Worldbuilding: Birth, Death, and Cake

Imagine the scene: You, face alight with a fiery glow. Light flickers across your face, eyes closed in concentration as you focus your will. Onlookers chant in cadence. A rhythmic beat of friends and family surrounds you. Sibilant syllables flow around you hissing out your name. You take in a breath– a single breath. The chant grows. You release your will and your breath together. Smoke curls up in soft coils in front of you. Finally, finally the chant fades away. Taken up into the void by swirling smoke. You dive forward, glistening knife held in your hand, to begin the yearly sacrifice. You devour what is before you. Your year begins anew.

Or, you know, a traditional American birthday.

Cheers.

Unless you are a celestial being spawned from of primordial ooze, you have a birthday. I suppose even if you are a celestial being spawned from primordial ooze, you have a spawned from ooze day. You have a reason to celebrate coming into this world.

I recently read Krystina Castella’s A World of Cake: 150 Recipes for Sweet Traditions From Cultures Near and Far. In addition to some delightful recipes, the book is peppered with anecdotes of cake and culture across the globe. It seems inevitable, almost, to devote some time to the inexorable link between cake and birthdays, birthdays and cake. I will just say: CAKE. Personally, I almost always have a chocolate cherry cake for my birthday. Although this year, I might shake it up a bit because this book is wonderful and try something new.  (Update: I made tiramisu.) There are all sort of connections between food and life– food as a wellspring of life crops up in the inevitable traditions linking food and celebrations together. Bounty. Harvest. Plenty. Life. All these words, ideas, reasons to celebrate, fold together into life events. The tradition of marking a birthday crosses borders across the world.

The bookend to life, I suppose then, would be death. Food continues into death as well. Let us return to cake. When all else fails, always return to cake. We have celebrations with birthday cakes, name day cakes, quinceanera cakes, but cakes and food are not contained only to birth and life, but to death as well. A Thai tradition is to create a cookbook to share the deceased favorite meals and recipes with family and loved ones after their passing. We cannot forget the pan de muerto, sweet anise and orange flavored breads, made in the time leading up to Dia de los Muertos. The bread of the dead is eaten by loved ones and shared with the dead.

There are few things we can say cross all borders.  Food is one of those few things that connect us all. There is a unity to the people standing around a cake waiting for someone to make that first slice. There is a unity in handing out a piece of a whole to everyone in a family, to everyone in a community. There is a unity in food.

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Writing Prompts, Writing Tropes: THE SEER

Let’s write up a character study today. The only caveat is that this character is a seer, an oracle, a soothsayer, a psychic, a sage, a clairvoyant, a ????.  They could be believed by others or they could be ignored by others. They could believe in their own powers, or they could be the most skeptical of their powers. However, they need to use one of the ten powers of divination listed. How do their powers affect how they see the world? Go as literal or as figurative as you want. Funny or serious. Whatever genre you please. Go write a character today.

  1. Cybermancy – Divination through computer
  2. Geloscopy – Divination through laughter
  3. Hydromancy – Divination through water
  4. Moleosophy – Divination through moles on the body
  5. Phyllorhodomancy – Divination through rose petals
  6. Pyroscopy – Divination through burning paper
  7. Tyromancy – Divination through cheese coagulation
  8. Ailuromancy – Divination through observing cats
  9. Alectryomancy – Divination through chickens pecking through grain
  10. Crithomancy – Divination through food, often bread

Writing Prompts: Summer Solstice

Today is a great day. Today marks the fact the days are going to start getting shorter. Come back to me chilly winds of autumn and winter. I am weary of such disgusting heat and it hasn’t even gotten that hot yet this year (where I live). Mostly, I cannot wait for the sun to set at a more reasonable hour, I say as I look outside at the bright 9:00 p.m. sky. Following up from the first line prompts for the Spring Equinox, I figured I’d keep it up and do a whole set this year. Have a dozen.

