Storytelling: The Setting

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By , April 30, 2013

A good story needs a number of elements to work together well. Characters are a big part of this equation, since they are the reader’s way of experiencing what’s going on. Save for the occasional story written from the second person perspective (You will know one of these when you see it. It tells you what is going on much like this aside does. You may or may not like it, but they are effective because), the reader needs some sort of framing device to understand the scenes as they unfold.

Dialog and conflict are how this is usually done. But today I’d like to tell you more about where the action is taking place, rather than why.

The setting of a story is more than just scenery. It is a full-fledged character in its own right, one relying on different means of communication than language. The setting is one of the first things explained in a pitch or outline, as it must immediately transport the reader to the action. But time and place are just the beginning of the setting’s work. After all, it’s in every scene, and there’s only so many times a character can check their watch or the position of the sun before we’ll lose interest.

The Mongoliad is blessed with an abundance of fantastic settings, including the wide steppes of Mongolia, crumbling European castles, dark catacombs, rich capitol cities, and many more. The setting makes itself known, whether or not it’s introduced directly. When a group of Shield-Brethren rides in pursuit of an enemy, they rarely do so in non-descript white space. The hills, grasslands, rivers, mountains, forests, and towns they pass through each mark an important part of the journey, even if only mentioned once.

Like the other characters in the story, the setting can both help the plot along and hinder the achievement of goals. Nothing stops a cavalry charge quite as well as uneven, pitfall laden ground. A company of skilled archers loses all advantage when their target reaches the trees and disappears into the forest. Walls keep people both in and out of cities, though their construction determines for how long.

The more of the reader’s senses that can be engaged by the setting, the more they can believe the action. Theres no hard and fast checklist of environmental factors to fill out, but the smell of baking bread is something most people can relate to, as is the sound of a blacksmith’s hammer. Small details add up quickly, until the scene is as real as the world outside your window.

Case in point, the arena at Hünern. Even if you haven’t read the entire text of the Mongoliad yet (no spoilers, I promise), you already know something about the setting simply because of what it is. You mind is filling with images of gladiators, a sand-filled area where combatants fight to the death. Descriptions of the setting could end there, but the authors give us more.

Through a character’s eyes, we watch it being built. We know about the tunnels dug under the stands through which the fighters enter, but it’s not until later that we “see” the deep shadows inside them, and how in comparison the light of mid-morning is blinding when we arrive in the arena. At first we are told there is a grand pavilion from which the dissolute Khan watches the action, but once we’re in the arena proper we explore its sumptuous colors, and wonder as to just where the Mongol leader is sitting inside. We feel the heat of the sun beat down on our armor, hear the noise of the crowd as our opponent enters.

Or rather, our hero Haakon does. Since we know, really know the area ourselves, we can feel his heart beating madly as the fight begins. We dodge when he dodges, and wonder with him about what is behind the Red Veil on the other side of the field of battle.

Storytelling is an ancient art. At its core is the ability to make us believe in something we can’t see, and will likely not experience for ourselves. To hear the roar of the crowd, to watch a long fly ball cross the outfield wall with nothing but a voice on the radio as our guide to the action. We want to believe, want to run after that ball and climb the fence to catch it, and are either happy or sad depending on which side of the sword or bat our hero is.

It’s said that knowing where to fight is almost as important as when and how. For those of us on the other side of the text, knowing where the fighting is happening is everything. We’ll find out who wins in the end, but in that first magic moment when we step into the scene with our heroes, anything is possible.

And it’s definitely worth turning the page to find out what happens next.

Discovering the Hero

By , April 25, 2013

HOI COVER Today, I’d like to share the process of discovering your protagonist. You’d think this is one of the first things a writer knows about a new project, and you’d be right. But fully coming to know and understand that character is a process that may not end until you are deep into revisions.

Your protagonist is among the story’s most important pieces, and one that has to really grab the reader as soon as possible for it to work. For Hearts of Iron, I had an opportunity to use an historical figure about whom almost nothing is written.

