Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tying Things Together

Far too many of our great minds of academia work in isolation. They tend to stick to one extreme specialty and make judgments about their field with little thought to how it fits in the great scheme of things. Sometimes that isn't a problem, but others, it leads to errors. One assumption adopted because it seemed good at the time becomes and incontrovertible fact in later generations. Science has given us many tools and when we use those tool and remove any preconceived notions, we can put things together to form a much better picture of our past.

Our study of the past has a new tool that is calling old theories into question. Genetics is painting a far different picture of the world than we had before. Often this seems to be in direct contrast to what we believe to know. This was really sparked by two finds. The first was an assessment of Genghis Khan's DNA based on legendary descriptions and the DNA of modern Mongols, the second was an essay on the spread of the Indo-European language group and how tying it to DNA and archeology produces a different timeline (The Paleolithic Indo-Europeans) In looking at the research on Genghis Khan, I found that the predominant Y chromosome in Mongolia is one that is shared with the Indo-Europeans east of the Alps. That was reiterated in the essay on Indo-European.

My favorite new show on TV is American Unearthed. The paleo-archaeologist host is investigating various finds around the country that indicate European contact prior to 1492. Most of the older discoveries have always been labeled fakes, mainly because they are isolated and call into question the accepted theories. While I can't say all of the things he investigates are genuine (and even he does not assume everything is), the ideas are tantalizing and possible. The most intriguing was the copper mines of upper Michigan. Timbers have been dated at over 3000 years old, which corresponds to the bronze age in Europe. The Minoans were the copper suppliers and they were superb sailors. Just because later sailors did not know where to go and feared the open ocean does not mean the Minoans did. Their sailing successors, the Phoenicians even went so far as to put something that looks like a map showing North America on some coins. Was the ancient world smaller than we think? It is possible.

The only way to make sense of these things is to cast off the concept that what we take for granted is indeed the truth. We need to prove it. It is not enough to know that Genghis Khan was a Mongolian (so we should hire a black haired Asian if we were to cast the role), we need to know his genetics, his description, the origins of his culture and language. All those point to a different face than we might think (someone of mixed ancestry with auburn hair and green eyes - someone far more western looking).

One area of study where I have long seen the error is Egyptology. When we first began to decipher the ancient Egyptian language and their history, the early researchers immediately latched onto a couple of things they saw as similar to Biblical accounts. So initially Egyptology was tied to the dates corresponding to Biblical events. As time has gone on and the knowledge of Egyptian history and archeology has grown, the dating has never changed. It was incorrectly set from the start and has never been fixed. This has the unfortunate consequence of rendering Biblical archeology undatable. The destruction of Jericho is found in the archaeological record, but the date doesn't line up. And why? Because everything date based in that region is based on the anchor of the Egyptian chronology as it was set in error at the outset. Archaeologists use tree rings, pottery, and cultural flags to date everything and so they can only really compare dates. That this archeology site over here is from the same time as that over there, which is how Jericho is dated. The destruction happened at the same time as a given period in Egypt. Comparative analysis between archeology and the various texts that purport to be historical shows that events line up in a relative chronology, just not when the establish chronologies are adhered to.

The reverse holds true as well. Many Egyptology hold that Ramses II's exploits are highly exaggerated because they cannot find records of it in the other histories. Yet if you realign the historical timelines there is a match and Ramses is no longer a liar.

I am a big proponent of throwing out our preconceived notions and trying on something different to see if it fits. It means changing things and adjusting our image of the past, but it creates a more accurate, full, and revealing picture of our past. So rather than our Indo-European ancestors spreading out in waves of conquest, they migrated in peaceful waves, using their superior technology to survive where their processors could not, even adopting them into their culture. Rather than different waves of conquest creating the Celts, Germans, Latins, Greeks, Slavs, Iranians, and Aryans, it was forced separation during the last ice age. Rather than the Egyptian and Biblical chronologies being at odds, they line up. Rather than the Mongolians being a northern offshoot of China, they are a mixed race of nomads who had held those lands for countless generations, raiding and trading with China and intermarrying, literally changing the face of their people. And rather than the Americans being isolated for thousands of years, there was near constant interaction. By putting together genetics, archeology, climatology, linguistics, history, and any other helpful branch of study, a much clearer and certain image emerges. One that is far more hopeful for our species and our future.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Sad Farewell

My day began with the sad news that fellow Mythic Dragon Publishing author, Patrick W. Fine, had passed away. He fought bravely and will be sorely missed.

