First Lines

I think almost every author will agree with me when I say that first lines can be the hardest thing to write. I can’t count how many times I’ve wanted to start a story, known what I wanted to say, and just stared at the empty document because I couldn’t figure out how to begin.

Unfortunately, first lines are also vital. A brilliant first line hooks the reader, leaving them wanting more. An okay first line at least leads them to read the second, hopefully the third… and so on.

I believe that pressure is one of the things that leads to the trouble of coming up with the first line. We look at brilliant first lines from famous books, and feel self-conscious, trying to come up with one just as good.

Honestly, I think some first lines are considered good because of what story they are from. Take the opening line of ‘Moby Dick’, “Call me Ishmael.” Definitely iconic, but I think that ‘Moby Dick’ made the line iconic, rather than the line making ‘Moby Dick’ a classic. Other stories, the first line is undeniably good. I remember reading a book where the first page left me wishing I had written it. Ironically enough, I still haven’t finished reading the book, meaning a great opening is not the end all and be all of catching a reader’s attention.

What makes a good first line? The ideal first line gives a small sense of situation, place, and/or character, while raising questions in the reader. The first line must make the reader want to read the second. Modern readers don’t have the patience to read a few chapters before the story gets good. You have to have them by the end of the first page.

Your story doesn’t have to start with a bang. No one has to get shot, or murdered. Nothing has to be stolen. The ancient gods don’t have to rise up against mortals or the space shuttles flee a dying earth on the first page. You can start with that, if that’s how the story demands to be written. But there are a few caveats.

When you write a story, you are entering in an implied contract with the reader. You are telling the reader that your story is worth the money spent buying it, and the time spent reading it. To be fair, you have to let your reader know what kind of story they are getting into as quickly as possible. A tender love story should not start with a brutal murder. A thriller romance on the other hand, can. However exciting your opening is, you have to top it later. A high tension opening should lead to a high tension book. Not that the tension won’t relax in places, but the tension should remain high and even increase.  Other genres expect a slower build. Some romances, literary fiction, etc. won’t expect, or even want a high impact beginning. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are more versatile. Good stories of both genres have been written with high tension beginnings or lower tension beginnings.

Two, keep in mind that we don’t know these characters yet. Even if this is a series, consider that some readers may not have read any previous stories. This could be their introduction. Putting a character in danger only works so well if the reader hasn’t had time to care about them yet. No, putting them in danger won’t make a reader care. Yes, we all feel something when we see the baby stroller start to roll into traffic, but it won’t be nearly as much as we feel if you show us first the parents, who had struggled to have a child for years, and are so overjoyed to finally have one, even as they grieve that the doctors say they can never have another. That, and unless you are writing a very dark story, we all know that the baby will be fine. TV Tropes calls it ‘Infant Immortality’. (possible NSFW language). If you are writing a story that dark, I recommend letting the readers know before something happens to the baby.

Back to openings. With all this pressure, how do we ever begin? Well, one exercise I enjoy doing is to open a blank document and writing ten sentences that could begin a story. Don’t hold back, don’t censure yourself. Don’t even worry if they don’t make sense. Don’t limit your genre either. It’s actually surprising the way a story can twist. The same sentence can lead to a comedy, a tragedy, or even more.

After I’ve written my sentences, I like to pick one and see what kind of story it leads to. Sometimes I find that my first sentence doesn’t remain my first sentence, and that’s fine too. Others, I haven’t written, but I hope to someday because I really want to know where they go.

One sentence I came up with was I don’t bleed anymore. I’ve written a story with that, almost two. The first version, which I enjoyed, was a rather pulpy style monologue of a woman transformed into something who was confronting her killer. The first paragraph went like this:

I don’t bleed anymore. Never thought I would miss it either. I do though. Not so much the blood itself. But what it means. When I bled, I was human. I breathed. I felt pain. I don’t do those things anymore. I don’t know what I am, either.

