The Last of the Flames

[The following is something I thought up for a <1000 words story challenge on sweek.com. The aim was few characters, but epic fantasy. Enjoy!]

Tara watched as the white bird climbed towards the clouds.

“Just a little further,” she whispered, clutching her spirit stone close.

The slender little bird danced left. A second later, a black claw ripped the air where it had been. Tara breathed a sigh. The talons belonged to a winged serpent, one of the many giving her messenger chase. A haze of arrows from below joined the pursuit. But it wasn’t enough. With one great flap of its wings, the raven stole away. Two heartbeats later, it disappeared from view.

“For the Emperor?” the man beside Tara asked. Gerald, her father’s Captain. His armour was a soft shade of silver in the twilight. His hair, framing his face, was traced with lines of grey. Even after all these years, he still found reason to smile.

“I’ve told him we’ll hold the fortress at any cost,” Tara whispered.

Gerald banged a fist to his chest. “A light that never dies,” he said. His voice was braver than his face, which now fought off a frown. Perhaps he considered that part of his duty.

Tara nodded, turned her attention to the horde ringing her fortress. There were thousands of them, spread out in colour across the land like a patchwork quilt. The noise of their hungry breathing alone was like thunder. All manner of crude steel rose from their ranks. Pikes, spears, swords. They advanced slow across the field. She’d seen something like it only once before.

It was in the months before her mother died, when her father thought to build a garden. The two of them sat there for hours, as though whatever precious breath her mother had left might last longer beneath the trees.

But soon, the Winter Wane took her, as it did everybody else who suffered its chill. The garden then turned to rot before the spring. All that was left there now were weeds. Weeds and half-memories.

The white walls of the fortress, on the other hand, shone even as the sun melted into the horizon. Evredel: her family’s castle, a beacon of heavenly fire known across the north. Among the grasses this far from the empire, it was the last flower left.

“A blood sacrifice,” Gerald said, pointing to a spot in the rabble. “They’re summoning their God to-”
His voice trailed off.

At the front of the enemy lines, an old man sank to his knees. Even from the wall, Tara recognised the blue glow, though it was lost to the shadows of the horde. His name was Verden, the Water Spirit. Tara preferred to call him Dad. She felt the blood throbbing in her ear as the Barbarian King trudged up behind him.

He’d only left two days before, riding out ahead of a great host as the first light of dawn kissed the sky. “Home for dinner, sweet spirit.” Those had been his only words. The saddest part was that Tara had believed them. The same man, now ruined and chained, tried to stumble to his feet. The Barbarian kicked him back into the mud.

Gerald’s hand found Tara’s shoulder. He probably thought she’d try to save him, but she knew he was beyond their aid. Even if she had time to open the gate, it was the last thing Verden would want.

“A river runs the surest course,” he’d once told her. The words of a calculated man.

Her father seemed to give her a moment’s glance, then the axe took his head from his shoulders. Tara collapsed against the battlements at the same time his body met the floor. By the time she had blinked the first tear, the drums had already started.

Over the noise, Gerald was calling to a soldier. But that was only what Tara saw. She’d retreated into her mind too far to suffer sound.

“Your Grace,” Gerald mouthed, and Tara realised she’d just become Queen. She saw a bundle in the Captain’s arms, hugged as close as mother and child. The Inheritance Sword. Gerald was choosing the middle of a war to make her a spirit.

How can anyone be expected to become great at a time like this?

She had her hand on the sword when the answer came.

The first few inches of steel slid free. The metal pulsed with light, flashing with the colours of the elements. Water, earth, wind. The only shade she didn’t see was the one her people needed.

Beyond, the battle had begun. Tides of barbarians crashed into the wall, shrieking as they listed blood-drunk up ladders. Some of the monsters they tamed lapped over with them, feasting on whatever they found. The air carried the song of steel, the smell of fear and the iron taste of blood. Tara could only watch as the garrison crumbled.

That was when she heard the gasp.

“A light that never dies,” Gerald whispered, falling to his knees. “A light that lives!”

The sword in Tara’s hand stole the colour of flame. The fire, white-hot, erupted inside her too, toasting her blood, wreathing her heart, licking every fold of her skin. By the time she’d started to glow, her men were already cheering.

“To arms,” she shouted. Her voice, as though it were cannon fire, boomed across the fortress. Everywhere men rallied and charged back to the walls. A great snake, coiled round a pale tower, was the first to feel their wrath. It took a dozen spears and skewered, fell to the earth.

Out on the plains, the Barbarian King shuffled his hand. His great war machines lumbered forward. Soon, their missiles filled the sky, screaming down on Evredel. A few pocked the gate and blew it from its hinges.

Tara leapt to the courtyard, felt her fiery cloak wriggling behind her. She met the earth with a small puff of ash. She took a deep breath, flexed her fingers on her sword, and turned.

Beyond the ruin of the gate, through the ghost-grey smoke, the barbarians roared.

They were coming.

As I Edit (Mist Rock Chapter 3)

I’ve decided to try give you a better insight into my novel, Mist Rock, as I work on the second draft.4d0e8e5df3e02d2679d57fc15032dcfd.jpg

At the moment, I’m editing Chapter 3, “Leaving”. I finished work on the Prologue, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 last week, and am finally starting to find some consistency in the process.

That being said, I’ll admit that up until now I’ve had it kind of easy. The prologue, where we find Queen Farelia fighting for her life atop the Arakil Mountains, had been planned in such detail that the chapter almost wrote itself. The same could be said of Chapters 1 & 2, which focus on Marke’s decision to leave Mist Rock for the Golden Lance Academy.

Which brings me to Chapter 3, where the plot starts to pick up the pace.

There’s far more direct conflict in this chapter. Not only does Marke have to say goodbye to his family, but we start to see just how dangerous the world around him has become. It’s a sort of “curtain-raising” chapter, a few thousand words that takes Marke beyond the safety of the walls of Mist Rock while also delving into the great war on the horizon. That, in itself, is the first book in the Mist Rock series summed up too, so deep down I feel this is a chapter I have to get right

We’ve all had to leave home at some point, and though it definitely isn’t the most emotionally charged moment in the story, it’s a huge step for Marke all the same. That makes it a huge step for me.