  1. Even on midsummer, she thought, the sun should set.
  1. Elderflower blossoms swirled atop his tea.
  1. “Gather herbs at the most potent,” they said, “on noon of the longest day.”
  1. A wreath of flowers drifted from her hands to rest on my head.
  1. The picnic lasted as long as the day.
  1. “Y’all can whine about the heat all you want, but I’m having a feast.”
  1. I lit the family fire for the first time.
  1. “And you thought building our own Stonehenge was silly,” he said, surveying the lopsided creation.
  1. She dressed the darkest on December 21st, but the brightest on June 21st.
  1. “I thought maypoles were put up, in you know, May?”
  1.  We watched the earliest sunrise crest the horizon, the lights painting the sky in a way we could never describe again.
  1. Quicker and quicker and quicker the dancers leapt around the fire; the crackling flames chased their steps.

Let’s Talk Names

Imagine, if you will, a person. This person has hope and dreams. This person has a past and a future. This person has a style and a voice. This person is one in several billion.

This person is… a person.

This person is your character and they need a name.

Imagine, if you will, a person. This person has hope and dreams. This person has a past and a future. This person has a style and a voice. This person is one in several billion.

This person is… a person.

This person is your character and they need a name.

If you could listen in on my writing process you would know that some video game boss music is playing right now and it is apt. Nothing puts me in more of an exhausted haze then trying to name the characters I will spend years with. This post may have something to do with a character’s fourth name change in five years. Nothing sounds right! I gave naming power over to one of my sisters and just told her to pick something because I’ve hated every version of her name.  She’s pleased she named a queen. I’m pleased I don’t have to think about it any more. It’s a win-win.

However, we can’t always outsource our naming responsibilities.

Let’s talk about reality for a moment. We don’t choose our name. At least not in the beginning. You get a little older and you can do whatever you want, but there at the beginning the naming falls into your caregiver’s hands. For something that is so pivotal in our lives, it isn’t our choice, not really.

With naming comes histories, expectations, and futures all rolled into one.  It’s a lot packed into just a few syllables. Consider your name. What does it say about you? Perhaps even more interestingly, what doesn’t it say about you?

I’m going to take a moment to deconstruct the name I’m most familiar with– mine. You’ll see most of it up in the website bar. Here it is in all it’s glory: Nicole Faith Getson.

I’ll start with the last name. Getson. There aren’t that many of us around. The story is that Goetz needed to be softened. Changed. Melted into the melting pot. The family adopted a different, Americanized version of the name. Goetz turned into Getson.

On to the middle name. When the first act of your life is almost dying, you end up with the name Faith. There are a whole category of these sorts of names. Names that mean things: Faith, Chastity, Honor, Charity, Grace, Hope, Justice, Patience, etc.. Virtue names echoing a puritan past. These names are a far cry from some names used in the past. If we were actually were Puritans in 1600s my name would have ended up being Safe-On-HighHere is another fun fact about my family: we aren’t particularly religious. When people hear my middle name, I get strange looks. Yes, indeed, I’m a walking misnomer! (Hi Mom! *waves* I can already feel your phone call. Talk to you soon. While I’m in the parentheses here, I’ll go ahead and paraphrase this phone call from my mother for you: “You can have faith in many things other than a higher power, including yourself.” Thanks Mom!)

Let’s move on to the first name– Nicole– the name most people everyday know me by. The name that is shouted to get my attention. Something I’ve learned over the years is that people assume my nickname is Nikki. It’s not. It’s Cole. If you need my name to be shortened, please refer to me as the combustible rock, thanks. Yes, yes, I know that is spelled coal.

I have the added bonus of a masculine nickname as a woman. My name takes people aback. I hear refrains of: “Are you sure it’s not Nikki?” The many years living my life assures me that no, that is not what my name is. I’ve also been told on multiple occasions that I am not a Nicole.  Every once in awhile a person will then rattle off a list of names that seem more like me. Emily usually ranks high on these lists and I am not sure why.

Please do not do this to people.

