the first forms around 3500 BC. However, sun clocks require the sun, so it wasn't the only heavenly body used to measure time. Around 600 BC, the Egyptians developed the merkhet, which was an astronomical tool for measuring the movement of the heavens, and therefore time. By aligning it with the Pole Star they could mark off night time hours by noting when certain stars crossed the meridian.

Different cultures used different forms of sundials, from the flat, vertical kind to more elaborate ones such as the hemispherical dial. Since each culture had its own method of time keeping, it's not surprise that they also had their design preferences.


The earliest waterclock that we know of was found in the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep I, who was buried around 1500 BC. Waterclocks don't depend on visual observance of the movements of celestial bodies, but they also don't always operate consistently. In cold weather, they can slow or freeze and the flow of water can be hard to regulate.

The Greek clepsydra of 325 BC consisted of a cylindrical tube or bowl with a hole at the bottom and another bowl beneath it. Water dripped from the top container into the bottom one at a pretty constant rate and the level markings of the bottom bowl told how many hours had passed. This is a very simple version of the waterclock, and later mechanized versions from between 100 BC and 500 AD were more sophisticated. Some rang bells or gongs and others were made with small doors or windows that would open to reveal model figures.

In 1088 AD, Su Sung created a 30 foot tall waterclock tower. It sported a rotating celestial globe powered by hydraulic pressure, as well as five stages which opened to display different manikins which rang bells and held tablets which told the hour.

Mechanical Clocks

There was little change in the mechanics of time through the European Middle Ages, but in the 1300s mechanical clocks graced the clock towers of major cities in Italy. Though mechanical, these clocks were driven by weights and regulated by verge-and-foliot escapements. However, they were still somewhat difficult to regulate. In the 1400s Peter Henlein invented the spring-powered clock. This made it possible for clocks to be smaller and more portable, fitting on a shelf or a table, or even fitting in a pocket. However, they ran slower as the mainspring unwound. In the 1500s, this portability created a boom in the demand, and their proliferation also tied people to the need for time pieces. The first pendulum clock was built in 1656 by Christiaan Huygens, although it was conceived of by Galileo some years before.

I'm stopping here for now, but I'm also planning on a post about how to address all of this in a fantasy worldbuilding context. Fun! :-D

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Author Interview: Katherine Amt Hanna - Breakdown

Today we have Katherine Amt Hanna, author of the post-apocalyptic book Breakdown.

Six years after a pandemic devastates the human population and unstoppable computer viruses have destroyed much of the world’s technology, Chris Price finally makes it from New York to Britain to reunite with his brother. But the horrors he’s witnessed and unresolved grief over his dead wife and baby have changed him. Can he let go of his past, unlock his heart, and learn to find love again?

Sounds fantastic, right? Check it out at Amazon!

Hello Katy! It's great to have you!

What was the first speculative fiction story you ever read?
Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham. Ninth grade. Then I devoured the rest of his stuff. Thanks, Mom.

So what was the first thing you ever wrote?
Oh, lordy. It was a script for a SWAT episode when I was in eighth grade. I blush to remember.

I think we all blush over our first efforts! What's your writing routine like?
What’s a writing routine? LOL.

About how long does it take you to take a story from first draft to finished?
Far, far too long!

What personal experiences did you draw on while writing Breakdown?
Well, I had an experience with a deep friendship gone wrong. I never really got over it until I had a chance to resolve it with the person involved. In a way, the book was born out of that, and grew to include more.

So, which character did you find it easiest to relate to?
I definitely relate to Chris, with his losses and his depression. Been there. Felt that.

And which character was the hardest for you?
Freddie was hardest, I think. She has confidence in spite of what she’s been through, and that’s something I’ve always struggled with.

What did you learn from writing the story?
That you must have other people--objective people--look at your stuff. You can’t do it by yourself. Too many people are writing a book and slapping it up on Kindle with no input from anyone else. Ouch. It hurts to read that stuff.