So how to present William de Hauteville, the Count of Apulia and Calabria, and Lord of Ascoli? We know he and his brother Drogo were close in age, but not twins. They were born sometime before 1010 AD, and that both were trained knights. They came to Italy (specifically the southern part known as the Mezzogiorno), took service with the Prince of Capua, and then the Prince of Salerno. And then three years later, he killed the Emir of Syracuse with one blow, earning himself one of the coolest names of all time, “William Iron Arm.”

But who was he? What was he like before he earned those titles and wrote himself into the history books? I read extensively about the Normans in Italy, but the years in which William was active there number less than a decade, and the deeds of his brothers and nephews fill the rest of that record with victory piled on victory.

I couldn’t kill him, couldn’t maim him, and couldn’t really give him a love interest. So I built his character around the fact that he was the eldest son of twelve, and that his father’s estates were insufficient for any kind of inheritance. The future of his family rested entirely on his shoulders, which in my story had to be broad enough to carry the rest of the 11th century around.

I made him a planner. A strategist concerned not only with the battle at hand, but the next three after it. I cast him as Tancred 2.0, responsible for not only his family’s legacy, but also for the lives and fortunes of the Normans under his command. I gave him a grim sense of humor, and most importantly, I put him In Charge ™. William is was now a character worth writing about, rather than a name on a tomb.

But backstory is not story. William had to DO things for the story to really come to life, and whatever obstacles I set before him had to be cool. Not as so cool as leading a cavalry charge of 300 men against a much larger and better armed force of Saracens, killing their leader with one blow, and then waiting around for 2 days for the rest of the army to catch up, but cool nonetheless.

For those reading along at home, the cool meter just pegged out somewhere north of 11. And what happened next rates pretty high as well. The 1038 AD invasion of Sicily effectively ended when he decided to pick up his ball and go home. It seems the general in charge decided not to pay him and his men, even though they’d done the bulk of the work and were responsible for nearly every major victory in the campaign.

When you chastise someone for not being a team player, better check first to make sure he’s not the Quarterback.

Since my story is set before all that awesome, I had a lot of room to let William make some mistakes along the way. In fact, with such grand victories looming in his future, it’s more or less required of me as a storyteller for him to suffer some setbacks. A compelling protagonist doesn’t just overcome obstacles, they actively seek them out and beat them into submission. Superman stories are boring until the man in the cape starts punching people. Mild-mannered reporters are also boring, so William had to reveal both his strengths and flaws early in the piece that I might exploit both later on.

My protagonist also did not exist in a vacuum. William had a built-in supporting cast in his younger brothers, who received the exact same training as he, and came from the same genetic and moral stock. But they weren’t the Elder Brother ™, and while he was alive they were always going to be on the sidelines. Given how much is also written of Drogo and Humphrey’s exploits, this seemed to me like a horrible waste of material. They would need sub plots to resolve, and defining traits of their own to elevate them beyond mere scenery.

So I decided to write a story about all three of them. William as the serious leader, Drogo as his heir apparent with more freedom to take risks, and brash young Humphrey, desperate for the approval of not only his father, but his older brothers. A story about duty and honor, and also knowing when to break the rules.

With this solid framework to build upon, more characters came into the story as I asked the writer’s questions of “what if” and “why.” Since we’re a few weeks out from the book’s release, I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot. But not all of the new additions have the kind of “plot parachute” as the brothers Hauteville, and nor should they.

They’re not the Heroes, after all.

(Hearts of Iron releases May 14, 2013)

Surviving your Characters: The Historical Villain

By , April 23, 2013

The heart of any story is the characters populating it. They are as much a part of your scenery as the world they inhabit, and for a tale to resonate with the reader they must be believable.

A good character is both the best and worst of us. They have qualities to which we aspire, and flaws we seek to overcome in ourselves. This goes for both heroes and villains, but the latter are notoriously hard to write.