I REPEAT: DO NOT DO THIS TO PEOPLE.

A baby naming book is within arm’s reach of my desk. It hangs out on a side table beside my desk. It’s always there, hovering just out of my sight line, lurking, waiting for the next character for me to name. Waiting for me. Staring at me. Coming for me. This is why sometimes instead of trying to come up with names I send an email out to my Naming of Random Things Think Tank (PATENT PENDING) and they get to come up with a side character’s name, because I just cannot.

*boss music crescendos*

Names are a touchstone to a character. It’s often one of the first things we think of when considering a character it helps encompass all that makes them… them.

A character of mine changes his name half a dozen time over the course of one of my books. Being a poster child for identity crises, he uses these names to reinvent himself over and over and over. Each name settles him into a different culture and life. He switches his family name from first to last and back again. He changes how the vowels are pronounced. He changes where the emphasis is, all as he figures out who he is and where he fits into the world.

There is also a lot to unpack in a name. People don’t appear one day at the beginning of their most interesting plot points. They were born and given a name, maybe they changed their name, maybe they have a nickname, maybe they gave up their family name, maybe and maybe and maybe… there are so many options here that give a glimpse into both a character’s backstory and the world.

First Line Prompts: Now With Added Dragons

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a princess in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a dragon.

Do you ever think to yourself while reading a book, let’s add dragons? I certainly have. Here are ten of American Book Review’s Best First Lines for your first line writing prompts this week, now with added dragons.

  1. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a princess in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a dragon.
  1. Happy dragons are all alike; every unhappy dragon is unhappy in its own way.
  1. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by any other dragon, these scales must show.
  1. There was a dragon called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
  1. He was an old dragon who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
  1. A dragon’s life has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
  1. Once upon a time, there was a dragon who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
  1. Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, are dragons.
  1. Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of a dragon.
  1. I have never begun a novel with more dragons.

Bonus round: It was a pleasure to burn.

As always, drop a link in the comments if you want to share your dragons!

 

My Publishing Dragons

If it doesn’t happen now, it never will.

If you haven’t been on the writerly twitter cycle recently Alyssa Wong talked a bit about youth success stories in writing. Then some other writers talked about it, so now I’m going to have some 20s something unpublished writer feelings about it…

I was eleven years old when Eragon was republished in a pivotal moment in my development as a young writer. Here was this kid not much older than me that had a book series already published. I read it in astonishment. Then I picked it apart finding the barely veiled references to The Belgariad, Lord of the Rings, Dragonlance, and Star Wars. I read it disgruntled and annoyed. After the movie came out, every time I went into another bookstore covered in Eragon merchandise, my soul died a little. I scribbled what would be baby’s first book– a laughably terrible story I’ve written about before.

I would like to say that I ran Eragon out of my mind, but for years it was there, a tiny blue dragon nibbling away at my conscious. I wrote and wrote and wrote chased by a sapphire dragon. I gave friends bits and pieces of stories to read. Stories about princesses transforming into fairies. Stories about death and family. Stories about women wizards and warriors. However, no matter what I wrote, a winged shadow ran after me.

Someone gave me a copy of Eldest when it came out, I flipped through it, reading past the Elven world and into what I thought it said about the world of publishing. Now the dragon hounding me flared red. Scarlet. Jaws open ready to snap me up if I dropped from my breakneck sprint. I kept hearing about the writing success stories of young people. 

Looking back now, I had an unhealthy obsession with it publishing young. Take a breath.

Brisingr arrived as Eragon fever subsided, the movie had come and gone. Bookstores, no longer swathed in blue and red, returned to their old ways. It was a moment of relief to watch it subside. For a moment I slowed down. I didn’t have to be an overnight success as a teenager. Even still, whispers still echoed around me. Publish at 13. 14. 15. Publish now. Publish. Publish. Publish.

If it doesn’t happen now, it never will.

Dragon’s fire curled around my feet.

Dragon’s fire twined around my legs.

Fiery branches ensnaring me.

