Feb 24

Excerpt from Book 2

[Grass Badger is a beasthead shaman, and Stone is the Gryphon Clerk sent to negotiate with the beastheads. They're at what is basically a hui (Google it if you're not a New Zealander).]

When Stone sat down, there was a pause, and then Grass Badger stalked out of the crowd and seized the staff.

If the speeches up until now had been aimed at unity and friendship, Grass Badger’s set a new tone. Marching back and forth, gesturing with the staff to emphasise his words, occasionally pounding it on the ground, he spoke of the growing number of incidents between beastheads and humans, the evils of the liquor trade, the greed incited by trade goods, fights over metal tools, and, above all, the raids of the Human Purity movement - though he didn’t identify them by name. He didn’t propose a course of action, but simply listed the grievances and then sat down - but inside the edge of the circle of people, not back in his place. Tiny Bird explained quietly that this meant that he intended to say more, but was giving a space for discussion of what he had said so far.

Berry expected Stone to stand up and say something, but he left this to the Clangolds and other respected speakers from the local and visiting clans. The first woman spoke directly to Grass Badger and pounded the staff on the ground as she distinguished between the humans who attacked them and the humans who defended them, the humans who traded liquor and Stone, who tried to stamp out the trade. She pointed at Stone with her other hand while she said this and shook her finger vigorously in time with the thumps of the staff.

Other speakers either agreed with Grass Badger or supported the first speaker’s points, in alternation. After six more speakers - three on each side - apparently Grass Badger’s supporters had run out, because there was a long pause, and then Grass Badger came up again to give his real speech.

Despite her attempt to retain a shaman’s calm, Berry’s stomach sank a little as Bird murmured the translation.

“Recently,” said Grass Badger, “I met a human woman who claims the status of a shaman. Now we all know that shamans own nothing. We respect a shaman because a shaman owns nothing. A shaman stands alone, walks alone, except for an apprentice perhaps. A shaman is not beholden to a Clangold, because a shaman is beyond clan and belongs to everyone. A shaman belongs to the beast, the natural beast, the beast of the land, who has marked and claimed that shaman. A shaman teaches the shaman knowledge to other shamans and to shaman apprentices - not to healers, not to mages, not to potters or weavers, but to shamans. A shaman serves apprenticeship faithfully, staying close to the master shaman who teaches, and is chosen by the natural beast of the land, who alone can release the apprentice oath, so that the office of shaman remains uncorrupted and the knowledge is passed as it is meant to be passed.

“Everyone knows this. But this human woman knows better. She broke her apprentice oath. She walks around wearing silver, the silver symbol of her oath and service to a Realmgold. She claims that her totem beast is a gryphon, a magical creature and no natural beast. She teaches the shaman knowledge to anyone who wants it, and she does not walk alone, she walks with friends who are not shamans. And she comes here, in her arrogance, to change our society and our people, to break what is true in front of us and toss it away, to lead us into her corrupted imitation of what it is to be a shaman. Oathbreaker, I name her, faithless and without principles, a teacher of wrongness and distortion. And I say that this is what we can expect if we allow these people in. Corruption, corruption, corruption and oathbreaking and evil, all the time. We are better off without them.”

He looked straight atBerry, raised the staff and slammed the end into the ground so that the shaft sank in a hand’s breadth, and stood leaning on it for a moment, breathing hard, before stalking back to his place.

There was a stunned silence. Berry felt a great calm descend from somewhere, as if she was pulling back from her body and observing herself from a distance. She saw herself stand and walk unhurriedly into the circle, and touch the staff - but not pull it from the ground.

“May I speak?” she asked quietly, and various members of the crowd called out different answers. She looked at the elder Bird, who said, clearly, in Peqtal, “Yes.”

She still didn’t pull the staff from the ground, nor did she raise her voice. But she raised her head so that the sun shone off the gryphon’s beastmark on her forehead.

“My parents are shepherds,” she began, and paused for Tiny Bird’s translation from his place in the crowd. Even sitting, his huge chest had enough resonance to reach easily to the edges of the crowd. “They have almost nothing, but I never noticed that they received much respect for that.” There were a few chuckles, some before and some after the translation - there were a number of Peqtal speakers in the audience. “A shaman is respected because a shaman needs nothing, nothing but the blessing of the totem beast, who alone can make or unmake a shaman. A shaman does not need power, or respect, or to be thought right, but only to listen to the world and to the totem beast. And a shaman is fallible.

