Barbecued Heroes: Radiant Heat is Bad

Mount Ngauruhoe aka Mount Doom n the lord of t...
Mount Ngauruhoe aka Mount Doom n the lord of the rings movies, this is a very regularly shaped active volcano in tongariro national park. the famous “tongariro crossing” hike goes past it but not to the top. the climb isn’t hard, but it’s a long way up a pretty steep slope of loose ashes and rubble; not the most enjoyable terrain to hike on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember the scene inside Mount Doom where Frodo and Gollum wrestle for the ring? In the movie, they are in a mostly enclosed space, on a bridge high over the lava. They were sweating but the bridge is high and the cave is large. Shouldn’t really be too hot, should it? Alas, Sam, Frodo and Gollum would have been cooked the moment they stepped into that cave, unless there was some magical protection that was unmentioned in book or movie.

As a thought experiment, imagine a magma chamber underground. Everything in that pool of molten rock will be pretty much at the same temperature (about 700 to 1200 degrees C, per Wikipedia.) This is because it’s a very hot body enclosed in a very good insulator (lots of rock). In fact, it will start altering and melting the adjacent rock, an effect you can see at the edges of granitic intrusions (plutons) that have weathered to the surface. Now, imagine a small gas cavity at the top of the magma. How hot is that pocket of gas? Why, just as hot as the magma because it will be heated by the magma and can’t dissipate much heat into the insulating rock.

Let’s expand that pocket of gas to the size of, say, the Mount Doom cave. How hot is the air above the magma? It is still the same temperature as the magma: there’s no where for the heat to go (technically, there is heat flow through the rock but it is very low.) Now, let’s cut a tiny window into this cave. In the real world, what you get is a volcanic eruption as the pressure on the magma is released and it boils away exactly as what happens in a shaken soda-can when suddenly opened. But let’s ignore that and pretend there is no pressure differential and, thus, no eruption. How hot is it in the cave? Well, it’s still the temperature of the magma, throughout the entire cave, including all rock surfaces and the air. A small hole will provide minimal heat loss. The cave isn’t going to cool.

Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader duel on Mustafar.
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader duel on Mustafar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, let’s try a bigger hole, about the size of the opening to the Mount Doom chamber in the movie. Now is it cooler? Not really. Perhaps near the doorway it will be not quite so balmy but that opening still is fairly insignificant. The magma will have no trouble heating the walls, air, bridge, etc., to about its temperature. This means, enter the cave and, poof, you are suddenly exposed to 1200C (judging by the fluidity of the lava in the movie, let’s go with the higher temperature). That’s pretty much an instant burst into flames. But wait, what if cool air was being drawn into the cave? That is possible. Maybe old lava tubes provide conduits into the cave. A chimney effect might draw quite a lot of air through the cave and out the door. I’m just going to wave my hands here but at the very least the air flow would likely be immense, making it probably impossible to walk into the cave or a real danger of getting sucked into the lava tube. But regardless, it still wouldn’t solve the problem you would have in this cave because aside from convective heating of the air, the magma is radiantly heating everything in line of sight of it.

Anyone who has cooked knows a heating element can burn without making contact (think toasters, broilers, etc.): infra-red (light) can burn. Huge pools of molten rock create a lot of radiant heat.

So, Sam, Frodo and Gollum need something magical to protect them in this cave. Certainly something that could have been present, though, again, there was no mention of it.

English: A geologist collecting a lava sample ...
English: A geologist collecting a lava sample for chemical analyses from an active lava flow on Kilauea, using a rock hammer and a bucket of water. Notice the gloves ūüôā (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are used to this sort of movie physics from many action-adventure shows. How many times does the hero outrun a fireball in a tunnel, for instance? Aside from the fact that few explosions would move slow enough to be outrun, if there was a flaming ball of gas in the tunnel, all that radiant heat from the fireball would be bouncing down the tunnel at you like a big death ray. You would be badly burned long before the actual flames touched you. If you have spent any time around a fireplace or firepit, this, too, is no surprise. It’s something we all know. For me, it was really driven home when I watched a show about a fire in a large fuel tank. The tank caught fire, the fire department poured water onto it. This contained it until the water that pooled atop the oil got hot enough to boil at which point the water turned to steam which ejected the oil in a fine mist which promptly exploded like a huge fuel-air bomb. It was all rather sudden (no time to out run the fireball) and interestingly, people standing over 800 feet away were not touched by flames, were not affected much by blast (because it mostly went up) but they did suffer 3rd degree burns on exposed flesh from radiant heat. Ouch.