Personally, I think that’s a decent opening. Possibly better than the opening in the second draft, which focused more on a man who woke up in the middle of the night to find something that accused him of killing her. The first paragraph went like this:

Jacob Reaves woke up and stared at the ceiling through bleary eyes. It was a few minutes before he was able to think past the headache, and nasty taste in his mouth to realize the slightly familiar ceiling wasn’t his bedroom ceiling. Shuttering his eyes, he reached out with a leg. Yup, he’d passed out on the couch. Again.

Maybe you think the second opening is better, I don’t know. Actually, I would love to know which opening you prefer. So, why did I change it? Because I believe the second version of the story is better. The reader finds out more about the characters for one. Not everything is left to the reader’s imagination. That said, I am still fond of the first version. Perhaps someday I’ll put together a collection of short stories and include it as a bonus.

Other sentences I haven’t done anything with, but am curious to see what will happen. This is the story of how I drove to work and ended up three states away with an angry possum in the back seat. Or how about: I decided to quit chocolate the day the emus robbed the store. Personally, I really want to know how those are connected. Then there’s Helios bridled his horses, wondering again if it was time to retire. I don’t think that’s a retelling of the formation of the Milky Way, but I suppose it might be.

There are others, but that’s not the point. The point is that this exercise can give you a starting point. A way to play creatively. This exercise can also be done as a group. Maybe have everyone write three to five sentences and pass them to someone else. That person has to pick one and use it as a starting point for a story.

Most of all, remember that with writing, anything can change up until it’s published. Just start. You can come up with the perfect gem later.

Diversity in writing

The world we live in is a rich, diverse place with people who come in different genders, from different national and cultural backgrounds, and different races. (Yes, we are all of the human race, but it still makes handy shorthand). That doesn’t even consider different sexual orientations, political factions, or religious affiliations. So, shouldn’t our writing reflect that?

This year’s Oscar nominees are the most diverse group yet, and I applaud that. While at the same time, I wonder why we aren’t further along. I can’t change the world, but maybe I can do a little to help, and so can you.

Your main characters are going to have to fit the story. Everything about them, from their age, gender, nationality, religious, and political leanings can be important and plot relevant (but might not be). But not every character should be a clone of your main character (unless this is a story about clones, which would still get boring and confusing if you can’t differentiate them). What about other characters? If your protagonist absolutely must be a white male Republican for the story to work, don’t try to force it by making the protagonist a black female Democrat. But unless the story takes place exclusively in a club for white male Republicans, shouldn’t some of the characters he interacts with be different? Maybe his neighbors are from China, and his best friend is a Democrat who likes to debate politics with him. Maybe his wife is a Polish immigrant who runs a daycare with her best friend who happens to be black. Perhaps there is a synagogue a block away that throws the absolute best book sale twice a year. All of this is perfectly possible and can add flavor and depth to the story without changing the character from who he is.

This can be taken too far. If your story takes place in a sixteenth century Irish monastery, the characters should be predominately white and male and any deviations should have a logical and relevant explanation. But even if you are writing a historical fantasy, that doesn’t mean you have to stick to white male characters. Even back then, women did do things, and people did travel, though not as much as they do now.

I like to try to throw in some casual diversity in my stories. For Moon Fox, I made Todd’s best friend and his sister Jamaican immigrants. At first it was just to throw it in, but it did offer me some plot opportunities. In Pawn’s Play, one of Violet’s friends, Denise is mentioned to be darker skinned and from the Bahamas. That hasn’t become plot relevant yet, but it might be at some point. Both stories take place in schools, so of course, some of the professors are female and some are male. Violet definitely has a more diverse list of professors, including a troll, a medusa, a leprechaun, and others. Liska’s professors are all humans, at least.

One book I’m still writing, I have a pantheon of nine gods, four male, four female, and Death which is neither. The main characters are a group of four, two male, two female, with one of them being half one minority, and half another minority. They spend the book traveling and rarely interact with others. I was quite pleased with the balance of the book. Then I realized they had gone at least five chapters without so much as mentioning them seeing another woman. Since the land is mostly gender equal (though definitely not class equal) that was a problem. One I hope to fix more in the rewrite. But I am trying to be more careful going forward. There is no reason they can’t get a blessing from a priestess instead of a priest. Nor any reason that shopkeeper can’t be a female. And why in the world should they be the only travelers on the road? I mean, excluding the fact that travel is extremely dangerous and time consuming.