“Grass Badger speaks of corrupted shamans. I was apprenticed to such a one. Although she had the beastmark, she did not want to be a shaman, did not want me as an apprentice. She was always angry.” Here she paused a little longer than the translation required.

“She was so angry that her anger destroyed the oath that was between us. Any shaman has seen this. Anger burns at the oathbond, pushes oathbound lovers or friends or master and apprentice or Gold and Copper apart, and one day it snaps. So it was.

“I fled in fear. I came to the Gryphon Clerks, and they took me in and treated me with kindness. I became one of them and Victory, the Realmgold and the mother of the Clerks, gave me her silver gryphon to wear in token of my service to her and to her realm. It is not mine, it is given to me in trust, and she alone can take it from me.

“I was no longer apprenticed to a shaman, but I kept some of the practices of a shaman. I lived more simply than those around me, though not as simply as a shaman does. I spent time in trance. And one day when I was in trance the Gryphon came and spoke to me, touched me on my forehead as you see, and left its mark. It is not mine, it is given to me in trust, and the Gryphon alone can take it from me.

“The Gryphon spoke to me, and told me to serve Victory, and so in serving her I obey the Gryphon. If the Gryphon tells me otherwise I will stop, for I must obey the Gryphon. Only the Gryphon has authority to tell me who to serve.

“So I come here, for Victory has sent me. And she has sent me to do this: to discover and report to her what the people who live here need, and how it can be given to you.

“Not what you want. Not what we want to give you. Not what will make you exactly like us. What you need. I do not know yet what you need. If I knew that, I would not need to come, I would not need to speak to you. So far I know that you are a happy people, you are a healthy people, and most of what you need you already have. Perhaps you need nothing from us, and we can leave you as you are. We do not know yet.

“What I do know is that Victory would not want us to impose on you against your will. Anything you get from us, you will get because you have agreed with us that you need it. And we will ask as many of you as we can. Golds, Silvers and Coppers. Cattleheads, dogheads, goatheads, sheepheads, horseheads and catheads alike.

“But I ask you this. Do not let the people who are angry decide what you need. Do not let the people who are afraid decide what you need. Do not let the people who are greedy decide what you need. I have lived under the rule of an angry master. I did not learn much, except that angry people don’t think very well.

“I am a shepherd’s daughter from the mountains, and I grew up in a little world. Now I live in a much bigger world, and it is full of wonders. I never regret having opened up my little world, because I am not afraid of what might be out there. If you are afraid, talk to us, and perhaps we can show you a way out of fear. And perhaps you can show us wonders that we do not know yet.

“Thank you for listening to what I had to say.”

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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.

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Feb 09

Finished my second draft

I've just completed my second draft. By including the first bit of a subplot that will get a lot more airtime in volume 2, I've managed to just edge over 50,000 words. Hey, I write short. No epic fantasy phonebooks here.

I'm putting the invitation out now for beta readers. My first lot of betas have been very quiet, and I'm not sure why. The only one who's got back to me didn't like the first draft, but he had some constructive suggestions about why he didn't like it, which I've tried to follow in Draft 2.

The clerks' stories are now expanded and contain more showing and less telling, more dialog and description and less narrative. I think that's a definite improvement, and one I can take into Vol 2.

Volume 2

I've started the second book (before I went back and revised the first one thanks to my friend's feedback), and I have a list of things that can go wrong for the characters. The trick will be spacing them out, or as Jim Butcher puts it, setting up all the dominoes and then knocking them over. My besetting sin as a writer is to solve my characters' problems for them instead of letting them struggle and triumph over their challenges.

More and more characters keep turning up. After 22 pages I have seven or eight new ones who are likely to recur, plus three minor ones who may or may not get speaking roles. In addition to the 10 major characters and their hangers-on, introduced in the first book. That may be a little out of hand.

It is very much an ensemble cast, though, even if Berry is the viewpoint character most of the time.

I know I don't have many subscribers here yet, but I'll say this anyway: Comment if you want to be a beta reader. But only if you're going to read it and get back to me quickly!

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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!

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Dec 12

What I’m not doing with the Gryphon Clerks (and why)

The thing about a well-established genre like fantasy is that it has certain conventions that everyone just assumes.

This is both a trap and an opportunity. A trap, if you go in unthinkingly and just do things because that's how they've been done by hundreds of other authors before you, in which case you are contributing to a perception of the genre as derivative and unoriginal. Contributing to making that perception accurate, in fact.

It's an opportunity, on the other hand, if you take those now-classic riffs and give them a whole chunk of funk.