I worked on half the chapter last night-the half that sees Marke say goodbye to his mother (Hylia), sister (Nadia) and father over a few scenes I hope give some feel as to how torn he is. I didn’t want them to be melodramatic, which given my flowery style was certainly a risk. Instead, I tried to say more with fewer words.

As the first book is seen solely from Marke’s POV, we only meet Hylia and Nadia on a number of other occasions. This concerns me, not least because the Golden Lance Academy is an all-boys institution, and so the opportunities for my female cast suffer. It’s doubly annoying as Nadia and Hylia both play major roles as the series progresses. I’ve considered dropping in a “Nadia POV” at some point, but am wary of disrupting the story.

I’ll have to keep it in mind as the editing proceeds.

I’ll leave you with some ‘rough stuff from the middle of the chapter, where Marke and his father enter the Aelia square.

“Do you think it will be open war, Dad? Does it feel like it did before the Uprising?”

His father made another face. “I’m afraid it does. But back then things were different. We had her, for one thing,” he said and gestured to a statue in front of them.

They had just entered the Aelia Square, where kings and queens of old were immortalised in stone. Some of them held swords, others hammers, one a bundle of flowers. The statue his father pointed to was the newest, scarcely two decades old. Even fixed in stone, Farelia Aelia looked impossibly beautiful.

“They still haven’t repaired it,” Marke said, nodding at the fissure that ran down the front of Farelia’s dress. The winter before, a terrible storm had descended on the Mistlands, wreaked the kind of havoc that hadn’t been seen since the famous Wailing Storm centuries before.

“They will in time,” his father said. “She mightn’t have been queen long, but the people loved Farelia. They will remember it before the end.”

Marke nodded, surveyed some of the other faces who were worshipped as Gods. One of them was Dia Aelia, who had been queen during the Aelia War, where her cousin rose up against her, gathering support from all over the realm.

Her statue was clear, the stone polished white as snow. But even now masons worked on it, tried to stop it from crumbling. The same hammers rang all year round, so much so that Marke wondered could the damage ever be undone.

Those cracks, he knew, must have been somewhere inside.

How to Create the History of a Fantasy World

Hello there!

I decided to upload a quick post to answer a question I received today. It simply read:

How much history does a fantasy world need?

It’s a good question, and one we fantasy writers often ask ourselves at the “worldbuilding” stage. Worldbuilding, which involves creating not only history, but geography, culture, politics, religion etc, can be a tough ask for many authors, especially those who are not well versed in these topics as they relate to the actual world. It can be hard, for example, to imagine the economy of your kingdom if you don’t have a basic understanding of the principles of supply, demand, currency and trade. And if your novel is largely set in the bustling streets of a city port, then the research you carry out in this area becomes even more pivotal to the realism of your world, to the overall success of your story.

In order to create the history of a fantasy world, you first have to realise that every aspect of worldbuilding is secretly hidden within it. Trade disputes start wars, weather changes bring famines, and people migrate to find water and food. Every part of your history-whether it be a timeline (my personal favourite), a “lost book” or a series of ancient texts-should follow this guiding principle, a principle that says people react to the world around them. Wars, for instance, do not start because someone steals Helen of Troy; they start because people lust after power, or land, or resources.

Even so, you should remember that history lends romance to these stories. It talks about heroes like Achilles, and quests, and love, even when the reality is far less inspiring. So when you do write a history, remember that oftentimes the victors will twist the words to serve themselves, or erase parts that undermine them. To put it simply: real history lies; the history of your fantasy world should do the same.

As for how much history you should create, that really depends on the story you are writing. If your main character lives in a nomadic tribe, oral history (songs, poems etc) may be quite important, whereas written text may be reserved for religious purposes. On the other hand, if the world your story is set in experienced a catastrophe (e.g. natural disaster, civil war), then some parts of history may have been lost. Many fantasy authors also use this when there has been a change of power or the extinction of a race. It’s important to note, this technique should not be abused. It frustrates readers when an author hides history for the sole purpose of creating “mystery” where none should exist. Remember, it only takes one person to share a story; history is not so easily lost.

I personally feel you should only create as much history as your story demands. This can be difficult, because worldbuilding is a joy in itself, but it’s also a writer’s sinkhole. If you want to get your story down on paper, you have to accept that at some point you have to stop building your world and instead start delving into it. In many cases, writers admit they don’t get a feel for their world anyway until they let loose a few characters. So rather than meticulously designing a system of currency, write a scene where your main character explores a market. Shouts, bargaining, thieves running through the stalls-this is all far easier to imagine than a page on taxes and coins.

As I’ve said, you should try to avoid writing history where it’s not needed. If your story hinges on a famous sword, for example, then the history of how it was forged will be crucial to your plot. If, on the other hand, you have a space on your map marked “desert lands”, where nobody goes, then perhaps spending hours writing about the culture of the desert tribes isn’t the best use of your time. Like I said, such an exercise can be rewarding, but it won’t get your story down on paper.

I’ll write more about history in another post. But for now, I’m going to leave you with some of my own, which I feel is crucial to the plot which happens 300 years after the event described below. As a result, you’ll see here I’ve explored “The Battle of the Thousand Fields” in quite some detail, switching between an authoritative historian voice and a more poetic first-hand voice as I saw fit.

The pivotal battle is fought outside the ruins of Mistwall. There, in the once-home of Elerend Aelia, the loyalists meet the rebels at the Battle of the Thousand Fields. Queen Dia rides there herself with her husband Owenn Helix, supported by two armies of Mist Rock, the garrison of Cadewall, the troops of Talmoneer, the Nareland King Artador Rakus and his Ember Cloaks, men of the Vaster, and Arlien knights. The rebels, led by Elerend Aelia himself, come in the form of the central Amarin army, Gargrin mercenaries and lesser divisions of Greatbay. All told, the rebel force is said to be over thirty thousand strong. The Queen’s force is known to be much smaller.

