writing

Jenn Lyons' "The Ruin of Kings", and the Challenges of Worldbuilding

The Ruin of Kings, a debut fantasy novel by Jenn Lyons, will be released next month. A free “extended preview” is available through Amazon, and I plunged into it recently. Immediately I was struck by the richness of the fantasy world Lyons has created.

I’ve posted a number of times about the challenges of worldbuilding. The new world an author introduces a reader to can be fantastic, but it must be credible. And to be credible, a certain degree of detail is needed. How people live, dress, eat, speak. Customs, culture, religion, government. Systems of magic, pantheons of gods, hierarchies of evil. But too quick an immersion into worldbuilding details can overwhelm a reader. Too many names, places, relationships may be introduced too quickly. Confusion on the part of the reader is a danger to be avoided.

But one can hardly expect a reader to absorb all the details and keep them straight if the author doesn’t! So authors develop all kinds of systems for structuring the details and managing them, especially as the details morph and evolve as a story is written. Lyons explains in a recent post on the TOR.com website that she uses a personal wiki. People, places, things, they all have an entry.

As I’ve been working on the sequel to my own debut fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, I’ve tried to manage the worldbuilding using Evernote, even going so far as to create an Evernote template that looks like a wiki page. Evernote was an obvious choice for me because I am a heavy user of the software. But I’m going to try out the system Lyons uses, and see if it offers benefits.

Worldbuilding and Stephen King's "The Dark Tower"

Recently I checked my database on Goodreads.com to see my “most-read authors” list. I was surprised to find that Stephen King was at the top of the list, with 31 books. This was surprising, because I wouldn’t call myself a fan. Sure, I like reading his stories, but there are aspects of his writing that I don’t care for. Many years ago I decided to try his Dark Tower series. I was making progress until he mentioned a body part of one of the Challenger shuttle astronauts washing up on a beach. I thought that was in poor taste, so, in protest, I stopped reading his books. Or, I thought I had.

When I learned they were making a movie of “The Dark Tower” I decided to go back and try the books again. This time I persevered, and read all eight of them. All 5,329 pages. And enjoyed them all.

One thing I decided to do, early on, was to pick up a copy of the “revised and updated” Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance, by Robin Furth. Why? Because sai King went a bit beyond worldbuilding in telling the story of the Dark Tower. He did worldbuilding on steroids. And I don’t know how he did it without Robin Furth’s book on hand to keep him honest. In the Dark Tower series there are locations in this world, and places in worlds like ours that have “moved on.” There are characters that appear under one name at one time, and another name at another time. There is time travel, and stories within stories. There is the author writing himself into the story. There are creatures humanoid and otherwise. There are connections to many other works in Stephen King’s canon.

Robin Furth’s Concordance includes information on (from the back cover)

  • Characters and Genealogies

  • Magical Objects and Forces

  • Mid-World and Our World Places

  • Portals and Magical Places

  • Mid-, End-, and Our World Maps

  • Timeline for the Dark Tower Series

  • Mid-World Dialects

  • Mid-World Rhymes, Songs, and Prayers

  • Political and Cultural References

  • References to Stephen King's Own Work

Of course, this only covers what’s been published. How much else regarding the Dark Tower lies sleeping in the author’s files? Will someone come along someday, like Christopher Tolkien did with his father’s writing and notes, and build on what’s already been built?

Honoring One's Craft

To "honor one's craft" is to treat that craft in a respectful manner. To not take it for granted. To spend the time and effort needed to perfect it. To purchase tools to use that say, "This craft is important to me, and I will show it by the quality of my tools." For some writers, that might be an expensive fountain pen. For other writers, honoring one's craft may mean beginning the day with a small ritual, surrounded by inspiring totems.

I am a sucker for handmade leather goods (that look appropriately masculine!). Several years ago I discovered online a company called Oberon Design. Over time, after purchasing -- and appreciating -- leather covers for iPhones and iPads, I finally decided to spring for a leather cover for my composition notebook. In addition to copious notes I capture on my laptop using Evernote (a future blog topic), I also like to jot down notes in a (retro-looking) composition notebook. I figured purchasing a leather cover for that notebook was an appropriate way to honor my craft as a writer. I chose a pattern called "Celtic hounds" because it seemed like a good fit with my fantasy writing.