Here are a few of those assumptions, overused ideas and conventions, and how I plan to subvert them, twist them and otherwise funkify them.

The hero is the big guy on the horse with the sword

We can trace this one, if we want to, back to the invasions by mounted barbarians that swept from east to west across the European plains, and the fact that history is written by the victors.

In my setting, the big guy on the horse with the sword is solving the wrong problem. The hero is the one who's making tough choices that benefit other people as his or her own cost, and doing so through working together with other people of goodwill. Hence the tagline about heroic civil servants.

Actually, the hero is the sassy kick-ass girl these days

Big guys on horses are increasingly giving way to smart young women with attitude. Unfortunately, they are still, generally, solving the same kind of problems in the same way (beat people up until they stop opposing you), only with better banter and wearing better shoes.

I actually think women are capable of solving problems more creatively than that. Men, too.

OK, The unlikely hero is the little guy from an ordinary background who saves the world

The thing about the way most fantasy heroes save the world is that it's intensely protective of the status quo. We mostly have Tolkien to thank for this, though any genre that looks back in time for its models and then idealises them is going to be inherently conservative. The traditional fantasy hero is reluctantly drawn into vast events when his small, comfortable world is threatened.

My little folks (who are, for the most part, only figuratively little, and do not have hairy feet - or light fingers) don't react to threats so much as they have an ideal of a better world and believe they can help to create it. I'd say that they're progressives, except that a particular political agenda which isn't always my agenda is associated with that word.

But surely There must be a chosen one to combat the Dark Lord?

The whole Chosen One/Dark Lord plot has been so done to death I won't even read a book that signals it in the blurb. GET A NEW PLOT, PEOPLE!

No Chosen One. No Dark Lord. Some of my villains don't even kick puppies, they just have a different agenda from the heroes and are sometimes less ethical about what they'll do to advance it.

It's not actually necessary for a villain to wear black and twirl his moustaches while tying a girl down in the path of an oncoming train. You can be a bit more subtle in your depiction of opposition. This isn't American political television.

Ahem. So, um, elves - they're all noble and emo, right?

Why? Just because Tolkien's were?

Read some of the original source material about the elves. They're vicious bastards, and they think humans are scum. They'd enslave them if they could. So yes, they are "noble" if by "noble" you mean "like the actual medieval nobility".

So, in my setting, they had an empire that was a bit like the Roman Empire and a bit like the British Empire and, in places, a bit like the Third Reich. And humans managed to get out from under them by a process that I may or may not get around to explaining fully, but they still have a lot of culture and religion derived from the Elves. The human nobility, whose ancestors were mostly house-servants and who took over the mansions when the Elves saw the writing on the wall and bailed out, still worship the Elves' star-gods, for example. High culture is conducted in Elvish, or at least in the Elvish script.

Oh, and the Elves were bioengineers. They made gryphons and flying horses and werewolves and kelpies and beast-headed people and medicine cows that are milked for pharmaceuticals. They made humans stronger and healthier and capable of using magic. All their stuff looks - and probably is - grown rather than built. In contrast to the dwarves.

Dwarves? Little hairy guys with axes and helmets?

Little industrialists with ledgers and scale balances. Technologists and businesspeople. They coin all the money, since everyone trusts their contracts and the purity of their alloys, even if they don't like the money-grubbing little buggers. Anything made out of metal is made in a dwarf-owned workshop - usually by gnomes, who are a dwarf underclass and your basic exploited industrial workforce.

A dwarf won't fight when he can trade. He doesn't carry an axe - he has people for that sort of thing.

Trolls, right? Or goblins or something?

Nope. No "evil races" or "lesser races" or "degenerate races". We're not in the 1930s. There are people, and other kinds of people.

At least tell me there's a quest

Oh, Harry Potter and the Far Too Many Plot Tokens? No.

Oh, there are magical gizmos and so forth, and they're useful and amusing, but no McGuffin. You don't need one if you have a real reason for people to take action, like, I don't know, redemption, or revenge, or protecting your people, or proving to yourself that you're not that guy, or any of the dozen reasons that real people have for the things we do.

Realism? You're writing a realistic novel?

No, no, no. I find realistic fiction boring, because the sets are so predictable. Give me a flying ship powered by magically-generated steam and a levitation spell any day.

So it's steampunk?

Well, there's the aforementioned steam, plus at least one set of brass goggles, and probably magical artificial intelligences/computers. The female ruler's name is Victory, too. But she's not even slightly Victorian, and the dialogue is mostly normal contemporary language. I did "period" in my last novel, and I think I pulled it off, but it's a lot easier to write the way I talk.