As always with a well established trope, this can be ignored. Only we engineers seem to groan at such things (probably fire fighters, too, but I don’t know any). But, again, you might enrich your setting or story by doing something about it. It might help the verisimilitude if your smith has to figure out how to tolerate the heat of lava as part of forging the ring of doom. Because we all know, if we stop to think about it, you can get badly burned by really hot things without actually touching or falling into them.

So let’s talk Mustafar of Star Wars fame. Here, there do appear to be shields protecting the installation from the radiant heat (good). In fact, when disabled, it appears the radiant heat can quickly melt thick metal, as when the collector bends and drops into the lava stream. Strangely, the dueling Jedi don’t seem to suffer the same effect. There must be some Jedi trick to reflect heat (not entirely implausible in that universe, I think the old KOTOR games may have had a similar affect at one point). But even so, we have radiant heat that can quickly melt metal at 100 meters or so and can cause Anakin ¬†to burst into flame while lying on the shore but don’t affect Obi-wan or Anakin¬†while riding those little ore carts. Must be more Jedi magic that stops working once you get your legs and an arm lopped off.

But that’s the least of the implausibilities with Mustafar. Where does the breathable air come from on a lava planet? How would endemic, complex creatures evolve there? And why are they mining lava? That’s undifferentiated material and economically of little value: the important stuff is mixed in with too much unimportant stuff. On Earth, while you might quarry igneous rock as a building material, you don’t mine it until other processes have concentrated the valuable minerals and elements. Lava is almost by definition maximally undifferentiated, i.e., of the least possible mineral value. The only exception would be if you could tap a magma chamber that was mostly solidified. The remaining melt will have lots of odd elements in it that don’t play well with others and are generally of value. But in that case, you are taking advantage of differentiation in a solidifying magma body, not free running lava.

You could also ask why does Star Wars make so much use of single biome planets (Ice Planet Hoth, Lava Planet Mustafar, Forest Moon Endor, etc.)? For biomes, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense from all we know about Earth and suspect about other planets. But, while it would not have a breathable atmosphere, you could have a lava planet. We already know about planets orbiting so close to their sun they are probably molten. But in an upcoming post, I’d like to explore young planets because they will have a lot more radioactive elements and consequently be a lot hotter, which could make for interesting science fiction settings.

Worldbuilding is not Mapmaking

Campaign Cartographer
Campaign Cartographer

A well crafted map is a pleasure, making you feel as if you are a character in the world as you puzzle over it. But contrary to some websites on world-building, map making is not the main part of world building. It isn’t even a very critical element early on. So for all of you who despair of your free-hand drawing or CAD skills, all is not lost. Maps are a small part of the art of fantasy story telling, one that, like a book cover, can be out-sourced.

What’s wrong with starting with a map on your fantasy project? It can work but there are multiple pitfalls. For one, you might end up spending many hours working on your map (or mastering a CAD program¬†then¬†working on your map), hours perhaps better spent on the story itself. Worse, you might find that the map you created doesn’t work for your story. You might need an extra city, kingdom, wood, or what have you. If you drew your map by hand, plan to start over. If you used a CAD package (like Campaign Cartographer from Profantasy, a fine way to do maps), it isn’t quite the same nuisance but even so, fiddling with your map as your story evolves can get old: it’s distracting and it’s time spent on something other than refining your story.

A map I did a long time ago and have reused for several campaigns
A map I did a long time ago and have reused for several campaigns

The real problem with starting with a map, however, is that its existence can mask the more critical elements of world building. There are better places to start, unless you are consciously doing a story in a world populated entirely with fantasy tropes. Such a world might have your friendly, reclusive elves here, your irascible dwarves in their mountain there, burgeoning human population on this coast, wilds kind of in between it all, and so on. It might also make for an extremely hard to sell story, because what little interest me-too Lord of the Rings novels enjoyed was long ago. Most successful speculative fiction is going to start with a premise, something I mentioned as one of my own epiphanies in Things I wish I’d Learned Sooner.

From premise, some writers may go straight to the characters, theme and plot. Or you might flesh out the setting a bit, knowing you will come across some interesting stories as you do. For instance, your basic concept might be: what if the gods of your world were mortals in other worlds? From there, you might start thinking about how such a world might unfold: maybe there was an age where the ‘gods’ were just powerful immortals frolicking in this new playground of a world, before ¬†a second age where some came to crave power and a third age when they moved to the heavens. You keep asking yourself questions: what made them go to the heavens? How about safety: it was a place where they could not be assassinated. How did they find this “heaven”? One of the gods explored the path. Where was this path? In the far north, where the tree of light stood (stealing a page from Tolkien here), etc. Hmm, I might like to write a story about that: a god-like immortal who wants to escape from his fellow beings. What would make him do that? What sort of person would he be?

All you really need for a map while writing
All you really need for a map while writing

There are still other ways to kick around a story but most of them start with things other than a map: the characters, flaws and turning points, etc. Once you have a good idea of what sort of story you want to tell, then it might be appropriate to flesh out culture, technology, magic, religion, society, etc. After that, is it time to make a map? It depends on the story but for most stories, even then, you might be better served by a “spaghetti” diagram rather than a real map. The example here is from a recent short story, although to be honest, I did it after the story, just for this blog. I didn’t need the diagram to write the story. Novels will be more complex than this example but note that there is no attempt to be artful and only a rough spatial relationship is sketched out.

The spaghetti diagram is all you’re going to need for most stories, perhaps several if your story takes place in different regions (say one for a city or palace, another for the kingdom, and a third for a dungeon half-way through.) As a writer, you need to know how far things are so that your travel is plausible and the rough spatial relationships so that you don’t have the fastest route to the palace be Acerton then Pleasanton one scene and the reverse another scene. Other than that, unless you have a very particular type of story where the exact days and geography matter, that’s all you need.

But what about creating a map for the inside cover of my fantasy novel? When the time comes, you can draw it from your spaghetti diagram. Or if you don’t care to do that, there are many, many fine artists who will draw the map for you for about $200 (seems like a steal to me.)

Myself, I do like to create maps and have done so for my D&D campaigns for decades. But while some of my maps have more merit than others, in the end, I’m not a great artist. When I need a map for a published novel, I will be using a third-party. It will look better than anything I can do myself and, just as important, I won’t have to spend 20 or 40 hours on it that I could better spend on a revision or a new story.

If you are looking for someone to do your map, the Profantasy forums have postings, if you like the Profantasy look to maps. But a quick Google can find other artists. I’ve listed one that I know of through a friend but you can also try your local college’s art department where there are many starving artists eager to help for a pittance. If you do use a third-party, just be clear what the end-use for the map is. If it is meant to go into a monochrome page at the back of your book, you don’t want the artist to make a gorgeous, full color map: it will look muddy and hard to read once you reduce it to grayscale.

Feel Good Feedback from a Writing Coach

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...
William Faulkner’s work space. This is not what my workspace looks like. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever send something in to a professional writing coach or editor for a development critique and get a warm, fuzzy feeling from their response? I haven’t. But I did just read Brian Klems’ Confessions of a Story Coach on Writer’s Digest and it did make me feel better about my writing.

The part that warmed the cockles of my heart? “…¬†we almost always suck at assessing our own work.” I know, it’s¬†silly,¬†but one of the things that bothers me is letting my writing out the door for others to see and then looking at it a few months later and realizing how deficient it was. It’s always nice to get a reminder from a pro that at least this isn’t an uncommon failing. More practically, it felt good to realize that I do (I think) finally get many¬†of the other¬†points he hammered on.

One of the interesting bits was his distinction between concept and premise. It isn’t one I’ve made, or for that matter, have any of the professionals I’ve worked with.¬†In Fantasy Stories that Inhabit the Setting, I went on about premise, although in Brian’s terminology, it was really concept that I meant. I’m not sure I can train myself to refer to it as concept, or that it really matters, if so many other writing pros call it premise, but the contrast he makes was interesting:

Concept is the centerpiece, the notion, the Big Idea, that imbues a premise with compelling energy.  Concept is not story, premise is story.

A story about two people falling in love… that’s the beginning of a premise.  A story about two people falling in love in a nunnery, or during Army boot camp and one is the drill instructor, or one is a ghost… those are concepts.

Berbig√£o-comum // Common Cockle (Cerastoderma ...
Berbigão-comum // Common Cockle (Cerastoderma edule) (Photo credit: Valter Jacinto | Portugal)

Seems like he muddles “his concept is not story” at the end but, regardless, it’s a worthwhile point to make and his calling out premise/concept as a key element of good craft makes me feel like the boy in the classroom praised by his teacher (“Mom, after twenty years, I finally figured it out!”)

Brian’s post is a good piece on a writing coach’s perspective on what makes a story work. It’s short, to the point, and worth a look.