Creeping up, up, up.

If it doesn’t happen now, it never will.

In high school, I garnered up enough courage to give friends a whole finished manuscript– 300 pages of elemental magic, loneliness, and shadows. I still get inquiries about the main character. What happened to Ana? Last thing they read she blew up atop a tower– the end of the book a blaze of magic and anger. I don’t know, I wanted to say, but instead I give them a mischievous smile, Maybe one day you’ll find out. *

I discovered Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown around this time. I found it in a bookstore that only existed in my hometown for about a month before disappearing. As I never remember seeing anyone else in the bookstore, I imagine it appeared in my time of need, spat out the books I needed, and disappeared into the wind– A fairy godmother made of dust and paperbacks. Aerin became my unwitting guide during my teenage years. I read it when I needed solace, lady knights, and above all dragon slaying.

Meanwhile, Inheritance came out the year I graduated high school. I never bothered reading it. For a moment the dragons pursuing me dropped below the horizon unseen.

Years passed as they do. With whispers still swirling: If it doesn’t happen now, it never will. Publish. Publish. Publish.

So…One of my first acts after graduating from college? Querying a fantasy novel .

I was a recent unemployed grad with a degree I ended up not wanting to go into and a book I thought was not atrocious. What else is a girl supposed to do? I didn’t know what else to do. (I mean I still don’t know what I’m doing, but now at least I’m employed.)

Within hours of sending out my first query, I received a partial manuscript request. I am not exaggerating about this here. It might even have been less than an hour. I tell people this bit of my life and they look at me in shock. Trust me, I was too. I expected silence. Instead of automatically replying, I went to the grocery store and ate too many cheese samples. I returned to my email and became even more amazed to see I was not hallucinating. It was still in my inbox.  

I didn’t get that agent and I don’t have an agent. Nothing went past that initial partial request save a polite no thanks little buddy, good luck. Getting what amounted to a form rejection on a manuscript hurt, but I deserved it. This isn’t my self-hatred and self-deprecation speaking. I really did.

I put that manuscript in a metaphorical dusty drawer for a while. Go think about what you have done, I told it. A few years later and I am typing this blog post up, so thankful for that rejection (and the few others that didn’t ask for any bit of my manuscript). It shouldn’t have gone anywhere. Impatience forced my hand. That dragon had not dropped below the horizon, it was right on my tail, only invisible. Stealth +100. My pursuer still whispered in arcane tones: If it doesn’t happen now, it never will. 

In that time when my manuscript was in detention? I wrote and wrote and wrote. Don’t get me wrong I sometimes wondered if I should ignore my gut and query again. But, in those years, with that manuscript hiding from me, no, I will be honest… me hiding from it, I found a voice that was mine. My writing changed. Evolved. Perhaps even improved.

I’ve pulled out that manuscript again, because I think there is something there. Something in the bones of the story even if the writing needs work. Working through it, chapter by chapter, pulling out the pieces that work and the pieces of nonsense, I’m making something better. I am making something that I could not have made years ago.

Take that, dragons.

* It’s been a decade in the making, but I know what happens to Ana. So I repeat: Maybe one day you’ll find out.

National Poetry Month: A Promise

As I stay far away from the internet (and most human populations on April Fool’s day) happy belated April!

April is National Poetry month. I am not one to purposefully read poetry, but I am always trying to expand my reading horizons. So, I am on here to say on the record I will read at least one book of poetry each week this month. I will do it.

I will read poetry.

I WILL.

First up is Donika Kelly’s Bestiary. I’m already interested in the premise of this one.

With no immediate plans for next week other than hitting the library, we will see what else I read this month! Who knows! Not me!

Mark your calendars. Expect a list of what I read at the end of the month.

I should also spend some time writing poetry this month, but I will not post that. No one should be subjected to my terrible poetry. I’ll save that for my eyes only. You are welcome.

Go read poetry!

Go write poetry!

POETRY.