Can your story pass the Bechdel Test (language warning)?  Do you have two named females who talk to each other about something other than a man or men in general? How about going further. Do you have two named minorities who talk to each other about something other than a white person, or white people in general? How about (if relevant to your story) two named non-humans who talk to each other about something other than a human or humans in general? While passing the test doesn’t mean you have a good story, and you can have a good story without it; you may want to ask why it can’t.

Can your female character pass the sexy lamp test? If your female character can be replaced by a sexy lamp, you don’t have a character. She’s just there for fan service. If she’s just there to give information, that substitute a sexy lamp with a post-it note. No, I didn’t come up with these tests. But I try to use them. One fanfic author summed up the first Harry Potter book with Harry Potter substituted with a Mr. Potato Head doll. The story worked scarily well. If your character, major or minor, can be replaced with an inanimate object, or an inanimate object with a post it note, you may have a problem.

Now, not every character has an important role. Sometimes you need a character that fulfills a specific role, and moves on, never to be heard from again. First body for the Sly Ferret god to possess. The shuttle pilot who just ferries the characters to Mars. Mr. Exposition. Fine. Don’t try to make them as important as the main character. But why not make them a little more interesting? Yes, it could be considered unfortunate implications (language warning) if only your bit characters are females or minorities, but why shouldn’t some of them be? Not to mention some of your more important characters?

‘But can’t make this unpleasant character a woman, minority, etc. People will think I think they’re all like that.’ Yes, they will. If that’s the only one. But why should it be? Okay so, if you make the hysterical, paranoid teacher a black woman, shouldn’t there be at least one or more calm, competent black women as well? They can be flawed in different ways, like every character should be.

Write the characters your story demands, but don’t forget that our world is rich and your characters can and should be too.

Worldbuilding 101: Governments

Worldbuilding 101: Governments

Okay, every society, large or small, has some form of hierarchy. Even animals who live in groups tend to have an Alpha. Human governments come in four basic flavors with almost infinite variations. Basic divisions are: Rule by the many (or all), Rule by the few, Rule by the one, and Rule by none. In human societies, neither the first or last work well long term on a large scale. There are a couple cities that still practice direct democracy, where every citizen votes on every issue. I imagine they are very small cities. Rule by none, also known as anarchy, is basically chaos, and frankly, a frightening concept. Someone has to provide the framework. You may have some groups, say a group of friends who hang out, where no one is ‘in charge’ but even then, there is some form of leadership. Perhaps a temporary leadership that trades out, but leadership none the less. Someone makes a suggestion, others agree, and it happens. I imagine that in most groups, a leader forms anyway. “Let’s ask __, he/she will know what to do.”

A quote I read once that has always stuck with me, even if I don’t remember the source goes something like this, “When two people ride a horse, someone has to sit in front.” Someone will take charge in every situation. Not always the same person, but without someone making a decision, nothing gets done.

Now what’s really interesting is the way that Rule of the few and Rule of the one seem to intertwine. In every committee, every congress, every council; there is one person who is above the rest, making sure everyone follows the rules, choosing who speaks, and just generally trying to form order out of chaos. And when you have one person in charge, usually there is a small group of people who put him there. So really, who does have the power?

Leaving philosophy aside for a while, let’s talk variations. Is the Law, whatever that Law may be, sacrosanct or can whoever is in charge adapt it? That is a vital question, the difference between an absolute king and a constitutional monarch. Interestingly enough, the idea of even the leader(s) being under the law is not a new concept. You may have heard of the law of the Medes and the Persians. Once the law was in place, even the King himself could not repeal it. Remember Daniel and the lions’ den? Even if you doubt that story actually happened, it is an account from an ancient source of a ruler who was actually bound by law.

How did the leader or leaders end up in charge? Is this a hereditary position? Were they elected by the people, or chosen by a small group? Were they chosen by a magic artefact, ala the sword in the stone? Was it a computer algorithm chose them? Chosen by lot? Does gender matter? Is your society patriarchal, matriarchical, or egalitarian? Are they chosen, supposedly or actually, by the gods? Did they win the position because no one dared challenge them, or they won the challenge against the previous leader?