Yeah, there's some rough reading out there. Do you participate in any writing communities or critique groups?
I spent nearly two years on Critique Circle. It helped me so much. I’ve let that slide since Breakdown came out, mainly because promotion takes so much time. I try to be active on the Kindleboards, and a bit on Goodreads.

How long did it take you to finish Breakdown?
Gack. I worked on this book for about eight years. The first few I dabbled at it. I went through a two-year period where I did most of the work on it. Then I dabbled again for another two, while I spent time on Critique Circle learning to write better, and lamenting the fact that my chances of getting it published were slim to none. Then, the whole Kindle thing exploded. When I decided to publish on Kindle, I got serious, and finished it up in three months. That was an awesome feeling.

Which part of the process did you have the most fun with?
I like revising best. Getting the original words down are hard for me, but revising is fun.

When's your next book coming out?
Well, I’d hoped to have it ready for release by December, but that’s not going to happen. So, maybe February or March.

What it's about?
It’s actually a prequel to Breakdown.

What gives you ideas for stories?
I have very vivid dreams sometimes. Some of my best ideas have come from them. Sometimes when I was stuck with Breakdown, a dream would propel me forward. Sometimes, the dreams had nothing to do with the novel, and I took a detour to write something else for a couple of weeks. I guess I can go back and work on those at some point.

Detours happen to me all the time. *G* If you couldn't write for an entire month, what would you do with yourself?
I keep busy sewing and reading. I haven’t written anything substantial since Breakdown came out in April. Just bits here and there. It kinda sucks, but I was never prolific. I don’t have the kind of life that allows for a set writing schedule.

Do you get "writer's block" and how do you deal with it?
I’m always struggling with writer’s block. Usually, when I’m at my busiest with other things like sewing, lightning will strike and I have to carve out time to write. At the moment, this is not happening. In January, I plan to put all else aside and WRITE.

What do you do in your life outside of writing?
I have my own business making medieval and biblical costumes, so I have my busy times of the year, like in the months before Christmas, making Nativity costumes. I have two boys, and I’m a Den Leader for Cub Scouts, so I definitely keep busy!

It sounds like it! Thanks for taking the time to drop by and tell us about your book!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Of Blogging and Books on Sale!

I'm so thrilled to have summer going out the door! Especially this year with all the heat and drought. I've always liked the transition seasons best, fall and spring. Fall being my favorite time of the year. Hopefully, we'll get some rain soon, in addition to things cooling down a bit. (Really, just a bit, but it's a start!) To celebrate my favorite season, and the fact that I'll be moving back to New Orleans in time to see the end of it there, I'm putting A Sign in Blood on sale at $2.99 from now until the end of November! Check it out here!

Unfortunately, this does mean at least some of my time during NaNo will be spent moving. It's totally worth it, but it's gonna be an interesting problem to work around. I'll manage. I'm hoping this years project will be shorter than last year's anyway. I managed 130k last year, but with the move I really just don't think that will be possible this time around, but I'd still like to manage a finished first draft.

Also, I'll be posting the first in a series of author interviews! Tomorrow we'll have Katy Amt Hanna here and we'll chat about her, her writing, and her book Breakdown, which is a post-apocalyptic story of a different stripe! Make sure to stop by and say hello! On Saturday, I'll be discussing clocks and telling time in fantasy worlds, which I'm having a lot of fun with at the moment. I've been researching it for an idea on the worldbuilding of my NaNo project (I know, I know, so early!) and it's inspired two other ideas that I think will be really fun, although one of them needs to be part of a larger story and isn't right for my NaNo project and the other is a story in itself. (Yeah, like I need another story bouncing around inside my skull!)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The State of Me

So it's been a while since I did a general update, and I thought I'd take a moment to give you all a look into my world... No, wait! Don't run! I swear I don't bite.


Okay, for you few who are left... ;-)

I'm spending the last of August catching up after my brain-deadness. It's amazing how much can pile up when you're not looking! I think it's going well, I've gotten some crits done, managed a few blog posts and am slowly catching up on my blog reading, too!