For the first three days of the battle, there is little fighting; the rebels defeat Cadewall troops and the Arlien knights inflict casualties on the rebel’s left flank. On the fourth day of the battle, Elerend tries to catch the Queen early. At the last moment, the Ember Cloaks charger a much larger force of Amarin cavalry, leading to a pitched battle amongst the summer gardens. By sunset, the Amarin army is said to have lost half its light cavalry.

On the fifth and final day of the battle, Elerend Aelia rides out ahead of his lines. He holds a red cloak high above him, waving it at the top of his lance. From her own camp, Queen Dia looks through a spyglass, sees the familiar red cloak of her brother Baylian. Eye-witness accounts tell us what happened next:

On seeing her dead brother’s helmet paraded atop the spear of the Rebel-King, Queen Dia ran for her horse. Her husband, King Owenn Helix III, attempted to stop her. Failing, he called for his own destrier and sword. Queen Dia then rode to the head of the column, her hair flying wild, her own  red cloak flapping bold against a pink dawn. And her anger was fierce, her sorrow so deep that all at once the men took up their arms, cheering her name as she turned her steed into the field.

Across the torn gardens, Elerend flew back to his army, the southern hoard screaming as they crawled forward. But our Queen, armourless, drew out her father’s sword and charged. Behind her came King Owenn and the knights of the royal guard and the Arlien and King Artador with his brave Ember Cloaks. And those without horses charged too, down the hill into the Thousand Fields where the rebels cowered before them. Though I saw it not, they say Queen Dia broke first on their lines, shattering spears and casting shields asunder as she cut her way to the treacherous member of her house. And there, amid the ruin of his army, Elerend met his end in fear and in regret, as they say before he fell he cried out to his Queen for forgiveness, and then meeting the dirt, was done. Seeing their general fall, the Amarin forces went into rout, turning swords on each other or on themselves.

And before the setting of the sun, the fields beyond the mist-city were silent and Queen Dia was seen walking among the dead and the dying, her head hung heavy in prayer.”

I’d love to hear about how YOU approach history. Do you write it first, or create the backstory as you go?

Mist Rock, fantasy and why I want to build a community

Hello again!

Have been quiet on the blog front of late. Mist Rock, a fantasy series I am working on, is now in the edit phase and I’m very excited to see that the more time I give to it, the more it starts to look like the world I’ve imagined.

The first book is a story in its own, centred around Marke and his time at the Golden Lance Academy, but it’s also the launch-pad for everything that is to follow. It’s no surprise really that I want to call the story “Rise of the Exiles”, as it very much is an introduction, while the second book, “The Burning of the South”, is exactly the sort of open war that can be expected of epic fantasy.

I’m writing snippets of the latter as I go (yes, it feels like cheating!) solely to try link the two stories as best I can. The second book will involve more characters, more conflict and more of the world I’ve created, so hopefully it will help.

As I edit, I’d love to start building a community to hear about the other fantasy worlds out there. I want to hear what works for your novel, what doesn’t and why you’ll probably leave a few of those guilty pleasures in anyway 😉

I’ll leave you with one of the excerpts from “The Burning of the South” I mentioned, where Captain Damir approaches the camp of the 27th Legion.

Enjoy, and hope it’s a good week in writing! 🙂

“I’m here to relieve Lord Kelvin,” Damir said, passing Sir Primus’ letter into the man’s hand. The sentry quickly scanned the page. “Is he here?” Damir asked.
The watchman looked up at him, gave a faint smile. “He’s here alright.”
“Well, can I speak with him?”
The man shrugged. “That would depend on the Gods you keep.”
Damir furrowed his brows.
The watchman gulped, folded the letter as he’d been handed it. “Evidently, nobody told you that Lord Kelvin is dead.” He made a face. “In fact, he’s been dead for some time.”
“What? How?”
The man cleared his throat. “He died in the field.”
Damir blinked. “I wasn’t told anything about a battle.”
“Forgive me,” the man said. “It was…..a different sort of field.” His gaze wandered to a place over Damir’s shoulder.
Damir turned, stared into the treeline. There was a small clearing in the forest-a patch of earth overgrown with weeds. He squinted, saw the hint of a small mound. A grave.
“You’re joking?”
The man swallowed. “He was drunk, Sir. He fell and split his head on a rock.”
Damir rounded on the sentry. “Don’t call me Sir. I’m a commander, not a knight.” He shot a look back to the mound. “Clearly there’s a difference.” He glanced toward the camp, searched for some sign of life. “Who’s second in command?”
The man in front of him gripped his spear, tried to stand a little taller.
Damir sighed. “This time, please tell me you’re joking.”

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Editing: 3 Uncomfortable Thoughts

Hello again 🙂

I decided to give you all an update, a brief snapshot of the last few weeks.

As those who follow my posts here know, I recently finished the first draft of a novel, the opener in the Mist Rock series. Adhering to all good advice, I set the book aside for a while, let it simmer in a corner of my room as I turned my attention elsewhere. But no amount of poetry or thought-pieces could replace what I hid away in that bottom drawer. Mist Rock was a story, after all, the one good thing I’ll always come back for. And so when April rolled around, I decided I’d fought the instinct far too long.

Last week, I sat down to edit.

So far, I’ve had mixed results. I’ve never edited anything this large before; 117,000 words definitely dwarfs my Final Year Project at university which only just crept over 4,000. That was science, this was fiction, and though there’s a place for those words together, this certainly wasn’t it.

This was fantasy.

As expected, I got lost in the world I’d created, swept off my feet in a Bilbo-esque fashion. But along the way, the lines started to blur, shifting on the page in front of me so that my own thoughts started to speak.

Here are a few things they said.

1. Who is going to share in this story?

An important part of any story is deciding its point of view. Fortunately, I found that part easy. This was Marke Calin’s story. Sadly, I didn’t have the same success when it came to determining who shared the world with him.

A lot of people would say this is a symptom of writing fantasy, of dreaming up worlds with a “cast of thousands”. But while I certainly didn’t lack for inhabitants, the real battle for me wasn’t asking myself which characters deserved to exist, but which 5 simply had to.