It is also worth remembering that every human has an agenda. No, agendas are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but it does affect the way people see the world and the priorities they have. If some stranger popped up and gave you a five dollar bill to give to your favorite charity, where would you give it? Assuming you are honest and do indeed give the money to charity, there are almost endless possibilities. Health groups, religious groups, educational groups, sports groups, rehabilitation groups, ecological groups, etc. Where I would chose to give the money may not be where you would chose, but that doesn’t mean either of us are wrong. It simply means we have different hot buttons.

Let’s pretend for a moment that we have a list of five organizations. One is a children’s hospital, one is an animal sanctuary, one helps veterans, one is a literacy group, and the last provides clean water in third world countries. I think I can say without controversy that those are all good causes. Now, let’s pretend we are on a committee to determine funding for those organizations, and we only room on the budget for three. Which two get cut? That would get controversial very quickly, because we all have different agendas, different worldviews, and different priorities. Honestly, I am very glad I am not having to make a decision like that.

Another thing to remember with humans is that Lord Acton’s Dictum is a little too close to the truth. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Everyone has seen it happen. People who let a taste of power go to their head. Yes, there are people who manage to resist. I applaud them. And maybe you don’t have humans at all, but some other race that is totally immune to the temptation of power. Have fun.

Government is not always on the large scale. Sure every country has a leader of some sort, but so does every city, town, moon base, etc. Often there is an official leader. A mayor, governor, foreman, elder, etc. Sometimes there is an unofficial leader. A priest, a soothsayer, a wisewoman, the villager that’s lived forever and knows everything. Sometimes there’s both and they aren’t the same person. Isn’t that fun?

So, how do you develop a government? Research! And research some more. The place and role of government in various civilizations is fascinating. Rome went through several forms of government in a few short centuries. The ‘Time of Troubles’ in Russia, the period between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the start of the Romanov dynasty could be a novel in its’ own right, having imposters, a tsar elected by the nobles, and people claiming to come back from the dead. Recognize that it essentially has all been done before and there is only so far you can go to make it original. But since we are writing speculative fiction, there are ways to add flavor that aren’t available in a more ‘realistic’ book. I’ve mentioned a few possibilities and would love to hear your ideas.

My contest, mentioned in my last blog post, is still open, and will remain open until someone wins.  As previously mentioned, Secrets of the Moon Fox is available both in print and kindle format. If you want to help, but can’t afford to buy the book, than please help spread the word.

 

Why I chose to Self Publish

Secrets of the Moon Fox is a self published book. I don’t think I’ll surprise anyone by saying that. So, why did I self publish instead of publishing through a publisher? Is the story worth less because of that? What are the advantages of each?

Let’s start with the worth. There is still a bit of a stigma for self publishing, that only those that can’t be published traditionally do such a thing. And places that do that are frequently called ‘vanity presses’. That stigma is shrinking as more and more excellent books, fully the equal of traditionally published books are self published.

A good story is a good story regardless of who puts it out. I have read fanfiction that was better than the story it was based on. But, like fanfiction, self publishing is so easy to do that anyone can put out something, regardless of skill, ability, or quality. Presumably traditional publishing has had at least an editor go through it and correct spelling and grammatical errors. I experimented with self publishing some years ago and released a book before it was ready, and it shows. No, I won’t tell you what it is, but it is still available. I haven’t gotten around to taking it down. This time I made certain to hire an editor, something that is highly recommended for any professional who chooses to self publish.

A commercial publishing company is concerned with being able to make a profit. They don’t like to take chances on unknowns. Be that a story that doesn’t quite fit their divisions, a subject that might be a little too controversial or an author they have never heard of. They are however particularly interested in self published books that develop large audiences. For example, Eragon, or The Martian. Both were self published books first. Though it is worth noting that those stories are known so well because they are exceptions to the rule.