I will say this: Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from mad science.

Bioengineering, antigravity, computers - why not just stage it as sci-fi?

I have a funny relationship with the science fiction and fantasy genres. See, I have a little scientific training, and that's my worldview, for the most part, but I find a lot of contemporary science fiction bleak, alienated and hopeless. Fantasy is a lot warmer and more human, and it's more about human values and ideals, which is what I'm most interested in. But I can't stop thinking like a scientist, so it's hard to just say "a wizard did it" and move on.

Hence this strange collision of retrofuture-sci-fi-inspired technologies in period steampunk dress, powered by magic.

Genres are there to make it easier to lay out a bookshop, after all. They shouldn't become boundaries of the imagination.

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Dec 06

A New Blurb

Still a work in progress:

Dig is a mad scientist who spent 10 years in jail for sedition. Hope was nearly expelled from the university for attacking an unfaithful lover with magic. Rain is an ex-gang member who once slashed another woman's face with a broken bottle. And Berry was a shaman's apprentice, until she broke her oath and ran away.

These are just half of the elite group of Gryphon Clerks that Victory, ruler of Koskant, has assembled to solve her most pressing problems. There's also a statistician, a religious scholar, a noblewoman and a nervous werewolf.

Because when the dwarves are illegally exploiting gnome workers, when beastheaded farmers are asking for protection from savage Copper Elves, and when the proliferation of steam carriages threatens the magical flux in the city - you need the most heroic civil servants.

You need... the Gryphon Clerks.

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Dec 05

Telling the whole story

OK, change of plan. Again.

Something's been niggling at me, a memory of when I was on a forum that a guy I knew elsewhere online had set up for short fiction critiques.

I had put up one of my pieces, and he said to me, "I want to know the stories that are behind this story. You're hinting at all of these things having gone on already. Tell me those stories."

And I just decided that he's right, again.

These great, wonderful characters deserve to have their stories told - not just summarized. With a full supporting cast and elaborate stage settings and props. I've been having them tell their summarized tales, one at a time, but what I want to do now is cut between them as they converge on that moment when Victory brings them all together in one room for the first time.

In other words, the scene that I started with in my first couple of attempts at writing The Gryphon Clerks isn't the beginning of the book at all. It's actually the end.

Before the big story of all of them together unfolds, we need - I need - the stories of each of them separately. Their struggles and heartbreaks and triumphs, everything that got them ready to be the elite of the Gryphon Clerks, the people Victory is going to turn to for help and advice as she sets out to create her legacy and transform her realm.

It was while I was writing Windknower's story that I figured that out. I had already thought about telling his story this way, and it's the right way to tell it.

This is a huge setting, and there are a lot of stories to tell. But I can still tell them at their own pace.

I feel relieved about that, so I know it's the right decision.

(And I'm pretty sure that Thorn and Midnight don't come into this book now. They get their own book, or their own series, after this.)

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Dec 05

Characters keep surprising me

I know I keep saying this, but these characters keep surprising me.

I had Rain down as a fluffy do-gooder type, maybe with a bit of an anti-establishment edge in a hippie kind of way, and damn if she didn't turn out to be an ex-gang member who once cut another woman's face with a broken bottle.

I really should stop stereotyping people. Even the people in my head.

Writing this book is turning out to be like herding lynxes. In the best possible way.

I've started on the werewolf, Windknower. His story hasn't caught fire yet, but it will. It will.

That leaves only the two least interesting characters of all. I mean, surely a statistician and a very serious religious guy have lived boring lives.

I'm so looking forward to finding out how I'm wrong about that.

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Nov 25

Telling people’s stories

I'm 22,000 words in so far, and it's looking like this will be a substantial story.

I say that because I'm starting out by having eight important characters tell their backstories (not just one after another - there's plot advancement in between too).

If I'm going to have that many important characters, I want each one to be unique and real to the reader before I get going. All too often I read a book and someone's speaking and I think, "Who's that character again?"

So far, I've had:

  • Berry, the shepherd's daughter and traumatised ex-shaman-apprentice, and the assault that led her to break her oath and flee to the city
  • Patience, the Countygold (Countess), and the youthful boating tragedy that shaped her political ideals
  • Dignity, the mad scientist son of radical revolutionists, and what he learned from being imprisoned throughout his late teens and early twenties.

