The Coming of the King

Last week, I finished reading Nikolai Tolstoy’s novel The Coming of the King. Tolstoy draws from such diverse sources as The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Beowulf, and the Norse Eddas to tell a story of post-Arthurian Britain through the eye of Merlin. This Merlin isn’t the advisor of Arthur we’ve come to expect from works like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, but rather a shaman living nearly a century after Arthur’s defeat at Camlan.

The book runs the gamut from action, to ribald humor, to surreal visions. I especially loved the fact that one of Merlin’s teachers is the Salmon of Lyn Liw. At times this is a dense and challenging read and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn’t read several of the stories of The Mabinogion plus some of the Norse Eddas. Still, I found this a compelling look through the eyes of a Celtic shaman and may have to give this another read in the future.

Tolstoy himself is something of an interesting figure. I gather he’s a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy. He’s also the stepson of Patrick O’Brien, who wrote the outstanding Aubrey & Maturin series of naval epics set during the Napoleonic wars. Having grown up in Britain, Tolstoy developed an interest in Arthurian literature, and I especially enjoyed his non-fiction book, The Quest for Merlin. That book introduced me to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, which in turn inspired my poem “The Passage of Merlin” which was reprinted at Eye to the Telescope earlier this year.

When I first discovered Arthurian literature and started processing it, I had a vision of creating a work similar in scope to Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King. I envisioned telling the ultimate Arthurian tale. Of course, many far-more-noted authors have also done so, ranging from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to the aforementioned T.H. White. Tolstoy sidestepped the trap of writing “yet another Arthurian fantasy” by writing about people who lived a generation or two after Arthur and were influenced by his legacy.

I’m often asked how an author can create fantasy that isn’t derivative of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard. One answer is simply to read the classics. The ones Tolstoy drew from are good choices. Grimm’s fairy tales are also good choices. In that way, a writer can get to the roots of fantasy. From that basis, you can start adapting the themes and types of characters to situations and locations that mean something to you.

My first professional fantasy (and steampunk) sale was a story I was moved to write after reading Moby Dick and then Ray Bradbury’s accounts of writing the novel’s screenplay. I replaced sailing ships with airships and whales with dragons and wrote “The Slayers” which was published in Realms of Fantasy. You can learn about the reprinted edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/slayers.html.

As for Arthurian legends, I had a lot of notes and ideas and wrote some stories. I added vampires and my love of the movie Nosferatu and melded it into Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, a lot of these old stories can be dense and a challenge to follow. One of the ways I dealt with that was by retelling the stories in my own words and finding the parts that were important to me and emphasizing them. I felt brave enough to record one of those retellings and put it up for sale several years ago. It’s my retelling of Culhwch and Olwen from The Maginogion.

I was really fortunate that the story also captured the imagination of a co-worker from Kitt Peak named Kevin Schramm, who also played accordion for an outstanding band called The Mollys. Kevin and Mollys lead singer Nancy McCallion were kind enough to record some music for my reading. You can find out more about the recording at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/cando.html. Just one word of caution if you go to buy the audiobook at Amazon, make sure to go to the Marketplace sellers and buy it from Hadrosaur Productions, and not the person who thinks they can get more than $600 for my recording. It would be nice if they shared some of their profits with me if they actually managed to sell the CD for that price!

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Characters Are What They Eat

As the old saying goes, “you are what you eat.” My post’s title though refers less to nutrition than what you can reveal about a character through scenes set at mealtimes. I thought about this last week while revising the story “Jump Point Blockade” for my collection-in-progress, Firebrandt’s Legacy. During the story, Captain Firebrandt shares bobotie with Suki, the woman he’s building a relationship with. Bobotie is a South African dish that shares characteristics of a meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, and a curry. We decided to try our hand at making it this weekend. Here’s the result.

We picked a recipe from a South African site based on the author’s family recipe. If you want to try your hand at bobotie, here’s the recipe we used: http://www.getaway.co.za/food/recipes-food/traditional-south-african-bobotie-recipe/.

Part of the reason for the choice is that this version didn’t include nuts at cook time, since our daughters are nut-allergic. Different recipes call for different types of nuts. We went with cashews to serve with our version, but almonds and pine nuts also seem to be common choices. We also used a homemade apple and pear chutney in the mix. Finally, just a note that the recipe specifies “sultanas” over raisins. It turns out that most raisins sold in the United States are, in fact, sultana raisins.

Firebrandt is South African because I created him during the time apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa. He came from a culture where his ancestors had been part of an oppressive regime and he wanted no part of belonging to one himself. What’s more South Africa is one of the few countries to have developed nuclear weapons, but voluntarily destroyed them. I see the elimination of nuclear weapons as one of the necessary paths forward for the human race. In my head, Firebrandt has always spoken with a South African accent and having him share bobotie with a friend was a way to show that on the page.