What are the advantages to traditional publishing? Well, your book is more accessible. Secrets of the Moon Fox will not be available in your local bookstore or library anytime soon. CreateSpace is a print on demand company. They only print a book when someone orders it. They don’t supply to bookstores, because bookstores don’t want to buy them because they can’t give them back if they don’t sell.  It’s a process called remaindering. No one denies that a book published through a traditional press is truly published, so there isn’t any of the possible stigma. The larger presses offer an advance on royalties that the writer gets immediately (though if a book doesn’t out-earn its’ advance, the publisher will be much less likely to sign on a second). They will send out copies for review and do a little advertising for you as they certainly want you to succeed.

What are the disadvantages? Time. If Secrets of the Moon Fox were accepted by a traditional publisher tomorrow, it could be somewhere between a year and a half and three years to end up on book shelves. Minimum would be eight months to a year if they had incentive to hurry, like believing the book topical. Control. As an unknown writer, I have very little leverage to negotiate with, meaning the publishing house could want to make changes in the story, and has final say on the title and the cover art. If I had a good agent, I might get a say, but the publisher generally has control. Speaking of an agent, most of the larger publishing houses won’t even look at your manuscript without an agent. I am not denigrating the role of agents, they are very important. One writer at Marscon put it this way. “The right agent is worth their weight in gold. The wrong agent is their weight in gold around your neck while in the ocean.” An agent also has to be paid. Ten to fifteen percent is current standard. So ten to fifteen percent of what you make would go to your agent. And what you make is a much smaller percentage per book sold than you can make through self publishing.

So, with self publishing you mostly flip those. You are on your own. If you want something done, you either do it yourself or you hire someone to do it for you. I hired an editor and probably should have hired a cover designer. When I had time to do so, I didn’t have money and when I had money, I didn’t have time. So I actually used a photograph I had taken. I am on my own to promote this book (which actually isn’t much different than if it was traditionally published). I did have to put out money to do this, as opposed to traditional publishing. Not to CreateSpace, but to buy ISBNs, to hire a proofreader, etc. But I didn’t have to wait years, and considering I started this story over ten years ago, I think it has waited long enough. I was able to pick the exact date I wanted the story to come out. I picked September 9th for a reason. Actually, my original plan was for July 12th, but life was far to chaotic at the time. My next book is due to come out November 1st because the sequel states that the school the series is about was founded then. Which is itself an Easter egg, because November 1st is my birthday.

Fun Contest: July 12, September 9, and the date the sequel is currently planned, January 5, all have something in common. I will send a free personalized autographed copy of Secrets of the Moon Fox to the first person who can tell me what that is. It is plot relevant but you don’t have to have read the book to figure it out. I also planted an Easter egg in the book about that date. I will send a free personalized autographed copy of either this or my next book to the first person who tell me that one. Winner’s choice. Yes, that one you do have to read the book for.

This is getting really long, so I think I’ll end this post here. Please remember to check out my website here. Secrets of the Moon Fox can be purchased here or in print or kindle on Amazon here.

 

 

Worldbuilding 101: Languages Part Two

 

Hello again! We did manage to move out of the old place, and today was the inspection of the house we have been hoping to buy. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to need more work than we anticipated, and we already knew it was a fixer-upper. So, wish us luck and wisdom as we continue.

But, I’m betting very few people are here to listen to my house woes. You are here to learn more about languages and worldbuilding. Specifically, making up words or even a whole language for your works.

There is nothing wrong with making up words or phrases from a fictional language, and it can even add a lot to a story. But when you make up a word or phrase, there are a few things to keep in mind. How is the word pronounced? Can the reader tell? In English, many letters can make two or more sounds. Easy ways to solve this are to have a pronunciation guide in front or to mention in the narration that so and so pronounced it like… But they have issues too.  Readers may skip a guide, I know I had read the Pendragon Cycle (Stephen Lawhead) three or five times before I bothered to read the pronunciation guide, and had been mis-pronouncing several main characters names the whole time. You also don’t want to be constantly commenting on how a character speaks, it gets annoying.

