Aug 04

Settings and Stories

I've worked on books in three different series, with three different settings, in the past few months. This post is a reflection on how the writing experience differed between them, and how the settings contributed to the stories I told in them.

The three series are Auckland Allies (contemporary urban fantasy, set in the city where I live); Hand of the Trickster (sword-and-sorcery heists); and the Gryphon Clerks (secondary-world lightly steampunked fantasy). Yes, I know my last post said I probably wouldn't be working on any more Gryphon Clerks stories in the foreseeable future. The future is a lot less foreseeable than I thought, as it turns out.

Part of the reason for having different series going is that a change is, in fact, as good as a rest. Because they feel different to work on, I can work on one when I don't feel like working on another, and switching from one to another can be refreshing. In fact, the reason I got out my abandoned manuscript of Mister Bucket for Assembly, the Gryphon Clerks novel (which turned out to be about 75% complete), was that I was making slow, difficult progress on the second Hand of the Trickster book. I was soon happily logging 3000 to 5000-word days on Mister Bucket, where I'd struggled to reach 1500 words some days on the other book.

Let's see if I can identify what it is about each of these series that feels different, what attracts me to write in the settings, and what those settings contribute to the fiction.

Auckland Allies

The fun thing about Auckland Allies is that it takes place in a setting I know well: the real-world city of Auckland, New Zealand, where I was born and, where, apart from an eight-month period in Brisbane many years ago, I've lived ever since. That means that I can celebrate the things I enjoy about the city; work in a few complaints about it; and research my books just by walking around (or using Google Maps and Street View, in a pinch).

It also provides its own inspiration. For the first book, I strapped a GoPro camera to my head and walked through places where I'd set chase scenes, and that gave me additional ideas for those scenes and how they could go. I also used the extinct volcanoes which are a unique aspect of Auckland to make it a story that couldn't be set anywhere else.

Graves under Grafton Bridge (my photo)

The second book, Ghost Bridge, is almost entirely inspired by real aspects of the city, in fact. There really is an early-20th-century bridge which sits partially over a 19th-century graveyard, close to the downtown area. There really is a hospital at one end of the bridge and a luxury hotel at the other. Four thousand graves really were dug up when the nearby motorway went through in the 1960s, and the bodies really were cremated and reburied in a mass grave next to the bridge. And there really is a statue of Zealandia, the personified spirit of New Zealand, a short distance down the road. All of these are key elements of the story in Ghost Bridge; in fact, if you took them away, there wouldn't be much story left. And I didn't have to make up a single one of them, only take what was there already and combine them imaginatively.

The other fun thing about Auckland Allies is that I can write in my own dialect. A lot of the time, I'm writing with an eye to the American market, since that's the largest market for fiction in English, and I have to be aware of phrasing things in a way that will be clear to American readers, not using turns of phrase or slang that come naturally to me but would sound strange to them. In Auckland Allies, I'm writing characters who are explicitly New Zealanders, and they speak accordingly--not only in their dialogue, but in their narration, since I use first person points of view. I'm still aware of the language, and still careful to phrase things so that someone who isn't familiar with the slang will nevertheless understand it from context--something that, as a science fiction and fantasy author, I have practice at doing--but I enjoy being able to write in a full-on Kiwi voice, rather than in intentionally bland international English.

Hand of the Trickster

Hand of the Trickster is my newest series, so new that I've only just published the first book. So far, I have a 34,000-word novella (the one that just went up), and 26,000 words of what looks like being a shortish novel. Accordingly, the setting is less developed so far than in the other two series.

It's sword-and-sorcery, set in a world of many gods. The High Gods have become distant and uninvolved since the War of Gods, leaving their followers to (mis)manage the Empire, but the Middle Gods are still at large in the world, especially the Trickster.

One thing I enjoy about this setting is that not much is really nailed down yet. I'm making it up as I go along, rather than planning it out in advance (like the Gryphon Clerks) or conforming it to the real world (like Auckland Allies). I haven't even drawn a map yet. While that results in a setting that isn't as rich and complex, the focus is more on character and plot; the setting, apart from the situation with the gods, doesn't drive the story as much as in the other two series.

Having a main character who's a thief in the service of the Trickster also enables me to let my chaotic side out to play. I've met a couple of real-life fraudsters, and they were extremely annoying; but I love fictional heists, capers, and shenanigans, and this is my chance to write some. I identify as neutral good with strong lawful leanings, but writing a chaotic good character like Now You Don't (the protagonist and narrator of Hand of the Trickster), or like Sparx, the hacker technomage in Auckland Allies, is tremendous fun and gives the mischievous part of me a safe outlet. My father always enjoyed playing villain roles in light opera, for similar reasons.

The Gryphon Clerks

The Gryphon Clerks setting was originally intended as a game setting, but I never finished the game, and the story seeds I kept planting became too tempting. I mapped out a geographically large and culturally detailed and diverse world, with room for a great many stories, and in fact I find that the stories multiply as I write them.

This is partly because lots of minor characters tend to be needed for the kind of large-scale stories I tell there, and they turn up and become unexpectedly interesting, and then I want to write more about them. In the book I've just finished drafting, for example (Mister Bucket for Assembly), near the end of the book three young gnomes are running a small newspaper and what amounts to a radio station. They're secondary to the main action, but now I want to write a novel all about them as they build their media empire, bicker, fall in love, break stories, witness history and struggle against the odds. This is how the world tends to expand, one story at a time, and there's a whole huge area beyond the mountains that I haven't even visited yet.

I said above that I worked out the setting in advance. I didn't work out everything, though. As I write each book, I add to a wiki which holds all of the established facts about the world, so that I don't end up contradicting myself. Sometimes, this sparks further ideas; occasionally, it means I can't do something because of something I've already said, and I have to rewrite. This generally ends up being a useful creative constraint more than an annoyance, though.

What is a bit of an annoyance, in retrospect, is that I've made the setting almost science-fictional, and used some different terms for things that we already have names for, like marriage (which I call oathbinding), in order to underline the differences from our world. I've also used an approach to character names that not everybody loves. I'm kind of stuck with those things now, even though they can feel awkward at times. People who love the setting and the characters seem willing to forgive me, though.

Setting and Story

When you're writing fantasy and science fiction, in particular, setting is very important as a story driver. Not only does it determine what stories are possible, but it suggests what stories might be interesting.

My first published novel, City of Masks, was stalled for about 10 years because, having got the protagonist to the setting, I couldn't figure out what happened next. My creative block was freed when I made a large diagram of conflicting factions in the city and tied characters to them. Each group, and therefore each character, had its own agenda, and this set the story in motion. I've not, so far, thought of another story in that setting, but if I ever do it might well be driven by a similar spring. Certainly, clashing interests in the respective settings drive the plots of Auckland Allies, Hand of the Trickster and the Gryphon Clerks, in different ways that I've attempted to explore above.

While immersing deeply into just one world and writing a series, or multiple series, set there has proved a productive and lucrative approach for many writers, I find that variety helps me to stay fresh, and that my different settings have unique elements that make each of them fun in its own way. I hope that my readers find the same.

Jan 16

Worldbuilding for Urban Fantasy

I've been writing the Gryphon Clerks series, which is secondary-world fantasy, for a while now. I did a lot of worldbuilding for it upfront (originally, I planned it as a game setting, but it kept generating stories, and games are hard). It's very much a distinct world, with a lot of specific differences from our world that I have to keep in mind when I write. For example, there are no pigs, and no New World plants or animals. The calendar is completely different. The counting system is different. The way society is structured, the names for common things (even marriage)... I have to keep constantly alert to avoid breaking my own canon by writing sentences like "She got married last month".

Now, I'm not saying that a secondary-world setting doesn't have advantages. It opens up possibilities that are closed off if you set a story in our world, just because our world has things that are true of it that you can't ignore. In a secondary world, I can outright make things up if it suits me, and I don't have to do much research (I do a little research occasionally to give me an idea of whether things are basically credible or reasonable, but I'm not bound by the results.)

At the same time, setting a story in a version of the real world means a lot of work is already done. I don't have to invent all the technology from scratch, all the history from scratch, all the sociology from scratch. I may need to research it a bit, but that isn't especially hard, thanks to Google. And I don't have to invent cultural references; I can make pop culture jokes, which is something I can only do indirectly in secondary-world fantasy. (My current WIP has a Bechdel Test joke embedded in it, but it would be easy to miss.)

One of my projects this year is an urban fantasy. I've written the first chapter and done some planning of things I'd like to include - one of them is an action set-piece that takes place along the route I walk to work, which will be great fun. But, while it seems like urban fantasy would require a minimum of worldbuilding, there are actually a number of questions that I have to ask myself about the world, and that any urban fantasy writer has to answer, even if only by implication.

I thought I'd work through them in a blog post, so that other people could see my process. I'll use some of my favourite (and one or two of my non-favourite) urban fantasy series as examples, and I'll make my decisions based, in part, on what opportunities it offers me for setting up conflicts and developing a series over time.

1. Out, or Masquerade?


The term "masquerade" (in this context) comes from the game Vampire: the Masquerade, in which it means the conspiracy by which the vampires conceal their existence from the world at large. One of the key questions of urban fantasy is whether people in general know that magic, the supernatural, and/or the various races (vampires, fae, werewolves) exist. In Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, so far at least, they don't know (though it's largely through natural human rationalisation, rather than any particular conspiracy, that they remain ignorant). In Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville books, they do know, as of early in the series, and Kitty was involved in the outing process (not by her choice). In Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series, we have a middle ground: werewolves are out, fae are out, but vampires remain unrevealed to the populace at large, and everyone wants to keep it that way to avoid a panic.

One of the consequences of this question is that if the existence of the supernatural isn't common knowledge in the world, preserving the secret - or, alternatively, the secret coming out - may become a plot driver. A series can even be partly driven by successive outings, as the Mercy Thompson series is.

If the supernatural is out, on the other hand, that's a difference from our world, and we need to think about the consequences. In the Kitty Norville books, for example, there are people (often religious) who see the supernaturals as inherently evil and to be destroyed. There will generally be a government response (this can exist even where the secret is hidden from the population at large, of course), and government agents from an agency that deals with the supernatural are likely to show up and do what government agents do. The main character may even be a part of such an agency.

Since scientists tend to write hard SF rather than urban fantasy, the scientific study of the supernatural tends not to be a huge emphasis, though in my opinion it would be a big consequence of open, undeniable supernatural phenomena. There are sometimes sinister labs which want to vivisect the characters, but there isn't a lot of in-depth "this is what it's like to be a scientist in a world where there's magic", probably because that's complicated to work through and risks the fragile suspension of disbelief that you're working hard to create in the audience. I'm noting that as a potential avenue for future exploration. I can imagine a scientist in a world where the supernatural exists, but isn't public knowledge, coming across unambiguous supernatural phenomena and being torn between wanting to study and understand this fascinating new thing, and the knowledge that attempting to publish any findings will probably end his or her career.

Because that seems like a cool idea, and because starting with the supernatural hidden gives more scope (after all, I can always have it come out later, whereas I can't start with it out and then later have it be hidden), I'm choosing to make my world one in which magic exists, but isn't generally known or acknowledged.

New, or Always There?

If magic, the supernatural, or whatever exists, has this always been the case? Or is it a recent emergence (or re-emergence)? And if it's always been there, why isn't it generally known?

In some series, like Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels, magic has started up relatively recently, as part of a more-or-less apocalyptic event. In most, though, magic has always been there. Kim Harrison has a dollar each way, and has her apocalypse kill off a lot of normals so that the magicals are now a substantial enough majority that they feel safe coming out (though they were there all along).

To me, if magic has always been around, you need to give at least some thought to a secret history of the world in which magic featured significantly in historical events, and also to historical practitioners of magic. Most urban fantasy magic is more or less made up wholesale, or based on modern "witchcraft" or New Age practices (but I repeat myself). There's a long and fascinating history of real-world attempts at magical practice, though, and it seems a pity to throw it all away (particularly since I know enough about it to fake my way through it in a manner that should convince most non-experts, which is as much expertise as I care to develop).

Here's my decision, then: magic has always been around, always been a human potential, but the ways in which it was done historically were flawed or simplistic in similar ways to how, say, chemistry was done in the same periods. People were able to achieve useful effects, but without really understanding why things worked, and sometimes they put things into the process that really made no difference, because of that lack of understanding. As of relatively recently, people started getting good at magic (ironically, because of a more scientific mindset, in which they set out to understand why things worked through an experimental process). However, there's still not a comprehensive theory. It's more like magic's early 19th century than its 21st, and it's more engineering than science.

One of the things that enables is that magic use itself, not just the characters' ability to use magic, can grow and develop in the course of a series. They can come up with new ways of doing things that nobody has ever thought of before (and that the author didn't think of earlier on, even if they would have been handy - in fact, the earlier problem that could have been solved by a particular bit of magic can be the stimulus to develop that solution). Most urban fantasy series have a static magic system, already as good as it's getting, so to introduce a new thing involves introducing a new (usually) antagonist who's a different kind of fae or whatever.

And speaking of fae:

What Supernaturals Exist?

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files spends the first few books setting up the many different supernatural beings in his world. Wizards, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, fae, the undead, and the Knights of the Cross/Order of the Blackened Denarius each get a book, and for a while they rotated, so we'd get a book in which the werewolves featured (but not the fae or the knights), and then one in which the knights featured (but not the werewolves), and so on. These days, he's mixing them up more.

This makes for a rich world, but it's a lot to manage. Some series just have a bunch of diverse fae. Others are all vampire, all the time. It's unusual to have werewolves (or other shifters) without vampires, but I'm sure it's been done.

Alternatively, you can have just one supernatural, like the djinn in Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series (arguably, the Wardens are a second kind of supernatural, in that they're humans who can work with the djinn).

My inclination at the moment is to go with just the magic, not the creatures. I'm tired of vampires and shifters, and they're pretty hard to justify if I'm going to have any science in the story, which I do plan to. (I have some university-level training in life sciences; high school chemistry; and as much physics as the average nerd picks up from reading a lot of SF and some nonfiction. That is, if anything, more than enough for writing urban fantasy, and I expect it to hinder more than it helps, to be honest with you.)

At the same time, I do have an idea (which probably won't go in the first book) about what the demons/angels are that medieval and renaissance European magicians were summoning and talking to. At least, I have an idea for a theory that a character has, a theory which may well turn out to be mistaken. And I don't guarantee that there won't be lycanthropy spells (that don't cause physical transformations, only mental ones), or entities that feed off others that are hosted by humans, give them superhuman abilities, and are transferred by feeding, but are totally not vampires. As for the fae, I tend to think of them as extradimensional aliens anyway, and while at the moment that's not an idea that I'm excited about for this setting, I'm not ruling it out.

Initially, though, it's just human magic-users. Which leads to the question:

Training or Genetics?

Can anyone, more or less, learn to do magic? Or is it something you're born with or without?

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is one in which the inherited ability to do magic is a significant plot driver, because it's a basis for discrimination. There are "muggles", who have no magic, can't see it, can't do it. There are wizards and witches, who have magic and can do it. But there are "muggle-borns", whose parents aren't magical, but they are; and there are "squibs", vice versa. I'm sure someone has worked out the genetics somewhere. (Yep, sure enough.) In Mendelian genetics, an offspring either does, or does not, have a simple heritable trait (there is no try), but most significant human abilities, like intelligence, involve multiple genes. Even eye colour does.

Most fantasy (urban or secondary-world) that involves magic, in fact, assumes that there are magical haves and have-nots, and vaguely indicates that this is somehow based on genetics. I like to use the parallel of musical ability. Some people have none at all (though they don't always know it, as American Idol auditions prove every year); some have enough to sing in tune in a choir; some are musical geniuses. It's heritable (nearly 50%, which is very high, according to this article), improves with certain kinds of training, and so forth. Because it's so heritable, it's presumably getting more common in the population over time, as well - any geneticists want to correct me on that one?

This excellent post on statistical patterns by Yonatan Zunger suggests that a biologically-based ability will usually form a power law: there will be a few people with a lot of it and a lot of people with a little of it, and a fairly steep drop-off between the two. Right there, you have a have/have-not situation, with a few powerful people and a lot of lesser talents, and this is a great setup for conflict (and you can use it as a political metaphor, which I happen to think is cool). And as part of the trope-aversion part of my project, I'm not choosing, as my main character, one of the super-powerful, exceptional people, but someone further down the slope of the curve, who has to work damned hard and apply a lot of intelligence to survive in a world where there are people a lot more powerful than she is.

So, How Does Magic Work?

There are several parts to the "how does magic work?" question. There's the sciency part, which at the moment for me is a vague and handwavey "human consciousness meshes with the quantum mumble mumble and look, over there, a squirrel!". This should be sufficient to get an urban fantasy going; most urban fantasy series never even address the question.

There's the "what can you do with it?" part, and here I'm thinking that you can affect:

  • movement of matter - so telekinesis, etc.
  • movement of energy - heating, cooling, slow or sudden
  • electromagnetic fields and patterns (this will be a big one - one of the characters I have in mind is an electromancer)
  • human minds - think pulp hypnosis, which is different from real hypnosis
  • biological systems - up to and including healing, but you can do various kinds of enhancement and, of course, harm

As it happens, those (plus time and space, which I haven't really played with yet) are more or less the categories of things that magic can affect in my Gryphon Clerks novels, so I'm clearly going to have to re-skin it. Which leads to the last version of "how does it work?": "what does it look like?"

Remember, we're at a kind of early-19th-century-science level of understanding and use of magic. There's a history and a tradition. And magic works by the human mind interacting with the structure of the universe, so magic tends to work best when you use your own system of symbology, whatever that may be. Some people use a very precise, structured, traditional set of symbols, though most magic users realise that the traditional methods are full of unnecessary flounces. Some draw only on one symbol set; others are more pick-and-mix. Essentially, magic consists of ordering your will and mental effort in such a way that it will produce the desired effect (and only that effect) in the world, by whatever means works for you. Some people's magic is sloppy, and has unintended side effects; that's also likely to happen if you cast on the fly and in a hurry. Some can produce a wide range of effects, while others can only do a couple of reliable spells. Some people make up their own spells (they're like cooks who create their own recipes), others can only work from an existing spell, or with a pattern that's been laid out for them in some object - I suppose that last one is like making a meal from a packet.

My Setup

So, what's the story going to look like? What characters fall out of that setting?

Tara is an artist who creates magic items for other people to use, working with Celtic design elements. Sometimes, the way that they use the items causes problems for her. This is the situation in Chapter 1: some more-powerful magic user is about to send her a goon-o-gram about how annoyed he is with one of her customers.

Tara's friend/sidekick/cotagonist/definitely-not-love-interest, Sparx the electromancer, does something similar to her in a completely different way. He has very little raw power, even less than she does, but has learned to use it precisely to create complex effects. Warned by one of his clients about the hit on Tara, he warns her in turn, and helps her to deal with the attacks.

The third in the trio, Steampunk Sally, has a minor talent for seeing a few seconds into the future (magic sometimes throws up these oddities) - and a reckless nature which tends to get them all in trouble, because, despite her ability, medium-term consequences tend to elude her in her decision-making process. She's the client who has caused the issues for Tara.

My current draft of Chapter 1 is here.

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(Update: the series is called Auckland Allies, and it has its own section of the site now.)

Aug 19

Untold History of the Gryphon Clerks

I've hinted at some of this before, but there's a substantial history to the world of the Gryphon Clerks novels which sets up some of the conflicts and opportunities that are explored in the series. I thought I'd post it as a summary here for fans to enjoy.

Many centuries ago, the elves kidnapped a group of humans from our world - somewhere in the Mediterranean region, and before people there were literate, so a very long time ago in our world's timeline. They made them slaves, in order to have someone to do the work that their own discontented lower classes didn't want to do. The elven society was structured into three classes - the ruling Golds; the administrative, mercantile and professional Silvers; and the working-class Coppers - and the elves used biological means to match their hair colour to their social class.

The elves had a society based on bioengineering, though their civilization had already declined from its technological (and ethical) peak by this period. They were able to do a certain amount of genetic engineering still, though, and practiced some of it on the kidnapped humans. An ancient manuscript, now destroyed by Human Purity thugs (as described in Realmgolds), hinted that they changed humans to be able to use magic. They also experimented with combining human and animal traits in "blends" like the beastheads, the centaurs (and camel-centaurs, who we haven't seen yet), and the werewolves and selkies - not shapeshifters, but people with dual natures and some physical characteristics of wolves or seals, as we see in Beastheads.

The elves had an imperial structure, which went through a series of declines, internal wars and political struggles. During one of these periods, the human slaves rose, with material help from the gnomes and dwarves, and overthrew their elven masters, who perforce joined a movement already in progress to return to the forests and adopt a simpler lifestyle. From an elven viewpoint, the Gryphon Clerks stories are post-apocalyptic.

The humans who worked in the cities and manor houses, in particular, had adopted some of the elves' culture, speaking Elvish and practicing the elven Asterist religion rather than the Earthist animism of the country dwellers. They tended to become the rulers of the new human-dominated realms that arose out of the fallen Empire, and, again in imitation of the elves, referred to themselves as Golds. Following elven practice, on the death or retirement of a Gold who held a demesne (a realm, province, county or local holding) their successor would be elected from the descendants of previous office-holders, though if the previous incumbent had designated an heir their wishes were normally observed.

Not far from the ancient elven capital on the Isle of Turfrae, now abandoned, two realms formed on either side of the Koslin River. Denning, the larger, lay to the west of the Sea of Turfrae, while Koskant lay to the south. In Koskant, the emergent Provincegolds decided to rotate the position of Realmgold by election (for life) from among themselves. Denning, meanwhile, had a hereditary Realmgold in a separate family which didn't hold a province, and this family gradually lost power until the post of Realmgold had less practical importance than the Provincegolds. The realm became decentralised and disunited, not helped by its difficult terrain. The Koskanders, by contrast, managed to keep their realm connected, united, and moving in roughly the same direction, despite the usual internal tensions found in any large group of people. The two realms early on negotiated a treaty, magically enforced, which prevented either party bearing arms across their Koslin River border.

The Isle of Turfrae was taken over, several centuries after the fall of the Empire, by a group of academics who founded a college among the imperial ruins. Over time, members of this college came up with the philosophy of Human Purity, which stated that humans were superior to non-humans and the natural rulers of the world. This philosophy found keen adherents in Denning, particularly since Denninger Golds tended to be sent to Turfrae for their education.

The main targets of their prejudice are the prosperous dwarves, technologists and traders living in holds which have "free city" status and can make their own laws; and the gnomes, who serve the dwarves as an underclass.

Humans have used the Dwarvish alphabet, numbers, coinage, and aspects of their timekeeping system for some years now, abandoning the harder-to-use Elvish systems with their imperial associations. Over recent years, humans and dwarves have interacted more and more, and the humans now have a greater grasp of technology and are beginning to create their own innovations, while the New Dwarves have absorbed some of the human antipathy towards slavery and are beginning to question the place of the gnomes in their society. The gnomes, exposed to the same ideas, are restive.

As the Gryphon Clerks series starts, Human Purity is on the rise, championed by an ambitious Countygold in Denning. Determined, the Realmgold of Denning, is a compromise candidate, elected by his cousins because none of them hate him much; he would rather be still studying history at Turfrae. Koskant's Realmgold is Victory, former Provincegold of Western. She's a relatively young woman whose strong reformist agenda is popular with the people, but anathema to the more traditional Golds and prominent Silvers, who flourished under her repressive predecessor Glorious.

Victory has opened trade negotiations with the beastheaded people who live on the shores of the Sea of Turfrae, and, aware of the looming Human Purity rebellion in Denning, is about to contact her counterpart there and propose a more active alliance.


BeastheadsIn case you missed it, Beastheads is now out. If you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, you can get it for free; otherwise, it's $2.99 like the rest of my books.

My short story collection, Good Neighbours and Other Stories, is on the way from HDWP Books. There have been some delays, because it's a small press and people have real lives and stuff happens in them. It's nearly ready, though, and I hope to announce publication soon.

I have five assorted non-Gryphon-Clerks short stories out on submission at the moment (to the Hear Me Roar anthology and the magazines Inscription, Stupefying Stories, Buzzy Mag and Analog), and another that I need to finish fixing up and send to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. I keep getting personalised "ooh, so close" responses, so I'm anticipating another sale sometime soon.

I have a new story in the Gryphon Clerks setting that I haven't sent out yet (I want to workshop it a bit first), and I'm most of the way through a Gryphon Clerks novelette that will become a membership perk for my mailing list. It's set a year after Realmgolds and Beastheads, is told in first person from Determined's viewpoint, and deals with a contest for the honour of being the Realmgolds' Guard. It needs an ending, and to go through a couple of rounds of editing, because I'm not just dashing it off and shoving it at you. I want it to be as enjoyable as possible.

I'm fortunate in that my wonderful editor, Kathleen Dale, has offered me the chance to put her on monthly retainer, so she's now going over my short pieces as well. She and my regular beta group go over all my stuff before I put it out, and it's much the better for it.

Finally, I've started on the next Gryphon Clerks novel, Mister Bucket for Assembly. We rejoin Bucket the gnome and Hope's friend Briar after the events of Hope and the Patient Man, as they get involved in the elections for the new Representative Assembly. I have plans for Hope and Patient, Mister Gizmo, Rosie and Dignified too, but I'm not sure how much of them will go in this book and how much in The Rediscovery of Hardlac, which I'll be writing in semi-parallel. I'll have to see how things unfold.

So, if you're not a member of my mailing list, but you are a Gryphon Clerks fan, sign up so you can pick up extra material, get discounts on a couple of my older books, and be notified when new books come out. I won't spam you.

Dec 31

A Timeline of the Gryphon Clerks Books

Someone who's reading Hope and the Clever Man asked me on Google+ today if it came before Realmgolds, which he'd already read.

There's a complicated answer to that. So complicated, that I drew this diagram:

OK, the answer to that specific question is relatively simple. Clever Man starts before Realmgolds (in Hope's childhood), includes some of the events shown in Realmgolds from a different perspective, and ends after the close of Realmgolds. It's when you take the other books into account that it gets complicated.

I won't give you a blow-by-blow of everything in the diagram. The books you can check out on my Books page, which will also explain a lot of the other references, apart from the later ones because of potential spoilers. The Technology section shows when the various technologies that are significant in the series start to be developed and are successfully launched.

Farviewers, if you haven't read either of the books released so far, are basically magic mirrors that allow you to talk to someone far away. Flight crystals are the means by which the skyboats fly (they're antigravity, more or less). They already exist as of Realmgolds, but they're unreasonably expensive; the line shown is for the process of making them more efficient and cheaper. Hardlac is a light, strong artificial material (probably some kind of polymer) made by the ancient elves, who deliberately kept the secret from their human slaves. Its rediscovery, along with cheaper flight crystals, is key to one of Victory's cunning plans, and is detailed, unsurprisingly, in The Rediscovery of Hardlac. Technology, in the Gryphon Clerks books, is never there just to be cool. It always has social and political implications.

The Assembly is a new body of elected representatives, and in Mister Bucket for Assembly, we see the first election, with two characters from the Hope books standing.

The Unification War is the one that takes place in Realmgolds, though it's not called that there (it's a label that gets applied afterwards). The Underground War is the economic struggle between Realmgold Victory and the dwarves. It's kind of like our world's Cold War in that it's only a war metaphorically.

Obviously, this is all subject to change. Of the unreleased books, I'm nearly finished with Hope and the Patient Man, and it should be out in early 2014 (exactly when is partly reliant on my cover artist, who is backlogged for various highly legitimate reasons, though there are still several rounds of edits to go, too). The others range from "I have a draft that I'm not happy with" (Beastheads) through "I have a reasonably clear idea how this will go, but the devil's in the details" (The Rediscovery of Hardlac, The Great Gnome Heist) to "I have a concept and not much more" (Underground Railroad).

You'll notice a lot of overlap in the timelines, particularly early on (no guarantees that I won't add more books later and do the same thing, though). This is because my world is a large one, there's a lot going on, and I like the idea of looking at events through different sets of eyes via characters who occasionally cross paths. I'd also rather write three 80,000-word novels, each with one clear protagonist, than try to twine them all together in some 250,000-word chihuahua-crusher.

I haven't been watching closely, but I did happen to see that Hope and the Clever Man briefly made it to #90 in Steampunk on Amazon thanks to my post-Christmas sale. It's still going on as I write this, so if you haven't yet picked up Hope and the Clever Man or Realmgolds, those links will take you to them.

Oct 07

New Bread on an Old Plate

I've been going through updating the (private) wiki that I use to keep track of worldbuilding, characters and so on for the Gryphon Clerks, and thought I would write a post about how I handle sayings.

There are several valid ways to deal with common sayings in secondary-world fantasy. The most common is just to use familiar ones. This means that a reader like me, who's alert to these things, may need a bit of extra suspension of disbelief when they spot a saying from the Bible or Shakespeare, or just a common metaphor from our world that isn't in any way inevitable, but most readers will just slide on past without noticing - or having their attention distracted from the story.

This is what's sometimes called "Orwellian language", from an article that George Orwell wrote about the difference between language that's like a clear window (you see what's going on through it) and language that's like a stained-glass window (you look at the window itself).

Personally, I like a bit of stained glass from time to time. I also want to give the feel of a very different, even alien world, unlike our own world, and to freshen up some tired old metaphors by communicating the same thing using a different image.

How I mainly work is that if I find myself about to use a cliche or a conventional phrase, I think about the meaning of it and find another way to say it that makes sense in the setting, that sounds like it could be a cliche among the people I'm writing about. Here are some examples.

  • We're scraping polish off our boots for soup (= times are tough)
  • He has stones in his field (= he has a hard row to hoe)
  • Gave like a six-teat cow (= sang like a canary)
  • We’ll cut down that tree when it’s grown (= cross that bridge when we come to it)
  • The redfinch complaining of the chaffinch (= pot calling the kettle black)
  • Herding finches (= herding cats)
  • No dancing killed the ant (= all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy; from a children's fable)
  • We've started out with our harness tangled (= got off on the wrong foot)
  • Don't make a scarecrow and stand in your own field (= don't keep a dog and bark for yourself)
Miss Butterfly…!!!
Denis Collette...!!! / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
  • More holes than a moth's lunch
  • As drunk as a dockworker
  • Three-days-fruit (= drunk, possibly as a dockworker)
  • Too swamped to be bothered bailing (= three-days-fruit; an Islands expression)
  • Take to something like gnomes to mushrooms (= a duck to water)
  • That apple's already off the tree (= you'd be locking the stable door after the horse has bolted)
  • You build the house you're paid for (= he who pays the piper calls the tune)
  • A carnival of fools (= a (metaphorical) circus, a Mickey Mouse outfit)
  • I'll push him down one well and fish him up another (= I'll kick his ass)
  • Catch the fish that's biting (= strike while the iron's hot)
  • Working like a gnome (= working very hard; some, though by no means all, gnomes consider this expression offensive, as if hard work defines them)
  • Like selling gritty melons (= a tough sell)
  • Water in front and fire behind (= the carrot and the stick)
  • Out of the mud and into the quicksand (= out of the frying pan into the fire)
  • Knows where the meat is in the stew (= knows which side his bread's buttered on; has an eye to the main chance)
  • You could have heard a man put on a hat (= could have heard a pin drop)

I've also got a couple of gnome sayings:

  • You're talking tonnage to the production foreman (= you're preaching to the choir)
  • We're two pumps for three (= we're extremely busy)

Not something that every writer does, or probably should do, but I enjoy playing with language like this, and giving my fellow language nerds occasional moments of delight.

Apr 26

Magic in the Gryphon Clerks

Almost everyone who talks about Realmgolds (my first Gryphon Clerks novel, currently free on Amazon until Friday) or any of the short stories set in the same world mentions the setting. I did put a lot of work into creating it, over a long period of time, before I started writing the stories. There's a great deal that I know that you don't know yet, and in some cases never will know, at least not from reading the stories. (There are also some things I don't know yet either, but we won't talk about those.)

One thing people have asked about is the magic system. The people in Realmgolds are mostly in the political and administrative spheres, and therefore don't know or care how the magic works. They only want to know what effects they can achieve with it. The next book, Hope and the Clever Man, on the other hand, has as its title characters two people who very much care how it works, so there will be a little more said about it. I'll do my best to refrain from infodumping, though.

My editor, in particular, was unconvinced that I'd thought it all the way through at first. I had to write her a document to show her that I really had. In case this is the kind of thing that interests you, here is that document.

Magic in the Gryphon Clerks

There are a number of different forms of magic in the world of the Gryphon Clerks. What that number is depends on who you ask.

There are also several ranks of mage. Mages-minor can perform simple magic, make very basic magical devices, and operate more complex ones. A mage-minor is permitted to wear a bangle of a material that indicates the kind of magic he or she specializes in. A full mage, who can make complex magical devices and perform advanced magic, may wear a bracelet, again of different materials depending on the type of magic, and a master-magus wears a wider armlet or cuff.

Elvish Magic

The elves were the imperial power who brought humans to the world (as slaves) and, some evidence suggests, modified them so that they too were able to perform magic. The elves recognise three kinds of magic (three being their sacred number): mindmagic, lifemagic and a third category derisively called “the magic of dead things”, which takes in the whole of dwarvish magic.

Elvish magic tends to involve a lot of words, chanting, elegant gestures and ritual threes. Circles and triangles, organic-looking interweaving shapes, and geometric figures may also feature.


The magic of the mind maps fairly well to the domain of psychology. It involves matters such as motivation, influence and perception.

The most common mindmagic, familiar to everyone, is the magic of oaths, vows and geasa, behavioural bindings which are very difficult, though not impossible, to break. They create a powerful mental pressure to keep them, comparable to an obsession, compulsion or addiction if you are trying to break them, or a very powerful positive motivation if you’re not. Marriage oaths are the most common - marriage is referred to as “oathbinding” and one’s spouse as one’s “oathmate” - but oaths are also taken between master and servant, liege and vassal, close friends, even members of military units. There is often a physical focus or token for the oath, typically a finger-ring, though the military use arm-rings on the upper arm. For oaths of alliance and allegiance the ring is worn on the right hand, for love and friendship on the left (the heart side).

A well-made oath, with the assistance of a competent mindmage, added to familiarity and genuine emotion, gives the participants in the oath an enhanced sense of each other. They can’t read each other’s thoughts, but providing they’re reasonably nearby they’re aware of each other’s strong emotions and physical location, even if they’re not able to see or hear each other.

Similar to an oath is a geis. The difference between the two is that an oath is between two people, mutually agreed on and binds both of them, while a geis is imposed by someone in authority on another person, and binds only the recipient. The person who receives the geis must acknowledge the authority of the one who imposes it, and must be able to perform the action of the geis, and consent to it, even if reluctantly. Geasa may include aversions or actions which are forbidden as well as actions which are required.

A vow is like a self-imposed geas. It is often, but not necessarily, witnessed by another person.

An oath is often recorded on a beautifully drawn and calligraphed piece of paper, with geometric figures corresponding to the magic of the oath and recording it. These papers are typically produced in triplicate, and the two parties to the oath and the witness each keep one. The parties and the witness sign them, mark them with their personal seals or the seals of their rank or position (if they have any - typically this is something only a Gold or a wealthy Silver will have, unless they are a Gryphon Clerk), and thumbprint them. The act of doing so, along with the oath itself, produces a record on the paper that can be read by anyone who has any skill in mindmagic to verify that the oath is a true oath. Among illiterate Coppers, oaths are usually verbal unless they go to a scribe and pay to have an oath recorded.

The seals (gold for a Gold, silver for a Silver) are themselves bespelled for this purpose.

Another form of mindmagic is parallel to charisma. All natural leaders and influencers possess an aptitude for it, and if trained can enhance it and so increase their authority. The elves did not reveal everything they knew about this form of mindmagic to their human subjects, and it is not as well understood, or as effective, as oaths and geasa.

The elves also possessed the knowledge of “glamour”, which is a form of mindmagic which influences the perceptions of those around the mage, in the mage’s favour. This art is considered lost.

The final category of mindmagic crosses over with lifemagic, and is the use of trance states to perceive the world differently or to control one’s body processes. This knowledge is mostly preserved among shamans of the peasants’ Earthist religion, though the upper classes have kept the knowledge of sleep induction and a form of learning trance.

University-trained practitioners of mindmagic wear bracelets (etc.) of black wood, often elaborately carved in the case of the more advanced mages. Shamans wear only a single piece of cloth and are marked with a magical picture of their beast totem and (for full shamans) their plant totem, received during an ordeal of meditation.


Lifemagic maps to the domains of medicine and biology. Again, the old imperial elves were advanced practitioners, bioengineers who could create new species and combine human and animal traits into peoples like the beastheads and the centaurs, or combine different animals into creatures like the flying horses and the gryphons. Little of their ancient knowledge survives in the hands of humans, only enough for medical use.

There are blurred boundaries between lifemagic and mindmagic, and between healers and mindhealers. A good healer will possess living insight, the ability to perceive the patient’s body processes, and the unseen touch, the ability to influence those processes (blood flow; cell division, growth and function; digestion; immune response; neurochemistry, to a degree, and glandular activity; and detoxification). Healers are also able to adjust their patients’ pain perception and initiate the Healer’s Sleep, a form of unconsciousness during which healing is accelerated.

Some of the elves’ creations, like the medicine cattle which give pharmaceutical milk, have been preserved and even improved (by selective breeding), while others, like the process for turning the sap of a certain tree into a useful polymer called hardlac, have been lost.

University-trained practitioners of lifemagic have bracelets of bone or ivory. Healers also wear a distinctive round hat.

Dwarvish Magic

Dwarves scorn mindmagic and lifemagic and don’t include them in their schema, which is based around their sacred number: four. They recognize magic relating to matter, energy, space and time, although the last two are largely theoretical.

Dwarven magic, though it often uses spoken words to trigger it, is mostly achieved through sigils created from the square Dwarvish alphabet. Any dwarven magical device will be engraved with sigils, a great many of them in the case of more complex magic, often worked into a larger diagram.

Matter Magic

The magic of matter is in shaping, refining, combining and transforming. The dwarves have an advanced materials science, though at this historical period they preserve ancient traditions rather than researching new techniques. Their materials are light and strong and exhibit other useful physical properties (insulation and conduction of light, sound, heat and other forms of energy, for example). They craft intricate devices and engines from these materials.

A university-trained human practitioner of matter magic wears a metal bracelet (silver or pewter) set with a yellow stone, such as a citrine or, for the wealthy, a yellow diamond or sapphire. Matter magic is not an especially common subject for human study, but there are practitioners.

Energy Magic

Energy, in dwarvish definition, includes anything nonmaterial which acts at a distance. Most energy magic is concerned with light and heat, but there is also the magic of sound, and forms of distant force which push and pull. Most energy magic except the very simplest movements of light and heat requires the use of crystals of various kinds.

The commonest form of energy magic involves moving energy to or from another, parallel space or dimension. Even largely untrained humans can summon a weak light and enough heat to start a fire, but advanced practitioners can create devices which draw in enough energy to heat water for steam (as a working fluid for vehicles and to power factories) or to smelt metals. Other applications include cooling (by moving heat away to a cooler space) and, of course, magical lights which are reliable, bright and cool.

The dwarf banks operate a network of paired tablets which, when one of the pair is written upon, reproduce the message on the other. This enables funds transfers across distances where it would be slow, tedious or dangerous to carry money. They guard this technology closely, and only meticulous dwarf craftsmanship allows the tablets to be sufficiently similar to work in this way. Recently, however, Realmgold Victory’s clever man Dignified Printer has used his background as a printer’s apprentice to create complex magical devices which are nearly identical and can be linked in sympathy across great distances to transmit either sound and vision, or sound alone.

An application of energy magic to sound is the privacy rug, which prevents words spoken within its bounds from being heard outside it.

A university-trained human practitioner of energy magic has a red stone (garnet or ruby, usually) set in his or her metal bracelet.

Space Magic

The main real-world applications of space magic are to change the direction of gravity or reduce its effects, to enlarge spaces so that they are bigger on the inside than their outer dimensions allow for, and to create portals which shorten the distance between two points. All of these applications require specific conditions, including, for portals and enlarged spaces, a large mass of stable granite (it’s something to do with the quartz). To maintain a portal or enlarged space consumes a lot of a resource known as “magical flux”, which is theorized to be the difference in magical potential between two adjacent dimensions. Magical flux varies geographically. This means that other magic may not work well, or may be harder to do, in the vicinity of a portal or enlarged space. Setting up such a structure is also a tricky engineering task.

The flying boats and ships of Victory’s military use the antigravity form of space magic, mediated by large flight crystals. These crystals are expensive and difficult to make. In fact, “expensive and difficult” is a phrase closely associated with space magic.

The few space mages among the human population have blue stones set in their bracelets (usually sapphires, since they are well paid).

Time Magic

Time magic is, if anything, more expensive and difficult than space magic, and is little used. Extremely valuable items that might deteriorate over time are sometimes put in stasis boxes, in which time passes more slowly. It’s theoretically possible to speed time up, as well, but considering how difficult it is to do so, there are no practical applications.

There are no human time mages.


I hope you've enjoyed that little look under the hood. I'm a big fan of wizard fantasy myself (Amazon recognise a subgenre of fantasy called "magic and wizards" now, so I'm clearly not the only one), and I'm having fun writing Hope and the Clever Man.

If you haven't picked up Realmgolds yet, it's free until midnight Friday, US Pacific time. The more downloads, the merrier!

Feb 15

The Why of Names

One of the things about good worldbuilding is that at each point, you need to stop yourself and think, like an observational comedian, "why do we do things that way? What's that about?" But unlike an observational comedian, you also need to find out the answer - to become aware of your cultural and historical roots, and think about how things could have been different.

Which leads me to a Pet Peeve about poorly-thought-through fantasy settings.

You're reading away, and the religious background of the setting is, of course, paganism-lite (because of Gary Gygax, probably, though I suppose he got it from Robert E. Howard or someone). That's just what unthinking genre-fantasy authors do, it's the default. 

Judaism and Christianity have never existed in the setting. And here's a character, and what's her name?


I mean, think for just a moment.

Bad Fantasy Name Syndrome

Approach number 2 to naming fantasy characters, if you don't just use familiar Western names without any regard to their origins, is to make them up.

Most people are not good at this.

I read a series once which, though enjoyable overall, had a number of flaws. One of them was that the hero's girlfriend, his horse, and his brother (or maybe it was his sword) had very similar names to each other, and it was hard to keep them straight.

And then there are names full of apostrophes. Now, some people really have names with apostrophes in them, mostly Pacific Islanders. The apostrophe has an actual function, which is to separate repeated vowels and make it clear that they are repeated, with a little pause between, not just allowed to become one long vowel.

An apostrophe can also indicate a glottal stop, as in the Cockney dialect. Glo'al stop, Guvnor? It's an actual sound, although a subtle one.

And then there's the Bad Fantasy Naming use of apostrophes, which is usually just as decoration and serves no purpose whatsoever, except as a warning to the discerning reader.

Naming the Gryphon Clerks

So when I came to write the Gryphon Clerks, I needed a sensible naming schema that didn't just give me Bill, George and Tl'ca'varuna, possibly in the same family.

Here's what I did.

There are two main religions in the Gryphon Clerks setting (in real life, there are often two or more religions in a geographical location, but this is a lot less common in fantasy). The Asterists are, mostly, more upper- and middle-class and follow the rather abstract star religion of the old Elvish Empire. (It's a very mild Tolkien joke.) The Earthists are, generally, commoners, and kind of paganish in a way that is slightly more accurate to historical paganism in our world than the usual genre-fantasy polytheism.

They have different naming schemes, but both of them are based on words from ordinary language. They're not made-up combinations of sounds - I do that a bit with some place-names, but I'm no Tolkien, I don't want to spend half my life making up a bunch of languages before I can start telling stories.

The Earthists are named after natural phenomena and objects - Brook, Breeze, Leaf, Rain, Berry, Bird. (They're never named after specific plants or animals, though, because those names are reserved for shamans who have got those plants or animals as totems through an ordeal.) Their clan names describe where their clan worships - Sandybeach, Lichenrock, Ashgrove. Men and women can have the same names.

Asterist women are named after desirable abstract qualities: Victory, Patience, Prudence, Kindness. Asterist men have similar names, but where women's names are nouns, men's names are adjectives (I made this decision partway through when I noticed that I'd generally followed that practice): Vigilant, Determined, Honest, Faithful, Magnanimous.

The other distinction in Asterist names is between members of the Silver and Gold classes - that is, the middle class and the ruling class. Silvers typically have names of affiliation (they aren't really surnames in our sense) taken from their trade or occupation or that of their recent ancestors: Farmer, Carter, Carpenter, Miller.

Golds take their names from their family's estate. Tranquil of High Spur, for example, is a member of the family that owns the High Spur estate. The head of the family gets to drop the "of", and if you're ruler of a territory you can, if you choose, call yourself after the territory when you're being official.

And if you're Copper class and an Asterist, for example a servant, you might take a name like "Hope at Merrybourne" to indicate that you belong to the Merrybourne estate, but not as a member of the family.

I won't go into dwarf and gnome naming except to say that a dwarf gets his or her parents' names and a birth number until craft graduation and then takes a name related to the craft - usually a tool, material or technique - and gnomes are called by names related to their family's function in a similar way. Hence Mr Bucket, whose family are cleaners.

The main point is not the details of how all this works, but to point out that I spent some time thinking about how names would work. My goals were:

  • Keep the lack of realism restricted to the fantasy elements. My feeling is that when you're writing fantasy, all the mundane stuff should be reasonably believable and the suspension of disbelief should only be required for the magic parts.
  • Make the names easy to spell and remember, for my sake as much as anybody's.
  • Communicate something about the characters by their names, rather than just using them as arbitrary labels.

I think I've achieved that.

Jan 06

Map of Koskant, Progress, and Title Ideas

I spent a bit of time yesterday and this morning fixing up this map that I created a few years ago, back when the background to the Gryphon Clerks was going to be a game setting. (I built in so many story hooks that I finally couldn't resist telling the actual story. Besides, writing a game is hard, takes a lot of testing that I don't have time for, and brings you a lot less reward per hour spent unless it's really popular.)

Map of Koskant

In case you're wondering, I used AutoRealm to make it. I'd forgotten how annoying AutoRealm can be (those jungle bits have hundreds of trees in them, and it slowly redraws them every time you move the viewport - which may be partly my using AutoRealm wrong, of course). You have to switch off all the toolbars - one at a time - to make the jpg export capture what you want it to capture. And it hasn't been updated since 2006, and doesn't work on my Mac (I had to dig out the old Windows machine, which makes it even slower). But it does make good-looking maps, eventually.

I moved the railways and the River Koslin (which used to let out much further north), added the Tussocklands and the Gulf islands, labelled the provinces and added and named their capitals, added the trail from Snakebridge to Gulfport and named Snakebridge and the Dragonpeaks, but otherwise this is pretty much how the map has looked all along. (The little coppery moons, if you're wondering, indicate that the feared Copper Elves infest the forests and jungles.)

I'm about to send the characters to the Beasthead Country for what may turn out to be Book 2.

Progress and titles

I'm at 46,000 words in the current draft, and by the time I fill in some odds and ends I should be comfortably over 50,000. My thinking at the moment is that that will be Book 1 of a trilogy (yes, I know), and Act I in the continuing stooory of the Gryphon Clerks.

I have a nice ending in mind, but haven't decided on a title. My candidates at the moment are "Stories" and "Introductions". So the whole trilogy is The Gryphon Clerks, and the first book is The Gryphon Clerks: Stories (or Introductions). Has kind of a Fables title feel to it, and I love Fables (the Bill Willingham graphic novel series, that is, though I also love fables-the-phenomenon).

So the trilogy could be titled Introductions, Challenges and Resolutions, which is kind of hanging a lampshade on the three-act structure, or I could start with Stories (or maybe Origins?). Still mulling that one over. If you have an opinion, leave me a comment!