The Bad Guy ™ has to be a person with whom we can relate, even though we personally may never try to steal the moon or kill the population of Topeka, Kansas. Just like our heroes, they’re the stars of their own movies, and as the director we need to deliver a good shot to the public.

When working with historical figures, part of the fun is determining just which side of the fence they’re really on. The more power a person has (or had) in society, the more places there are (were) for them to make a mistake that just never got recorded. Robin Hood helped the poor, but did he help himself at the same time? How easy would it be for a knight in armor to just destroy anyone not similarly armed and armored, and just ride away to save the day on the next battlefield?

The perfect villain is the path not taken. At one point, they were a normal person, just like those folks around him that did not become megalomaniacs. But along the way perhaps they gave in to baser impulses, made some bad decisions, or were molded into the monsters we love to hate.

To write them, we need to live in their skin for a while. Their motivations need to be ours, we have to be wiling to Go There ™. Your villain needs to make you feel bad about yourself, while at the same time letting you exalt in their twisted versions of success.

The internal struggle of the hero is just not there for the bad guy. It’s a fight they’ve won long ago, and rarely do they see a need to revisit it. The heroic cop worries about where every bullet is going, while the criminal empties the magazine and slaps in another. Blowing the top of a building is easy once you’ve done it a few times, and the villain never worries about where the broken glass is going to land.

Unless, of course, it’s meant to be an obstacle for the hero. It’s said that your protagonist is the character who drives the plot. The villain is the plot, the obstacle that the hero must overcome. And to be a real challenge, they must be the equal of or better than the hero in his/her area of strength. If the villain isn’t smart, then someone else must be pulling the strings. A thug can be compelling, but unless they’re a stepping stone to a more dangerous foe, the story grinds to a halt when they die.

Put yourself in danger when writing. Let yourself be scared. Ride through town with a burning torch and menace the populace. Blow some stuff up. Punch a metaphorical kitten. Don’t storm the castle, build its walls higher and stock the rooms with clever traps. Make the readers demand a hero to counter your wickedness and save the day.

When the time comes to bid farewell to the historical bad guy, their story needs to end where it began. They are trying to win, and if unopposed they probably will.

In the microcosm of a Robin Hood story, we’re thrilled when the outlaw tweaks the nose of Prince John. But later on in life he’s King John, who instituted many judicial reforms, successfully reclaimed lands lost under Richard’s rule and kept the coffers of England full for almost 20 years. And during that time, nobody talks about Robin anymore. Did the villain magically become a better person, or do we now see him in a different way?

Case in point: In the Mongoliad, Deitrich von Gruningen, Heermeister of the Livonian Order, does not think of himself as a villain. He’s the hero, in charge of a scattered and nearly destroyed group of once glorious knights. When people whisper at his back, he must take action to silence them. When threatened by the Shield-Brethren, he lashes out, moving ever farther way from the path of a righteous man.

Deitrich’s problems are not “his” fault. He finds someone to blame, and adjusts his worldview to make them the cause of his troubles. He believes there is a higher purpose to his actions, even though they may seem mad to others.

Overcoming obstacles. Moving forward against adversity. Striving for a better world. In another story, Deitrich is our protagonist.

A purely fictional villain can go down in a hail of arrows, bullets, by drowning, burning, or in an earth shattering Ka-BOOM if you so desire. But the end of a real and somewhat famous person is usually well-documented. Defeat does not necessarily have to mean death for the villain, just an end to whatever plot they’ve placed in front of our protagonist. Make sure the hero comes out on top, and almost everybody will be happy.

When you finish the villain’s story, don’t forget look back at what you yourself have done. As the writer, you’ve overcome challenges, struggled with your inner demons, and moved the plot to a satisfying conclusion.

You’re the hero now, and that’s not bad for an afternoon’s work.