In a weird way, the real world (where I’m the protagonist) is the same. So much of life is determined by the company you keep, the friends you chase up, the five or six people you picture smiling at your wedding.

Lately, in both editing and life, I feel like I’m always playing catch-up.

Trying to stay in touch with people is a lot like chasing shadows, searching for ghosts or emptying water out of a sinking ship. It’s a futile effort, a game we play for seventy or so years without ever stopping to ask ourselves can we win. Away from school and college, the levels take on a whole new difficulty. Not only are your chances to meet friends curtailed, but you begin to realise you can’t keep them all satisfied. There are too few pages to go round.

There’s just not enough room in the story.

2. Which Kyle is right?

Another thought I seem to be having more and more as I thumb through the pages is that rarely, if ever, will I come up with the same words twice.

I’ve often found myself reading the same scene one day apart, coming at it from various angles, writing it out in my mind a million different ways. It makes me wonder which way is right-which is the way I really want to use.

Life lately is starting to look similar.

I have a fair idea what the story is for the next few years. The plot is there, as are many of the characters. What hasn’t been written yet are the words themselves, the many little details which one day might matter. The realisation that even a subtle edit here and there could change the ending is, well, “doing me a frighten”. I’d like to believe there won’t be any twists or unwelcome surprises.

But, as I’ve told you, I’m not the author. I’m the hero.

And the hero never sees the twists coming.

3. Is this any good?

Ah yes. This was the one you were waiting for.

Anyone who has ever written something substantial knows the fear that comes with finishing a draft, of realising that the beginning-middle-end is now all there to be judged. And for most of us, we’re streets ahead our own harshest critics.

I can’t decide, all these thousands of words later, if I’ll ever truly make it. That sort of success, the one we dream about as we slap the keyboard, is of course relative, defined by our own expectations and skill. But in a world where bestselling books rise from nothing, where authors sell a million copies with a click, it’s hard not to think we could one day be there too.

I, like many writers I know, still can’t really tell if their words are hot, or if this entire effort, this whole “Oh-em-Gee I wanna be an author”, is just much ado about nothing. I do know I’m still hiding behind the curtain, whispering “It’s just not ready” as I try to will my novel to be better. Admittedly, I’m trying to will it to be brave.

And that in itself is the scariest thing about editing.

Because I’m not sure if Mist Rock ever will be ready, or if it’s just going to have to face the world anyway.

Maybe that’s the only way that it can.

 


 

I’d love to hear about your own editing experiences. What keeps you going? What runs in your mind? How do you deal with that inner critic?

 

“What’s meant for you won’t pass you by”

Last week, I talked about the reality of the first six months in the real world. That post was a humour piece, nothing more than a joke, a quick jab at the 9 to 5 lifestyle I’ve become used to. This is slightly more serious, a whole foot further down the rabbit hole. I can’t decide which of the two posts matters more. I know the first was easier. It was a much simpler story to tell. But it makes me wonder.

Which is the story worth listening to?

Anyway, if you read between the lines the last time, you’d have seen it wasn’t all smiles and sarcasm. There’s no doubt about it: life’s tough out here in the borderlands.

We all have our own ways of coping-tea, exercise, music, maybe even a drink or two. When flustered, a lot of people also turn to words, quick little one-liners (like philosophical Xanax) that ground them in something palpable again. Perhaps one of the most well-known (at least in Ireland) goes a little something like this:

What’s meant for you won’t pass you by

It mightn’t seem like much, a bare seven or eight words thrown together, but small sentiments like this have a way of resonating with people, of lasting. A phrase like that simply endures. And yet, of all the soft hopes held dear, this is the one belief I’ve yet to subscribe to.

A part of me thinks the reason reflects the bigger picture, the questions like “Why are we here?” or “What happens to us at the end?”. Spirituality, whether in the form of organised religion or not, requires a great deal of faith. Personally, it’s something I’ve always struggled with. The saddest change of heart I ever knew was realising that one day I didn’t truly believe anymore. I just wanted to. And in my eyes, the above phrase is filled with the same sort of uncertainty. I definitely want it to be real, but that’s an empty argument for someone who founds themselves on logic and gears. It’s as if the sentiment isn’t physical enough, like I’d agree in a heartbeat if I could just reach out and touch it.

Maybe the biggest issue I have with this phrase is that the evidence just isn’t there for it. From where I’ve been standing the last twenty-three years, it sure seems like a lot of things passed me by. Whether they were meant for me or not I don’t know, but I’d like to think that they weren’t. How do I know that? Like I said, I don’t, but I’ve lived by the attitude that if you want something bad enough, you’d better just go out and take it. Life isn’t equal, and it’s certainly not fair. Your aspirations aren’t just gonna pull over, roll down the window and tell you to hop in. Nope. If you’re going to be passive, holding your thumb out and expecting a ride, those dreams are gonna put the foot down and leave you behind, choking on a cloud of dust as they roar down the highway. Of course, if you take the active role in this situation, those dreams won’t get far. Yes, you’re going to have to chase them, running like your life depended on it. You’re probably going to trip a half dozen times and bloody something, maybe even consider giving up and laying down in the shade. But there’ll be a moment when you climb over the last hill, see lights in the city below. There’s every chance that moment will be worth it.

And of course, the above probably sounds awfully negative, but I’d wager the opposite is true. I can’t imagine anything worse than sitting in the back seat of the car, watching fields ghost by, waiting for the journey to be over so you can claim a prize already yours. That’s what happens when life is in charge, when things are meant for you, when years simply pass you by.

But perhaps you’re like me. You’d much rather take the hard road and risk never reaching the end of it. You’d suffer years of stumbling and falling, rising quickly to dust yourself off again, all in a world where we’ll only know a single breath, where we run the road of a mortal life. With time against us, it’s no wonder people want there to be some sort of guarantee. But destiny is a beautiful lie, a cushion for the wary and the unenthused. On the contrary, what was it Robin Williams said: “Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.” Somehow having the responsibility in your hands feels a lot more reassuring.