Scenes including mealtimes not only reveal what people eat, but their accepted manners while eating. How strongly they adhere to meal customs can tell you much about a character, no matter what those customs are. If someone cares a lot about protocol, they might adhere strongly to custom. Other characters might care more about conversation. Some characters might reveal themselves to be completely uncouth at the dinner table. How hosts react to good and bad manners can also be revealing.

One of the challenges in Firebrandt’s Legacy is that I wrote many of the chapters as stand-alone short stories. It could be that when I’m finished collecting the stories and read them as a whole, I might find that I’ve overused the number of times my characters have shared meals. If that’s the case, I’ll need to cut a few of them and share only those that are the most revealing and most interesting.

I invite you to share some adventures, and perhaps a few meals, with the crew of the pirate ship Legacy. I’m posting a new chapter each month. So far, most of the chapters have been revisions of stories that have appeared far and wide in the small press and aren’t always easy to find. I’m nearing a point where most of the stories will be new and unpublished. You can read these stories for just a dollar a month. Of course, this helps me fund other projects as well, such as my recent publication of The Solar Sea. This leads to surprise bonus rewards. I just gave all my wonderful patrons a free ebook copy of the new novel. (If you join my Patreon page now, you can still pick up a copy!) Click the button below to read the first chapter for free and learn how to support this fun project.

Mannheim Steamroller

Back on December 5, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Mannheim Steamroller in concert at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This was a special treat for me since I’ve been a big fan of this group of musicians since I first heard them way back in 1974. It was also a special treat because my youngest daughter was part of the choir selected to greet concert goers on their way into the show.

Now, I should note that I didn’t originally discover the Mannheim Steamroller musicians AS Mannheim Steamroller. Like many people I first heard them playing as the backup band for a country artist named C.W. McCall, whose hits at the time included such songs as “Convoy” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” C.W. McCall, in turn, was the nom de guerre of ad man Bill Fries. I’m still a fan of C.W. McCall, and in fact the space pirate story I posted this week at my Patreon site is inspired by “Convoy.”

I learned about Mannheim Steamroller as a separate entity from C.W. McCall when I went to college in 1984. My dorm’s RA was a fan of both groups and introduced me to their four albums at that point, the original Fresh Aire albums. A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas came out that very year and really defined the band for many people. For me, Mannheim Steamroller’s instrumental mix of renaissance, classical, jazz, and modern instruments was great music to study by and it’s still among my favorite music to write to. They currently seem to refer to themselves as a neo-classical group and the classification fits pretty well.

One of the first things I noticed when I got the program was that there are two touring groups for Mannheim Steamroller, nicknamed the Red and Green groups. This seemed quite fitting for a concert in New Mexico. The group that played for us was the “Green” Tour group. Most of their names were unfamiliar and when they came out, I realized that many of the people on stage were too young to have been playing since 1974. I came to realize that Mannheim Steamroller is now more like a classical ensemble with players who change out with time and less like a rock or a country band where you see a set of specific personalities.

The one personality who seems indelibly connected with Mannheim Steamroller is composer and one-time drummer Chip Davis. I gather he no longer tours with the group, but they showed videos during the concert where Davis spoke. They were interesting from a marketing standpoint. In one of the videos, Davis spoke about the band’s history and success, including clips from various television shows. Another was a direct appeal to visit the merchandise booth. The videos combined with the band’s performance brought to mind some great points about artists marketing themselves.

  1. First and foremost, create something your passionate about.
  2. Collaborate with experts in the craft to make your art shine.
  3. Tout your successes.
  4. Remind people to support your art through purchases.

Point one, should be pretty obvious. For a writer, point two can be as simple as working with a good editor or a good cover artist to breathe life into your work. It can also take other forms like working with a narrator on an audio book, or a team on a short film. Numbers three and four require some balance. To be honest, I was almost turned off by the video of the successes, but I came back around because the group in concert showed me what wonderful music they perform. That’s why the order of the list is actually important. You have to do as well as you can with steps one and two before you move on to steps three and four. What’s more, you need to remember that the art itself takes precedence.

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

I’ve been spending much of this last week revising my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. This is the pass when I’m working to make sure the novel is internally consistent, clean up the prose, get rid of all but the most essential of those pesky adverbs, and make sure the scenes are not too rushed nor bogged down with info dumps. This is also the pass where I attempt to touch up the history. Although I try to get things correct in the first pass, I sometimes find there are details that add credibility to the story.