Whenever I pick up my notebook, the cover says to me, "There is something very special inside here." That, to me, is what is meant by honoring one's craft.

PS: Nothing can beat a Pentel EnerGel pen for smooth writing!

An Interview with Author Mark E. Lacy

Recently I was interviewed by AC Cobble regarding my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri. Here is a transcript of that interview:

AC:The Ban or Irsisri is in many ways a traditional epic fantasy with an epic quest, lots of action, and powerful sorcery. It’s also packed full of dream sequences, tribal rituals, and mysticism. Why did you decide to add those elements, and do they add to the story?
 
MEL: The mix of traditional elements of epic fantasy with elements of tribalism and mysticism was something that developed over time. I knew I didn't want my main characters to come from privileged backgrounds. Nor did I want them to emerge from serfdom. If you take Robert E. Howard's "Conan", for example, you have a hero who has great disdain for the trappings of "civilization" and who takes great pride in being labeled a "barbarian". I think Conan would enjoy sharing a mug of ale with the tribesmen in The Ban of Irsisri. As far as dreams and mysticism are concerned, I think some of the most profound stories in fantasy and science fiction have supernatural mysteries at their core. Forces we cannot fully comprehend, forces that transcend ordinary experience but nevertheless influence our values, our choices, our sense of destiny.
 
ACI love that you mention Howard’s “Conan”. I was thinking about that character when I read your book. You have a great sequence early in the novel where one of the tribesmen, Enkinor, enters a city and – spoiler! – runs into all kinds of trouble. In fantasy books, it’s always the dark forest that is full of threats. But in real life, it’s usually the cities where people get in trouble. What do you think is so appealing about the idea of a primal man from the wilderness facing off against a modern (well, more modern) world?
 
MEL: I’m pretty sure one could trace back Conan’s barbarism to the concept of the “noble savage.” But I also think “primal man from the wilderness” has an appeal because life in the wilderness, on the frontier, was simpler in many ways than the “modern” world. Not easier, but not as complicated. The threats to your survival in the wilderness are often better known. And perhaps the wilderness could be said to be less-populated by immoral distractions and temptations.
 
AC: The Ban of Irsisri stands out because of its vivid prose, and in some ways it reminds me of NK Jemisin – which is about the biggest compliment I can give a fellow fantasy author. Sorry if this is rude, but, how did a former corporate guy learn to write like that!?! Asking for a friend…
 
MEL: Asking for a friend? (laughs) We might stand your question on its head and ask, how did a fantasy writer survive Corporate America for thirty years? Seriously, I think that, to the extent my writing succeeds, it has a lot to do with reading and revision. Many successful writers have counseled new writers to read a lot and read broadly. And, over time, the more I read, the more I learned how good writers produced their work. And the more I learned, the more I went back to revise. And revise. And revise. I would set my work aside for a while and come back to it later with fresh eyes, only to discover, with chagrin, I had more work to do. 
 
AC: Tell us something no one else knows about Mark E Lacy or The Ban of Irsisri?
 
MEL: Only my junior high school English teacher knows that the fantasy story I wrote in ninth grade, which won first place in the school's literary contest, was a seed that would sprout and influence the scene, early in The Ban of Irsisri, when Enkinor and Strigin escape into the hills beyond the city of Kophid, only to face their pursuers and a forest fire of supernatural origin.
 

Landscapes and World-Building

The English language is rich with terms to describe the outdoor world (many of which have been borrowed from other languages), such as coteau and coulee, jaral and jetty, savanna and sawtooth. The worlds of most fantasy novels use natural settings where the features of the landscape may help or hinder the protagonists, or set the mood for the plot. When an author is creating a fantasy world where she needs to construct these settings, how can she find the best descriptors?

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (2006, Barry Lopez, ed.) is essentially an encyclopedia of terms to describe geographical features. The book includes a number of illustrations. I guarantee, if you browse through Home Ground you will find many things you've never heard of before, as well as accurate descriptions to accompany terms you always believed you knew but might not have quite right. (Note, the focus here is on the American countryside; I recently wanted to look up "moors", but since we don't have moors in America, it wasn't listed.)

Tipperary and "The Ban of Irsisri"

If 'Tipperary and "The Ban of Irsisri"' were a "Jeopardy!" game-show answer, the correct question would be, "What is a long, long way?"

I'm excited to announce that The Ban of Irsisri is officially available on Amazon in both Kindle and print editions, as of today (July 17, 2018). It has truly been a long, long road to arrive at this point. Along the way: revision, revision, revision. Backtracking. Changing direction. Times that life demanded I step off the road for a little while, and times I just needed a rest. Times when I thought the novel was complete, and times when I thought it would never be finished.

Thankfully, the journey was less burdensome because of friends and family who shared the road with me, encouraged me as I plodded along. I'm also grateful for a publisher who saw the novel's potential, joined me on the road, and shared a map with me that showed how we could get to where we are today: publication!

All I ever really wanted was to put the story in readers' hands. I hope you will read it and enjoy it.

Glaciers, Bogs, and Ancient Ruins in "The Ban of Irsisri"

In less than a week, The Ban of Irsisri will go up on Amazon! The release is set for July 17. The experience of having my book published is sooooo cool. Please mark the date on your calendar and go online to look at it, if not buy it! It will be available in both paperback and Kindle versions.

Over the past few weeks, I've shared a number of different inspirations for the landscapes that form various settings in The Ban of Irsisri. Here are three more:

  1. The Cana Glalith is a glacier that appears in the story. Within the ice, someone long ago created a small armory and placed spells on it so only certain people could access it. It turns out that the armory, Icefast Hold, contains more than anyone ever knew. My inspiration for the Cana Glalith came from seeing glaciers like the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska.
  2. Not too far from the city of Kophid, a Saerani warrior, Visylon, is trying to find his friend, Enkinor. The trail leads him to a bog, up in the hills, where he is confronted by outlaws, a powerful man-like creature called a krylaan, and a huge monster that comes out of the water to indiscriminately attack everyone. I was inspired to create this setting by the many bogs one can see in upstate New York and the Adirondacks.
  3. The abandoned temple of Qirik was a site of demon-worship sometime before the events taking place in The Ban of Irsisri. The sorcerer Raethir Del must travel to Qirik in order to obtain otherworldly aid in obtaining the Gauntlets, a powerful artifact owned by Enkinor. As I constructed Qirik I was inspired by two different landscapes. One was Angkor Wat in Cambodia and ruins, choked by trees like the strangler fig, appearing in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The other inspiration was the ruins of Chichen Itza, the pre-Columbian Mayan city in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Rock Music and "The Ban of Irsisri"

My recent posts have pointed out real-world inspiration for the exotic landscapes found in my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri (due out July 17!). Much of this inspiration came from the Tennessee countryside, including lakes, waterfalls, caves, and mountains. But some of my inspiration came from album covers for 1970s rock music.

In The Ban of Irsisri there is a chapter where the protagonist, Enkinor, has been transported by the Dreamtunnel to the volcanic island of Tari Nar. When Enkinor wakes up on the shore of this island, the horizon seems unnaturally near. Once he climbs through the jungle to a higher vantage point, he can see that a vast upwelling of water surrounding Tari Nar is actually flowing over the side of a larger crater within which Tari Nar sits. (A geologist might be able to speculate on the geothermal causes of this.) This landscape was inspired by the inside of the cover of an album by Yes, titled "Close to the Edge."

The Ban of Irsisri also presents some rather exotic-looking people and creatures. For example, the real villain in the story is a shape-shifting sorcerer named Raethir Del. Early in the novel, Enkinor witnesses Raethir Del's shape-shifting firsthand when the sorcerer transforms into a fish. Not long after, however, Enkinor is witness to a more spectacular feat of metamorphosis when Raethir Del transforms into something that is part man, part wolf, and part butterfly. This image was inspired by the cover of the album by Uriah Heep, titled "Demons and Wizards."

The artist behind both album covers is the imaginative Roger Dean.

A Mountain and a Grave in "The Ban of Irsisri"

I've been sharing some of the real-life geography that inspired the landscapes in my novel, The Ban of Irsisri (release date T-24 days and counting!). Many of these landscapes were inspired by geographic features in Tennessee.

Visylon, one of the main characters in The Ban of Irsisri, begins his search for his friend Enkinor in the Parthulian Hills. There, as the sun sets, he is approached by Anquilon, the ghost of a historic warrior. Anquilon points to a nearby double-peak in the hills, and explains that on that peak Visylon will find the grave of an ancient king, and a small cedar growing from the grave. Visylon must cut down the tree with his sword in order to draw into his sword some important power critical in the development of the story.

The double-peak was modeled after the Chimney Tops, a prominent geological feature easily seen from the parkway crossing the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and accessible by a steep 3.7-mile hike. In the early 1970s, my father and brother and I made the climb. The trail at that time ended at the base of the rocky pinnacles and a sign (long since gone) warned hikers about proceeding further. Naturally, having inherited a bit of my mother's rebelliousness, I scrambled up the first of the two peaks. I was rewarded with not only a view across the "saddle" to the second peak, but also a breathtaking view of the Sugarlands valley through which the parkway climbs on its way from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina.

The tree growing from a grave was inspired by a real-life grave in the woods of Jackson County, Tennessee. My step-great-great-grandfather's first wife, Lucinda Deatherage Matheny, is buried in an unusual above-ground brick-encircled grave. A tree once grew from the top of this grave. I always felt the grave was unusual; to see the tree growing from the grave, drawing nourishment from the dust of human remains, felt very Gothic to me.

Waterfalls and an Underground Lake: Settings in "The Ban of Irsisri"

Last week I shared how exotic landscapes are said to be a hallmark of epic fantasy, and how the opening scenes of my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, occur on and along the shores of a large lake surrounded by forested hills that was based in part on Center Hill Lake in Middle Tennessee.

The Ban of Irsisri, scheduled to be published next month, was originally self-published under the title The Dreamtunnel Sequence. Readers may recall the cover of that first "edition" depicted a very high waterfall. (See the Amazon page for The Dreamtunnel Sequence to see this cover.) The artwork on the cover is a watercolor, titled "The Challenge," by an artist named Richard Akerman. I purchased a print of this many years ago. I was always struck by Akerman's use of shades and tints of blue to show depth, the way he gave movement to the art through his depiction of mist at the bottom of the falls, and the way he included riders leading horses at the bottom of the falls to give the falls scale.

This watercolor was the inspiration behind the Falls of Mist on the Esolasha River in my story. The tower Tura Iaphon stands in a hidden grotto near the falls, and the Rivertree, a gigantic red cedar, straddles the Esolasha River upstream from the falls. In my novel, Visylon, a Saerani warrior, must retrieve a prophetic document from its hiding place within the Rivertree. To do this, he must successfully paddle down the rushing waters of the Esolasha and enter the base of the Rivertree without being swept over the falls.

Early in the novel, Enkinor, another main character, is racing ahead of a forest fire. He reaches a very tall bluff, next to a different waterfall, and has no choice but to do some non-technical rock-climbing to reach the bottom. That waterfall was inspired by a real-life waterfall, Fall Creek Falls near the town of Spencer in Middle Tennessee. Fall Creek Falls is the highest free-falling waterfall east of the Mississippi. Enkinor finds a cave and an underground lake behind the base of the waterfall. This underground lake was inspired by a lake in Sweetwater, Tennessee, called The Lost Sea. The Lost Sea is the largest non-subglacial underground lake in the US and the second-largest in the world.