Just recently, indie author and artist Cedar Sanderson put together two anthologies of hunting stories, non-fiction and fiction. She has graciously included Night Hunt as an entry in the second volume (The Deer Shot Back). The stories are fun reads, focused on the humor and mishaps of the hunting life.
One of the foundational elements of a Science-Fiction or a Fantasy story is its setting. All stories have settings, but a contemporary novel can get away with skimming over things its readers already understand from their daily lives in a way than a lot of SFF can't.
If you don't describe the space ship and its limitations, you can't picture the characters in that environment. If you don't ground the Hero-with-a-Mission™ in a particular place and time and culture, you can't move him around in a realistic way that lets your readers identify with him.
The picture above is the background full cover for Structures of Earth, the first book in my new series The Affinities of Magic. [Reminder — I am finishing the first three books before releasing the first one, and I'm in the middle of book 3, Dustings of Blue, now…]
Most Fantasy authors feature their characters on their covers, and I am no exception. But just this once, for the first book of what I expect to be a long series, I wanted to feature the setting: a wizard guild hall that has fallen on very hard times, in a backwater of the capitol city of an empire that is just beginning to feel the impact of its Industrial Revolution. The hero will become one of the movers & shakers of an Industrial Revolution of Magic.
So far, so good. I certainly understood the real British Industrial revolution well enough as a model for a lot of what I had in mind, so I poured out the first two books with satisfying stories that worked for me. This was followed by a pause for life events (all better now), and then I started to put the third book together, eager to begin releases. And then I realized… my understanding of the Industrial Revolution was clear enough, but my understanding of living through it — dealing with urban life, transportation, servants, architecture, etc., was somewhat… inadequate for my purpose in my built-world.
With one caveat — she is so concerned about making a modern cultural point (“what if there were no real differences between men and women”) that she undermines one of the tropes of her world.
While I don't agree with her premise (“what if there were no differences…”), I don't object to her use of it — these sorts of “what-ifs” have always been part of SFF. But let's look at how she instantiates it.
To begin with, the primary language uses only an ungendered pronoun, so everyone is referred to as “her”. This may seem, um, “brave and stunning”, but actually English is already headed there with the use of “they” as a genderless singular (e.g., “If anyone comes early, give them a drink.”) So, while the gimmick is a bit irritating, it doesn't really matter.
Here's what matters…
I have a few scifi short stories lined up for release, and here's the first one — Second Sight, a story about unintended consequences.
BORROWING SOMEONE ELSE’S PERCEPTIONS FOR A POPULAR DEVICE CAN ONLY MEAN COMMERCIAL SUCCESS. RIGHT?
Samar Dix, the inventor of the popular DixOcular replacement eyes with their numerous enhancements, has run out of ideas and needs another hit. Engaging a visionary painter to create the first in a series of Artist models promises to yield an entirely new way of looking at his world.
But looking through another’s eyes isn’t quite as simple as he thinks, and no amount of tweaking will yield entirely predictable, or safe, results.
Every story needs its own world and, if you're writing fantasy or scifi, that world has to be built.
I started Structures of Earth not quite two years ago, then put it on pause to write the Chained Adept series first (see background). At the time, I had a vivid image of the river town where the action was happening — the capital city for the country in which the story is set, rather the way London functions for England.
But where was that country, and what place in what world did it occupy?
One thing I learned from The Chained Adept — it's fun (and not too hard) to build a world map for a series and much better to do it at the start rather than to try and retrofit one after most of the story is done. That way, the “real world” constraints can ground the story and drive some of the plot logistics issues.
The world of The Affinities of Magic is a new world, and it needs its own maps. I took Fractal Terrains 3 out for a spin last night and started seeding the world settings until I found one I liked.
Here's what that globe looks like if you unroll it, with a pointer showing where my temperate northern hemisphere initial city is located. (I haven't designated any national/imperial boundaries yet.)
One thing is already clear — there will be large differences between the cultures on the inner sea and those with access by water to the rest of the world. That inner sea may be 4200 miles wide, but it's still a restricted body of water, warm equatorial water, and the ecosystem in and around it will be unique.
See? That's something I didn't know before I generated this map. Hadn't even thought about it.
I was about a quarter of the way into Structures of Earth when I put it aside in late 2015 to write a different series: the four books of The Chained Adept, the 4th and final book of which was just released.
Why would I do that, interrupt a series?
Well, there were several issues…
I intend for The Affinities of Magic to be a longish series, the way a detective series is. The characters will grow over time and their role in their world will evolve, but the focus will be almost exclusively on each individual story rather than an overall series arc. There are long-term issues that drive some of the characters, and those will show progress (or setbacks) across the books, but not an integral sort of series arc, the sort you're accustomed to in a trilogy, say, where you must “destroy the ring!” or achieve whatever goal you started with.
Some detective series work this way (the ones that don't just reset the characters with each new entry). Each book has a problem to solve that is important to the characters, but in the background the hero is getting older and having problems with his marriage, and an old flame shows up and then goes away again, and he gets wiser (or not) about how to handle certain situations, and so forth.
In The Chained Adept and The Hounds of Annwn series, there's an overall story arc to the entire series, though each book is a complete story of its own. For the former, that arc is probably completed, but for the latter — who knows? Might get longer. I have ideas…
World building to last
Creating a series like that meant I had to approach world building and character building (especially teams) for the long haul. Longer than four books, anyway.
I put some serious work into the technology of magic underpinning the “rules” by which the guilds (and others) operate, since the fundamental premise of the series is that they follow someone who is the “young Tom Edison” of magic — someone who figures out why the rules work the way they do. The whole series background is set in the resulting industrial revolution caused by these discoveries, with our hero at the center of it. I've always enjoyed technology of magic issues — perhaps that's a reflection of my fondness for hard science fiction.
All that is very interesting, but you can't tell stories about concepts. Stories are about people.
I was reminded today of an excellent essay by G K Chesterton (1901), thoughtfully preserved for us by Martin Ward. Like all such things, the specific references are not necessarily still recognizable, but the core of the essay is both persuasive and witty. Some background on penny dreadfuls here and here.
UPDATE: On the Frank Reade dime novels — some of the earliest Science Fiction.
A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls
G K Chesterton
One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy's novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically–it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.
In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.
To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again. There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys' literature of the lowest stratum. This class of composition has presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac. In the East the professional story-teller goes from village to village with a small carpet; and I wish sincerely that any one had the moral courage to spread that carpet and sit on it in Ludgate Circus. But it is not probable that all the tales of the carpet-bearer are little gems of original artistic workmanship. Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. A work of art can hardly be too short, for its climax is its merit. A story can never be too long, for its conclusion is merely to be deplored, like the last halfpenny or the last pipelight. And so, while the increase of the artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and impressionism, voluminous industry still marks the producer of the true romantic trash. There was no end to the ballads of Robin Hood; there is no end to the volumes about Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine. These two heroes are deliberately conceived as immortal.
Penrys’s past is unknown, but she’s got a better grip on her future: find out where she came from, discover what happened to her, and figure out how the unremovable chain around her neck makes her different from other wizards.
What any of this has to do with the renewal of an ugly war between neighboring countries, half a world away, is just something she’ll have to sort out, along with the rumors of wizards where they don’t belong.
Assuming, of course, that no one removes her as a threat before she can find her footing.
All she wants is a firm foundation for the rest of her life, with a side helping of retribution, and if she has to fix things along the way, well, so be it.