235

 

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

The “he” here is actually I, and the intersection of Black Mountain Road and Old Georgia Highway 17 is where my house can be found, blessedly surrounded by national forest land and certain reminders of bigger things.  Only a Spenserian Sonnet could contain the richness (including an allusion to Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” in the last line).

BLACK MOUNTAIN ROAD AND OLD HWY. 17 N.

Habersham County, GA.

Over eighty species he had counted

Of plants and animals within a mile.

He knew that figure probably amounted

To just a tenth of what one could compile

Who really knew his stuff.  Still, he could smile

At all the fertile superfluity

That seemed to constitute the Maker’s style.

Yet all this infinite diversity

Was structured in a vast congruity

You could in reason call a universe.

Black-eyed Susans, several brands of bee,

Five kinds of oak, three pines, magnolias, firs,

Eastern bluebird, wood-dove, cardinal, crow:

The pure, white Beam is scattered thus below.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest books: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016) and “An Encouraging Thought”: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of L. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018)!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: The Fuzzies

Here is one of my posts from my Tough Guide to Clichés series!  Because we can never have enough fuzzies…

_________________________________________________________________________________________

I’ve really been enjoying my month in Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland and all of the marvelous clichés that she has brought to my attention.  What I think I have learned while writing these (and perhaps, you have, by reading them) is that while there are always cliché ways to present your world and characters, there also just as many ways to avoid or even to utilize those clichés to make our fantasylands better.  An awareness of the stereotypes gives us greater power over our worlds.

And what megalomaniacal, world-building author does not want greater power?

So we’ve covered names, colour-coding, and villains thus far.  I want to touch on something a little smaller, a detail that might not even come into consideration when we are writing.  But when you think about it, it is a little strange.

pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban is a magic cat and Bella is a soulless, power-hungry, would-be villain. I think they both merit a story or two.

The question that Jones presents in one of her entries is this: Where are all the fuzzies?

Specifically, how do animals figure into your storytelling?

First, let’s see what Diana Wynne Jones has to say:

Animals. See Enemy Spies, Food, and Transport.  Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purpose, there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland.  Any other animals you meet will be the result either of Wizard’s Breeding Programme or of Shapeshifting.  You may on the other hand hear things, such as roaring, trampling, and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound effects only, laid on by the Management when it feels the need for a little local colour.

Domestic Animals are as rare as wild Animals.  In most cases their existence can be proved only by deduction.  Thus, sheep must exist, because people wear wool, and so must cattle, as there is usually cheese to eat.  Cats are seen in company with Witches and Crones, often in large numbers, but seldom elsewhere, and there have been sightings also of solitary pigs; possibly in Fantasyland cats are herd animals whereas pigs are not.  Goats are seen oftener (and may even provide the cheese) and dogs are frequent but often rather feral – the arrival of a Tour party at a Village is usually greeted by barking dogs.  Dogs are also kept in numbers by Kings and nobles, where their job is to be scavengers: you throw bones on the floor and the dogs fight for them.  These hounds cannot be kept for hunting (except perhaps for hunting men and Mutant Nasties), as there are no Animals to hunt.

The thoughtful Tourist might like to pause here and consider, since Animals are so rare, what exactly the meat is that the Management puts in its Stew.

Another use for animals: as desks.
My brother demonstrates another use for animals: as desks.

Now, then, let’s talk about the animals.  When I read this, I remember feeling a very twingy sense of concern because my fantasy serial The Holder Wars has fallen prey to exactly this description of animals.  There are horses for “Transportation” and then there are plenty of shapeshifters.  But my land has been peculiarly lacking in pretty much anything else.

Oops.

But here’s the conundrum: We want to create a world that is realistic and immersive and natural.  On the other hand, we want to tell a story and relate action and dialogue and characterization.  This means we do have to make some choices about what is important to describe and what isn’t.  If I were to write a chase scene through the woods, I wouldn’t stop the narrative for a moment to point out some bluebirds nesting in one of the trees my characters is frantically riding past.  I don’t need to tell the reader everything on Old MacDonald’s farm when my character passes by or stops in, do I?  We do need to have boundaries, and in many ways, it does make sense to only bring up things like animals when they are actually integral in some way to the plot.  Otherwise, the book becomes a ponderous tome of details.

chicken food
Dogs are desks… and chickens are cuddly snacks. This child lives in an interesting world.

And fuzzies just aren’t worth it.

So what do we do with animals?  Of course, we continue to use them in our stories in various ways, whether it is the usual horse transportation or as game to be shot or as magical changelings.  Otherwise, I think we would do well to be aware of any significant gap in our description, such as of a forest or farmland, and where we might add some animals.

It might do us some good to read what Jones has to say about horses as well:

Horses are a breed unique to Fantasyland.  They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest.  Sometimes they do not require food or water.  They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind.  They never otherwise stumble … But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them.  If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a Valley while you talk.  Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are.  Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no Stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings.  It therefore seems probably that they breed by pollination.  This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals.

The same issues apply with horses,  I think, when it comes to description in stories.  If we were to be completely and utterly realistic, we would also be completely and utterly boring.  However, I do like Jones’ point about horses needing rest and the issue of stallions, mares, and geldings.  These are small practicalities that might be worth bringing into consideration.

Unless, of course, your horses do in fact breed by means of pollination, which is another matter entirely.  And I would like to read that story.

belted gallowy
Cow is sad because she is not in a story.

So, what are your thoughts on fuzzies in fantasyland?  Do you think that novels tend to dismiss them too easily or do you think that it is generally a matter of space and practicality?  Do fuzzies matter to you?

Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: The Fuzzies

I’ve really been enjoying my month in Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland and all of the marvelous clichés that she has brought to my attention.  What I think I have learned while writing these (and perhaps, you have, by reading them) is that while there are always cliché ways to present your world and characters, there also just as many ways to avoid or even to utilize those clichés to make our fantasylands better.  An awareness of the stereotypes gives us greater power over our worlds.

And what megalomaniacal, world-building author does not want greater power?

So we’ve covered names, colour-coding, and villains thus far.  I want to touch on something a little smaller, a detail that might not even come into consideration when we are writing.  But when you think about it, it is a little strange.

pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban is a magic cat and Bella is a soulless, power-hungry, would-be villain. I think they both merit a story or two.

The question that Jones presents in one of her entries is this: Where are all the fuzzies?

Specifically, how do animals figure into your storytelling?

First, let’s see what Diana Wynne Jones has to say:

Animals. See Enemy Spies, Food, and Transport.  Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purpose, there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland.  Any other animals you meet will be the result either of Wizard’s Breeding Programme or of Shapeshifting.  You may on the other hand hear things, such as roaring, trampling, and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound effects only, laid on by the Management when it feels the need for a little local colour.

Domestic Animals are as rare as wild Animals.  In most cases their existence can be proved only by deduction.  Thus, sheep must exist, because people wear wool, and so must cattle, as there is usually cheese to eat.  Cats are seen in company with Witches and Crones, often in large numbers, but seldom elsewhere, and there have been sightings also of solitary pigs; possibly in Fantasyland cats are herd animals whereas pigs are not.  Goats are seen oftener (and may even provide the cheese) and dogs are frequent but often rather feral – the arrival of a Tour party at a Village is usually greeted by barking dogs.  Dogs are also kept in numbers by Kings and nobles, where their job is to be scavengers: you throw bones on the floor and the dogs fight for them.  These hounds cannot be kept for hunting (except perhaps for hunting men and Mutant Nasties), as there are no Animals to hunt.

The thoughtful Tourist might like to pause here and consider, since Animals are so rare, what exactly the meat is that the Management puts in its Stew.

Another use for animals: as desks.
My brother demonstrates another use for animals: as desks.