As a lot of people do, he turned to writing after retiring from the working world. He had penned several books, with The Curse of Aednat released by Mythic Dragon Publishing just prior to the release of my own book.

I send his family my deepest condolences and mourn for the loss of a comrade and for all the stories he will never get to share.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What justifies an epic series? - Joyce Alton

I’m going to hit hard and deep today, with Robert’s indulgence. What justifies an epic series? How much plot do you need? How big should the cast of characters get? The world-building issue and juggling multiple points of view? It’s too easy to be writer-indulgent when writing an epic series.

Let me start off by saying, if you’ve decided to create an epic series based on worldbuilding, you’re in for trouble. For the detailed post on that subject, read this.

Okay, so what is the right trigger for an epic series?
a) You have a compelling plot, large enough to need several volumes to cover it. Complex plots work too, which usually (but not always) leads to…
b) a larger than normal cast to tell the story.

Story first. Usually these kinds of plots have a save the world type arc. Politics, war, etc. all come into play. Your story isn’t a simple love story, or a fun romp. The trick is identifying if you have enough plot. It’s easy to get carried away with too many side-plots and tangents.

So let’s break this down some. Assuming your not writing an episodic series
a) You need a main arc. This is the core of your series. What provoking question or problem will hover over everything else? It’s crucial that this arc is big enough to justify an entire series. You aren’t doing your readers any favor by dangling before them a weak arc. In fact, by the end of the series, if this arc doesn’t pan out, they’ll want to string you up. Have it planned out from start to finish. If you try to outline anything, this is it.
b) Individual story arcs per book. Your main arc is the glue which holds the series together, but you will also need a definite arc for each volume in the series. What is the main goal of this volume? You need an identifiable start and end. Something big must be resolved. Whether it’s the next stage in a war, a character coming to power or losing it, some hang-up being resolved, etc.
c) Side-plots. Careful with these. This is where many writers lose their audience or derail themselves. You need side-plots, but those also need to connect with the volume’s main plot or the overall main arc in order to be justifiable.

Moving on to characters and point of view.
This is another potential pitfall of disaster for a writer. Most epic series have a large cast of characters. But – you need to be sure each of those characters are necessary, just as if you were writing a standalone 300 pg. novel. Don’t fall into the attitude of “we’ve reached a twist in the story, let’s make a new character for that.”

Identify your POV characters. Who has the most to lose most often? This should be your main character(s).

Are you planning on giving the villain(s) POV voices? First off, think about your storytelling. Will this demystify your villain? Will it kill the suspense or enhance it? The same thing goes for throwing in POV characters other than your MC. Does one character start off as a side character in book 1 but by book 2 he becomes a MC? Are you killing off any MCs? A good series outline will help answer these questions and cut some pain and anguish in the editing stage.

Another common trait in an epic series is location. You might have some characters in one place while another group is elsewhere, but just as vital to the story. While this calls for more POVs, you still need to ask if you are using too many. And while a character list helps readers out, remember it also takes readers out the story to look up who is who and where they are.

Which leads to using multiple names for characters. Sure thing, in history, some people had titles, names, and nicknames. That’s a reflection on reality. But if you’ve already filled your series with a lot of characters, think for a second again about your readers and their patience level. The worst thing a writer can do is confuse their audience. That’s the con. The pro? Can’t think of one good reason why having a lot of names for one person, multiplied by 20 or 100 characters, will benefit the reader. Perhaps only one or two people need a secondary title to create a sense of mystery. If a character has an official title, choose between the title and their regular name and stick with that for most of the book. Your readers will thank you.

If you’ve realized you have a bloated cast and need some help condensing characters, I’ve covered that here.

Next up, worldbuilding. Necessary? Oh yes! Especially in epic fantasy. One thing to be wary of is not piling all of your worldbuilding into the first volume or the second or even the third. Spread it out, when it counts and when it’s needed. That way you don’t info dump too much on readers at the get-go (and consequently lose some of them) and you’ll still be able to create that sense of amazement in the later books. Lackluster worldbuilding at the end of a series often means the series has dragged on too long. Restraint as a writer is key. For more on worldbuilding see:
Worldbuilding: Think Big, Be Creative, Have Fun!
How Much Worldbuilding Do You Need?
Falling In Love With Your World

Now to get a bit more personal. I’ve been writing for many years. One of my first loves was coming up with epic fantasy ideas and planning out series. I’ve had to learn each of the points I’ve brought up in this post. It was so much fun to think of a new volume to add, to try to come up with enough titles to do my fantastic world justice, or more ways to drag certain casts of characters from one volume to another. You can rightly guess very few of these stories will ever be published. Writing a series for the sake of a series is a mistake.

Readers get tired unless you have a solid main arc for the entire series and carry it off. They get bogged down in keeping characters straight if you have too many or if your nodes of conjunction are non-existent. A series based around worldbuilding and not plot will hold up about as well as driving a car on balloons instead of tires.

#1 example of a well thought-through fantasy series is Harry Potter. The author knew the beginning to the end and she delivered. Each book had its own main plot. The sideplots enhanced either the main plot or the main arc. She had a lot of characters but not too many and each one was distinctly different and usually served more than one purpose. The worldbuilding caught readers’ imaginations on fire, without overwhelming them with too much too soon. We were still discovering new things up to the last volume in the series. She knew when to stop and write The End. Is it any surprise it became a huge bestselling series?

So take some time to think about it. Is your story big enough for a series? Honestly?

Joyce Alton, also known affectionately by her screen name Clippership (or even just Clipper), is a writer of speculative fiction and the moderator of that topic on Agent Query Connect. She shares some interesting insights in her bio and posts on her blog, Yesternight's Voyage. And don't forget to follow her on Twitter.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

While It May Not Be True...

Our world is full of mysteries. In the Victorian Era they tried to pin down the past, but as we continue to learn more, that Victorian Era picture of our history unravels. For some things there isn’t exactly proof, only tantalizing clues. We crafters of fantasy worlds can make use of those mysteries in our writing, whether they are true or not is irrelevant in the fictional worlds we create.

What sparked this thought is the History Channel show, American Unearthed (shown on H2). What I really like about that show is that he doesn’t make hard and fast statements of what he finds, only that his findings are intriguing. I highly recommend it, especially to writers. My mind has been churning over just the three episodes I’ve seen.

What the gist of the show is, and an idea backed up by other things I keep finding, is that there are many things we do not know. We live on the perfect continent for such discoveries. The generally accepted history is that the Vikings sailed over to Newfoundland in about the year 1000, followed 500 years later by Columbus. What the host of America Unearthed is striving to show is that the evidence for previous visits exists and should be taken seriously. He’s from Minnesota and this probably stems from a long held belief that the Vikings made it inland that far. Not too hard to believe considering the Great Lakes, but as of yet unproven.

So far what he has uncovered has been 12th century Englishmen in Arizona, 3000 BC Minoan copper mines in Michigan, and pervasive claims of Vikings in Minnesota, including a runestone. I’m not saying we should believe this. The skeptic in me has its doubts, but think of the story ideas this opens up. Imagine the adventure a group of Englishmen would have had in the 12th century to end up in Arizona. Just imagine the possibilities. Put it in a fantasy setting and there are even more possibilities.

The are more mysteries like this that are harder to disprove and explain. The caucasian mummies of the Silk Road in China. Stone tool technology in the Americas that is closer to Europe than Asia. Chinese stone anchors found off the California coast. People in a remote part of Africa who are genetically Jewish. What it all means is that we humans have been traveling the globe for thousands of years. These wanderers and adventurers went places that their cultural relatives couldn’t even imagine. For many this was likely a one way journey which explains why no one knows about it. For the 12th century Englishmen in Arizona, the journey of one ended in death with a carved runestone marker. That means there was someone to carve it, but what happened to them?

It is impossible to verify any of these things. Coincidence, forgeries, and alternate explanation abound, but that isn’t the point. The point was really made by Thor Heyerdahl. He set sail in several boats using primitive and ancient construction methods. He crossed both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in ships that could have been built 1000 or 5000 years ago. While it doesn’t prove that anyone did make such voyages, it proves ancient peoples could have and opens up the possibility that someone did and that some legends are based on visitors from other shores.

Now turn from our world and enter the realm of fantasy world building. Let your mind wander with the possibilities. Seafaring cultures can go as far as their ships can take them. You can have an outpost of a far away land, you can have a ship get storm tossed and end up in some new corner of the world. You can have legends of a far away land and a group of adventurers determined to go there. The possibilities are endless, but sea voyages have not often been part of creating a fantasy world. They should be. If nothing else, this information should prove that seafaring is an old and wide spread profession and we do not fully know what contact was made that we have no records of.

The oldest ships date back to the time when the seas finished rising after the last ice age. The ice age shoreline is miles from the present one and deep under water, making any archaeology impossible. So we don’t know how far back we humans have had seafaring cultures. It’s definitely 10,000 years, but unknown how much further back it could go. And if we are talking about a created fantasy world where we can shape everything, it opens greater possibilities. Even if you don’t want to deal with sea travel in your stories, you can still have groups who got where they are now by sea. The big thing is that all this challenges the notion that in past centuries we didn’t move around as much, the era most emulated for fantasy settings. The evidence points to just the opposite, that we’ve always gotten around just fine, on land or sea.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Downton Abbey Season 3 – What To Expect

Not everyone has had to patiently wait for PBS to show Downton Abbey. I am one of the number who has seen all eight glorious episodes and the Christmas Special. The drama is riveting, the characters still amazing. Maggie Smith has more wonderful one-liners.

I am not normally one for paying attention to spoilers, but in this instance, I’ll leave the details of the story to be revealed as you watch. That is unless you email me. If you ask, I will try to answer. Let’s just say that our characters have their highs and lows and the Christmas special ends with both. We follow the family through life and death. That probably was too much, but there is so much that happens that it is hard to talk about this season without letting something slip.

One of the great things about the series is that it packs a lot of time and drama into the few episodes. Between the regular episodes and the Christmas special, I think it covers nearly 2 years. A lot can happen in 2 years in any family and it most certainly does for our Downton family. Rather than feeling forced like a traditional American soap opera, Julian Fellows has crafted a very real feeling family with joys, arguments, visitors, excursions, and tragedies.

What you really should expect is more of the same high quality stories like you saw in the first two seasons, but if anything, the stakes are higher. I can’t wait to see what season 4 will bring, but for that, even we early viewers have to wait.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - A Magnificent Start

When The Return of the King came out, the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings, it concluded an epic tale. Due to rights issues, The Hobbit was not part of the initial adaptation, even though it was the story that really started the tale. Things changed, as they frequently do, and before we knew it, Peter Jackson has brought us the first part of his adaptation of The Hobbit.

But it isn’t just the story from The Hobbit. Tolkien included a huge amount of related information that fills in the gaps in the story in the appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings. The saga now unfolding is of the finding of the One Ring and the events that lead up to The Lord of the Rings. At the core is the story of Bilbo Baggins and how Gandalf roped him into his great adventure with the dwarves.

What must be clear to everyone who sees this film is that The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was written nearly 20 years earlier and was a simple adventure. Anyone expecting something that feels exactly like The Lord of the Rings will be disappointed. That said, it is the same world, the same races, and a few of the same characters. Where The Lord of the Rings was frightening and intense from early on, The Hobbit starts off fun and full of adventure and the danger only shows up in bits and pieces along the way, growing as they get closer to their destination.

As usual, Jackson did a fantastic job. He has again skillfully mined the appendices of The Lord of the Rings to expand the story. This time out, there wasn’t a lot added to the story. The Hobbit is has a lot of story packed in it and it was very faithfully brought to the screen. Jackson has again shown his mastery of Tolkien’s world and given us another gem. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has an aura of fun and joviality that mirrors the book, yet behind it are the roots of the darkness that in time will lead to the story of Frodo and the One Ring. A definite must see for those who loved the previous films, love the book, or just plain love fantasy.