When I was recently in New Orleans, Marita Crandle of Boutique du Vampyre recommended I visit the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. The suggestion was uncanny because I had not told her about the character of Fatemeh in my Clockwork Legion novels. Those who’ve read the books know she’s a healer. As the books continue, she seeks more formal training. By the beginning of Owl Riders, she has a pharmacy degree. The timing is not inconsistent with history. The woman to get a pharmacy degree was Mary Corinna Putnam Jacobi, who graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1863. So, a trip to the Pharmacy Museum seemed in order.

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is on Chartres Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter on the site of America’s first licensed pharmacy. It’s about a block away from the site of the fictional pharmacy in Owl Riders. In history, the bottles of brightly colored liquids in the front window known as “show globes” weren’t just decorative. If all the bottles in the window had the same thing, you knew there was an epidemic in the city the pharmacy had plenty of the remedy in stock. If the bottles were multiple colors, the pharmacist was advertising their skills compounding a variety of medicines and cosmetics. Yes, compounding cosmetics was part of an early pharmacist’s job. They might also have a soda fountain, since the forerunners of modern soft drinks were believed to be tonics of one variety or another. Here’s a look at the kinds of bottles and shelves that would have stood behind the counter of a nineteenth century pharmacy such as the one I have in my novel.

If you visit the museum, I highly recommend going in time to hear the daily presentation. When I visited, that happened at 1pm. The museum’s website is http://www.pharmacymuseum.org/ and you can check for any updates, plus they have several photos of their exhibits. During the tour, they discussed the history of the pharmacy on the site, the practices of early pharmacies, and how early drugs were administered.

Of course the museum tour pointed out that one of the reasons New Orleans started licensing pharmacies was to make things more difficult for traditional healers, many of whom were female and people of color, a fact that’s true of my character Fatemeh. This was already a subject I’d addressed in the novel, but in this last week’s pass I added just a little bit to show how she had to work to overcome officials who might not welcome her services.

Get ready for Owl Riders by reading the three novels that come before it. Who knows, you might find the cure for what ails you!

When Research Derails Your Plot

Before I sit down to write one of my novels, I like to plot them out. These days my plots are fairly detailed with a sentence or two about every scene I plan to write. This helps to guide my research so I learn what I need to know before I start writing the novel. Despite that, details sometimes slip through the cracks.

For example, I’m currently working on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders. The historical Wyatt Earp is an important side character. In one scene, a character wants to buy Wyatt a drink. Now, I’ve watched many western movies featuring Wyatt Earp and he’s often shown in a saloon, playing faro or poker. In my research, I found this to be reasonably accurate, so it seemed fair to assume that Wyatt was a drinking man.

I thought it would be fun to add a little authenticity to the story and have the character buy Wyatt not just any drink, but his favorite drink. Wyatt Earp’s life is so well documented, I thought it might be possible to find out what he liked to drink. As it turns out, I did indeed find out. Wyatt Earp didn’t drink alcohol at all!

At this point, I faced two choices. The first, and perhaps most controversial would be to declare that in this alternate history Wyatt does drink. I’d argue this is actually a fair choice, but if you do go this route, you should do even more research to understand why Wyatt Earp didn’t drink and decide what circumstances in your alternate world would make him a drinking man. While you might not dwell on that choice in the story, you probably should say a few words about it. I would only recommend considering this route if major plot points down the road required that Wyatt Earp be a drinker for some reason and pulling that element out of the story would make it fall down like the proverbial house of cards.

In addition to being a writer, I’m a professional scientist. All my training is built around the idea that if I do research and find something that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions, I have to accept that finding. Between that inclination and the fact that Wyatt Earp having a shot of whiskey, scotch or anything else was simply not critical to the story in its own right, I did a little more research. I discovered that Wyatt Earp was a big fan of ice cream and ice cream parlors were just starting to spring up in the old west of the 1880s.

Returning to my novel, I used this bit of trivia to create a minor plot complication for my character who had to scramble to find Wyatt’s favorite ice cream parlor to continue his plans. It adds an interesting moment to the story, as well as a little bit of fun, historical trivia.

For me, this is one of the most fun parts of writing the Clockwork Legion novels. I get to learn about history and figure out how that history is changed by the world-altering events I’ve proposed. Conversely, I figure out what things would be constants in this new world and how that affects the story I want to tell.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll join me on this thrilling ride through history. The links below will take you to my pages about the books where you can find out how to purchase, read sample chapters, see book trailers and more. Also, note the first two books are available as audio books as well as print and ebooks.

Revision Hell

This past week, I’ve been reading and revising my rough draft of Owl Riders, getting in shape for beta readers and ultimately getting it ready to submit to my publisher. Despite the post’s title, the process hasn’t been hellish, but it does eat time. Owl Riders is the fourth novel in my Clockwork Legion series and the fun of this process is that I enjoy playing in this world. It’s because I enjoy it that I feel I have a responsibility to tell the story in the best way possible.

