Brave New Worlds

It is a truth universally acknowledged that fantasy writers like maps. I recently discovered two great websites that let you generate fantasy maps of your very own! (I am in no way affiliated with either of these sites. I just like them.)

Inkarnate lets you draw your own continents, complete with features like forests, towers, and notes. You create an account, which is quick and free, and then you get access to this map-creation station:

You can then save and export the maps you make. Here’s a little island I whipped up as an example:

map of a small island

That’s pretty easy, but it gets even easier: the Polygon Map Generator will randomly generate islands for you. Then you can view them in 2D or 3D, plus from other interesting perspectives, like “Watersheds.” You can keep playing around with the settings and randomly generating islands until you get one that inspires you. No login required – just hit the “Random” button! Then you can export islands you like.

Have fun exploring!

On Dodging the Obvious

A somewhat-belated Happy New Year!

corgi with confetti
May you have plenty of occasions for confetti in 2017.

I recently read The Impostor Queen, a YA fantasy by Sarah Fine, and was struck by the importance of copper in the fantasy world where it’s set. It made the world – and therefore, the book – feel more unusual and distinctive. Copper isn’t as well-known or symbolically loaded as silver or gold, at least in Western storytelling. Indeed, I see it used as a hair color more than as a metal, especially in YA fantasy, where it seems like every other heroine is a redhead.

(My theory on this: authors avoid going with dark hair for their [usually white] heroines, because it might seem common and uninteresting *brunette sigh* and avoid blonde because it sometimes comes off as a shorthand for “is conventionally gorgeous” and they want their protagonist to be relatable and not an obvious beauty queen.)

Returning to the point! Lots of specific elements, from gemstones (e.g. rubies) to animals (e.g. wolves) to flowers (e.g. roses) appear frequently in Western fairy tales. They’re rich in symbolism and associations, and can provoke certain feelings or assumptions from the reader just by appearing. This can make them useful in fantasy storytelling, especially if you want a classical fairytale feel. But there’s also an opportunity there to make your fantasy world stand out by doing something different.

If your fantasy world is geographically unlike Europe, this will likely be a moot point. If your protagonist grows up in the tropics at the edge of a jungle, she might learn to beware not of wolves or bears but of jaguars. If you’ve based your setting on China, then your heroine is perhaps less likely to wear rubies than she is to wear jade.

But you can certainly vary these elements even in a story with a generally Europe-like setting (the world of The Impostor Queen gave me a Scandinavian vibe). Maybe your heroine’s country doesn’t mine rubies, but has large deposits of topaz. Maybe roses aren’t their thing, but tulips are. Topaz and tulips have fewer classical associations, at least in Western fantasy, but will likely still be well-known to readers. You could go for something less recognized, like iolite or anemone. These have the advantage of being more of a blank slate, association-wise, and perhaps introducing readers to something new. You’ll have to make sure to describe them well, though, as readers may not have a ready mental image of them.

You can include an element like this prominently – like the copper that is used practically everywhere in The Impostor Queen – or as a subtle touch. Think about how common this [metal/gem/animal/flower/etc] is in your fantasy world. Who has it? What is it used for? What does it signify to people?

If you know a good fantasy book that does this, I’d love to hear about it! And while we’re on the subject of book recommendations, allow me to give a shout-out to my favorite novel read in 2016, The Goblin Emperor. Fabulous fantasy. What books did you love last year?

Let There Be Light!

Two more of my No Flying No Tights reviews have just gone live on the site, and one is about a volume of Pokémon manga! (Specifically, Pokémon the Movie: Hoopa and the Clash of Ages.) Topical! Sort of! The other is about the first volume of a bright, poppy new magical-girl series called Zodiac Starforce.

(I’ve got a lot of reviews up on No Flying No Tights by now! If you’re interested, you can see them all here.)

I’ve spent some time lately thinking about an often-overlooked little element of description: lighting. In contemporary realism, lighting can generally be ignored unless it’s unusual. If you don’t describe it, readers will assume that it’s whatever lighting is typical for the situation in their experience: florescent lights in a classroom, for example. Which is generally fine.

But when you get into fantasy (or historical fiction set in a time before electricity is common), you start to have to ask yourself, “How can my characters see right now?”

If they’re outside and it’s daytime, the answer is pretty obvious. And if they’re outside at night, writers usually remember that their characters need a torch or a lantern or a helpfully bright moon in order to see. But what about indoors? Windows might be small and/or scarce, depending on your setting – is glass expensive? – and all the windows in the world won’t provide much light if it’s overcast or, you know, night. Besides, most buildings of any size have at least some interior rooms with no windows at all. What do your characters use to see?

photo credit: Macedonia-Sveti Pantelejmon Monastry-Candles and wishes!! via photopin (license)

Popular choices in fantasy include lanterns, chandeliers, torches, braziers, magical light sources, and the evergreen favorite, candles. You also get a certain amount of light from fireplaces, though they won’t light a room much on their own. Each of these has its own pros and cons to consider. (Bonus: these can provide opportunities to further develop your characters and your world!) Among them:

  • Most of these items – and their fuel, if applicable – cost money. Can your character afford a lantern? Is she conservative about using candles?
  • Candles can be smoky and, depending on what they’re made of, smelly. A poor character may be stuck with stinky tallow candles, while a rich one may have perfumed beeswax candles. Similarly, other flame-based light sources can produce scent, smoky or otherwise. You can throw herbs into a fireplace or brazier.
  • The angle of the light will be different depending on how the source is held or mounted. A light source held low will throw shadows differently from one held high.
  • Most of these cast warm, yellowish light. (Magical light sources, of course, being a possible exception.) The color of the lighting can really set the mood for a scene. Firelight might make a room seem cozy . . . or hellish. It all depends on how you describe it.
  • How much light is cast? A single candle may not illuminate a whole room. Giving the character only a limited pool of light in which she can see shrinks the focus and forces her to discover one part of the room at a time.
  • Some of these light sources are unreliable. Candles sputter and go out. Oil lanterns run out of fuel. Magical light sources may require energy to maintain.
  • The risk of fire spreading is real. Keep it in mind.

Historically, people who could afford it often maximized their light by including mirrors and other reflective surfaces in interior rooms. A candle next to a mirror is MUCH brighter than a candle by itself.

I don’t write science fiction, but there must be a whole other set of possibilities and considerations there. What’s the lighting like on a spaceship? What do aliens use for light on their home world?

A Picture is Worth SOME Number of Words, Anyway

You know what’s always a good time? Worldbuilding. I like researching what would make sense in a certain situation, and I like brainstorming things that would be cool, and it’s satisfying to find the place where the two fit together.

In this instance, I have a population of elves, some of whom are about to appear in the novel I’m working on. I realized I wasn’t sure what they should look like exactly. I know what the elves of my fantasy world look like in general terms, but like humans, they vary in traits like build, skin tone, and hair and eye color. For these elves, I wanted to choose traits that would logically evolve in their home environment, a chain of equatorial, volcanic islands. I also wanted them to have a look that evokes fire/ash/smoke, since they are particularly attuned to fire magic.

So, I drew up a couple of possible color schemes:

fire elf

The first image rather un-subtly suggests fire, with its red-orange overtones. The second image reflects one of the skin tone/hair color combinations found among the humans living on the nearby mainland. The third image is grayer to be reminiscent of ash. The fourth takes into account that these are equatorial islands, so the elves should perhaps be quite dark-skinned. I gave the skin a slightly grayish cast to evoke charcoal and smoke.

Then, some research! The mainland closest to these islands is loosely based, geographically, on India. Turns out the real India actually has an island with an active volcano. It’s called Barren Island (gosh, wonder why?), and it’s in the Andaman and Nicobar island chain. These islands don’t straddle the equator, but they’re not too far off.

(The following is Internet research, and I can’t guarantee its accuracy. I would DEFINITELY do further research if I were actually writing about the Andamanese people. In this instance, however, I am just trying to determine what people living on an island chain like theirs might plausibly evolve to look like.)

The Andamanese people are comprised of multiple tribes with different languages and cultures, but have some physical characteristics in common. They are typically short and slender, with very dark skin.

The elves of my fantasy world are already short and slender, so that works out nicely. Otherwise, my research nudged me toward the elf design on the far right, the darkest one.

I take this also as an opportunity to subvert some fantasy tropes. These will be very dark-skinned people with red, yellow, or orange eyes (see again: fire imagery). When these traits appear in fantasy, the characters who have them are often sinister, and sometimes outright monsters. (Which has pretty terrible implications vis-a-vis perceptions of dark-skinned people.) These elves are neither sinister nor monstrous, but are generally seen as refined and creative. They are known for their fire magic and their main export, high-end glassware.

Now, I can get back to actual writing, knowing that I’ll be better able to describe these elves when they appear. Huzzah!

Being Reasonable

I just read this very interesting blog post about female warriors and how to realistically write a fantasy world in which they are common. Its approach, which I find useful and thought-provoking, is to examine why so many cultures through history don’t have lots of female warriors. To summarize:

(1) The reason is NOT because of physical strength. I’ve always detested this ridiculous claim. Sure, the average woman is less strong than the average man, but there are plenty of women who are stronger than plenty of men. And that’s even assuming that all areas of battle rely on brute strength, which is simply not the case.

(2) A much more logical reason why the situation developed: for much of our species’ history, any given group of humans grew in power and security proportionally to the size of the group. A larger band could send more people to war – and then, unlike now, pure numbers were likely to make the crucial difference in a battle. So sending women into dangerous situations made less sense because women were far more necessary in maintaining and increasing population. As the blog’s author points out, if half of a group’s women are killed, then the next generation born will be half the size of the last one. (We’re assuming that the women killed include half of the ones who would otherwise be reproducing. Of course, in many bands of early humans, this would basically be all of the women of reproductive age.) If, on the other hand, half the men are killed in battle, the next generation could go a long way toward repopulating the group.

So women were excluded from battle for reasons which, while once practical if a community wanted to survive, are now totally vestigial. Still, the population issue may be relevant in many fantasy worlds, so the author addresses some ways in which writers might design worlds that need not bow to these reasons and exclude women from combat.

I appreciate the author’s approach because I think it is vital to be able to distinguish reason from justification. My mom used to tell me that there is a difference between a reason and an excuse: an excuse excuses a behavior, making it okay, while a reason explains why it happened but doesn’t, in itself, justify anything. Things usually happen for one or more reasons, but often have no excuse. Most people would agree that it’s important to understand the reasons that a bad thing happens – that way, you may be able to prevent it, or at least know when it is likely to happen again.

I feel the same way about basically anything that a writer does that makes her fantasy world different from the real world. The fantasy world, and the writing, will likely benefit if the writer is aware of what has to be different in her setup so that this new world order will make sense. For this reason, I’m especially interested in work-arounds that allow fantasy worlds to be free of sexism, homophobia, etc. without becoming unrealistic utopias. Because I don’t want a world free of problems – that would be boring to read about – but frankly, I am sick to death of girls having to dress up as boys if they want to fight. As a fan of equality, I’d like to read more stories that have that as a basic premise, but as a fan of logic, I’d like for the equality to make sense.

Of course, figuring all this out is also an exciting opportunity to add depth and uniqueness to your worldbuilding! For example, if you want to write a fantasy world without homophobia (ooh me me, I do, I do!), you have to work backwards from some of the reasons (not excuses!) for homophobia’s existence in our world, and figure out how each reason doesn’t exist or doesn’t cause problems in your world. For example, one issue you might encounter is confusion about how inheritance works for gay couples, especially those who stand to pass on titles and power as well as possessions. How will this be addressed in your fantasy world? If a country’s queen marries the girl of her dreams, who will be the next queen or king of that country? Is there a strong adoption system? If so, how is a child chosen for such an important family? Does the child need to be a blood relation? Or maybe the rule of this country isn’t inherited at all – maybe the queen came to power through combat, or was elected, or was chosen in some kind of magical selection ceremony.

