Tag Archives: language

370. Fantasy World Building (3)

When you are ready to build your own fantasy world, you might consider these four things: tone, magic, language, and the concept of the archaic (found in posts Monday, Tuesday, and today).

The question, as we ended yesterday, was language, and who bothers to create them.

I did, in a manner of speaking. The Menhir stories grew from a single image, and I had no idea for years where they were going. Things got invented, and the world of the Menhir grew by accretion. I invented a style of fighting, which required invention of a sword/lance, which required invention of a name, and lancette entered my story’s vocabulary. A thousand place names and personal names got invented. Gradually, the world grew a religious background which became the underpinning for what passes for magic on that world. This morphed into an entire system for the handling of life and death, and words like ai, enreithment, and abahara entered the vocabulary of the story. I invented a kind of peasant dwelling and now we had hartwa. My people started out with oxen and horses but that wasn’t satisfactory, so they were soon riding kakais and using tichan to pull their wagons.

Words begat words, morphographically. Since ai means power and dzi– means man of, then a dziai is a man of power, and the men of the plains whose entire lives revolve around their mounts are, of course, the dzikakai.

As if that weren’t enough, my people started quoting words and phrases from the language of a nearby kingdom — just like the English quote the French, n’est-ce pas. I eventually made myself a glossary, but don’t take that as a requirement. I’ve been living on the world of the Menhir, part time at least, for four decades, but even I get confused sometimes.


I’ve told this story before, but I can’t help repeating it. The scene, as I recall, was Westercon 33, Los Angeles, in 1980. A panel of writers and editors was discussing fantasy, and things had gotten out of hand. After a grueling discussion of what some magical breed of horses in Lord of the Rings ate, they had moved on to the subject of archaic language.

Somebody said it was okay, but don’t overdo it. Somebody said archaisms should be used sparingly, like spice in food. That went back and forth for several minutes until some wag in the audience stood up and asked, “Are you saying we can have archaic, and eat it too?”

I wish I had thought of that.

Marion Zimmer Bradley is well known for her fantasies, but she cut her teeth on science fiction. Her Darkover series was a massive best seller in its day. Darkover is a planet in our universe, populated by humans from a stranded starship, whose powers of the mind come (quite scientifically) from the pollen of psychotropic plants and from interbreeding with non-human natives. Lost and out of contact with their technological roots, they evolve a feudal society. They create an archaic world from a purely science fiction starting point.

Of course this is a reductionist view of a complex and massive series of novels and short stories. But it makes the point that archaism is easy to achieve. For archaism in fantasy, you could almost write a formula:


Of course it takes more than that to achieve good fantasy.

The time-before-known-time is an ancient idea. Atlantis and Mu fit into it. Tolkien’s Middle Earth came before recorded history. So did the world of Conan. The worlds of Michael Moorcock seem to be of this nature, but a closer reading will have to follow them sideways in time.

Alternate histories allow access to archaic worlds coexisting with our modern world. We can go to other 2017s, where the Native Americans are the only Americans, or Rome still rules, or Muhammed became an atheist. Take your pick, and if you can’t find what you like, you can write your own.

Remnant stories also let the past live on. Professor Challenger found dinosaurs still living deep in the Amazon. Hilton’s characters found Shangri-La. Even Rick Brant, in the favorite juvenile series from my childhood, found a lost remnant of an earlier age hidden in the Himalayas in The Lost City.

It would be logical to assume that you could go sideways in time, or backward, or to some lost valley and find dystopian, crowded cities, but that almost never happens. Archaism is about escaping modernity, crowding, complication, and life in cities. Back to simpler times. Back to the good old days. Back to the land of childhood. Back to the middle ages where knights in shiny armor rode pretty horses and rescued damsels with big bosoms and pearly white teeth from dastardly villains — or maybe from dragons.

Does anybody believe this? Of course not. Does anybody want to believe? Of course. And in the friction generated when those two truths rub together, the fire of archaism is born.

So our hero goes back (or sideways) and he/she finds the land of her/his heart’s desire and it isn’t what she/he expected at all. But it isn’t bad. There are problems to overcome, heartaches to endure, and villainy to face, but so what? That’s true in Portland, and Tempe, and New York City as well. In the new/old world  there are beauties and wonders, in addition to troubles. And it’s probably green, with trees and meadows, even if it also has rain and snow instead of eternal sunshine.

Above all, there aren’t any traffic jams. And the cell phone never rings.

Wait a minute. I’ll get my backpack, and we can go.