The Revolutionary Research of Small Dogs

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By , April 15, 2013

The Assassination of Orange: A Foreworld SideQuestResearch is a strange beast, and one that every writer has to tangle with. The extent of it, and the type, obviously, varies by genre, but even the most otherworldly fantasy story usually requires any author who wants to do their tale justice to hit the books to avoid making fools of themselves. Historical Fiction—for obvious reasons—requires more than average, and so all of my fellow Foreworld creatives and I have done our share of digging through everything from weird encyclopedias, cryptic old history books, and late-night crawls through Wikipedia pages to try and find that one annoying little detail that just doesn’t seem to come up on any of the usual sources. It’s amazing how what period historians thought to be important and what modern day authors need for their fiction sometimes don’t overlap. Bastards.

Much of the history that we have from the Middle Ages and Renaissance is propaganda written down by either the detractors or the advocates of the subject. Between the lines of “This man was a vile, child-devouring bastard” or “Blessed be the exalted one from whose every orifice light did shimmer,” it’s easy to see how some common details about the lives of important people could be missed, omitted, forgotten, or swept under the rug. But every once in a while, a bizarre detail will survive. Whether this detail is a legacy of personal narratives of the people on the ground level or the record of an uncommonly observant historian, they tend to stick in the brains of tired authors doing research late at night.

The The Assassination of Orange is the story of Prince William of Orange, called William The Silent. By all accounts he was a taciturn, shrewd politician who walked a delicate line between calculated brashness and caution where it was appropriate. A decent leader who happened to be in the right place at the right time when such a man was needed by his cause. Like most revolutionary leaders, he tended to attract fanatic devotion from his people and those around him, and inspired paroxysms of vitriolic hatred in his enemies.

However, the best part is that he loved pugs.

I learned this at about two in the morning on a feverish research session, trying to very the exact number of times people had tried to kill the man (it’s a distinguished number). As it turns out, there’s a legend that, one night, as assassins approached the tent of the sleeping Prince, his Pug, Pompey, started barking. The dog woke him up, alerted the guards, and drove off the assassins. Thereafter, apparently, he wouldn’t go anywhere without one of those little mouth-breathing, bug-eyed lap-punters in his company.

Don’t take this as an active dislike of pugs or other small dogs, I don’t hate them, but my extended family has had them for years. I have many memories of being followed around by a fat, brachycephalic, bug-eyed creature that was alternately making disturbing, goblin-like breathing noises or trying to pee on my shoes.

Needless to say, when I learned this fact about William, all those memories came rushing back, and I suddenly had a very personal inroad of bizarrely common experience. “I wonder if his dogs were mouth-breathers, too?” “Did he awaken at night to the sound of a little troll-creature trying to gargle in his ear?” “I wonder if it ever peed on HIS shoes?”

It sounds silly, but these sorts of insights are part of what makes writing this type of fiction both enjoyable, and what allows for the verisimilitude that makes it all feel real. It gave me a slice of insight into the life of William the Silent, and a concrete view of what one aspect of his court must have been like. As an author, that sort of thing is invaluable.

[The The Assassination of Orange is out April 16th, 2013.]

Outlining: A Multistep Guide to Storytelling

By , April 4, 2013

Outlining is one of the many ways writers approach a new project. A blank page is one of the scariest things a writer has to deal with each day, and a solid plan of attack is a good way to deal with your incipient nervous breakdown.

That, and a bottle of (insert favorite beverage here).

So here’s how it works…for me. I qualify this statement, because if you ask 7 different writers how their creative process works, you’ll get 10 different answers. Some will agree with each other, some with themselves, and there will be at least one (you know who you are) of them who believes all the other writers are crazy, and will find a reason to disagree with just about everyone.

Pro Tip: That’s the guy to listen to. He’s making things up as he goes along, but whatever plan he develops on the fly is guaranteed to work at least once. And no matter how he dresses it up, he’s going to hit on at least one of the points I raise below.