And yet phrases like “What’s meant for you won’t pass you by” aren’t said as a statement of fact, more like a mantra or prayer. They’re spoken as if to quell the great unknown, put order to the chaos of life and reinforce the fact that in some ways it’s all been already decided. And I don’t blame them. It’s tough accepting the reality that every day you might pass your dream job on your way to work, maybe close the door of a coffee shop five seconds before your true love opens it. But all those maybe-moments are down to chance, and the mathematics are rarely if ever with you. There are just too many variables for you to ever ride off into the sunset with the wind in your hair. Odds-wise, it’s more likely you’ll just fall into a job you don’t hate, pay your bills and some taxes, find someone you love and work hard enough to make it stick. Every day won’t be perfect. In fact, more than most won’t be memorable at all. But somewhere years from now, you’ll realise you needed all that background noise-all that adversity and that grey. After all, the lights over the hill wouldn’t shine half so bright had you not hit a few bumps in the road.

So yes, what’s meant for you may pass you by; I’m almost sure that it will do.

But so what?

Look at all the things that weren’t meant for you, but that you learned from all the same. Things that were never wanted, just needed somewhere on the road. Things that made you curse, tear at your hair, cry in a dark room at 2 a.m. Things that made those few steps a journey. Things that made an imperfect life.

And when it’s all said and done, when you have nothing left but a small audience inside the warmth of a fire, isn’t that the story worth listening to?

How to Create a Fantasy World/Have No Friends in 6 Easy Steps

Hello again!

It’s Sunday, it’s spring and it’s sunny. Most people my age are catching up on their Vitamin D or relaxing at home, staring out the window at blue skies, secretly filled with dread for the work-week to come. Very few (if any) are wondering what the weather’s like above the palace in a land they’ve invented. But for those who’ve always yearned to write fantasy (or for those who are just curious to see the thought process of those who do), I’ve decided to make a quick list of everything you should avoid  stick to rigidly if your fantasy world is going to take its place among the Middle Earth’s and the Narnia’s.

1. Place

The first rule of creating a fantasy world is to take out a sheet of paper, draw two to three medium-sized landmasses and immediately determine which one is ugly enough to be the nation of Evil Villain. Label this country “Blackened McScorchBone” and fill it with dusty mountains. Then, pick the largest country and colour it green. This will be the home of all the nice people, plentiful water supplies and the only functioning agriculture in the entire known world. Over in Blackened McScorchBone, they eat….rocks…scorpions? I dunno.

Next, take out a blue crayon and draw rivers everywhere. In woods, in valleys, in mountains-EVERYWHERE. Ask google on at least four occasions where rivers are supposed to start. Once convinced, run them across the whole map anyway. To be safe.

Now that you have at least 1 x mountain, 1 x forest and 1 x river, you can start adding in cities and other places of interest. Most of them should be huge castles, far from any source of food, water, trade. They ought to have names like “King’s Tower” or “Elfdorm”. In Blackened McScorchBone, names such as “Clawtooth” and “The Dead City” are recommended. For good measure, call something “The Valley of Fear” and something else “The Grey Waste”, and don’t even remotely address the latter at any stage of your writing. Roads should be as-the-crow-flies, even if they cross hills, lakes, whatever. Outside of cities, pretty much the entire country should be abandoned, filled with a bit treasure here and there and a village if you look hard enough.

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2. People

The world might be max half-Europe in size but there should probably be enough races to make the Olympics feel small. If there are dwarves, throw ’em up in the hills or under some mountains. And make sure to put all the pirates and the ugly things in Blackened McScorchBone. Ughh. Everything there has yellow teeth.

In green-means-good country, cities roughly a stone’s throw apart should have entirely different cultures, languages, ways of life. Literally no two cities should share any sort of common value or commerce. There will be one trade per city, please.

If your hero is <18, they must grow up in the only village you’ve got round to. If they’re an adult, they either live in the royal palace or “grow up in sight of it”. None of your characters should be different than, well, you and your friends. Diversity has no place in DragonLand.

Half of all people must actively serve in the military. How a nation like that is supposed to feed itself? Damnit, man, I’m a fantasy writer not a politician. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Politics

All places will be monarchies except Blackened McScorchBone which is obviously ruled by  a dictator  evil itself. The Kings and Queens should be loved by all. Democracy should be shunned especially if it interferes with any sort of century-long conflict. There should never be peace agreements, only BLOOD AND WAR. Legitimately no ambassadors should exist between nations and there ought to be very little reason for anybody to be fighting in the first place. If there is, go outside and kick a football. You will never make it as a fantasy writer.

Have in place what you think is a “Medieval Economy” but under no circumstances actually research what that might entail. Just invent several peasants, as many knights and one lord who will be fat (*elbow* because he can afford to eat).

4. Politics (again?)

Everyone in your world should be religious. There are no atheists allowed. People should practice freely and there ought to be no clear link between religion and state (lolz why would there be?). Evil Villain should be his own religion and should have millions of ugly followers despite not offering much.

Twice per novel, there ought to be a festival celebrating some God. People that live in the mountains will pay tribute to their……Sea God? *Shrugs* Makes sense to me.

5. Purpose

It’s best practice to just drop things all over your world that have no discernible place there. A giant snake monster that evolved out of nothing? Can’t argue that’s not cool.

You might also place huge value on members of society such as poets and ship captains though *glances both ways* literally nobody in the world ever mentions the arts or talks about the importance of the shipping trade. Everyone should have a horse, a sword and a house to their name even if they’re poor and working as a farmhand.

6. Powers

Just dump whatever fantasy you want into the pot and stir for 30 minutes. Dragons, hands that shoot fire, lay-people marrying the Queen. Have as much magic as you like but still have everyone walk around like it’s just another day in the 15th century. Give Evil Villain enough power to destroy the world twelve times over and then just park him in a corner long enough for someone to figure out how to defeat him. Never use magic for everyday convenience. Only use it to solve plot holes and other sticky situations.

And there you have it. If you do all of the above (plus paint your map with coffee-it looks so old!), you too can create your own fantasy world and say goodbye to what’s left of your social life.

 

Arise a Knight: Social Justice and the Fantasy Genre

For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking hard about the genre I’m writing in.