Okay, so the reader is mispronouncing names or words, who cares? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Maybe it matters and maybe not. But at least consider, is there a way the word could be pronounced that you really don’t want? Possibly like a swear word, a potential sexual term, or something insulting to a certain segment of the population? Or maybe you do that want that. That’s your business, but at least make sure if it does, that’s because you meant it, not by accident.

It is also important to do your best to check that whatever word or phrase you make up doesn’t already have a meaning you aren’t aware of. That’s hard to check, but important. Probably most people will forgive you if your word for bread turns out to also be an obscure Polish swear word, but it can be embarrassing. And with the internet as large as it is, people will find out. You never know what somebody’s an expert in until you make a mistake in front of them.

One other consideration is when to make up a new word for something. No matter how clever it is, not everything in your world needs a clever new name. No calling rabbits, smeerps. * If a perfectly good word exists for what you wish to describe, especially a word your readers will understand, why not use it? Remember, communication and clarity.

Also, do consider that it is not uncommon for readers to start tuning out when things get hard to understand. I tend to let my eyes wander when I run into too many unfamiliar words in a small area.

About making up a language wholesale, my advice would generally be don’t bother. There is a lot of work that goes into developing a language, and it seldom comes out well. Not to mention, most of your readers will not be interested enough to learn a new language to read a story. There are exceptions, languages that took off, such as Elvish and Klingon, but Tolkien was a linguistics professor and Klingon was developed by a group of people, not one lone person.

So, you’ve decided to ignore me, and want to develop a language anyway. Fine, fine. You’ll learn. But I do have some advice about that too.

Start with grammar. I know, I know, the vocab is more interesting. Of course it is. I was an English Major and I still have trouble with parts of grammar. But it is vital. Grammar is your framework. It is the cord that makes up your string of pearls, with the vocabulary as the pearls themselves. Without that cord, you have a mess of loose beads. Your grammar can (and should be) simple. Ways of expressing what happened (or will happen) to who and when. Or didn’t happen and won’t. You don’t need twenty-four different ways to say ‘my’(Russian) or rules that have a million exceptions. For guidance, I would look into other conlangs (constructed languages) like Elvish, Klingon, and Esperanto.

Figure out the base of your language. What kinds of sounds predominate? English is a bad example here because we’ve stolen from pretty much every language we’ve ever encountered to form this great mishmash we speak. But if you listen to someone speak Spanish or French and then speak Russian or German, you will notice some dramatic differences. Is your language mostly full of hard consonants and percussive sounds (‘D’ ‘T’ hard ‘K’), or is your language more likely to have soft, flowing sounds with a preponderance of vowels, ‘L’s and ‘S’s? Are words commonly long or short? There is no wrong answer here, and if your country is close enough to be influenced by another country or countries, maybe their language is a great mishmash too.

Again, if you throw too much that is unfamiliar, odds are good that the reader will get bored and start tuning it out. I know I always did when the classics threw in French text without translation, because I didn’t (and still don’t) know even enough French to order a hamburger. Not to mention, the more you make up, the longer it takes to make sure that the words you just made up aren’t already real words.

In all fairness, it can be done, and done well. Watership Down. Lord of the Rings. Klingon. Maybe you’ll be next.

I am currently attempting to arrange an interview with a group that is constructing a language in the web game Flight Rising. Any questions you want me to ask? Leave a comment or email me at hjhardingbooks@gmail.com

* I have linked to TV Tropes in the past, and undoubtedly will again in the future, but I feel I should note that it is not always entirely work safe. Mostly because of language. Use your own discretion.

Worldbuilding 101: Language, Part One

I apologize for being so late for this blog. April was crazy and May has been worse. April I was busy with work and felt under the weather, and then May came along to remind me what ‘busy’ really means. We have to move by the end of the month, something we didn’t know at the beginning of the month. The good news is that we have almost finished buying a house that if all goes well, we can hopefully start to move into as early as June fifteenth. The bad news is we have to be out of here by the end of the month. Yeah, lots of fun. There’s five people in my family, and we’re all packrats to some extent or others. I personally own more books than I suspect my high school library owned when I attended. Yeah, we’re busy. I haven’t had time to write anything since April. If anyone is curious, I did manage to complete my word count for Camp NaNoWriMo, even if the story is far from over, and I kind of cheated. Yes, I know. But it was a crazy time. Since it might be a while until things calm again, I am currently putting my blog on a ‘every two weeks’ schedule for a bit. Hopefully it will be easier to keep up that way.