Conversely, I wish many authors would look at the ways in which their worlds are similar to ours (or to their own experiences), and see whether it really makes sense for the reasons behind a certain quality of our own world to also exist in the fantasy world. Perhaps different reasons exist that cause the same effect. Or maybe the author just hasn’t thought about it. I think this is the likely explanation for the many fantasy worlds in which the great majority of people are pale-skinned, often with light eyes and hair. Do they all live in worlds that are perpetually cloudy, causing them to evolve in a way that allows maximum absorption of vitamin D? Did they all evolve in one or a few such areas, then spread over the rest of the fantasy world in a conquering wave, desperate to escape the fantasy equivalent of Siberia? Is magic somehow involved in their coloration? Or is it just that the author primarily knows, interacts with, and reads about white people, and most of the characters s/he comes up with tend to be white?

Have you dealt with manipulating causation to achieve your ends logically when writing fantasy? What are some things you’ve changed in order to make a particular quality of your world make sense?

We Need to Talk About Scrivener

Hey guys. Guys. So I went to this conference, and it was neat and everything, and I hope to recap it soon. I also read a bit of my writing aloud with other authors at the Brewster Literary Evening at our library, which I was strong-armed into doing because they had so few people sign up who weren’t poets and they wanted more variety, but which I nonetheless greatly enjoyed. Now, busy though I am with preparing to be clobbered by a hurricane with the same name as my mother (if this were fiction, there would be a really unsubtle metaphor in there), I have to share with you a thing that is great. That thing is Scrivener.

You may have heard of it already – I had. I’d thought, “Eh, it’s probably neat, but mastering it would involve time and I’d have to pay money and would it really make that much of a difference to my work and life?” (This is, incidentally, a fair description of how I feel about the idea of watching Doctor Who.)

And yeah, it does cost money (though I hear that you get a discount if you finish NaNoWriMo). But not all that much, and can I just say that it’s awesome? Multiple author panelists at the conference I attended raved about it, and I really liked the idea of the little corkboard displays and stuff, so I thought I’d give it a try. I bought the software and spent about an hour going through the full tutorial. And the niftiness factor, it is high.

I’d been thus far unsatisfied with other programs I’d used to organize my writing thoughts and research. A paper notebook is fine for brainstorming, but when I’m actually writing, there’s a laptop on my lap and nothing else, so I really wanted something on the computer. I tried just writing my notes out in my regular word processing program, but I would either wind up with one long, rambly document that I’d have to search through for a specific detail or an unwieldy number of shorter documents, usually scattered through folders in an inconvenient way. I tried the free downloadable program GrowlyNotes and, while some aspects of it are neat, it just didn’t work for me. Scrivener was the only such program I’d heard of designed specifically for writers, so it seemed worth a shot.

And it is great. Basically, opening a Scrivener document gives you a virtual binder (mine, at least, had been thoughtfully emptied of women) which you can divide into folders. The project I’m currently working on has a folder for characters, a folder for locations, a folder for general information about the geography and culture of this fantasy world, and a template folder. The template folder allows you to create templates – e.g. a character sheet – from which to easily create files. Each of these can hold text files, images, even sound files, which can be linked to each other, tagged with keywords that you can use to sort them, and viewed in a bunch of different ways.

For example, you can put them on a corkboard (corkboard!) as index cards (index cards!):

Screen shot Characters

Each of these index cards represents the “synopsis” I’ve given to a full character sheet within the Characters folder.

Notice the different-colored pushpins in the upper right corners of the index cards. These represent colors I’ve assigned to keywords: in this case, the turquoise represents male characters and the gold female characters. (Turquoise and gold are the colors of this country, Liratora.)

If you don’t like the corkboard, then you’re strange, but you can see the files in a folder with their synopses in outline view, too:

Screen shot cities

You can also split the screen:

Screen shot split screen

This view can be especially useful if, for example, you’ve found a picture that looks like one of your characters, and you put the picture in one panel and your current draft in the other panel.

Because that’s another thing. Even though I’m not currently using Scrivener for this purpose – I just wanted a place to put my notes – it has a lot of handy features for you to use in writing the actual draft. (Especially if you’re writing a script, which I’m not, but that’s cool.) Plus, when you go to export a draft at the end, it has some cool options, like exporting it directly into e-book-friendly format.