Now, then, let’s talk about the animals.  When I read this, I remember feeling a very twingy sense of concern because my fantasy serial The Holder Wars has fallen prey to exactly this description of animals.  There are horses for “Transportation” and then there are plenty of shapeshifters.  But my land has been peculiarly lacking in pretty much anything else.

Oops.

But here’s the conundrum: We want to create a world that is realistic and immersive and natural.  On the other hand, we want to tell a story and relate action and dialogue and characterization.  This means we do have to make some choices about what is important to describe and what isn’t.  If I were to write a chase scene through the woods, I wouldn’t stop the narrative for a moment to point out some bluebirds nesting in one of the trees my characters is frantically riding past.  I don’t need to tell the reader everything on Old MacDonald’s farm when my character passes by or stops in, do I?  We do need to have boundaries, and in many ways, it does make sense to only bring up things like animals when they are actually integral in some way to the plot.  Otherwise, the book becomes a ponderous tome of details.

chicken food
Dogs are desks… and chickens are cuddly snacks. This child lives in an interesting world.

And fuzzies just aren’t worth it.

So what do we do with animals?  Of course, we continue to use them in our stories in various ways, whether it is the usual horse transportation or as game to be shot or as magical changelings.  Otherwise, I think we would do well to be aware of any significant gap in our description, such as of a forest or farmland, and where we might add some animals.

It might do us some good to read what Jones has to say about horses as well:

Horses are a breed unique to Fantasyland.  They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest.  Sometimes they do not require food or water.  They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind.  They never otherwise stumble … But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them.  If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a Valley while you talk.  Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are.  Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no Stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings.  It therefore seems probably that they breed by pollination.  This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals.

The same issues apply with horses,  I think, when it comes to description in stories.  If we were to be completely and utterly realistic, we would also be completely and utterly boring.  However, I do like Jones’ point about horses needing rest and the issue of stallions, mares, and geldings.  These are small practicalities that might be worth bringing into consideration.

Unless, of course, your horses do in fact breed by means of pollination, which is another matter entirely.  And I would like to read that story.

belted gallowy
Cow is sad because she is not in a story.

So, what are your thoughts on fuzzies in fantasyland?  Do you think that novels tend to dismiss them too easily or do you think that it is generally a matter of space and practicality?  Do fuzzies matter to you?

Science Fiction Problems: How to Write Aliens (Part III)

This is the first part in a series. Follow the links for the different parts: IIIIV

Sorry for the delay, folks! Welcome back for another Science Fiction Problems! I gave some brain-storming ideas for writing alien cultures last week, and today I’ll be giving some tips on writing the background for your aliens’ lives, the ecology of their homeworld.

This can feel like an unnecessary step, but having a fully fleshed-out world will add a lot to the inner consistency of your story, and without it, your setting may feel less believable. Drawing again from that ever-useful idea of evolution, we can figure out what sort of flora and fauna might live in the world you’ve crafted for your sentient species.

The Problem of Plants

Don’t worry, no one expects you to come up with a whole new species of space-dandelion and explain why exactly it’s not like Earth’s dandelions, however, something either needs to be different about your world’s plant life, or else it needs to have a reason for being similar.

If the plants that grow on the planet are basically exactly the same as those that grow on earth, why is that?

  • Is the planet actually Earth, with new inhabitants? This could be an interesting way to make your reader wonder and guess about the similarities.
  • Or, is it an earth-type planet with a similar atmosphere and other conditions, so that plants very much like (but not) earth’s grow there? Any visitors familiar with Earth would likely feel at home there and perhaps be confused by the similarity unless someone explained why (giving you an opportunity for a neat little explanation yourself).
  • Maybe these plants were ‘seeded’ from earth as a terra-forming project? Did it fail? Succeed? Did someone else come and take over later?

In any case, foreign characters and readers alike should know what is the same and what is different  so that they can get a feel for the background. This shouldn’t be overly focused on and should be handled very carefully, or else we’ll have another information dump on our hands. You can implicitly hint at similarities by having characters take things for granted, such as examining an decorative blue shrub and noting its “odd color” (making it a different color than is usual, which the reader would assume is green).

Now, if your planet is indeed completely different, you should find the best answer to the survival problems of your

Carnivorous plants! Venus flytraps don’t have to just be green, you know.

world. Depending on the conditions of your environment, the plants will either adapt or cease to exist, both things you should account for in your writing.

  • High winds? Deep roots and low profiles could help plants from getting pulled out of the ground or being ripped up in storms
  • Depleted soil? Carnivorous plants! Often growing in bogs and wastelands, plants such as the venus flytrap, the sundew plant, and the pitcher-plant grow in places most plants couldn’t survive, and in fact only grow their prey-catching leaf structures when growing in mineral-weak soils. Otherwise, they’re just normal plants!
  • Low light conditions? Plants that do not rely on photosynthesis typically have dull colors due to a lack of light-absorbing pigments, so the flora on such a planet shouldn’t typically be very colorful. You could have other reasons for the plants to have color, sure, but just keep in mind the various ways plants use color (enticing animals to eat their fruit, warning of poisonousness, attracting pollinating insects, etc.)

Obviously, the more extreme the environment, the more difficult it is for plant life to survive. If you have boiling lakes of lead, it isn’t likely that you’ll have a christmas tree growing anywhere (unless that’s one REALLY flame-retardant tree… that likes poisonous atmospheres and acid-rain… you get the idea.)

Our Friends, the Animals

Here’s a basic relationship

For anyone who remembers high school biology, life on earth is organized into orders and hierarchies of predator and prey in the wild, from the fiercest wild cat in the jungle down to the little rabbit grazing in the clover patch. It should work similarly in your created world, with certain species of plant-eating animals being preyed upon by carnivorous creatures, if there are any. An ecology could reasonably exist with only plant life, only plants and omnivours, and plants, herbivores, and carnivores, but it could not work normally with just herbivores or just carnivours.

Obviously, plant-eaters need plants to eat, but carnivours could eat eachother, right? Well, the carnivores in our world require a great many things in their diet that they only get because the herbivores eat plants containing them. Carnivores could conceivably evolve so as not to require nutrients contained in plants, but you would need some reason for that- perhaps the predators actually contain within them a photosynthetic algae or other plant organism that synthesizes what tje host needs? You can have omnivores (animals that eat both plants and other animals, like bears and humans), but they typically have to have access to a wide variety of food options to be able to survive.

I’m being simplistic about this, but you only need so much to satisfy the non-hard-science crowd (which is a good deal

NOM NOM NOM

larger than the niche that likes only hard science fiction anyway). Once you’ve determined the relative structure of the workings of your alien world, you can come up with some unique ideas about the animals themselves.

  • Are the animals similar to your sentient species? Even we have monkeys that seem similar to us, however, most of earth’s creatures look nothing like humans. Depending on how diverse your creatures are, they may have similar features that tie them to the world. For an example, notice the neural-link structures on the creatures of Peter Jackson’s Avatar movie.
  • Are there flying creatures? Swimming ones? Climbing ones? What sort of movement would most benefit the animals in this world the most?
  • What is the gravity like? If the gravity is very heavy on your world, tall creatures with thin bones and structures could not exist. Something low, wide, and heavy could conceivably counter this problem, or else something that has enough buoyancy to resist it, with pockets of light gas.

For other ideas, look at our own world. What part or parts of Earth most closely represent your planet, at least in the most basic sense? Look at the kinds of animals that live and thrive there, and you can get away with devising equivalent animals as long as you take the other factors of your planet into consideration.

Well, I think that’s enough for one week. Next time I’ll cover technologies, and how to make them different across different races. Until then, what are some of interesting alien creatures you’ve seen in science fiction? Leave me a comment below!