I had about three quarters of this blog post written, and managed to lose that when my computer shut down without warning. Sorry.

So, about languages. I’m going to split up my original plan. Next time we’ll talk about inventing languages and words. This week, we’ll talk about a different part of using language to worldbuild.

Language is a form of communication. The goal is to express an idea from one person to another. If the reader cannot understand what you are trying to tell them, you have failed. Clarity is vital.

But language also evolves. Slang, in jokes, and idioms arise in groups, whether that group is as small as a family or group of friends, or as large as an industry. Then you have jargon, technical terms, regionalisms, etc. The way you talk is not the way I talk. The way you talk at home may be different from the way you talk to friends or the way you talk at work.

Okay, so what does that have to do with writing, especially worldbuilding? Everything! New concepts may require new words to describe them. Or at least new ways to use those words. Not to mention that language adds a layer of realism.

If your characters are from Medieval England or Thirtieth century Alpha Centauri, they shouldn’t sound the same as Twenty-first century Americans. Or each other. Neither do the characters from Medieval England need to sound like Shakespeare or the Thirtieth century characters need to sound like Flash Gordon. Slang is not a modern invention, and I do not doubt it will last as long as languages do.

Do your Mars astronauts refer to their ‘Standard Issued Terrain Footwear’, or do they refer to their boots? Or even their Sitfs? Actually, that’s a character study in and of itself. Or for your fantasy world, do your wizards have slang terms for the spells they can cast? Explosive spells could be referred to as ‘boomers’, plant spells could be ‘greenies’, summoning the Sly Ferret spirit could be ‘furmegeddon.’

What about oaths? Mild or even major swearing may not have any connection to swear words we use today. One of my stories, I had all crude language revolve around uncleanliness; dirt, mud, filth, etc.  One of the characters in that world is so prim that she refuses to use those words even in their proper context, referring instead to uncleanliness or becoming moist (sweat). Another doesn’t hesitate to use those terms frequently. Other characters are in between.

In other stories, I’ve made up mild expletives for different races. I’ve had vampires swear using, ‘Rotten Fangs’, while my Shadow fairy generally uses terms referring to light, heat, or day, such as, ‘Blazing day.’ My river dragons talked about being ‘dry of brain’ when someone seemed stupid.

Admittedly, part of the reason I’ve made these up is because I personally don’t swear, but there were times I needed my characters to do so. But also, I believe it adds to your story.

Attending Ravencon, one of the speakers talked about how a character and the story was enriched by his studying a book of Chinese insults. Another interesting way to explore a culture. What is considered a compliment? What is an insult? What is a compliment coming from one person, but an insult coming from another?

What have you done to add flavor? Next time, Languages part Two.

Worldbuilding 101: Building a Mythos

I did a post before on Mythology and Religion, mostly as a broad overview. While there might be some overlap between that post and this one, I believe there is enough for a separate post. How do you develop a mythos?

At its’ core, a mythos is the stories people tell each other, mostly about why. Why do the seasons change? Why is that rock shaped like a man? Why does no one go near that one old house at night? As you can see, there is a lot of ground to be covered, because in a way, every story, particularly every speculative fiction story, has room for at least a minor mythos.

Sword and sorcery style fantasy? Where did the magic come from? How come some people can do it and others can’t? Religion and monsters and quests, oh my. Urban fantasy? Well, what makes it a fantasy? Magic users? Werewolves? Vampires? Zombies? Whatever the case, there are going to be stories told of how it works and why it works. Maybe they even have their own religion.