Five to go, and even if they're all relatively short, I'll easily hit 30,000 words before that introductory part of the book is done. So, assuming a beginning, middle and end of roughly the same size, about 100K.

I'm looking forward to what Hope the strikingly beautiful commoner magus, Windknower the shy, scruffy werewolf, Learned Vigilance the very serious religious scholar, Tranquil the lower-nobility statistician and Rain the docklands social worker have to say.

I also want to do cards (or Evernote notes, at least) for each of them outlining what they want, why they can't have it, and what they will (and won't) go through to get it. That's what is going to drive my plot. One of my faults as a writer is that I'm too softhearted towards my characters. I give them what they want instead of making them work for it. Well - that stops now.

UPDATE: Just finished Hope's story, another couple of thousand words. I had her down as a good girl, but she surprised me with how much trouble she got into. I never know what these characters are going to do ahead of time.

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Nov 16

Meet Thorn and Midnight

Here are two of my favourite characters so far, perhaps even as much as Bucket. I'm not sure how the hardass skycourier and the little feline shamus figure into the wider story yet, but they're great to write. They bicker so beautifully, I could listen to them for hours.

Thorn White was gritty and greasy inside her flying suit. Koskant's subtropical climate meant that unless you were high up in the air, it was uncomfortably hot – but if you were high up in the air, you wanted the suit, all right. Her traditional Montanusi vest, sheepskin with the wool on the inside, was worn backwards for flying, so the fastenings were where she couldn't easily reach them while leading her skyhorse, The Zephyr, back to his stable. She paused, though, to unhook at least the top toggle. There was a wind, and it kept whipping the white scarf attached to the back of her helmet which protected her face while in flight. It bashed annoyingly against her hand as she fumbled with the fastening.

The Zephyr whickered, and stretched out his nose towards a nearby shadow, and Thorn noticed a small black cat sitting neatly on its haunches in the shade cast by the corner of a wall.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” replied the cat, and she started and almost dropped the reins.

“You're a talking cat,” she said.

“That's very good,” said the cat. “I'm a cat, I'm talking – I must be a talking cat. You humans. No getting anything past you.”

“Sarcastic wee beastie,” she muttered.

“I heard that. We have very good hearing,” said the cat.

Thorn had heard of the talking cats of Joria, but she had never expected to find one in Koskant. “So what's your name?” she asked.

“Midnight,” the cat replied. “Skyport Midnight, they call me. I know yours. You're Thorn White.”

“Oh, I'm well-known in the talking cat community, am I?”

“Now who's being sarcastic? No, but you're well-known at the skyport, and I make it my business to know what there is to know around here.”

“Oh, do you. Well, pleased as I am to meet you, Mister Cat, I have to get The Zephyr stabled and washed down and fed before he chills.” She tugged on the reins to get the skyhorse moving again, and he stirred his now-folded white wings a little and followed meekly, glancing sideways at the cat. The white skyhorses of Montanus are incurably curious. Like cats, thought Thorn.

“I'll come with you,” remarked Midnight, uncurling his tail from around his feet, and stalked after them uninvited.

He jumped up on the side of The Zephyr's stall and watched owlishly while Thorn fed the horse, wiped him down and brushed his brilliant white coat.

“I hear you were in a fight last night,” Midnight remarked suddenly.

“You hear that, do you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And from whom might you have heard it?”

“Oh, just around and about,” said the cat airily. “I hear you won.”

“That's one interpretation,” muttered the sky-courier.

“Come now, all opponents down and not a mark on you? Sounds like winning,” said the cat.

“Not having the fight in the first place would have been winning,” she said. “I don't like to use my stun-beamer. I especially don't like to use it in my favourite bar.”

“Well, but two out-of-control elves, what were you going to do?”

“You're remarkably well-informed.”

“Yes, well. I might have met those elves earlier in the evening.”

“Might you just.”

“Yes, it was probably them. Tall one and a medium one, at least, medium for elves? Tall one had a dark tabard, couldn't tell in the twilight if it was blue or green.”

“It was blue. Where did you see them?”

“Here at the skyport. They were looking for a place to eat.”

“How do you know?”

“I heard them harassing old Brook. Talking Elvish to him. Now, of course, Brook no more knows Elvish than he does higher mathematics, so they weren't getting far.”

“I'll bet. It can be slow going when you talk to him in Tenus.”

“That's true. But he feeds me sometimes, and towards people who feed me I feel a certain...” he paused, trying to find the right word.

“Affection?” she suggested. He eyed her with a hint of contempt. “Loyalty? Oh, silly me, you're a cat.”

