Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Character Conversation: Prince Kiefan Weissberg

It's been a while since I've written up a chat with one of my characters, and for some reason Kiefan didn't get his turn in the spotlight. You can find conversations with Kate and Anders under the "character development" tag.

Kiefan von Weissberg is the sole heir to the throne of Wodenberg, my little fantasy kingdom. As such, he's been saddled with a great deal of responsibility and pressure to succeed, but at the same time he's been sheltered because his father is a bit obsessed with not having to bury a third son. Now that he's eighteen and there's a war on the way, the sheltering is starting to chafe.

Found this pretty thing somewhere and
adjusted his coloration in Photoshop. 
Wanted to use Chris Hemstreet as a ref 
for Kiefan, but he's really too old for it.
This captures the pensive side of
the prince well.
Last night, you mostly talked me into letting you secretly enter the jousting tournament. What's your reason for this?

When Father squired me to Dame Aleksandra (knight and captain of the King's Guard), I was angry at first. Insulted. What could a woman teach me of the sword?

I'm sure a few ass-beatings from her fixed that.

She proved herself. Father's approval was not enough -- I needed to see Dame Aleks' worth for myself. It's the same for all the knights of Wodenberg. Father's taught me to lead, pushed me to, marked me as worthy, but the men need to see it for themselves.

You could ruin the whole tournament, if the king finds out that's you under the helmet. He'd call it all off. 

I'd best not be caught, then. Dame Aleks is with me on this, and a few other conspirators. Perhaps even the saints.

You're such a boy scout, though, even in trying to rebel you're... predictable. The readers are going to spot you a mile off.

How would the world be improved if we were all dissolute as Anders? And if I'm spotted a mile off, it's a good distraction for some other twist, isn't it?

Speaking of Anders, there are a host of problems with you two facing off in the tournament. 

And yet that's the crux of it, isn't it? How do I measure up to the best in the kingdom? I must cross swords with him if I'm to have the answer. He'd best be ready for me -- too quick a fight would disappoint the crowd.

The touch of cavalier attitude and letting Kiefan's stubborn streak show a bit were what talked me into this change in plans. Plus, it will raise the tension of the tournament scene more than having Anders face some nameless opponent -- there's no life on the line, but this first face-off will lay the groundwork for all the future conflicts between Anders and Kiefan. 

It's going to be a tricky scene. And I'm not sure what the twist is, yet. 

Also, I re-read my earlier Character Conversations with Kate and Anders and noticed how the style of the dialogue kept shifting. I think this one is closer to the style I've settled on... mildly antiquated, some less-common word choices. Interesting how that "settling in" happens over time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Worldbuilding: knights, part 3

In Knights, part 1, I talked a little about body armor and in Knights, part 2, I talked a little about swords.  Back to the armor -- let's talk about helmets.

Sensible things, helmets. They come in about a million shapes and sizes and have specific names, but they aren't well known so one shouldn't assume readers know them. But using the correct name for a helmet style could save you wordage and avoid info-dumping in a moment of action. A little strategic reader education could come in handy -- can you show your readers the helmet and give it a solid description before the big fight scene?

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. It's just to get your brain burbling.

Armet: these are the hinged-visor helmets that you probably think of when picturing a full-plate-armor knight. AKA "close helm." These date from the 15th century -- it took time to figure out how to engineer the lifting visor. So be careful fitting them into your technology level.

Bascinet: the "beaky" one, which took the pointy front design (very sensible -- you want incoming hits to be shunted off the side of your head) to an extreme. These generally came into use in late-14th century Europe. These often have hinged visors too, so tech level could be an issue.

Barbute: these are one-piece helms with a T-shaped opening for your eyes and nose/mouth. They look something like ancient Greek helmets, but they are a 14th and 15th century design. No moving parts, though, so tech level is less of an issue. 

Great Helm: ye olde bucket with air holes. These were used from the 12th century onwards, but because they're heavy and limiting they were always being replaced by lighter helmets. These are the ones you can get fancy with -- add horns, dragons, crowns -- if you want to look scary on the battlefield. (Hint: you want to look scary on the battlefield)

Sallet: a nice, smooth, aerodynamic look. The slit is to see through. Mid-15th century Europe.