369. Fantasy World Building (2)

When you are ready to build your own fantasy world, you might consider these four things: tone, magic, language, and the concept of the archaic (found in posts today, yesterday, and tomorrow).

Continuing the concept of magic . . .

Christianity, in earlier centuries, saw witches as wielders of power which they obtained by pacts with Satan. Harmful as they were, witches had no power of their own. In many dark fantasies, the searcher after power obtains his heart’s desire from some greater being who is, in essence, a Satanic stand-in. Such Faustian bargains never end well.

Well, almost never. Martin does turn the tables on Satan in Robert Bloch’s That Hell-Bound Train.

Magic, in fantasy writing, often goes unexplained. The talisman in The Monkey’s Paw is understood by the reader without elaboration, just as a reader of westerns doesn’t need an explanation of how a six-gun works.

It is quite usual for a fantasy hero to have inborn power. Harry Potter was a wizard born of wizards. Ged is an unknown until his power is discovered by a mage. Corwin is a son of Amber.

It is equally usual to concentrate on the education of a wizard, or mage, or dziai. Ged went to Roke, Harry Potter went to Hogwarts, and my Tidac took two books to learn how to use his power because he had no mentor. His father never learned, and it destroyed him.

Can we have fantasy without magic? Probably not. Pavane is an alternate universe science fiction or an alternate history novel, but its tone makes it read like fantasy, except for the absence of magic. What seems to be magic in one chapter, may just be a dying dream; it isn’t made clear to the reader. For me, this places Pavane on the borderline between genres.

On the other hand, Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories are all about magic, but their system of magic is so comprehensively worked out that they read like science fiction.

I know that my Menhir story, in its infancy, before I really knew what it was going to be about, read like a quasi-medieval world. Slowly I came to grips with how the powers of every soul are affixed to menhirs at death, making menhirs into gestalt beings which become repositories of power that can be tapped, at peril, by men of power. Only then did magic come into the world of the menhir. And only then did it begin to read as fantasy.


“Up sword,” sayeth Sir Gallant, “lest I cleave thee where thou standest.”

Yeah, that’s pretty bad, and it has been a long time since I’ve seen that kind of fake-ancient language used in fantasy, except as a joke.

Language in fantasy is both a necessary tool, and a dangerous one. You can’t just throw in some thees and thous and -ests, but you also can’t speak in modern, colloquial English. Simple formality is the easiest way out. Even Zelazny, for all his smart-ass-with-a-sword characters, wrote with intelligence and a great deal of formality. If you want your characters to speak slang, you have to invent slang appropriate to their world, and that takes some effort.

Remember, whatever language your characters speak, even if you are setting your fantasy in early England, no one on Earth speaks that language today. In my fantasy world of the Menhir there are three languages in play, and a mid-sea island has a bastard language drawn from all three. It doesn’t matter. The book gets translated into English, whatever language the characters are speaking.

Whatever your genre, you are likely to have characters from different levels of society. Whether you are writing about nomads from the desert encountering the Pasha of Nevermore, or a Bostonian talking to a southern slave in 1845, you need to find a way to make your characters sound different from modern America, and from each other, but still be comprehensible. And it needs to sound natural. ‘Taint easy.

Languages – note the difference – are also dangerous, but at least you don’t have to invent one if you don’t want to. Tolkien did, to a degree far in excess of the needs of his stories. Almost no one else ever does. language continues tomorrow

Click here for next post.

334. Making Videos for Cyan

I know from visiting your websites, that a lot, maybe most, of you either are or want to be writers. I’ve talked about some of the mechanics of that, especially in posts 133 and 134. During the last month, I’ve learned some more about how books are marketed in the age of the internet. I’ve had to make videos.

That proved harder than I thought it would, partly because of technology. Don’t think I’m a Luddite – I’ve been a computer nut since 1986 – but I don’t own a video camera. i don’t have kids to record as they grow, and I have no interest is seeing myself moving about on the computer screen.

Most of those who make videos to promote their books do so on their smart phones. I don’t have a smart phone. It is my firm belief that Alexander Graham Bell was an emissary of the Devil. I communicate the way God intended, by email, where I can correct my mistakes before I push send.

I finally used the camera built into my Mac. It makes a shaky, Skype-like picture, but that works well enough if you hold still and go into talking-head mode.