I’m a believer that to succeed in writing, you need to sit down and write. As with my other recent novels, I wrote Owl Riders on my weeks off from my observatory job. Typically, I managed two chapters every other week. I didn’t worry too much about getting just the right words the first time through. I wrote from an outline to keep me on track and help me know where I was in the story, but I didn’t worry too much about tracking details. So my job this time around is to assure continuity, make sure I didn’t repeat facts I already conveyed in earlier chapters, and improve the prose so I tell the story in the best way possible.

To do this, I employ a three-prong approach for each chapter. First, I make a pass through the printed manuscript, rereading and making changes. I also make notes of facts I should remember for later chapters. Some of these facts are just matters of maintaining consistency of small details through the novel. Some of these facts are things I’d forgotten I highlighted, but are fun to revisit later in the novel as the characters have grown. I recently acquired a copy of Scrivener, the book writing software from Literature and Latte. It’s been a great help keeping those notes handy so I can check them as needed.

My second pass through each chapter uses a technique highlighted in the book, The 10% Solution by Ken Rand, which I’ve mentioned in other posts. My publisher also recommends following the book’s approach before submission. In short, the book highlights several common overused words (the infamous adverbs, the verb “to be”) and filler words (things like “of,” “about,” and “by”) that are all too easy to drop in your manuscript when you’re writing. The idea is to search for these words and then evaluate the phrase where it occurs and decide if you could find a better way to say it. I tend to catch a lot of this in the first pass, but searching always highlights more of these. The important thing about Ken Rand’s technique is that he doesn’t say you must make changes when you find these things. He just suggests evaluating the sentence and seeing if you can say it better. I usually make several revisions in this pass.

My third pass is to read each chapter aloud. This helps me smooth out prose from the first two passes, helps me to hear where I may have repeated phrases, and I often catch important elements I either cut or never wrote in the first place.

At this point, I’m about halfway through the revision pass. I hope to get more work done during my next break from the observatory. In this fourth novel, the Apaches have built battle wagons and they’ve carved out a land claim in Southern Arizona. Ramon is pulled into the conflict. Meanwhile, the man Fatemeh was once betrothed to in Persia seeks retribution for her decision to run away. If you haven’t already, be sure to read the first three novels in the series. The links below will take you to pages with more information and purchase links. All of the books are available in print and as ebooks. The first two novels are also available from Audible as audio books!

Villains and Antagonists

When I started the rough draft of my novel Owl Riders, I had a set of characters whose goals were going to be odds with the novel’s protagonists. As I’ve come to the end of writing the rough draft and have come to know those characters and understand their motivations better, I find myself pondering the nature of villains and antagonists.

It can be great fun to watch a movie or read a book and encounter a true villain who blocks the hero at every turn, but ultimately meets their comeuppance at the end of the story. That said, there’s an old saying that no one sees themselves as the villain of their own story and I think there’s truth to that. In general people have a set of objectives and sometimes one person’s objectives will exist at cross purposes with another person’s. When those people come into contact, there’s conflict that can help drive a story.

I do think in certain types of stories, such as horror stories, it’s possible to imagine a character such as a demon who understands they’re an agent of evil and actively pursues that objective. Even there, a character who sees themselves as “evil” might see themselves as bringing some form of balance to the cosmos and thus performing a necessary function. My character Mr. Vassago in The Astronomer’s Crypt falls into that category.

Often when I think of the most wicked villains, I think of characters like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon whose only motivation seems to be personal greed and power. It’s tempting to dismiss such characters as cartoonish caricatures except that some people in real life do seem to fit this mold. Villains like this can be fun to write and it can be fun to imagine their ultimate humiliating defeat, but sometimes its more interesting to explore how a character got to be like this and explore any redeeming characteristics they might have.

Another great villain is Darth Vader who thought he was bringing peace and order to the galaxy by choosing the path he did. Although the handling of his origin story is soundly criticized, it was still satisfying to see his ultimate redemption when he defeated his master who was motivated primarily by greed.

Perhaps a more frightening type of villain is the true monster like the xenomorph in Alien motivated by the need to feed and make little aliens, but who can’t be reasoned with. At some level, this type of monster is very understandable and not necessarily evil—after all, it just wants to live—but the only way to defeat this type of villain is to destroy it utterly.

Most antagonists in fiction aren’t going to fit these almost archetypal extremes. Most are going to be people like you and me. That might feel cheated or wronged. They might see an opportunity and try to exploit it. They might actually feel like they’re attempting to do good, but don’t realize they’re causing harm to others. These are the types of antagonists I’ve tried to create in Owl Riders and what makes them scary to me is when I realize that I don’t always have to reach too far from my experience to create a character who my protagonists might see as a character who needs to be stopped.

Do you have a favorite villain or antagonist in fiction? What makes them a particular favorite of yours? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments.