Friday, October 30, 2009


If you believe that playing around with maps is a displacement activity from the reality of writing, then I haven't put the past couple of weeks to good use. If you think they're a good way of developing a fantasy world, which is not a five-minute job, then the conclusions are more hopeful.

Yesterday I expanded my map a little further by adding some names, as well as getting to grips with some software techniques to make the map more attractive.

I've narrowed down my field of operations to a single portion of the larger Azundel map (the top right corner of the original) and put in some drop-shading on the landmass to give a three-dimensional feel (this looks even better with the map blown up to full size). But the real development is place-names. Adding these moves us from a doodle to a real map. Next we may add some cities to populate our fictional "commonwealth".
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Thursday, October 29, 2009

On maps and worldbuilding

Once again I have been thinking about, and making, maps. Matt commented last week on the photorealistic quality of the map of 'Azundel', and clearly the style of the map influences to a large extent the way in which the observer responds to it.

I find a photorealistic map is very useful in determining 'what goes where' but it is not the kind of thing you would reproduce in a fantasy novel. I've done some work, instead, in making the same terrain into a more inviting style of map. The blues and yellows of a traditional atlas can be a good starting point, as in this version:

On a practical level, the colour scheme of this map lends itself to lettering, but it feels too modern to be a true fantasy map. To give a more antique feel, I often fall back on browns, and a grained paper surface, as in this version:

This produces a striking and decorative map, although not one which lends itself to easy lettering (imagine trying to show the names of cities against this background). Different maps, even of the same terrain, have different uses.

The next stage is to start to put cities on the map. This is where a world starts to find its feet; if you call a city "Z'Gnarth" (writer's hint: don't), it creates a different resonance in the reader's mind to "Azundel" or "Xhendelesse". At the moment I am enjoying the sound and feel of Dutch place names, so these are likely to influence the next version of the map. Who can fail savour real names like Medemblik, Zwaartsluis, Coeverden? I've always liked the look of Dutch names (who, except the Dutch, can actually pronounce them?) and the Emmenrule in my Mondia stories comes directly from the Dutch football team BV Emmen.

My next iterations of the map, therefore, are likely to place and name some cities: the point at which a map starts to become a world.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

More on Maps

I've been playing some more with maps this week (that's why they give me a lunch hour). The first is a refinement of one we saw last week.

This is created with a lovely piece of software called Fractal Terrains Pro. I've enhanced it from last week's by taking a bit more care over the colours and textures--plus, of course, giving it a name. It's easy to produce high-resolution images which means I can zoom in on smaller sections of the map. A map like this can be sweated to yield a lot more detail and hence imaginative stimulation. My Mondia series was kicked off with a map generated by FT Pro.

The second map is perhaps not as impressive, but took only seconds to generate with an application called Greenfish Relief Map. Once output it's not quite so versatile, but it cleverly decides where the towns go, even naming them using parameters you've supplied. I fed in some French, Greek and Arabic sounds to get the ones shown on this map.

Clicking on either map should produce a larger image.

None of this counts as real writing but it does start to provide some raw material.
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Friday, October 16, 2009


One of the things I always like about fantasy--and I acknowledge charges of nerdy geekishness here--is the maps. They can't redeem a bad book, but a fantasy map can be a thing of beauty. I'm sure most readers of The Lord of the Rings have pored over the iconic maps of Middle Earth at some time or other.

Creating maps can be a fine way of stimulating my imagination if I'm trying to think of a new story. They can act as a kind of Rorschach inkblot: the shapes, and particularly their inter-relationship, present all kinds of intriguing possibilities.

Take the two maps below, from a number I've dreamed up this week:
Each map presents a different set of possibilities. The first has many small land masses, peppered with even smaller islands. The inhabitants of these places might find their cultures more distinct from their neighbours because they present a series of discrete environments; and they would be less amenable to central control. This is a place of vibrant, individual cultures which would surely clash when they came into contact. Seafaring could form a major part of a story set here.

The second map has fewer, larger, landmasses. While there would no doubt be regional variations, it's easy to imagine a more homogeneous culture and a stronger, more authoritarian rule. The conflict inherent in such a place would be more likely to be internal: palace intrigues or dynastic struggles. There are also large internal lakes or seas on two of the islands; unusual topographical which again provide story-telling opportunities.

These maps, which exist in much more detail on my computer, are not in themselves stories: they contain neither plot nor character. But nonetheless they provide a hint of a framework (study the more detailed ones closely and you can work out where the cities might be).

There are stories in both of these places. Maybe one day I'll tell them.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Recent Reading

A couple of weeks ago it was my birthday, a subject generally of even less interest to you than it is to me. What's good about birthdays, though, is that I normally get some new reading material (I really am very easy to buy for).

I haven't yet read Philip Kerr's The One from the Other, a continuation of his dark exploration of mid-century Berlin (although my dip into the prologue looks very promising). I have, however, read Bernard Cornwell's Azincourt, a fictional recreation of Henry IV's finest hour.

I find Cornwell immensely frustrating. He has all the gifts of a first-rate historical action novelist, but equally a series of vices which only become worse over the time. No-one does the carnage and chaos of the battlefield better (and Agincourt sees him at his best), and his research is impeccable. Less enjoyable is his characterisation, where not for the first time he falls back on some hoary stereotypes: the chippy young maverick, the foul-mouthed hard-but-fair commander, the quiet but strong heroine, the charismatic but cruel villain. All this is perfectly serviceable, but because Cornwell is capable of better (I have good memories of his King Arthur trilogy which I don't want to spoil by re-reading) my irascibility is roused. Bernard joins his namesake Patricia on the list of writers who have exhausted both their muse and my patience.

Luckily I have plenty (far too much, in fact) to read. Time to treat myself to something fresher!
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Monday, October 05, 2009

Why Do I Write?

Generally we try to avoid this kind of metaphysical head-scratching on ::Acquired Taste. It's normally enough to accept that I do write and leave it at that. I've been prompted to ask myself the question on the back of my last post, where it became clear that I had not exhausted my interest in writing fantasy. But yet I'm setting off down the road of historical fiction instead, for any number of good reasons.

At the moment my interest in historical fiction feels like going to a dating agency which has set me up with the perfect partner. Do you read historical fiction? Yes. Do you read history? Yes. Does your fantasy fiction read more like historical fiction? Yes. Do you want more people to read your work? Yes. Then your best genre is... historical fiction.

And that's all very logical. If I want to maximise my chances of being published commercially again, then histfic (is that a word?) is the way to go. But is that point of spending a year of my life in front of a keyboard? Before The Dog of the North was accepted for publication, I'd already made the decision to carry on writing regardless of whether I ever got published. The reason I write is primarily my own amusement, an amusement that derives more from creating my own worlds than anything else. Migration to histfic, therefore, is motivated at least partly by commercial considerations. There's nothing wrong with this, but for something that's essentially a hobby (albeit a serious one), is the best option? If I like writing fantasy best, and I'm doing this for fun, why wouldn't I carry on?

These are very much open questions. But I have the luxury of not writing for a living. That means I spend the day doing something that I do because I'm paid to. I'm not sure that I want writing to go the same way.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part IX

A Taxonomy of Historical Fiction

I am more relaxed than some writers about genre labels. While they can be reductive, they also serve a purpose. I'd argue, though, that genre is a continuum rather than a box, and this is where some of the problems lie (particularly for a writer, like me, whose fiction has characteristics of both fantasy and history). The two are more closely allied than marketers (or indeed readers) like to acknowledge. Identifying the different admixtures of history and fantasy is therefore very helpful when putting together an outline. Using the example from earlier posts of The Inheritance Powders, my outline for a story of witchcraft and poison in the court of Louis XIV, we can see the different routes these choices give us.

1. Conventional history

What actually happened

This approach attempts to recreate for the reader the experience of living in a given historical period. The emphasis is on getting the historical details right to immerse the reader in the fictional world. This kind of fiction is often anchored by using real historical characters: Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels, Allan Massie's Imperial Rome stories. Recently Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has joined the gang (to unfortunate effect for a couple of my writer friends).

This kind of fiction can equally well employ fabricated characters (as in the historical section of Alis Hawkins' Testament) but the focus remains on telling a story within a historically plausible background.

There are many gradations within the field and some writers have more regard for historical authenticity than others, but writers working in this tradition will generally fail to convince if they 'get the history wrong'. The best writers will know what they can get away with (after all, they are writing fiction, not history): Patrick O'Brian's 'Aubrey-Maturin' novels are meticulously researched but the timelines are deliberately blurred. The books span the period 1800-15 but cram in far more than could actually have happened: to quote Wikipedia the period June-November 1813 is stretched out to accommodate events (including marriages, the birth and growing up of children, legal battles, terms in French and British prisons, two long voyages to the Pacific, the second eventually becoming a circumnavigation of the globe, terms of blockade duty, periods on shore, shipwreck etc etc) that ought to occupy five or six years.

I doubt that many readers mind.

Using this model, The Inheritance Powders would be an attempt to recreate what happened in the Affair of the Poisons with reference to the historical record. Success or failure would largely depend on the extent to which I manage to recreate the milieu.

2. Alternate history

What didn't happen but might have done

Alternate history has a long and honourable tradition and its own awards (the Sidewise Awards). They start from the agreed historical record but build in a departure point before the start of the novel. The world thus created is at once familiar and different to the one we know. The departure point is often centred around Nazi success in World War II. Robert Harris' best novel, Fatherland, adopts this premise, as does Len Deighton's SS-GB (to which Harris owes a great deal). These books are marketed as mainstream fiction, perhaps because of their authors, but alternate history is more likely to be lumped in with the science-fiction/fantasy crowd: Keith Roberts' excellent Pavane (in which Elizabeth I's assassination prevents the Reformation); Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (another 'Hitler wins' story but not Dick's best work); or Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, which reverses the result of the American Civil War.

The best examples of alternate history not only play with the reader's expectations and knowledge of actual history, but invariably background the pivotal event and let the story unfold through character. Alternate history is difficult to write effectively (it has more pitfalls than other species of historical fiction including a very high smartass quotient) but its best it can present the reader with an extraordinarily vivid experience.

If we were writing The Inheritance Powders in this tradition, we might imagine "what would happen if the plot succeeded?" - say Madame de Montespan managed to poison Louis XIV? Would the Huguenots, repressed under Louis, become a powerful force in the country? Would the War of the Spanish Succession take place?

3. Historical Fantasy

What didn't happen and never could have

Historical fantasy uses the real world as its starting point but then deploys, to greater or lesser extent, the trappings of fantasy on top. The Arthurian period is popular for such tales (even with 'conventional' historical novelists like Bernard Cornwell), as is the 19th century. In the latter period, Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series and M.F.W. Curran's Secret War novels are all notable examples. Historical fantasy is likely to appeal to readers with a disdain for fantasy when it's not filed on the fantasy shelves (as with Cornwell) because the reader has to invest less intellectual energy in immersing themselves in the fictional world.

Historical fantasy often utilises elements of the supernatural or horror fiction, as in Dan Simmons' Terror.

Given the role of alleged witchcraft in the Affair of the Poisons, we could easily imagine writing a version of The Inheritance Powders in which the witchcraft was real rather than imagined. This would lend a very different cast to the sordid women concocting poisons in their kitchens for bored aristocrats wanting rid of their husbands. Instead they would be actual sorceresses casting their spells behind the scenes to change the course of the kingdom.

4. Historically-flavoured fantasy

History buried under the surface

Many writers of fantasy use their fascination with real-world history in creating their stories. Joe Abercrombie clearly draws heavily on Renaissance Italy in his latest novel, Best Served Cold, while George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire cycle acknowledges the influence of the Wars of the Roses. My own fantasy novels also draw more from the Renaissance than traditional fantasy models.

Writing stories of this nature gives the writer greater latitude (not, primarily, over getting the details 'right' although that's element of it) in playing with the reader's expectations. If you're writing a novel with Richard III as the protagonist, you can be pretty sure the reader knows he's going to end up dead (sorry if that comes as a spoiler to anyone...); but if you're creating your own world and characters, you can play a higher-stakes game with the reader. (Martin, in particular, uses this to immense advantage because of his willingness to kill off major characters). Both the writer and the reader need to invest more in engaging with the world, but the reward is a wider range of potential narrative outcomes.

In this context, The Inheritance Powders would take the flavours of Louis XIV's court which interested me - the Sun King mythology, the literally poisonous intrigues - and stitch them into a different narrative framework in which the outcome would always remain in doubt (and indeed in which the King could be presented as in real jeopardy).

All of which is to say, I suppose, that I'm no nearer knowing where I'm going with this. And also - and this is something of a surprise to me - that I'm finding it hard to leave fantasy behind than I'd thought.