“A certain interest. So I wandered over.”

“Did you now.”

“Yes, and by this time they were talking pidgin House-Elvish, slowly and loudly. 'We want eat. You boy show where?' Didn't make any difference, of course.”

“You understood them?”

“Part of the talking cat spell. I understand everyone.”

“How convenient. So what happened next?” She was going over the skyhorse's wings now, checking for loose primaries.

“Well, they started getting abusive, calling him a 'stupid wog', and I thought they might hit him, so I decided to play with them a little. I whispered to Brook in Tenus, 'Back into the shadows a bit'. Didn't want them to see his mouth wasn't moving. And then I gave them directions to Thunder's.”

You sent two aggressive elves into my favourite bar? Do you know about Thunder's obsession?”

“The whole elves-sacrificed-my-ancestor thing? It seemed appropriate at the time.”

She glared at him. “I wanted a quiet drink.”

“You got free drinks.”

“I can pay for my drinks. I like them quiet.”

“I can't help your preferences,” the cat said unconcernedly. “They had it coming to them, in my opinion. And thanks to you, they ended up with well-deserved headaches, no permanent damage, and Thunder didn't kill anyone with that club of his that he keeps behind the bar.”

“Were you watching?” she accused.

“I may have strolled in that direction.”

“By pure coincidence, of course. Do you know how scathing the portmaster was to me this morning? You nearly caused a diplomatic incident.”

“No, the elves nearly caused a diplomatic incident. You averted one. I was just an interested bystander.”

“Wretched little beast,” she said, but without much real heat. It sounded like the elves had had it coming, after all. She hadn't understood their demands to be served, of course, and nor had Thunder, but he'd picked up on the tone. She fingered her stunbeamer, a dwarfmade device of brass and crystal with a handle and trigger at one end and a polished opal at the other, which amplified her relatively minor magical talent of Domination and enabled her to knock out anyone who tried to interfere with her courier duties. She wasn't supposed to use it off-duty in a bar fight.

The little cat had made a lot of trouble for her, and was obviously unrepentant, but in the larger picture it was probably the best outcome there was going to be in a scenario that started with two elves with a bad attitude coming off their skyship and wandering intoGulfport.

The skyship had moved on this morning, anyway, headed south, so that was all right.

Midnight started washing himself and purring. She wouldn't ever tell him, of course, but he was a cute wee beastie and she couldn't stay angry with him.

She noticed how sleek he was, and the roundness of his belly as he washed it. “So, it looks like the talking cat hustle is going pretty well, Mr Fat Cat. Must be your charming personality. A lot of people feed you besides old Brook, do they?”

“Actually,” said the cat with dignity, “I’m self-supporting.”

Thorn laughed out loud. “Doing what?”

He stopped washing and looked her in the eye. “I play the harp in a street band,” he said, straight-faced.

“You support yourself with your comedy act?”

“No, in all seriousness, I’m a private inquiry agent.”

“You’re a cat!”

“Which makes me ideally suited to be a private inquiry agent. Especially,” he pointed out, “at night.”

“Wait on though. How do you handle money?”

“I don’t. I have an arrangement.”

“What kind of an arrangement?”

The cat sighed. “There’s an honest fishmonger two streets away, all right? He runs an account for me. My clients pay into it.”

“You charge in fish?”

“I charge in silver, same as you. But I get fish. Since fish is what I want, everyone’s happy.”

“Including your clients?”

“Especially my clients. I have an enviable reputation. Internationally,” he added.

“Meaning you used to run the same scam in Joria?”

“No scam. But yes, I did. Came here on a case, actually, and decided to stay after it was wrapped up. See, in Joria everyone expects a cat to talk, so they watch what they say around you. Here, it’s easier.”

“And you’re all in favour of easier, right?”

“Of course. I’m a cat.”

Thorn had to admit – to herself – that it made sense. The little cat was about ten inches tall at the shoulder, jet black all over and had silent feet, which were pretty good qualifications for a stealthy investigator. He could understand what anyone said, too, which had to help.

“So, you working on anything at the moment?”

“My clients expect, and receive, confidential service.”

“You’ve practiced that one, haven’t you? Hey, am I under investigation?”

“I’d hardly tell you if you were.”

After a brief moment of paranoid introspection, Thorn decided that the cat was just messing with her.

“Dangerous business to interfere with a Montanusi courier captain,” she said. Two could play at that game.

Midnight just stared at her briefly and expressionlessly, and went back to washing his paw.

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