Helmets with mail coifs: You see versions of these in movies because you can still see the actor's face. In reality, the less armor around your head, the more likely your head will get hurt, so bear that in mind. This seems to be an old, low-tech design, though -- tenth century, maybe? At a glance, the style seems to be associated with the Vikings and the Slavic kingdoms. In looking around, I found this nice photo attached to an SCA armorer's sales site. Design based on 13th-century Slavic armor, they say.

Don't let your characters go outside without their helmets. Yes, it gets in the way of their sexy Fabio haircuts and probably looks odd with that strategically torn shirt that's falling off their god-like pecs. But it will keep them alive so they can kiss the girl. No, kiss her later. We've got work to do.

My characters are butt-headed, hormonal teenage knights -- can you tell?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Giving thanks, 2011 edition

It's time to remember what we are thankful for, and even though it's been (another) tough year, I have plenty.

Viable Paradise -- I am thankful for the opportunity I had to become part of the VP community, which is full of wonderful writers who inspire and intimidate me with their abilities.

Beta Readers -- you know who you are. Thank you so much. I hope I've been able to help you too.

Fellow Bloggers -- a 24-7 writers' chat room that has given me lots to think about and caused my to-read pile to mushroom.

www.paperbackswap.com -- for helping me with the above problem. I know e-readers are the wave of the future... but this is one un-arguable advantage of dead tree copies.

Apologies to these folks, but I wanted an approximation of
the melodramatic foolishness going on in my head.
My characters -- that crowd of semi-independent personalities knocking around in my head, thank you for your suffering and your triumphs, for surprising me by turning into action heroes when needed (still LOLing about that, Tanner) and for telling me things I needed to hear even when I didn't want to.

And in my real-life existence, I am grateful to still have a roof over my head and food on the table in these difficult times. I will not go into much detail about that, though -- my real life is not exactly welcome here.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Worldbuilding: Pre-industrial medicine

This has long been a topic of interest to me, and since my main character, Kate, is a physician's apprentice I get to play with lots of ideas. I have a magic system in my hard fantasy, but it's limited by both the magical fuel on hand and the skill of the user. When the physicians run out of magic, which is fairly quickly, they fall back on herbs and surgery.

18th-century trepanning kit
I wanted my fantasy to adhere to real-world science as much as possible underneath the magic and I wanted to avoid some of the counter-productive medical practices that plagued our real world in the past.

It seems to me that if you want a low-tech but still basically effective medical system in your fantasy world, the single most important concept to give your characters is cleanliness. Basic personal hygiene and keeping wounds as clean as possible raises the survivability of life by a substantial margin. Antibiotics and such are great too, but this more basic hurdle tends to get forgotten -- even today. See all the talk about controlling pandemics with simple soap and water.

The importance of cleanliness isn't immediately obvious if you don't know about bacteria and viruses. Add to that the fact that for centuries bathing meant getting wet, getting wet meant getting cold and getting cold meant getting sick... and you can see why people didn't bathe much in northern Europe until recently. The most obvious connection for them was bathing = getting sick.

What about the smell? That's why we invented perfume. Plus, people smell. Nowadays, we've been programmed to believe human beings are supposed to smell like flowers/mint/soap/etc. at all times, not human beings, but that's a rant for another day.

Without a scientific basis, an emphasis on cleanliness (despite the risk mentioned above -- or can you eliminate the risk somehow?) will need to come from either religion or culture. An emphasis on purity in the society's religion, maybe? If you want a more general cultural reason to keep clean, think about practical incentives to be clean. Maybe there's a nasty bacteria in the local mud? The local blood-sucking bugs pester unwashed people more?

Low-tech medicine that is free of some of the long-running misconceptions (such as medicinal bloodletting) that plagued real-world medicine raises survivability too. On the other hand, such things can themselves be world-building elements.

Pardon me while I shoot down an example of this which has been bugging me for a long time.

"Cleansing" a wound with boiling-hot wine
I was a fan of Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, but this point always rankled me. It's a prime example of counter-productive medicine and as such it makes a good world-building element. But let's review this concept, shall we?

The alcohol in wine is primarily ethanol, which boils at a temperature of 172(F)/78(C). However, the water in the wine boils at 212(F)/100(C). So if you heat it until the water in the wine is boiling -- because wine is maybe 12% alcohol, 88% water and that's modern wines, mind you -- your alcohol has been boiling off for some time already. If anything was going to kill bacteria in your wound, it was the alcohol.