Plus, click on one of these to make it bigger and check out the little icons I got to choose for my Characters, Locations, etc. folders. How great are they? That’s what happens when you create a program specifically geared toward writers. Those icons are designed to represent “characters” and “locations” folders. And they’re not even the only options. I’LL BE SHALLOW IF I WANT TO SHUT UP.

So, Scrivener. Nic approves.

If You’re Going to Dance in Storms, You Should Probably Research Them First

So, awhile ago, I was looking at upcoming teen books to potentially order for the library where I work, and I saw this:


And then I saw this:

“. . . Japanese Steampunk novel with mythical creatures, civil unrest, and a strong female protagonist . . .” – from Patrick Rothfuss’ blurb

My heart, it went pitter-pat.

So I ordered the book for our library. It arrived, looking just as pretty as the image above, and has so far circulated a couple of times. I have not read it. But recently, I started reading some reviews that made my heart go things other than pitter-pat. Things more in the general vein of “sink,” if I had to be specific.

The first review I saw was this one at lady business, which broadly and briefly covers some facts that have been bothering people: author Jay Kristoff seems to have got a lot of his Japanese culture stuff (notably terms of address, whether or not pandas live in Japan) wrong, and then basically brushed off all criticism: “It’s fantasy, folks, not international frackin’ diplomacy.”

For a much more detailed, blow-by-blow account of problems one reader had with the book, see the review at You’re Killing Me. While I, too, would probably take issue with the Bathing Scene of Unexamined Creepiness (I must here recommend this excellent post on the male gaze in writing), the thing mostly under scrutiny in Stormdancer is that it’s inaccurate to Japan and Japanese culture.

Kristoff’s main response to this criticism seems to be a claim that the story actually takes place in a land like Japan, and not actual Japan. Some people are brushing this off, but I think it’s an important point. I strongly believe that people should be able – even encouraged – to write settings that are loosely based on non-European civilizations in the same way that oh so many fantasies take place in settings that are loosely based on European cultures. You shouldn’t be held to the historical facts of a country that your setting is only based on, any more than we should shake our fists at dozens of popular fantasy authors because medieval Europe didn’t really have this term or that animal.

I wrote myself awhile ago about coming up with another name for garments my characters were wearing that are close to saris in part because I didn’t want people assuming my setting was India when it isn’t; a similar concern is expressed by blogger Linda in this excellent post on her desire to write fantasy with Asian characters that isn’t set in Asia. (Yes, technically, one is only Asian if one comes from Asia. What she means is that she wants to write characters who, if they were in our world, would be considered to look Asian, in the same way that legions of blonde and blue-eyed fantasy heroes and heroines would look recognizably Caucasian, despite the fact that their fantasy worlds presumably have no Caucasus regions.)

BUT. The blurb right on the front cover of Stormdancer refers to the novel as “Japanese,” and Kristoff doesn’t correct it. There is, apparently, very frequent use of Japanese terms – the book actually includes a glossary. Curiously, some of the terms, like -sama and hai, are used incorrectly throughout the book but have their correct uses described in the glossary. This does rather support Kristoff’s claim that he has fudged and changed things a la George R. R. Martin, who bases his famous A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series loosely on England during the War of the Roses, but changes spellings (“sir” to “ser,” for example).

Still, the impression I get is that Kristoff has crossed the line into appropriation territory. (For a good article on the location of this line, see the Zoe-Trope.)

I also get the impression he makes some choices that are just plain unfortunate. Linda, whose blog I mentioned earlier, also gives us an excellent rant on how frustrating it is that, in a world populated with characters who look Japanese, everyone swoons over the protagonist’s love interest . . . because of his green eyes. Certainly being attracted to people who look different from you is common – and often genetically useful – but to make everyone wildly attracted to (and not even a little, um, freaked out by) an eye color that presumably they’ve never seen on a human before? And an eye color that, not gonna lie, is pretty much a white thing? Kiiinda problematic.