Psycho-Bunnies and Fiction: Using Animals in Your Writing

Bella sleeps... dreaming of carrots... and world domination

Some of you are cat people and some of you are dog people.  Some of you don’t like either (you are sad, sad individuals).  I am definitely an animal person.  From hamsters to gerbils to dogs to cats to rabbits to Peking ducks,  my pets have been varied and interesting.  My current roommate and nemesis, Bella the Terrible, is a wonderful companion, mostly because her dark little bunny stare of doom is so utterly adorable.

Writing fiction often involves writing animals into the story.  Sometimes, it is a necessity.  Think about your typical fantasy novel.  Horses are pretty much a given.  You might put your characters on some other form of transportation if you are being excessively creative, but most likely they are riding horses.

Eowyn says: "I can haz scene in your story?"

Then, there are the hawks that your noble heroes ride with, their loyal companion hounds, the sardonic cats lounging throught the houses of magic-users, the dragons that lurk in caves (my favorite!), the savage wolves that plague the woods, and the various other creatures that come along to help or hinder the heroes and heroines along their journey.

We often put animals in our fantasy stories because they are necessary.  However, we also add them because they are fun.  They add color to the story.  You know what I’m talking about:

  • The half-wolf/half-cocker spaniel named after an ancient hero whose massive teeth can shred a highway robber or bring down a convenient deer for dinner.  Of course, he’s also very good with children.
  • The grumpy, fat horse who steals food and sleeps on his back.
  • The enchanted bird companion who may or may not have once been a human but is now a sentient avian who carries messages and spies on the enemy

I could go on.  Animal characters can be very entertaining.  They can also be annoying and very cliché if the writer is not exceedingly cautious.  Like the comic relief character that shows up for no apparent reason and cracks jokes at all the wrong moments, an animal side-kick can become an unwelcome addition to the story, and so if you choose to add one, do so with care.

This sheep is necessary for your plot. Really. You must include him in your story. His name is Stanley, by the way.

Now, you could easily make the animal somehow integral to the plot.  Perhaps the sentient avian companion was human once and part of the hero’s quest is to return the bird to its former shape.  Just be sure that it is, in fact, a necessary, or at least believable, plot addition.

If you really only added the animal in as an interesting bit of variety to your story, take great care not to overdo your creature-character’s charm and adorableness or make your character spend too much time fawning, worrying, or thinking about said animal side-kick.  Otherwise, your reader might just hope that a stray arrow will take down the sentient avian, providing plenty of delightful angst while also ridding the story of an annoying distraction from the main plot.

I freely admit that my love of animals gives me the predisposition for tossing in the random animal character into my story.  Mikaela has her violently inclined horse Pride.  My Dagger of Bane Story had Lord Dervish, the werepoodle.  I’ve written two stories centered around Cupcake, the cat (or is he?), though he was a main character rather than an addition, so that probably doesn’t count.  I just happen to love animals and I am constantly resisting the urge to flood my stories with fabulous pets and creatures.

Using animals in stories is not wrong.  Rather, it is like so many things in writing: dangerous.  An animal that is integrated well into a story will be amusing or interesting enough that the reader will enjoy the moments that it enters the picture and perhaps wonder about it when it is absent.  A certain dragon in Stephanie’s story comes to mind, along with a squabbit in Brian’s.

Oh my gosh BUNNIES! Must put bunnies in story. ALL THE BUNNIES!

Animals have their place in stories.  Just don’t overdo it.  We don’t need to read the Saga of Freddy the Fluffiest Rabbit’s Cutest Moments Ever when we are expecting to hear about Alphonso the Awesomest Hero’s Quest to Save the World.

Okay… so maybe we might want to hear more about Freddy because, come on, a cute, fluffy rabbit!!!  But, for now, let Alphonso have his day and keep Freddy in the background.  (Or you could have Alphonso eat Freddy because, you know, he’s starving and he had to and we would weep, my friends, weep! Thus, providing delightful angst and drama to the story.)

So, my question for you:  What animals in fiction have you enjoyed as side-kicks to the heroes and what animals were, quite frankly, just annoyances?  (PS – You can’t use Narnia creatures.  They don’t count.)