 

Writing Prompts: Spring Equinox

This morning I woke up to a hail storm. Nothing really rings in spring like an aerial attack of ice. However, even with the grey skies, startling bolts of lightning, and a layer of ice, the birds were particularly chatty this morning.

The sun is coming back.

Spring is here.

Have a dozen first line writing prompts for today.

  1. Fingertips grazed the earth, trailing sprouting seeds in their wake.
  1. “Snowdrops,” he muttered, “just wait for the snowdrops.”
  1. “Do you know who makes the shamrocks appear?”
  1. My mom always said the robin was the first sign of spring, but I knew better.
  1. A fairy finds a home every time a tulip blooms.
  1. The nurse took a note down: “Female: Born 6:28 AM. March 20, 2017. Name: ______.”
  1.  I somehow found myself staring at a perfectly balanced egg.
  1. My sister grinned, “Your duckling impersonation needs work.”
  1. She murmured quietly as her broom swept east to west.  
  1. A faint peep floated down from the cherry tree.
  1. The white ice broke away revealing warm brown earth below.
  1. “Well, I thought they were rabbits.”

If you write anything with one of the prompts link to it in the comments! We all can use a little sunlight these days. Happy writing!

Myth & Language

If you are writing a brand new fantasy world, should you ever use the world herculean?

Should you use the word chronology?

How about chaos?

To reference this very blog, what about fury?

Oh, or nemesis?

Is anyone an adonis?

Should voices echo without the tale of Echo and Narcissus?

Can a siren wail a warning, if a siren has never lured someone into the sea?

A bard can’t have a muse in a world without the muses.

My world doesn’t have the god of war.  However, certainly some things could be described as martial.

A trip can’t be an odyssey if Odysseus has never traveled the long, long way.

Could something be an ambrosia, if the gods never ate it?

Can someone truly harp on a subject, if harpies never screeched?

I am not sure someone can have a mentor if Telemachus never needed a teacher.

Should anyone get lost in a labyrinth, if there is no Minotaur?

Can you point out someone’s Achilles’ heel if he was never held in the river?

Let’s just mention asking what someone’s fate is here for a moment.

Language is a tricky thing. Where do you draw the line between fully using the language, but also realizing that some words don’t make any sense in the world you’ve created?

We, for the most part, write our books in our first or a familiar language. For me that is English– a language influenced by languages and cultures across the globe. We borrow from the French and the Greek, from the Spanish and the Indian, from the Arabic and the German. English is a ravenous language, hungering for more words to throw down its gullet. Although we might now want to stop and research the etymology of every word we place on the page (we would write our books even slower), we should be aware of where words come from.

Language has history.

Language builds worlds.

There isn’t a simple answer to word usage in novels. However, it’s something to be aware of when you are writing fantasy.

What do you do when you are writing a world in which Hercules never performed his labors, the god of time was never spoken of, or the tales of the Furies never passed from generation to generation?

Language affects myth.

Myth affects language.

I avoid using words and phrases where the legend is still present. I know that sounds a bit wacky- let the legend speak to you.  Is it present?  However, what I mean by that is that words like herculean and muses and Achilles’ heel all are still based in the listener and user’s knowledge of the myth and metaphor. Words like echo or chaos or fury, while still mythological in etymology, are not linked to the knowledge of the myth as others. I know that is shades of meaning, and layers of understanding, and some people might heartily disagree with me.

Another way I could say this is: I will use words where the definition has surpassed the myth, rather than the myth surpassing the definition.

Language choices really can put a writer between a rock and a hard place. Or wait, is that between the devil and the deep blue sea. Or is that a Scylla and Charybdis?

Those are just some musings for the day.

 

Worldbuilding: Discordanant Elements

Let’s talk about moogles. Kupo.

Let’s talk about moogles. Kupo.

… Spoiler Alert: Final Fantasy.

I recently finished Final Fantasy XV, instead of raging about my myriad of problems, concerns, general angst, and annoyed love with it I’m going to talk about moogles. No, I have to say something about XV. I’ll inevitably have a cat named Prompto. What a dork. I promise this has something to do with worldbuilding. I’ll get there.