I’m an outliner, most of the time. When I begin a project, I see the story in my head, start to finish, and then write down the relevant steps necessary to get me from A to B to Contract. I find the outline is like having an editor present during the writing process, always lurking over my shoulder and making sure I’m telling an actual story rather than just pounding out words.

I realize this makes me the crazy guy in the room, and I’m mostly okay with that. When I sit down to write, I know I’ll be productive if what I type serves at least one part of my outline. Whether it’s revising previously written material, blocking a scene I don’t feel comfortable with just yet, or diving headfirst into the Narrative™.

Were I to outline this blog post, it might look something like this:

  1. Catchy title (think of something)
  2. Introduction
  3. Bit about outlining
  4. Sample outline
  5. Essential elements
  6. The middle bits
  7. Know when to break the rules
  8. Summary (it’s an essay, make it work)
  9. Humorous closing (give the fans what they want)

The essential elements of an outline are just that. The things you want your piece/story/novel/report to convey to the reader. In some circles, this is called an executive summary, so named because your corporate masters are really busy people. If you have to distract them from the Really Important Thing™ they are doing while you are making them money, said distraction needs to be short and concise.

As a writer, one of those corporate masters should always be you. Setting down in advance what you want to say can help you to remember why you are writing this crazy (insert literary work noun here) in the first place. It’s something you can come back to at any time for inspiration, and contrary to what you might think; it is by no means set in stone. Making the outline a partner in your creativity is like having a time machine to summon up your past self, a person mostly unfettered by the stress of looming deadlines, blank pages, and an empty bottle of (self-referential humor about beverages).

The outline is a pencil sketch of a larger work. It’s up to you to provide shading, definition, and meaning to the lines. Characters live in that nebulous blank space – the outline is concerned with events. Putting characters and events together gives you a scene, and you must empower yourself to write the scene as it was meant to be written. As you saw it in your head when you started the process.

Until of course it’s time to change it. I often hear writers (including myself) say that writing is revising. Another saw in my toolbox is that you’re not finished writing until you get paid, and both of these sentiments address when and how you should break the rules.

I mentioned above that the outline is a pencil sketch for a reason. Even with a comprehensive outline identifying all major characters, plots, events and phases of the moon in your story, you’ll feel the need to adjust old words when the new ones hit the page.

And in case you’re wondering, I have in fact plotted entire books around the phases of the moon. I thought it gave my story a solid structure, grounded it in a reality that the readers could see and relate to. When All out of All readers missed that subtext entirely, I asked them about the moon, and they told me that part of the story didn’t really mean anything to them, since they were more interested in my characters.

I had forgotten to tell them why that part of my story was important, and in the process wrote a book that focused on other things. The moon was there, I mentioned it in all the places where I thought it was relevant. But it never made my list of Essential Elements™, and thus failed to address the outline.

After the second time that book was rejected, I went back to the outline, stripped away everything that got in the way of my story, and then did the same thing to the manuscript. The new book is leaner, more relatable, and focused on the one thing every reader agreed about.

“I really liked your story, and the characters.”

In the end, this is what you really want to accomplish. That, and getting paid.

An outline is the box you put your ideas into, and it can be as big and polygonal as you are comfortable carrying around in your head. When an editor/agent/publisher asks to hear your pitch, they want to hear or see the shortest possible version of your outline, and that’s the one you should be writing to when your butt hits the chair and your hands touch the keys.

It’s time now for my humorous closing, so let me leave you with this: Don’t think of an outline as a straightjacket, but instead of an easily maintained recreational garment. The straps may seem tight at first, but after a while you’ll be taking it on and off easily.

Don’t let the world tell you you’re crazy – show them why your words are the ones that survived months of intensive eraser therapy, and join the rest of us writers in howling at the moon.