Okay, what about Science Fiction? Do you need a mythos there? Sure! Meet aliens? What does there culture have as far as stories and beliefs? Okay, what about a near future Hard Science Fiction story about the first lunar colony? Surely that wouldn’t need a mythos would it? I argue it would. You don’t need to invent a religion for one or more of the astronauts to have, and could even have them all atheists if you like. But I strongly suspect they won’t be. Not all of them. Not on the moon, thousands of miles from Earth, away from any help. I’m certain that at least some would have some religious background they would contemplate, some superstitious rituals they would follow. Not to mention claims and jokes that they would share as a community. Like how computer three in science lab two is always a little slower than the others. Maybe that’s the one the aliens are scanning…

Does every story absolutely require a mythos? No. But I think almost any story can be enriched by at least a touch of one. A good rule of thumb is that the further a story is to what your readers currently know, the more you need to know about the mythos involved. On the other hand, you can easily bog a story down in details no one cares about. Okay, the Sly Ferret cult is holding a secret ceremony to unleash the rodent apocalypse. Finding out why they want that and how they plan to go about it, is good. Maybe a few details about the ceremony. All the priests wear red and the priestesses wear white, except the leader who wears purple. They lit one hundred candles, and are chanting, ‘Here, mousey, mousey, mousey.’. Great. We’re good.

The readers do not need to know that the cloaks were sewn from sheets purchased at Sears on fifty percent off, the candles were also purchased at Sears for twenty percent off. There was some debate on whether there should be a hundred candles or two hundred. The details of the ritual were found in the old spell book, the Ferretasia, which has been copied by hand every year for the past two hundred years because two hundred years ago the great priestess known only as Minnie got hit on the head with an apple and tried to lick the ink of the book…

Consider your mythos a spice you are adding to the main dish, your story. Some like more spice than others, but ideally you taste the whole dish, not just that one spice.

Okay, what is in a mythos? I made a list while trying to develop a mythos for my current project. A complete mythos (and not every story requires a complete one) includes the creation of the world and people, along with an explanation for why we die and what happens afterwards. There are stories about who’s in charge, both on a universal scale (gods and goddesses, etc.) and on a smaller scale (kings and queens, warriors, priests and sages). There are explanations for natural phenomena (why does the moon change, why are there seasons, why is that mountain shaped like that) and explanations for culture (why do we celebrate this holiday, why do we avoid this taboo). There are stories of love, of betrayal, of both great and terrible deeds. There are heroes and villains. Monsters and helpers. Kings becoming peasants, and peasants becoming king. And of course, the great hero (or king, or god) who was once and left but will return again probably at his kingdom’s greatest need. That was in a few myths around the world.

So, where do you even start?

Good question. It will probably vary both by writer and story. Two of my works in progress are alternate earth approximately middle ages fantasies. Probably they would be described as low fantasy, maybe Sword and Sorcery. Not sure. One of them, I started with the gods. The whole premise is they main characters are on a quest to find a jewel that, legend has it, was so coveted by the various gods that the main god in charge got sick of it and hid the jewel someplace only a mortal could go. Then he gave each god or goddess a clue on how the jewel could be found. One clue is in a temple to each deity, so the crew have to go around to the various temples collecting clues.

I came up with a pantheon for that story. How many gods, what were they god of, and what was their name. As they reach the various temples, I develop a bit more of the lore (yes, I’m a bit of a pantser, I make things up as I go along) about each god and how they are worshipped in their temple. As the group travels, they eventually start telling stories to each other around the campfire. One of those stories was about how two of the gods invented the javelin after they tried competing for who could get the most followers. Another time a character considers the time of year by the placement of the constellations. Just little details as I continue on.

For my current one, I started with the magic. Why do boys have one magic and girls another? At least, up until the story starts. I came up with a story. Two characters, Ideara and Hosaz, who were the first to have magic. I decided to make them a brother and sister, and they will probably be central figures in the mythology. While I do have ideas of a creation story for this world, I think more of the focus will be on heroes of old.

So, how do you start yours? First, research, research, RESEARCH. There are some fascinating parallels in world mythology. But even if you want something completely different, it helps to know what’s out there. Then pick either the most important part, or the most interesting part for you. Is it the deities? The monsters? The epic love story? The great heroes? Start somewhere, and remain open and flexible to new ideas. Who knows, the next one might be just the seasoning you need.

What is your favorite part about developing a mythos? What would you like to see me cover next?