On that note, back to moogles. I’m not going to give you the full History of the Moogle. If I ever went back to school that is the name of my dissertation. The History of the Moogle: Foundations of Fluffiness and Folklore. An entire chapter would be dedicated to the “-mog-” naming system. Note: Worldbuilding discussion about names… coming to a computer screen near you soon(ish). Instead, here are some brief highlights from the games:

First playable character: Final Fantasy VI. This cast is huge and includes a Yeti. It would make sense this is when we first get to play a moogle ourselves. There is an entire moogle army/invasion section.

Final Fantasy VII: Cait Sith. Ummm… Cait Sith. I don’t know what to add. Who is looking forward to that in the remake. Raise your hands! Most importantly, there are no living moogles here!

They are practically nonexistent in Final Fantasy VIII, only appearing as a pseudo Guardian Force available through the Pocket Station and a few dialogue mentions across the game.

Mog as a summon in Final Fantasy IX. Eiko’s little buddy turns out is not so little and is a Eidolon disguised as an orange pom pomed moogle named Mog. Additionally, moogles function as your save point and you in turn run their mail around for them. I love you so much, IX.

In Final Fantasy X we see them pass into legend again. Rather than a living being, they are an equippable doll for Lulu to use as a casting weapon. They reappear in X-2 as Yuna’s mascot dress sphere.

XII brings us full circle to see them once again as a race incorporated into the world, not as a legendary creature.

They return to creatures of legend in XIII. An exception might be made for XIII-2’s moogle who is also a weapon and can speak. Much like the rest of XIII-2, that was unclear and a little bizarro.

That was not as brief as I planned.

In the list of things Final Fantasy fans expect in their games, moogles rate up there along with chocobos, summoning, and crystals. Chocobos are an easy thing to incorporate, they often operate as the Final Fantasy equivalent of a horse. Side note: In XV there is a line of background dialogue of “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Are there horses in this world? I don’t think we ever see horses. Have horses fallen into legend as chocobos took over their role? Is this a hint that the world is much larger than we see, are there horses on the other side of it? Or, would it simply be more appropriate to say “I’m so hungry I could eat a chocobo.”  It is a translation/idiom error? Why does this line exist?

Anyway, chocobos are not a problem to work into a game of varying levels of technology and magic. Moogles, however, have a particular aesthetic. How do you work in a fluffy white creature with a pom pom delicately attached to their head and sharp bat wings protruding from their back into a game like XV?

Moogles are painted in two different ways: real and legendary. Looking across the games, those with the most advanced tech and greatest focus on humans have passed their moogles on into legend. Mainly: VII, VIII, XIII, and XV. I cannot imagine what hyperrealistic moogles would have looked like in XV. Perhaps they could have gone with the demon route and made them into enemies that only came out at night? That could have been frightening.

In games that include moogles as living beings such as IX, there is less of a focus on humans as the dominate race and realism. In XII, where technology is often seen in browns and bronzes and given a more naturalistic look, moogles are real. While humans seem to be the majority, the world also is home to viera, bangaa, seeq, and others.  Keeping moogles as living creatures with their own culture makes sense here, in worlds where magic and technology operate together.

The game that plays with this divide is IV. While IV has an almost steampunk aesthetic, the technology is in general not comparable to what you see in VII, VIII, XIII, or XV.  However, technology plays a major role in the game, and humans are dominate. This is a case where magic is a legend, while moogles are not.

How do you make your worlds make sense?  How do all of your little bits and pieces come together to make something that makes sense as a whole? When we are working on our own stories, we usually don’t have 30 years worth of narrative history and expectations to work with.  However, we can learn from the multiplicity of ways similar elements are morphed and altered to create a world.

Ask yourself: Would a moogle from IX, book in hand muttering about kupo nuts, traipsing through the background of a gritty, electric Midgar break a bit of carefully built world?