Perhaps that’s a curious way to open a blog post. You’re welcome to read it again.

It’s a sentiment that might seem a little odd, a little obvious, maybe even a little expected. But while there’s always a few sparks of fantasy to be found in my mind, lately it’s been a raging inferno. By the time the same fire burned out and I had a chance to sift through the ashes, I came to a single, disturbing conclusion.

I’m terrified that my words won’t matter.

You might wonder exactly what I mean by that. As always, I’m going to take a roundabout way to explain. But first, I’m going to have to ask you to kneel.

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You take another breath and stare at the altar in front of you. The stone, polished and white, is the only thing not covered in shadow. The candles the priest lit hours before have long since fallen asleep, leaving the room stuffy-dark, warm and cold at the same time. Your knees groan where they meet the stepped floor and you grimace, pray that soon they too will slip into slumber. The nightlong vigil yawns, drags, whispers a promise that it’s not long ’til dawn. And when the sun does rise, you know you may yet rise with it. A tap to either shoulder-that’s all that’s left to be done. You stare at your robes; the white, red and black cloth spills freely onto the floor. You wonder for a moment about the significance of colour, then sighing, you return to your prayers.


Social justice is a concept that has always found its ways into writing. As far back as Ancient Greece, Plato was wondering about the ideal state, a promised land of equal opportunity. That same idea, veiled by language and time, cropped up all over the world. The French Revolution, the Suffragettes, the Great March on Washington. All of these movements were born in hearts, then in pages, then finally out on the streets. Ideas, not all of them similar, were grown, documented and distributed by writers, many of them writers of fiction. Some were even writers of fantasy.

Today, multiplied in the information age, social changes are moving faster toward us, sounding different by the time they rush past. It’s becoming a sort of doppler effect, a wheel accelerating so fast that we’ve bought more personal freedoms in the last 200 years than we had in the previous 200,000. At the same time, this progress has left tension between generations in its wake. And though much ground has been gained by writers, it could be argued fantasy found it hard to keep pace.

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Part of this is due to the fact that up until fifty years ago, nobody would have considered it a genre to start with. The big names-the Tolkiens and the Le Guins and the C.S. Lewis’-changed all that, defined something that we now recognise. All the same, the genre was largely ignored by the popular masses until the turn of the millennium. But then the 2000s brought film deals and Rowling and the Game-of-Throne-lead surge of a grittier kind of fantasy loved by readers and TV producers alike. Suddenly the social justice of fantasy worlds was being debated. Long unchallenged (long ignored), they found themselves sadly outdated.

That’s not to say there aren’t fantasy novels out that broke the wheel while it was spinning. If you’d like a list, here is just one place you could get started. But many of the names here aren’t household (even by fantasy reading standards), and that’s where the genre gets shaky.

It’s only now that we see big fantasy novels emerging that challenge gender, race, sexual orientation etc. Long kept at the fringes of the campfire, these novels are now bathed in light, shining for all to see. In terms of the role of women, for example, one could argue that the biggest steps were made by urban and post-apocalyptic fantasy first. The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight. All of them, merited by critics or not, made huge steps in terms of women both reading and writing fantasy, a genre long considered the boys-club of the literary world. More importantly, they littered the fantasy universe with characters these readers could identify with. Slowly but surely, ground is being made with other marginalized groups too.

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I suppose why I wrote this blog is that ultimately, facing into editing a novel, I know the time for voiceless pages is over. A first draft has to have a plot, characters, maybe even a twist or two. But edited work ought to have more than that (surely). By the time Mist Rock (and I) come out the other door of the chapel, I’d be hoping to see challenge, strength, meaning. I’d be hoping to see voice.

A lot of that, as it always does, will mean writing for the times. I often think that’s the wall fantasy writers have to climb: talking about one world when they’re in another. But all fiction (hell, all art), has to say something. And if it can say something relevant, something lasting, that’s enough to make a few words matter.

I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about my genre a lot lately. Kyle has a world to re-visit, and he knows now that the characters have to speak not only for themselves, but for the reader, for the world that they can’t see through silver-glass. They’re going to have to fight a lot more battles than they expected to. Oftentimes, they mightn’t win. But I’ll ask them to fight them anyway, even if only because there’s plenty out there who’ll oppose them. After all, some people are still growing up in a world where to ask for reasonable social change makes them an enemy of the state, a vigilante, a rebel. These “social justice warriors” have hardly a banner between them. What they will have, I hope, is armies of people to flock to it.

We can’t drown the worlds we create in the troubled social politics of our own. Even so, the very best fantasy is rooted in reality. That’s why Harry longed for his parents. It’s why Ned Stark kept to his honour. It’s why Frodo wasn’t destroying a ring.

It’s why Frodo was saving the Shire.

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Understand, the pen is not mightier than the sword; it is the sword, and you’re the writer who is wielding it. And though you have fought many battles with a fist closed round its handle, there was once a time it was new to you, a time you picked it up warily and tried to bleed a few scratchy lines about the whereabouts of dragons. But blunt though those first words were, right there and then, (though you wouldn’t know it for some time), that silver sword gave you a voice. A silent, shivering voice. A voice you hoped would grow louder.

And while there are no vows as a writer, there’s a wide world to fight for all the same.

So if you do rise, rise well. Arise a knight.

And should your sword prove as sharp as you hoped for, remember the promise to give a few voices back.

Mist Rock

When I was eighteen, I stood on a hill above the town of Ballyheigue, Kerry, and paused to look through a hedgerow. Far-off below there were houses, a beach, a row of mountains and a dark ocean meeting them. It was august; there was a cold wind pressed hard against me. Above, the clouds struggled across the sky, bloated with the promise of rain.

I stared at the mountains yawning over me and thought of the crown that they wore. Their peaks, so mysterious, knifed the blue-grey ceiling, disappeared from view as though to another world. And there, for a moment, that world was all my mind saw. A pale woman. A bright sword. Snow, blood, poison. A winter storm and a cloaked figure in it. A fortress ruined by time. 