As a bonus feature today: what is a cockle? The main definition appears to be shell and comes ultimately from Greek but more directly from the French coquille (as in Coquille St. Jacques, very yummy! And low-cal, too, in some alternate universe.) The shells of my heart? Somehow warming the cockles of my heart is, what, piercing the shell? But there’s another meaning, from The Free Dictionary:

5. (Engineering / Mechanical Engineering) a small furnace or stove cockles of one’s heart one’s deepest feelings (esp in the phrase warm the cockles of one’s heart)

I’m guessing somewhere along the line a small engineering stove was named a cockle because it looked something like a shell (we engineers are found of such slang, although it is often off-color. Don’t ask what we call a large power cable.) So warming the cockles is lighting the furnace in your heart, an interesting image, I suppose. But then someone on ChaCha¬†claims it comes more from the fact that some shells (cockle’s main meaning) are heart-shaped¬†and thus the linkage. I like the furnace tie better but I couldn’t really find anything definitive after thorough research of the topic (a la, the modern High School student’s research: “I looked around the web for 10 minutes, really 5 minutes if you don’t count the recipe for Coquille St. Jacque I looked up.”)¬† The closest I got to a real answer was on Glossologics.

Who knows, maybe it is a bit of both: the furnace was named a cockle because it was heart-shaped and hard, like the shell. Heart shape -> heart +¬†furnace -> the warmth of love, together you get “warm the cockles of my heart”, a phrase known by all and understood by not too many. I’m sure it sounded fresher the first time it was used but I have to wonder if it really made any more sense to audiences, even then.

WordPress actually suggested I tag this post with “cockle”. I almost did until I realized there are probably zero people following the cockle tag and it would just clutter up my tag cloud, more of a cockle chiller¬†than a warmer, really. And it also recommended I tag “Nancy Pelosi” so maybe I just confused the hell out of WordPress.

Fantasy Worlds Worth Visiting

The battle of Gettysburg, Pa. July 3d. 1863, d...
The battle of Gettysburg, Pa. July 3d. 1863, depicting the Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1‚ÄĒ3, 1863. The battle was part of the American Civil War and was won by the North. Hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives. Espa√Īol: Batalla de Gettysburg Magyar: A gettysburgi csata (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On¬† a transatlantic flight last weekend, I finished reading Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters. It’s a novelization of the battle of Gettysburg from both rank-and-file and senior officers’ perspectives. I found it quite enjoyable and superior to Killer Angels, with which it has inevitably been compared. While some of the soldiers seemed a bit caricatured and the battle descriptions can be quite gruesome, I thought the generals were much better drawn than Killer Angels (where most of them did not ring true to me) and the gore, while disturbing and not for every reader, felt like it truly captured the horror of that battlefield. I read a lot of military history, including Civil War history and in sum, it seemed to capture that¬†time and the horrors of war in general.

The man beside me on the flight was reading Game of Thrones. That’s a series I just can’t get into, partly because of the sordidness that Martin is intent on capturing. Within the last month, as he was defending the last episode of the season that just finished (no spoilers here!) he commented once again that equally sordid things happened in real history although as an amateur historian, I didn’t find the historical precedence he cited all that convincing. But whether or not things close to what he depicted really happened, it certainly isn’t hard to find equally horrible and depraved historical events so that isn’t really the point. For me, the question is if I can enjoy Cain at Gettysburg, why can’t I enjoy similar horror and sordidness in something like GOT?

My answer is, perhaps, goofy but nonetheless key to what I look for in fantasy. Similarly, it is fundamental to what I want to write. I even¬†suspect I’m not alone in this: my silly secret is that¬†I want to read fantasy set in a world I would be happy to visit. I read lots of gritty, grim historical novels and non-fiction. I’m fascinated by what life was like in many ages and on many battlefields. But offer me a magic portal to such a time and place and I’ll turn it down. Curious about life in ancient Rome, very much so. Do I want to live there? No.

But when it comes to fantasy, I don’t read fantasy just because it is fantasy. In fact, my average book isn’t fantasy: it’s history, an historical¬†novel, maybe a thriller or murder mystery. Those provide all the sordidness I could ever want. When I turn to fantasy, I don’t mind gore or¬†evil (go Sauron!) but I’d like it to be in a place that offers a bit more: characters that are noble, a world of wonder where¬†I would take that magic portal. Not saying I’d necessarily volunteer to be Frodo¬†but I would hope to be a passable¬†enough Pippin or Merry should that portal appear and give me a chance to live in Middle Earth. Same holds for Pern or Amber or a host of other classic fantasy settings. These are places where there is something markedly different and uplifting from good old Earth and its often pointless squabbles.

This is, of course, just my personal opinion. Others, many others, differ. That’s fine and clearly there’s enough of those readers for some writers to be wildly successful. But I personally won’t read that. If I want gritty, there’s plenty to choose from set on Earth. For a fantasy author to tell me “but it happened on Earth” is beside the point. I don’t want to read a rehash of history when I can read the real thing.¬†For fantasy,¬†I¬†want something different from, and yes, something more noble, than¬†Earth.