Deconstructing the Awesome: The Medieval Knight

By , April 2, 2013

Unless you hung out with a bunch of medieval scholars or writers as a child, there’s a good chance that your first exposure to knights was followed quickly by the words “of the Round Table” or “who say Ni.” Love of shrubberies aside, while these stories are entertaining, they are not especially accurate representations of what was once a dominant military and social evolution in Europe.

The image many people have of knights involves the Crusades, or romantic portrayals of grand jousting tournaments. While these things did happen, and certainly were part of the knight’s life at different times in history, first and foremost a knight was a professional soldier.

Or a servant. Or a messenger. Or a young person travelling from a child to adulthood. There are as many theories as to the origins of medieval knighthood as there were knights during that period. The word itself is of uncertain origin, arising in various forms in many Germanic languages. The one most commonly cited is the Old English cniht (meaning “boy” or “servant”) itself an evolution of a German word (Knecht) with the same general meaning.

A humble word for a proud warrior, and one applied quite late in our modern concept of knighthood. Today, we think of mounted warriors with a highly evolved code of conduct. (For the word happy, Chivalry itself is an evolved word, coming to us from the Medieval Latin caballarius, or “horseman”).

Myself, I think there is only one modern profession that even approaches the complexity and dedication of the Medieval Knight, and it’s even harder to get into.

I’m speaking, of course, about being an Astronaut.

The Medieval Knight was a highly skilled professional who in his (or her) prime had decades of training with the most advanced technology available. They were well educated, performed their duties at a level few others could even approximate, and were such a valuable commodity it some lords found it preferable to expend dozens of “lesser” lives on the battlefield rather than risk losing their valued servants.

In the latter half of the 20th century, we all wanted to be Astronauts. I certainly did (with baseball player and science-fiction writer as backup plans), and it was a fantastic dream. To sail among the stars, seeing and doing things that nobody else could, and then coming home to have an ice cream cone.

Replace starships with horses, and it’s more or less a straight swap. More accurately, the stirrup is the technology that really made the institution of knighthood possible, and its proper introduction to Europe comes right around the same time the role of horses in war was no longer a suggestion, but a requirement.

Our records of the ancient world contain many stories of brave fighting men and their noble steeds, but very few have the two together in a fight. Pulling a chariot, sure.  Coming to the rescue of a downed warrior? Romantic, but certainly within the realm of possibility. But riding your horse was what you did to get to the battle, and if you were lucky, back to camp afterward.

Stirrups were part of a number of martial improvements that let the Jin Dynasty unify China, and by the 5th century AD were in common use throughout that region. Less than 200 years later they are found in tombs in Hungary, and 200 years after that stirrups were an indispensable part of medieval warfare. Mounted warriors using stirrups had a greater range of motion in the saddle, and allowed the use of more and different weapons and tactics during a fight.

Charlemagne rewarded his deadly mounted warriors with grants of land, transforming a band of skilled mercenaries into landed and hereditary lords. If you were a knight and lived long enough to have sons of your own, they trained to be like you, and to secure your wealth for their own sons. Weapons and armor weren’t the most important thing a knight could pass on to the next generation, it was the knowledge of how and when to fight.

Whether the stirrup was a proximate cause for the rise of feudalism is something best left to far smarter men than myself (much like piloting the Space Shuttle), but the men (and women) we think of as knights often  learned to ride before they could write their own names.

So what exactly is a knight, then? Is it a word, an ethos, a social status, or a job description? Is it a romantic notion of purity, a merciless warrior, or a fan of arranged greenery?

I’ll tell you. Knights are magic. They fire our imaginations with tales of daring-do, and give us a standard worth living by. No one talks about the Fry Cooks of the Round Table (except, of course, science fiction writers).  King Arthur may or may not have been real, but either way, of course he was a knight! Bruce Wayne (reality also hotly debated) took his fear and buried it away behind the mask of the Dark Knight.

And a thousand years from now, when we are all Astronauts, we’ll still be talking about Medieval Knights.

In my admittedly biased opinion, that’s pretty Awesome. So, who wants ice cream?

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