I didn’t want to ramble, so I wrote a script and tried out some videos. They stank (that’s the grammatically correct word that morphed into stunk about twenty years ago). It turns out that a glib, casual, conversational tone takes a hell of a lot of rewrites. I should have remembered that. I had to learn it two years ago when I wrote my first posts. I don’t mean numbers 1, 2, 3 . . .. I mean the ones you never saw because I trash-canned them.

Writing two masters theses and a bunch of novels did not prepare me to write posts. I had to learn a whole new, casual style. This month I learned that written-casual is not the same as spoken-casual — even if it is written as a script before it is spoken. It took quite a few tries to make the transition.

Eventually I made three videos for Brian at EDGE and he will put them on Youtube. They are an introduction to Cyan, the story of why I wrote Cyan, and a reading from Cyan. The first is already up; click here.

I’ve also tacked on the script I used in the Introduction to Cyan.


Hi. Welcome to my world, or at least to one of them. I’ve always been a fan of near future novels of exploration. There are so many things about traveling at sub-light speed that make for a great story.

Besides, it won’t be long until scientists have charted the actual planets around all the nearby stars. Then we won’t be able to make up our own planets.

Put those ideas together and you have Cyan, which is the name of me newest novel and the name of the planet that it takes place on.

In the year 2080 a crew of five men and five women, scientists all, set out for Procyon where they find a planet that stands straight up in orbit, with bands of unvarying climates. About 45 degrees north, is paradise.

But paradise with teeth — virgin, wild, beautiful, but very dangerous. Keir, our crewleader’s task is to keep his fellow explorers alive. He’s good at his job, but on a planet crowded with predators, that may not be enough.

For these scientists from vastly overcrowded earth, after years confined within the starship, the beauty and emptiness of Cyan is intoxicating.

They have one year to decide if Cyan is suitable for colonists, and it turns out to be perfect. But then one of the scientists picks up a flaked stone. This is not a natural occurrence. Someone, or some thing, has made it.

The explorers have discovered the Cyl.

The Cyl are a stone age group. They look nothing like man and their intelligence is low, but they are about to become much more. Evolution moves quickly under Procyon’s intense radiation, and the Cyl are poised to make the leap to full intelligence.

Earth needs Cyan to ease its massive population, and the Cyl need to be left alone to find their own destiny. Lines are drawn among the explorers and the resolution of the problem threatens to tear them apart.


When you get your copy of Cyan, you will see that this introduction actually only covers the first fifth of the novel. Giving a full summary would have made the video far too long.

252. Leonard Cohen, an appreciation

A day or so ago, Leonard Cohen’s death was announced on a trailer at the bottom of a newscast about Trump. It was not much notice for one of the finest artists of the last century.

I went online to find a few articles, New York Times and Rolling Stone mostly, but they didn’t tell me much that I didn’t know. I’m not going to add anything to his bio in this post. If you want to know about Leonard Cohen, listen to his songs.

To sum up, briefly and without equivocation, Leonard Cohen meant more to my moral and ethical life, more to my writing, and expressed my personal feelings better than any writer of fiction ever did.

I don’t mean that I learned about life from him. I learned about life from life, and a harsh one at that. I was fully formed when I discovered him, but he spoke to me. Leonard Cohen had the ability to say in music what I was trying to say in text. In almost every song, there was someplace where, the first time I heard it, I shouted, “Yes, dammit. Yes!”

I discovered Cohen when I was in college, in the sixties. Then I graduated, got drafted, spent four years working in a military hospital, went back for an MA, and in 1975, settled down to write novels. I wrote more or less full time for most of the following decade.

My wife would leave for work, and I would sit down at the typewriter with music on the stereo. At that time, I needed emotionally charged music to set the mood and drown out other sounds – today I could write through a hurricane. I wore the grooves deeper in a lot of LPs, and nothing played as often as Leonard Cohen.

HIs music was like a drug, compounded of depression and hope. It was rich, complex, filled with both thought and emotion, but it was an acquired taste. Except for Susanne and Hallelujah, not many people took to him. He doesn’t come easily; you have to listen with both ears and your whole heart.

Leonard Cohen’s music suffuses everything I have written. I never met him, outside of his records, but I count him as a mentor.

If you want to go beyond Hallelujah, I have a suggestion. Find a copy of Alexandra Leaving ( from Ten New Songs) and listen to it repeatedly, asking yourself, “Who is speaking? Who is this man, and what is the woman to him?” Make it your personal koan.

If, after repeatedly listenings, you decide Leonard Cohen isn’t for you, fair enough. You will have saved yourself a lot of heart ache.

And missed a lot of joy.