To stop short of melodramatic, I kinda ran home to write it down. I didn’t even know what the idea was but thousands of words came with it. I kept them all, stored them, tried in vain to make some sense of them. It would be another two years before I sat down with it again, finding it by chance on an old laptop. That same night, I decided to start this very blog. Perhaps it’s fitting they one day met again.

The scene I saw in the hedgerow later became the first chapter of this novel, which for now is called Rise of the Exiles. It’s the first installment of Mist Rock, a fantasy series that all spiraled out of those five seconds on that hill in North Kerry. Of course that vision, six years old this summer, now has words to run with it.

Yet here he was now, his eyes as distant as a white winter sun, his smile as foreign as a strange summer flower. She could nearly pretend they were elsewhere and those features might have made sense, might have drawn her to kiss him, to love him, to know him as she knew herself. But they weren’t. They were in the depths of the forsaken mountains, breathing blue cold, waiting for her to die.

Over the next year or so, I’m hoping to edit the completed first draft, sending it out for feedback with the aim of deriving something worth publication. Yes, that is obviously a big ask, but the dreams we chase probably should be. Regardless of how it turns out, I’m currently just very excited to share this with you!

I’ll leave you with a map of this new world, a synopsis of the story and a quote from it that you can take with you 🙂

An empty throne is the best time for a war, they say.

 Farelia Aelia, Queen of Kraken, has been dead for nearly twenty years. The country she left behind, ruled by a council in Mist Rock, teeters on the brink of destruction. Saptors, a reptilian race long banished, look hungrily to their borders, as armies of Varen gather with them. Among these rebels, two claim a right to the crown.

 In Mist Rock, Marke Calin has his eyes set on a place in the Golden Lance Academy, a school that trains guards of the realm. His father was once a student there, though half the city now thinks he’s a murderer. But soon tension with classmates and exam struggles are the least of his worries; it seems the enemy has far greater plans for him.

 The dark corridors of the academy are not as empty as they look. Shadows are growing longer, students are being stalked, guards are sleeping in fear.  Something was lost with Farelia Aelia seventeen years ago.

 It appears the Exiles have come to find it.

You believe in a cause. Now give people cause to believe in you.

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How journalism lost the battle, how journalism lost the war

William never really liked the term “British Intelligence”.

He sits at his desk and watches the monitor flicker. On a field of blue, two red dots are edging closer, the little lights certain to meet. Around him, the Yanks are shouting, pressing alarms as they slam down their phones. He turns back to his computer and tries to ignore them-tries to forget why the whole room is in chaos. Blinking, it seems as though the Russian ship has stopped moving. William rubs his eyes, pushes himself close to the screen. The ship, one bright drop in a dark ocean, freezes for only a moment, just long enough for a sigh of relief.  But then, even as that breath comes, it’s off again, knifing through the water towards Cuba. At this rate, it will be less than an hour until they’re forced to take counter-measures. War games, much like chess, tend to happen with such sobering speed.

William looks at the picture on his desk, a black-and-white shot taken twenty years previous. The three men are sitting there: Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill. The last had his hat off, his legs crossed, his eyes pressed to the floor. The Tehran Conference. Hadn’t they decided to storm France that day? William feels they had. In fact, he’s sure they made a great many decisions, determined what pawns would be sacrificed.

He brings his attention back to the screen and frowns. Yes, he really did hate the term “British Intelligence”.

I’ve decided to write about journalism today, more specifically about the death of it. Even so, I’d like to start by focusing on the positives, acknowledging that it’s not all quite doom and gloom just yet. We’re at a cliff-edge, to be sure, but we might still be able to climb down, remember the precipice as only a reality-check. After all, the top of the mountain is what we aspired to, and if this is indeed the summit, there’s no use only dreading the fall.

Journalism has come a long way from the few-copy newspapers of the 1700s. Recently, its transition to the digital landscape has made for some amazing strides forward. Now, journalism is not only instant, it’s ubiquitous. Anybody with a smartphone can break a story, debate world issues, be a voice for the people around them. Where before our interpretation of events was filtered, stirred and flavoured as to how we might like it, now we’re brewing coffee ourselves, sipping-happy before “big media” has even pulled out a cup. When bombs rained down on Palestine, the world knew. The evidence was all over Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat. It came right from the very source, live, and when the heart of that story beat we listened. With the internet, the news is always pumping, a constant lub-dub tap of fingers. We’re taking pictures at every angle, analysing, debating future history on a scale of millions. Digital journalism has become the great equaliser, a platform for professionals and journeymen alike. The online community is now our ultimate conversation, the great pinnacle of human interaction. We’re talking, we’re shouting, we’re screaming. Marching on Washington online. Interestingly, we’re still being heard. Because now businesses and governments both can’t ignore us. There’s money in this new journalism. And whether or not it’s healthy-whether or not you like it, this journalism is shaping public opinion.

William looks at the only other photo on his desk. In it, his eyes, fixed in a younger face, stare back at him unmoving. Perhaps they don’t recognise him. Alongside his younger self stands Peter. Well, not Peter-Piotr. Simple, smiling Polish Peter. In the background are a pair of Spitfires, their brilliant colours lost to the camera, the heat of that British summer day gone with them. That’s our only photo together, William realises. The Few. That’s what they called us. The room grows as loud as an engine, voices roaring in his ear.

Two weeks after the happy little moment in the photo was captured, they’d gone up against the germans again. The Luftwaffe: Hitler’s well-behaved boys, who’d gotten bored of lighting up ships and factories and instead turned their attention to cities, to people. Break their moral. Hit them where it hurts”. That was what the high-command wanted, and so day and night the waves of bombers lapped up over the British coast.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. William had those words in his ears when he climbed into the cockpit. Shakespeare-at a time like this! Mad. Fitting.

They met the Messers and those Jabos just outside of London, English fighters screaming across the sky, lions leaping at their prey. Black clouds and black wind. When the lions bore their teeth, they chewed off a wing or two, sent metal drops of fire into the countryside below. They must have looked awfully funny from the ground, the RAF, flying in V’s like King George’s ducks. Was that what the children thought the Blitz was-a squabble, a great mess? Those of them that weren’t in tunnels pointed to the wrecks, listened for bombs, watched tracer fire light up the sky. Guy Fawke’s every night of the summer.