So pouring hot wine on your wound adds a second-degree burn to your problems and kills the flesh around the wound -- making it more hospitable for bacteria and giving your body extra healing to do.

I blogged about more effective options over at Science In My Fiction: Part 1, Part 2 (discussing medical-grade alcohol)

 How do the doctors in your world treat their patients?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I didn't post on Tuesday -- I apologize. Now that I'm finished revising my hard sci-fi, I will be getting back to the hard fantasy and posting about world-building (and trying to define hard fantasy, too).

In the meantime, I have finished mourning the computer disaster that I suffered back on September 17th. I have come to grips with the fact that the external hard drive which contained thousands of ranked, sorted, and playlisted mp3s is dead. Maybe I can afford data recovery on it someday.

I've heard it said that you should not use crutches to help yourself write because someday the crutches may not be there. It's a valid point. I think I can now say that my assortment of crutches (music -- via online radio -- alcohol, mindless games) has helped get me through this lack of music, but it has still been rather miserable.

The good news is, I recovered the iTunes library itself -- which includes all of the star ratings and playlists. It was on the main drive, not the external. You can find yours by searching for the extension ".itl". Back up that puppy, if nothing else. 

I am slowly rebuilding my cache of mp3s from various scattered (and ancient) sources. I'm kinda sore about the music I bought from Amazon and can't re-download -- I bought it before their cloud storage system came online. This would seem to be, to me, a good argument for still buying stuff on CD. It's kind of a hassle to re-rip it all, but at least it won't cost me more money.

My habit of scrounging for music online is both a blessing and a problem in situations like this. I can track down a number of albums that I lost and re-download them from the sites I found them on. Looking for free music?

I prowl these sites mainly for ambient and other flavors of electronica. Clinical Archives also carries some extremely-alternative-rock-type stuff.

However, a pile of ancient mp3s that I randomly found on Napster (remember them?) or CNET (now last.fm and more of a slog to find free tracks) long ago will be unreplaceable.

Life goes on. At least I got my Saints of War playlist (52 tracks and still growing) back, because I am starting to work on Part II.

Anybody else suffering from computer-related drama?

Thursday, November 10, 2011


This was originally guest posted at the dojo

At Viable Paradise, the conversation came around several times to the relationship between the writer and the reader. It's a strange relationship, when you think about it, especially since it's between two people who may never meet. One of them can be dead, even.

But I want to put down a thought or two about hooks, here. We have all seen the advice to hook your readers with action, or character, or at least drama. Some of the advice makes it sound like writers need to lurk in the shrubbery and tackle passing readers, wrestle them to the ground and take them hostage.

Which one would you bite?
Having tried to write a lot of hooks and having read many hooks as a beta, I suspect that there are as many hooks as there are readers.

Not as many as there are writers. Not as many as there are stories.

What hooks me at the beginning of your story may not be what hooks Ali. Or the agent you sent your first chaper to. In fact, I can guarantee you will get different answers from different readers if you ask, "What kept you reading?"

You are not presenting your reader with one hook. You are presenting many hooks. Action, character, drama, world-building: all hooks. Questions. Riddles. Beguiling images. Promises of what's to come.

And most readers are willing to bite. I've been willing to bite every time I read a first page sample and watched cookie-stamp characters noodle around aimlessly on a blank canvas. Or I've seen one hook laid out front and center... but not a hook that I like.

Be aware of how many hooks you are offering your readers. Offer several. Show the reader that you know what you're doing, that there's going to be a payoff in action or drama down the road, paint a fabulous landscape that they want to see more of.

Those are all perfectly valid hooks. Happy fishing!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Cave of Solitude

I am still revising Orbital Shifts and I've withdrawn into my cave. I'm not as sure what this story needs, since I have far less feedback on it -- my betas had busy summers. I will need to think. Brood in my cave. Brooding is not so good for blogging, though, so this post is just a place-holder.

I will be guest blogging at the dojo on Thursday, though. Ali wanted something about Viable Paradise. The one-month anniversary of the workshop is tomorrow and it has been on my mind a lot recently. Mostly that bit of wisdom we received: do not stab yourself in the face. I think I've got some bloodstains on my shirt already. My VPeeps will understand...

I'll finish this revision pass on OS so I can clean up what I can, and then get to work on Part II of Piglet. Bits and pieces of that have been turning up, particularly the big, dramatic crux.