245. Serializing

I’ve been doing a lot of serializing lately. In fact, I’ve been at it for over a year, but lately it has become intense.

Publishing novels serially in periodicals is a very old idea. Most of Charles Dickens work came out that way. What I’m doing is a bit different though, because Dickens wrote his novels to be serialized. The size of each chunk was known to him when he wrote. And the chunks were bigger.

David Copperfield was a novel of 358,551 words. I know this by downloading it from Project Gutenberg, transferring it to my word processor, and using the word count function. You might make note of that; it is a useful technique. David Copperfield was published in twenty monthly installments. That makes each installment was about 18,000 words. In SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) terms, each installment was of novella length.

My typical serial post is about 600 words.

Dickens serialized in order to sell to those who could not afford his books, and at the same time, to boost sales of those books when they came out after they appeared in periodicals. Most successful nineteenth century authors followed the same pattern. So did the big names in twentieth century science fiction, although they wrote smaller novels and presented them in fewer, but longer installments. Often they didn’t sell their books for serialization until they were already completed.

That is also my situation. Nothing I have presented in Serial was in progress at the time it was serialized. I’m too slow and picky a writer for that. Some of the things presented had been published, some had not, one was presented as a excerpt from a completed novel, and one was a fragment from a novel I’ll probably never finish. Jandrax was annotated to such a degree that it almost forms a writing primer, and How to Build a Culture was entirely a how-to.

Everything I have presented in Serial has been to assure continued readership of the website. It’s a trick. Leave ‘em hanging, and they’ll come back. And the whole website is to assure a readership for my upcoming novel Cyan, and for others that will follow.

But man, it has been fun.

I’ve enjoyed revisiting old friends. I’ve learned a lot from a close re-reading of old material, especially regarding pacing. Since I post four days a week, each post has to be relatively short, both to keep from running out of material too soon and to keep each reading experience brief for the sake of the daily reader. I didn’t originally choose 600 words; that just evolved.

The actual process of taking a novel and breaking it into pieces has been fascinating, frustrating, and a rewarding learning experience. It begins with a completed novel, which may be decades old, and which will already have been polished to a high shine. Still, I find errors from time to time.

First, using a word processor version, I have to re-read the novel, looking for natural breaks in the action every two and a half to three manuscript pages. I type a nonsense word at each break. I use breakbreak, as one word, which has meaning to me but would never appear in the actual text. This will allow me to use the find function to jump from break to break if I should need to. After typing breakbreak, I highlight what I have chosen, use the word count function, then type in the number of words. If it seems too short or too long, I adjust.

That takes care of post #1. Now to repeat. Jandrax required 92 posts. Raven’s Run will require 150. Some posts make sense on their own, but some require that I start with a sentence or two from the previous day’s post. I use bold-italic to denote this repeat.

All this takes place on a single word processor document. I then make individual documents of each post-to-be. This is a backup to what will actually appear on the website. At this point, I run the spell checker one last time and face the two-space conundrum.

I learned touch typing in high school in the mid-sixties on a mechanical (not even electric) typewriter. This was overseen by Mrs. Worden (AKA the warden) who pounded (pun intended) the rules into our heads. One rule was that you put two spaces between sentences.

Over the years I went from mechanical typewriters, to electric typewriters, to computers, but the rule stuck with me – even after everyone else had stopped using it. Raven’s Run was written before I kicked the two space habit, so now I have to go through each document removing the second space.

The last step is copying from word processor file to website.

Tedious? Yes. Fun? Absolutely. If you write, and you don’t enjoy reading your own work, why bother?

233. Yearbooks Farewell

In an early science fiction novel/novella (A Fond Farewell to Dying/To Go Not Gently), I gave my protagonist a twenty year gap in his memory. To fill himself in on the events he missed, a friend of his suggests reading encyclopedia yearbooks, one by one.

It was a bad idea on two fronts. Shortly after I wrote that suggestion, Wikipedia drove paper encyclopedias out of business, and yearbooks were no more. My story was set a couple of centuries in the future, and long before we could get there, the immediate future had bit me where it hurts.

Even if that had not happened, it was a bad idea to trust yearbooks, as I found out when I tried it myself. I was planning to plot out a novel set in the sixties, so I accumulated yearbooks as a starting point for research. They were useless, and I kicked myself for not having realized in advance that they would be.

Almost everything the editors of the 1966 yearbook thought was important, turned out to be forgettable by the eighties. The important trends of that era only became obvious in retrospect.