The morning after the dogfight, William found out Peter had gone down with his ship. Almost British of him. A boy had found him in a field, face down, maybe still smiling. “Look Mummy, that Pole got covered in Red.”

In London, William tried to find Betty. Maybe she wasn’t at home, he thought, when he saw her house had blown half way into the street. They’d been courting for a year: dinners, walks, the occasional trip to the cinema. And oh-my was there talk of marriage. Now he saw her mouse-brown shoes sticking out of the rubble, a scene like the Wizard of Oz. She’d loved that one, talked about the fields of poppies all the way home.

William later found out Hitler liked it too.

‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’

Perhaps the first sign of the shift in the world of journalism was the tabloid. It isn’t a modern phenomenon. Not really. They’ve been around for quite some time. A condensed version of the news, often geared for the masses. Is that really such a dangerous concept?

The battle began in earnest when these papers challenged the grip broadsheets had on the news. After all, they’d already conceded to radio, television etc. If they were to lose on their own soil, were they really a news empire to be reckoned with at all? Tabloids, outside of their physical and read-easy convenience, gave people a side of the news broadsheets had for decades shunned away from. There’s a lot of money to be made in gossip, scandal and the shiny world of celebrity culture. Tabloids fed off that, made an arsenal out of human emotion. It wasn’t long until they felt bold enough to challenge the status quo. They cast the first stone, moved before broadsheets could stop them. It came to a head about twenty years ago, one great battle to establish a victor. For broadsheets, it may have been their Waterloo. Instead, it was their Trafalgar. Their Kursk, their Midway. Their Stalingrad.

The movement of news to online platforms gave broadsheets the much-needed jolt they were looking for. They might not have had a copy in everyone’s hands, but their words were getting out there nonetheless. They were surviving, making key moves to close out the war. Enigma broken, tabloids followed but lost all their ground. They certainly looked feeble on D-Day.

On the screen, William watches the dot come to a halt. Is it stopping, or is the computer slow to keep up? He thinks of the cogs turning in the Russian war machine and wonders can they match the pace. Once, he’d hoped the wheels would turn faster, back when the USSR had been allies, back when they’d been friends. You come from the east, we’ll come from the west. Hadn’t that been the way of it?

He remembers that day in the boat, his stomach rolling inside of him. The nausea of flying had never been that bad. They were off the French coast, backs to the white walls of England, bobbing towards Normandy. William the Conquerer, come again, sent back the other way to France-that was how he felt as he sat there. They must have made quite a sight for a German boy with his binoculars. A thousand ships, the ghost of a fleet setting sail for Troy. Wilhelm would have a Luger in his shaky hand. Which way would he point it?

They hit the beach with dawn, landing on the Gold sand, sweeping over the German lines as though they were high tide. They had at least expected a welcome party. Over at Omaha, the Yanks were damming up the English Channel with their dead. The Germans there must have had British ancestors. A proper good way to greet guests.

William sat on the beach after with the others. From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.

More Henry V.

William remembered smiling about it. Shakespeare, his namesake, must have known a thing or two about writing.

Once the move to an online platform had been made, journalism lost a run of itself. Now that everyone had access, whole armies of writers swarmed over the internet with blogs and forums and start-up magazines. I’m counted among them. The sad reality of being a part of it is that it’s hard to be heard anymore, one voice lost among thousands. Very few people at all will ever read this, too busy with the rest of the noise. The more dilute our information becomes, the less impact it has. Perhaps the integrity associated with journalism is gone. It’s drowning in a sea of click-bait articles, viral videos and facebook-rants-of-that-fella-down-the-road-who-thinks-he-knows-Enda-Kenny’s-thought-process. The amount journalists invest in pieces nowadays is measured in puddles, not oceans. It’s not about what you write; it’s about how you promote it, how you get a response out of as many people as possible. You want their likes, their views, their retweets. Their emotions are sort of desirable, so long as you get the traffic.

But in a world of political instability, increasing levels of hatred, declining mental health, melting ice caps and “alternative facts”, the importance of clear, accurate information is paramount. We don’t have the luxury of wasting away a day on LadBible anymore. The time to stand up and be counted is upon us. The hallmark moments of our generation are here.

*sigh*

Perhaps I’m just afraid we’re moving too fast, generating information that we just can’t handle anymore.

After all, if too few of us reach the enemy lines, we’ll hardly make an impression at all.

William smiles. The Russian ship is turning around, heading home, leaving them safe for another day. Perhaps they aren’t all that bad, those communists. He keeps that thought to himself. He feels an outsider enough as it is.

His father said in the First World War the Commies gave the Germans a lesson. Meanwhile, he added, they were stuck in French fields, going nowhere.

“I lost my hearing very early on”, he said. A howitzer blew a hole in the ground next to him, left a constant ringing in his ears. He hadn’t been able to mark the whistle after that. When they were going over the top, he saw the men around him stand up-that’s how he knew it was time. One day his friend George climbed up ahead of him. When William’s father followed, he found George had fallen, face pressed to the mud, almost kissing it.

“Come on George,” he said. “You won’t kill Kaiser from down there.”

For years after, he told William about the Somme: the rain, the explosions, the way men would trudge to their doom. The clouds never left those fields, he said. It was always dark on the Somme.

Near the end, he woke up screaming in his sleep and William had to run to his bedside.

“Turn off that damn typewriter,” he shouted, crying, rolling about in William’s arms. His son, terrified, waited until he calmed down, thought of the typewriter kept in the attic. Nobody had touched it in years.

On the morning of his father’s funeral, they passed the fields of flowers by their house, the bright petals waving to them in the breeze. And William thought of the memorial in France, where the names of the dead were engraved, the list running into thousands. He imagined that soon they would fade. He imagined that soon they too would be forgotten.

Later, after all was said and done, he took the typewriter out of its dusty home in the attic, thought of the simpler times it must have seen.

He pressed a single key, heard its sound and realised that his father, deaf, must have dreamt of the chatter of machine guns.