For all the NaNo-ers, I wanted to write a cheerleading post for you but a cave is no place for cheerleaders. Low ceilings, slippery moss... someone could break their neck. Plus, trying to Google photos of sexy female and male cheerleaders is an exercise in frustration. The internet has failed me.

But I did find this, which I like because it's true:

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Worldbuilding: zero gravity, part 2

My previous post on zero gravity has racked up an impressive number of hits in just one week, so I guess there is some interest in the topic.

In my science fiction universe, a few generations (haven't nailed down how many) of kids have grown up in little or no gravity. Logically speaking, for people who grew up in zero gravity, these ideas would sound odd:

Things will fall when you let go -- well, duh, right? But more importantly than that, gravity will not be there to override the small amounts of angular momentum that we tend to put on things when we "just let go." We actually count on gravity (and friction) to take care of these things quite a bit. We also expect a ball, when thrown, to follow a curve down to the ground. In zero gravity, it would only move in straight lines. No matter how slowly. 

Things will stop moving on their own -- this ties into the previous point, specifically the role of friction in affecting movement. How often do you rely on something sliding to a stop? In zero gravity, objects will bounce off each other and friction won't have a chance to come into play (much).

Things will be where you left them -- not unless they were tied to something immobile. That little bit of momentum you gave your shoes when you took them off? They still have it as they drift around the room. Also, good air circulation is important in spaceships, of course, so there will be air currents everywhere. Over time, even a tiny force like that can push an object around.

Nothing unusual going on here.
In my scifi universe, generations of children have grown up without these basic assumptions. They expect things to float free, bounce a lot and wander on air currents. Something's missing? Check the air vents. When I started out, I carried over lots of ways to immobilize things -- velcro, sticky pads, magnets -- that do currently get used by astronauts, but after spending some time in the zero gee universe I started to question that. How badly will people want to impose immobility if they didn't grow up in a gravity field? Floating will be normal to them in a way I can't understand.

I expect these kids would have an innate understanding of inertia and leverage that is very different from mine. They would think in three dimensions more fully than I do. You know what I found helpful in expanding my brain that way? There's a documentary series called Dogfights. The episodes feature re-creations and in-depth analysis of airborne combat from World War I through... I think the most recent one was the Gulf War. They interview the pilots whenever possible and explain/illustrate the maneuvers wonderfully. There are a bunch of clips at the link there, but it's out on DVD too.

Even then, if you really watch those fights closely you'll see that the pilots aren't spreading out into three dimensions as much as they theoretically could. But it will get your brain burbling.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Cutting room floor

I'm nearly finished with the second draft of Course Corrections and moving on to Orbital Shifts.

My cutting room floor is splattered with red ink to fix:
  • "s/he nodded" and other twitches involving sitting, standing, and turning around.
  • added smells, sounds and other senses where I could. I forget to do an "establishing shot" sometimes, though my betas like the ones I do remember. 
  • a good handful of "agreed," "replied", "wondered" and such dialogue tags. Also, "answered" though I left some of those where the connection might be unclear. I've gotten better about tags, but still need to keep an eye on them.
  • "was (verb)ing" turned into "(verb)ed."
  • changed a minor character's name to avoid confusion with a major character.
  • rebroke paragraphs to separate action from dialogue it wasn't directly related to.
  • fixed some terms and details that evolved over the course of two books.
  • tried to separate out dialogue styles into three main groups: booters, planet-siders and the Russians (who were all booters.)
  • cut a short, awkward scene that could be turned into one sentence of summary.

I added one scene at the front and completely re-wrote one at the end. But overall, this was neither traumatic nor horrible. When I finish I'm going to do a few manuscript-wide searches for some of my knee-jerk words: perked, grimaced, poker face, "..." (think cut those down to size, but just to check) and phrases like "set her mouth in a line."

Course Corrections may need an epilogue, technically, but... not feeling one right now. Orbital Shifts starts fairly soon after the end of this, so there isn't a lot to cover between the two.

Huge shout out to all my VP feedbackers for their help -- and even more to the two betas who read this before I workshopped it. Brian and Kristen, rock on.  

I'm not NaNo-ing, though I really thought about it this year. I'm rolling with revisions and I don't want to interrupt the energy. But I will be cheering you all from the sidelines!
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