In September, I'm doing a short story blitz. I want to get as many finished before October as possible. So, there's no word count goal, just a list of stories that need work. They all need different amounts of work, of course, so I just want to finish the next stage of their own individual evolutions. I don't know how many finished stories I'll have by the end, but at least there will be progress. So, if all goes absolutely perfectly in September (it won't) by the end I'll have:

A second draft of Fated ready for crit.
A second draft of Sings the Distant Heart ready for crit.
A second draft of Glass and Steel ready for crit.
A completed first draft of The Dusty Dove.
A completed first draft of Blood Home.
A completed first draft of Guidance.
And a completed first draft of Impetus (working title).

So... Yeah, we'll see how that goes! I don't really expect to get all of that done, but I want to have a list of projects so that I can just dive in and start blitzing. I think I'm actually going to start with Blood Home, because I had this fantastic flash of the final scene when I was trying to go to sleep, complete with dialogue. You gotta love that!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Already Abuzz With NaNoWriMo

August is coming quickly to a close (yay!) and already my various internet hangouts are starting to talk about November. Ah, November, that lovely time of the year when many of my writer friends go completely crazy and decide to write a whole novel first draft in thirty days. I'm proud to count myself among the crazies, because NaNoWriMo is just plain fantastic.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month which is held in November every year. The point, as I mentioned, is to write 50,000 words in just thirty days. For many people, this is a whole novel (or, at least, the first draft of one). For me, it's about half a novel, or maybe a third of a novel, if I'm feeling particularly inspired (I love the big, fat fantasy novels!), but generally my goal is to write a whole first draft.

It's two months away and already people are talking about it, planning for it, hooking up with other people who are participating this year, and debating whether it's a good idea or not. So, I thought I'd do a little post about why I love NaNo, and why I will absolutely be there! (I'm MarySipe on the boards, BTW!)

So many writers have trouble gagging their inner editor, that little voice in the back of your head that tells you that your grammar sucks, your plot is ridiculous, your characters are thoroughly unlikeable and you'll never amount to anything. There are times when it's good to have that little voice in your ear, pushing you forward just so you can prove it wrong and then go "HA!" But when you're writing a first draft, that's the last little voice you need. Because first drafts are never, ever perfect. Maybe somewhere out there is a writer who nails it that first time through, but it's definitely not me. And, in all likelihood, speaking strictly by percentages, it's not you, either.

A first draft is just that, a draft, and the first of many (or at least a few) for most writers. It takes thought to get the words just right, and time and hindsight to cut out the unimportant, clunky or just plan bad bits. A good book doesn't happen overnight. Hell, even bad books -- really bad books -- don't happen overnight for most of us. And having that internal voice telling you that every word you manage to type is wrong can be crippling, paralyzing, and very disheartening. Partly that's because you know it's right. Sometimes the plot is ridiculous, or the characters are unlikeable, or your grammar does suck. But all of that can be fixed and that's the part we so often lose sight of. You can't edit what isn't on the page, though. You can't fix what isn't there in some form.

That's where NaNo comes in. With only 30 days to get those 50,000 words, you barely have time to eat, sleep, bathe and breathe, so there's not much left over for doubting yourself. Getting the words becomes the only consideration, and you've got a forum full of thousands of people rooting for you. People who will cheerfully tell you to stop thinking and starting writing, damn it!

So, while NaNo may not be for every writer, I highly encourage you to give it a try. Hell, the worst that can happen is that you won't write 50,000 words. How will that be different from most other months? :-D

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Worldbuilding: Extreme Environments

Generally, worldbuilding creates worlds that are at least somewhat like our own. Not always, but for the most part. They have sunlight like our own, climates and weather like our own, etc. That's not a bad thing; it often provides a somewhat neutral backdrop for the exploration of a culture or cultures. However, not all backdrops have to be neutral, and sometimes it's worth it to stretch those worldbuilding brain cells and come up with something... extreme.

Extreme environments can include any number of things, from worlds in which volcanic activity has continued long enough for sentient species to evolve within them, to worlds with far more sunlight than our own, to worlds scoured by high winds, constant winters or trembling ground. Under these types of conditions plants, animals and sentients would all have to evolve differently. They would be much less like the life forms we see every day.

Take a volcanic world, for example. Even assuming the dust and smoke would block out a lot of the light, perhaps even all of it, that doesn't mean that the world has to be lifeless. There are plenty of life forms in our own world which don't require sunlight. Chemosynthetic life derives energy through chemical means and lives in places that would be toxic to any other form of life. From the hot vents to the cold seeps, these life forms feed on hydrogen sulfide or methane that has dissolved in the water. It's even quite possible that life on Earth evolved from such life forms and extremophile bacteria.

What kind of life would a world like that have? How would it cope? Breathing smoke and chemical-filled air's probably rough, but perhaps life there has a means of filtering out the harmful elements? Or, at least, the elements harmful to them. You also have to consider where they get the chemicals that they convert to energy. Are they bound to certain locations -- their volcanoes -- or can they travel between them? How do they deal with the heat? And, most importantly, how does all of this translate onto the page? What does it mean for your characters and how to do you communicate something so different to the reader?

The volcanic example is probably one of the more extreme ones. There are less all-encompassing ways to create variant environments. Consider a planet that's tide locked, spinning at a rate that keeps one side dark and the other light. Or a planet with a thin atmosphere on which the wind constantly blows. Or a world with seasons that stretch on for centuries. While some of these ideas have been done, how you use them is what makes the world unique. These extreme environments present problems and problems force you to think of solutions. They fire up your creativity and make you consider your worldbuilding from new angles.

High winds keep plants small, close to the ground where they can find some shelter. Winds also produce storms, from tornadoes to sandstorms, and more depending on the other climatic features. Moisture levels and high/low pressure zones become a big consideration. Life forms may or may not be very different, depending on how they evolve to deal with the problems caused by a constant high wind. Remember that while vision is the dominant sense for humans (as a species), hearing is also a major consideration, and any species with hearing as a dominant sense is going to be different.

The point is to take the "problems" inherent to such a world and devise solutions, consider it from the angle of the life living there. Even if you never wind up using your extreme environments, they make excellent thought exercises.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Culture Creation: Entertainment

When I'm creating a culture, I like to ask myself what they do for entertainment. I think that it speaks volumes about a people, and yet it's heavily culturally influenced, which makes it an excellent step for getting inside the characters' heads, and the cultures' mindset.

You have to consider what the culture values. Storytelling is the sharing of an experience. The stories that a culture tells unite them, create a common reference and language, and often either foster a sense of belonging or a sense of alienation. So, in knowing what stories the culture tells, you begin to understand what the culture values.

Are their stories filled with underdogs who triumph despite the odds? Or are their stories filled with heroes/ines that would have fallen flat on their faces if not for love? Or perhaps they tell about the triumph of their culture over another? Each of these says different things about the basic perspective and mindset of the people within the culture. Stories are told at a young age, they begin to sink in and inform the ideals in childhood, and we all know how hard those childhood lessons are to shake!

Storytelling isn't the only means of entertainment, however. What other forms do their entertainments take? Are they an old, somewhat extravagant culture with access to a lot of different types of entertainment? Or are they a ritualized culture with set means of entertainment? Some cultures like opera while others like prefer sporting events and competitive games. Are your characters more likely to go to a play or to find themselves in the middle of a tournament? Are these different entertainments meant for different levels of society?

Gambling is another entertainment to consider, and one which can be particularly divided by class. The upper class may have established clubs, while the lower classes gather in a back alley around a couple of chickens. While the club may be the perfect place for you character to gather information about the upper classes, they're probably a lot more likely to learn about some things in the back alley.

Music is another big consideration, and one that can add a lot of variety to a culture. Don't think about the bard in the tavern; think about the soldiers around the campfire, or the quartet employed for a ball. Think about your average farmer and their family, on the long drive to the market. I know I always like music on a road trip! Do they sing? Is what they sing inherently different? Do the soldiers around the campfire sing about the wars their people have won? Or do they sing about home? Do the farmers sing about their daily lives, or do they sing about adventure and far off places?

There are also entertainments (of all sorts) which aren't always legal. Gambling may be one of those, but fantasy cultures don't have to conform to our culture's values, and many wouldn't. Whether your culture is more permissive or less so can communicate a lot to the reader. If they allow things like gambling, drug-use or prostitution, but outlaw the singing of certain songs or ban certain books or plays, they must consider the ideas in those songs, books or plays more dangerous. Why is that? What does it say about your culture?

How well does your culture deal with satire? Not just the government, but the people themselves? What would be considered "subversive" or "deviant" entertainment? When the rebels, rabble-rousers, and misfits go out with their friends, when they gather together just to be among like minds, what do they do for entertainment?

And consider also that most cultures have something that is theirs, some form of entertainment that is almost synonymous with the culture, even if it's practiced to some degree in other places. Are your characters more likely to walk through the market and see a puppet show or to hear rabble-rousers holding court in the public squares? Where do your characters go when they have time to waste? Where do they go when they're out with their friends?


Thursday, August 11, 2011

General Update

I am tremendously late with posts. Between general brain dead-ness and a sinus infection, pretty much all the words I can muster are going toward articles right now. I'm terribly behind on everything, but the stuff with deadlines gets top priority. Hopefully, I'll have something (semi) interesting to post about come this weekend, but we'll see how it goes!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Place of Storytelling in Our Lives

In some ways, I think of writing as the translation of human perception. The way we write things, the myriad ways we explore the same topics over and over in different mediums and genres, speaks to the variation of the human experience. We all see things through our own filters and presets, but at the core we all write about the same things.

Writers draw from their own experiences, but because we are all human those experiences have the potential to speak to a wide range of readers. Storytelling--and most forms of entertainment come down to storytelling--is the cultural language. By reading (listening, watching, writing) we assess our place in the cultural narrative. We experience situations and questions in writing and how we respond to them--which characters we root for, which ones we want to fall on their faces--we define ourselves, our own opinions and perceptions.

We see the characters with whom we identify either accepted or rejected, and we feel either that we belong within a culture or that we are alienated within the culture. Storytelling informs our view of the world, either reinforcing the lessons we have learned from other sources or contradicting them, helping us form a picture of the world, the culture, its rules and our acceptance or rejection of those rules.

From a young age--in fact especially when we are young--our brains develop neural pathways that form connections between concepts, images, words, etc. The more used that pathway is, the more often the connections are reinforced and the stronger the connections become. And because the brain cannot tell the difference between what it imagines and what it actually experiences (the same areas become active whether your see an object or imagine it), storytelling offers us an explorative medium in which we safely experience situations which might be dangerous, difficult or impossible for us otherwise.

For me, writing--storytelling in any form--is a vast continuing dialogue: an exploration of who we are and what we feel and think and want and need. It has widened, through the centuries, as we are exposed to new voices and new ways of thought, but it is also still the same. We still tell each other of epic heroes/ines, we still debate the lines between good and evil, and in hearing the story--or in telling it--we seek to find our place in the endless narrative of our common experience.


And two quick notes:

1) Just two more days to enter the raffle for a free copy of A Sign in Blood, over at Curiosity Quills!
2) I have a review of Wolf at the Door by J. Damask up over at Good Book Alert.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Long-Lived Species in Science Fiction and Fantasy

What's it like to live for hundreds or thousands of years?

When we create elves or vampires or ancient demons, we assume their life and their life cycle must be something like ours, and that the mind of a near-immortal must be somewhat like our own. But think of how much you have changed in the last ten years. Think of the person you were then, and the person you are now, and imagine seeing that much internal mental change every ten years over centuries. We don't stop evolving. Ever. We have not stopped evolving as people, let alone as a species. We stop changing, learning, growing, only because we die. If we didn't, what would we become?

Creating something inhuman is difficult for us. Often, these creatures, species, characters become an extension of humanity. They're just like us, only their culture is different. But would it really be that simple? Our culture changes as quickly as we do. Most of us have trouble imagining what it would be like to really have lived just a few hundred years ago. Our "ancient" cultures are only several millennia old, and that would be mere generations for an elf or a vampire or a demon (assuming they don't live even longer).

Often we think that this would slow them down, that their rate of change would slow with their span of life, and therefore it would balance out and they would be... pretty much just like humans, only more traditionally oriented.

But that fails to take into account the vast range of humanity. In the US, we change like its going out of style, but there are other countries, other cultures. Cultures in which tradition and history are valued and in which some times of change are slow, but others aren't. We're not making elves, we're making other humans. So what would it really be like to be a creature that is so long-lived?

We can never really know. We can only imagine, but so often we fail to really take the diversity and potential of a species into consideration. Elves become a single monolithic society because we think that long-lived means resistant to change. But if elves live in a world that is changing, whether quickly or slowly, wouldn't they adapt eventually? They've been around a long time, or have they? Has that first generation even died out yet? Do they know what death is like for them? Has any of them ever even seen a "natural" death among their people?

That would be terrifying. To know that other species die, and yet to not know if you do. You may assume immortality, but if you can be injured and killed, you have to know that a "natural" death is a possibility. If your body can fail, surely it's only a matter of time until it does?

The list of questions for a long-lived species changes. You go from wondering which characters know their ancient history to wondering which characters lived it. How do they perceive their own beginnings? When did they begin recording their history? How do they perceive the beginning of their evolution? Do they remember the moment in which sentience began?

For instance, the human species (this is speculation of course, but from the evidence we have) only reached behavioral modernity around 50,000 years ago. There's a lot that had to happen after that, most of it is lost to us. But if the elven species had developed around that time, and each generation lived approximately 5,000 years, that would mean that they're only ten generations old. How much mutation can you get in just ten generations? Mutation is what produces variation within a species. We adapt to environments because we selectively choose mates which are adapted to the environment (which we know because they're still alive and more healthy than those without those adaptations) and then our children have those adaptations and so live longer and have the capacity to have more children, who... etc..

So, elves would possess the same drive, to choose a healthy mate, and therefore would certainly be capable of adaptation. Or would they? Maybe they don't, but because every living thing on the planet does (or is theorized to) why wouldn't they? I'm willing to accept they might not, but I'd want to hear why they wouldn't, you know? Is their reproduction different than ours? Are they themselves a genetic mutation lacking that drive?

The point is that if elves (or any natural, long-lived creature) have only lived in your secondary world for as long as humans, you might consider their evolution when you're considering who and what they are. If they were here before humans, that gives them a fairly good view of where we came from and how. Plus, how would human evolution have changed with the addition of another sentient species?

Or, consider vampires, they're made of humans, right? If they are in your world, than they couldn't have existed before humans did, (unless they were made from something else then?) but their age is going to play a big part in who they are. Truly old vampires have had a long time to grow, evolve and change and they would do so by the definitions of their world, their reality, in which there is nearly infinite time. (Infinite! They could, conceivably, witness the end of the universe, if they can get off this rockball before it gets smashed and maintain a food source, of course.) If that reality contained humans (meaning, if they associated with the humans it has to have at least peripherally contained) they may still retain human characteristics (ideals of morality, behavior, etc.). But they have to think about what they're going to be doing next millennia. That's like, the next ten years for them. Do you think about what you'll be doing in the next ten years? Did you think about it more the older you got? (Now, possibly, that's because you and I know we only get so many years, but the point holds if only because a vampire could live to see the next millennium.)

Some people do, some people don't, but my point is that, when you're immortal, you don't have to be static. (Or perhaps your view is that immortality leads to status, and therefore vampires, et al., are unchanging. Great! I'd love to read a story that thought about it. The point is to consider.) I don't think the idea of scale, life cycle, and timeframe are often considered when vampires, and other long-lived species, come into play. We see things in a very human way (for, I would hope, obvious reasons), but stepping outside that view is worth the time and occasional mental gymnastics.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Writing Action Scenes

I really enjoy writing a good fight, or chase. Action scenes can be difficult though, because there's a lot to balance. You have to make sure that the reader gets enough information to clearly follow what's happening, without slipping out of POV, and without giving so much information that the tension collapses under the weight of it.

The first hurdle is moving the reader from "no action" to "action" in a way that doesn't confuse or jar them. For instance, a made up on the spot example:

Garin crouched to examine the floor, running his fingers over the weathered wood. The dust had been disturbed, but not too recently. There was already another thinner layer overlaying the footprints. His world narrowed down to those prints, and what he could ascertain from then.

He barely noticed the squeak of the floorboards behind him, and by the time the sound's meaning penetrated, it was too late. He started to jerk upright when a heavy arm slipped around his throat, pulling him up and back against an equally heavy chest. The forearm crushed against his trachea just enough to limit the amount of air he could pull into his suddenly frantic lungs.

In this example, Garin registers the squeak of the floorboards, so we know that someone is coming up on him, but he's so intent on what he's doing that he doesn't at first realize what it means. If he hadn't registered them at all, I couldn't tell the reader about them. And while I have no doubt this all comes as a surprise to Garin, I think it's important to telegraph your punches for the reader. Too abrupt a switch, even in a scene where some sort of action might be expected, can feel jarring. For instance...

Garin's mind focused on the prints, on their width and length. A man, then, or a woman with large feet. Not an elf, and certainly not a gnome, although perhaps a--

A heavy arm wrapped around his throat from behind, pulling him up and back against an equally heavy chest.

Even with the dash to indicate the interruption of Garin's thought, this feels disjointed. There's no smooth transition and the reader has to process what is happening, while they're reading the sentence in which it's happening. Because they don't know what the end of the sentence is when they start reading it, it's difficult to parse the action. Sentences aren't absorbed as a whole until they've been read. So, here we have Garin thinking about the foot print, and then suddenly there's an arm. If you don't know what's coming next, the way a reader doesn't, it can be confusing.

The details of the telegraphing can also provide vital information. In the first example, the squeak that provides the telegraphing is behind Garin, which tells the reader about the positioning of the attacker in relation to Garin. Since we know that Garin is crouching to examine the floor, an image forms. The attacker is walking up behind Garin, and Garin is crouched. The reader has an understanding of the logistics involved.

Taking those logistics into account is another important step in constructing an action scene. I think the key to any action scene is a clear picture of what's happening. Seeing the movements of the characters lets you ask questions about how they would react. And when imagination fails, there's always getting up and trying it out. Obviously, the more complex moves are going to take more imagination--unless you're a stuntman or a martial artist, etc.--so it's important to cultivate the ability to visualize these scenes. It's a skill, like any other, and the more you practice, the more details you'll be able to add to the scene inside your head. That translates to more details on the page.

For instance, because we know that Garin is crouched, the attacker has to bend to reach in around him. The arm then pulls back as the attacker straightens, pulling Garin up and backward. If Garin is crouched, his weight is probably pushed forward, onto the balls of his feet. So, when he's pulled up he is off balance for however long it takes for him, specifically, to adjust. I then look at the character. Let's say that Garin is a trained fighter. Adjusting his balance would be reflex, even (perhaps especially) in the face of a surprise attack.

However, say Garin isn't trained at all, hasn't even ever been in a street brawl. Maybe he adjusts just to remain standing, but maybe he also panics. What if he overbalances? He could send both himself and his attacker sprawling just because he's off balance when he's pulled to his feet. Especially if he's taller than the person who's grabbed him. Does that person know how to adjust for that? Are they trained?

Knowing your characters is as important here as anywhere else, but you can't ask yourself the important character questions until you know what's happening in the scene.

How do you plan out your actions scenes? How much of them come out in the first draft and how much do you have to rewrite or rethink later?