1989 was like that, too. It was a pivotal year, but I missed it while I was living it.

I was alive, awake, and alert in 1989. I had recently returned from spending two summers in Europe. I was writing a teacher novel, and planning the novel Raven’s Run (now being posted in Serial), but I missed 1989’s significance. I didn’t really come to appreciate it until decades later when I was preparing to bring Raven’s Run up to date.

Basically, the cold war ended and the modern era began in 1989. When I realized that, I nudged Raven’s Run into that year so I could add a few events that I had missed when they happened, and set myself up for sequels.

I wrote a bracketing event, a meeting between Ian Gunn and a friend in Luisanne, Switzerland in 2012, where they are revealed as spies, or something like. (Raven’s Run 1) This leads to reminiscence and Ian begins to tell his friend of events that took place in 1989 – which becomes the novel.

I dropped these words into chapter 2:

It was April.  Ayatollah Kohmeni had a few months left to live, and no one had yet heard of Osama ben Ladin.  There were still two Germanies, two Berlins, and a wall; I had had my dealings with that wall a few years earlier, in uniform, when the cold war was even colder.

When I wrote chapter 2 in the mid-nineties, there were “two Germanies, two Berlins, and a wall”. I didn’t have to tell anyone. Not then – but posting Raven’s Run today, it has become necessary to remind my readers.

1989 was a pivotal year. If you don’t remember, or you weren’t born yet, take a look at Thursday’s post.

227. Mentors in Detection

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants.”
             John of Salisbury, Issac Newton, and a million lesser lights attempting false humility.

What pen name? What market? What can we steal? . . . Correction. Not ‘steal.’ If you copy from three or more authors, it’s ‘research.’”
               Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love, and in a half dozen other novels in almost identical words.

There is very little in this world that is new and unique. We all borrow from those who went before. Some people borrow from giants, some borrow from pygmies.

Some people borrow from Shakespeare and screw it up royally. Some people borrow from third rate writers and turn the result into something memorable. But we all borrow.

I have made no secret of my mentors in science fiction, first Andre Norton, then Robert Heinlein. I write only a little like Norton and nothing like Heinlein (I would pay real money for his touch with humor.) Nevertheless, they both live in my head, all the time.

There are a thousand other authors whose work has moved me, but Norton and Heinlein got there early. Only Harold Goodwin (John Blaine) and the Bible got there sooner.

Over in Serial, my novel Raven’s Run is being serialized. It is a “men’s adventure”, a genre that is no longer recognized. In modern parlance, it would probably be classed as a thriller, although the tension level is really too low for that. It is also something like a detective novel, but not much. Genres today are so small and tightly defined, that RR crosses several of them. It resembles the Travis McGee books in that way.

In connection with mentors and influences, I will be covering three detective series next week along with one spy novel. McGee was a real influence on my writing. The two Fathers taught me a few things, but they are basically just stories I like. I’ll explain the Shrike when I get there, next Thursday.

Detective literature started with Holmes, both in the world at large and in my reading. I read him when I was in high school, and I still do, occasionally, although it is harder now that I can lip synch all the stories. I didn’t read other detective stories – or Westerns for that matter – until I was writing science fiction and fantasy full time and needed something to cleanse my mental palate between writing sessions.

McGee was by far the best and most influential. I’ll talk about him next Tuesday. Dashiell Hammet never appealed to me, but Raymond Chandler was superb. Robert Parker’s Spencer was great for the first ten books while he was imitating Chandler; after he started imitating himself, they went down hill fast. I enjoyed Chesterton and Greeley enough to give each his own post next week.

Quite a few of the authors who come to mind were actually writing spy stories, like the gritty early James Bonds before they degenerated into farce.

There were authors with a few books whose work stuck with me. E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case was worth reading. So were the few Bertram Lynch mysteries by John Vandercook. That particular series was a recent discovery, in ancient, battered copies at my favorite underfunded library – you know, the one that never throws away a book. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is the series I am working my way through now, since I have read the covers off all my previous favorites.

To be certain that I didn’t forget any old friends, I went through several “best detective authors” lists on line. There I found Alistair MacLean (author – under a pen name – of The Black Shrike) and John Buchan. I would not have called them detective novelists, but they are among my favorites.

Not every detective lives in contemporary England or America. I fully enjoyed the five or six Cadfael novels I read before the spell wore off. I own and frequently reread every Judge Dee book, and Bony (Napoleon Bonaparte), the half aborigine Australian detective is very nearly my all time favorite.