Related to that, one thing I’ve personally gained from all this: the idea of researching different cultures’ standards of beauty. I think that paying so much attention to eye color is really kind of a white thing – if everyone in your culture has brown eyes, are you going to notice it when you meet a new person? That would be kind of like noticing that they have a nose. (On a side note, how hilarious would it be if a character did describe each person s/he met without taking anything for granted? “He walked upright on two legs, with one head located at the top of his body . . .” Somewhat hilarious, is my guess, followed by very tedious.) I’ve already tried to emphasize other, non-eye-color features in the aforementioned not-set-in-India fantasy, but I’ll be curious to learn more about how other cultures measure attractiveness.

How about you? What features do your characters notice about themselves and others? What features do their cultures value and devalue?

Stick People as World Designers

The other day, I found a little worldbuilding resource in a very unexpected place: the What If? section of the website XKCD, best known for ridiculously clever comics featuring surprisingly expressive featureless stick people. If you’re building a fantasy world from the ground up, and you wonder something like, “What parts of this continent would have what kind of climate?”, then have a goggle at this little wonder. Rock on, XKCD.

Linkity Links

My lovely friend Becky has created an awesome worldbuilding resource for fantasy writers. Check it out!

Also, you may have seen this already, but I just found the scanned image of one of J. K. Rowling’s outlines for keeping track of subplots, and I kind of love it. It seems to me like doing this could be a great thing for editing – could really help you make sure each chapter is advancing plot and that the subplots are being advanced at an even rate.

I just found and love love love this post by Maureen Johnson, in which she expresses a view basically identical to mine (if more eloquent) about the “crisis” in “boy books” and boys reading. I had a teacher come into the library yesterday looking for a book to read aloud to her class who said she was especially concerned about getting one that would appeal to the boys. Look, I know that on some level you want to do whatever seems most likely to increase literacy and get kids interested in books. But – well, I can’t say it any better than Johnson does in her post.

And finally, YA Highway is a cool blog about teen books, writing, and various related things by a group of YA authors. Fun stuff.

Long Overdue

(I think that title gets to qualify as a play on words since I’m a librarian. Even if that fact is apropos of nothing.)

It’s been forever! But how interesting is it to read yet another variation on “boy, I should update more often”? Not very. Instead, I should perhaps talk about writing, eh wot?

April is National Poetry Month. This has me thinking not so much about writing actual poetry, though most of my novels contain poems and/or songs, as about poetic language. Isn’t it funny how some concepts – in particular, some objects – have become “poetic”? They’re dramatic. They’re symbolic. They have connotations all their own, such that people center images of them on book covers in a pointed fashion to convey, all on their own, some sense of the book. (Or, post-Twilight, there’s the “disembodied hands cupping the object” school, but of late I find this largely supplanted by the “girl in an impractical dress and usually also an impractical pose” and the “close-up of a face” schools.)

But! What this made me thing is that these things must be shaped by culture in some interesting ways. Like, say, wolves. Wolves have got some major metaphor going on in Western culture. They have drama attached to rival that of roses, or ravens, or apples. But this makes sense, because in many Western countries, for a long time, wolves were an actual menace, if not to people, then to their livelihoods. And they could, if properly motivated and not properly discouraged, actually eat one’s person. So they acquired this “scary bad guy” dimension. They were threatening. If the publishing industry of the time had supported putting pictures on book covers, then slapping a wolf on their would probably serve to indicate one of two things:

“Mmm, you and/or your livestock and/or your loved ones are tasty, and this is a horror story.” (Photo by AinaM)


“I am stalking you and talking to all my wolfy friends in eerie howls about how good you will taste, and this is a work of suspense.”

Whereas today, thanks to the rarity of wolves, they have acquired a tragic mystique, and our book covers are more along the lines of:

“I am among the last of my kind, and I feel it keenly, and this is a paranormal romance.”

Meanwhile, I’m guessing that countries that don’t have wolves involved in their natural histories don’t attach these kinds of meanings to them, either. (Their book covers would be like, “I’m some kind of fluffy dog, I think.”) They might, on the other hand, attach great significance to, say, jaguars. This, I think, is fun to consider when building a fantasy culture. Which objects – plants, animals, devices – mean something special to them, and why?