In the end, fantasy is a bit different for me than other genres. As escapist literature, I want it to be about a place a want to escape to.

Anyone else make a similar distinction?

Hope Management for Writers

Dreams in a Puddle
Dreams in a Puddle

Most writer’s seem to need dreams to propel themselves through the hundreds and thousands of hours it will take to finish a book but those dreams don’t always serve us well in the face of rejection. Nothing like having hopes dashed to make you want to give the whole thing up.

In some of my recent posts, my comments may have been mistaken for a touch of despair. I’m pleased to report that I’m still in the “happy writer’s place.” I’m enjoying a break from my current project by doing story development on my next one. Defining the basic premise, characters and plot is a particularly enjoyable exercise for me. What some of you may have keyed off of is my ‘hope management’ that keeps me motivated without letting things get so unbounded that bad news crushes my spirit.

Off and on, I’ve been writing since 1990 with the ‘off’ periods mostly due to over-reaction to negative feedback. After analyzing that (I am an engineer, after all), my response has been to set more realistic goals with a better understanding of the writer’s market. Consider this an extension of all those blog posts that remind us that almost all successful writers endured heaps of rejections¬†before finding success. In my case, a better understanding of my chances helps me accept the more-critical-than-hoped-for feedback, the oh-so-terse editor/agent rejections, the fact that the story that I loved and¬†spent two years on just isn’t up to snuff and should be set aside. It then follows that I must be prepared to shelve my current project at some point if it doesn’t get traction. I could keep polishing it forever and it is tempting to do that (look I’m a writer: see, I have a book I’m working on) but there’s too much good advice out there from folks in the business that suggests moving on after a reasonable time¬†is the proper course if I ultimately want to be a successful writer, which I do. So, that means being able to talk about setting SOTA aside, even if I still very much hope I can get it published.

It also means being realistic about other aspects of the writing business, like how much I want to market my work. Conventional publishing still requires a lot of work from the author but in the end, it will always be a challenge for me so I’m going to try the conventional path, where you get at least a little help. And I’ll think twice about ever taking¬†the self-pub path: I don’t want to do it just because the bar is lower. That’s no path to success in an absurdly crowded field. I might yet go self-pub, but only if I can’t find a contract and I also have some trustworthy feedback that the book is worth publishing. Otherwise, I’d rather wait to launch on a better book.

So for me, it’s a matter of setting realistic goals and having a realistic understanding of likely responses and reactions. That’s not to say I don’t let my hopes soar at times.¬† I find¬†the best time to unbridle the dreams is when writing the first draft. But when it comes time to put it out for critique or review, send it on to agents, etc., I find the criticism and rejection easier to take if I’m realistic about the response. These days, bad feedback is usually just a blip in my day. I allow myself not to write for a few days after worse-than-desired criticism but I don’t typically¬†do that any more. It’s just part of being a writer, like trying to figure out whether something needs a comma.

But one thing I’ve learned about feedback: I almost always need to set it aside and read it again in a few days because I tend to read it as more negative than it was. There have been more than a few critters critiques that were actually quite positive but when I read them the first time, I was convinced they were entirely negative. So best to read it twice, at least for me ūüôā

Not everyone approaches things this way. My two sons, for instance, have completely different responses to being asked to do a chore. One will happily do them whenever you ask. The other will moan and groan if you don’t give him advance notice. It would be nice if the second one didn’t require that but, in the end, that’s just the way he is wired (and I can appreciate his position because I don’t like chores dropped on me out of the blue either: “but honey, the garage has been a mess for months, why do we have to clean it today?”).

How do you manage your hopes as a writer?

Deep Story Magic Course

Line art representation of a Quill
Line art representation of a Quill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to courses and workshops for writers (see Mining the Miners for evidence). There are great courses and workshops out there but there’s also a lot of folks cashing in on writers’ hunger for success. In January, when I was trying to figure out what to do with an earlier manuscript, I mentioned that my wife took a course called Discovering Story Magic (DSM)¬†by Laura Baker at a Fearless Writer¬†(also DSM offers a concise, clear¬†way to define and drive the story from the characters. That is currently my weakest area as a writer so finding a way of looking at it that clicked was a huge relief.

I’ve got my current project out to two alpha readers and am taking a break from it by working on story development for¬†the next one. As it turns out, Laura has a sort of “mini” version of her DSM course¬†available starting 28 June.¬†Fortunate timing: I can spend a few weeks getting a first draft of the DSM “grid” and related material in place and hope to get some early, good feedback on it. It makes my break between revisions on SOTA a bit longer than planned but sometimes more distance is better between revisions, anyway.

To sign up for this mini-course, it is necessary to have some familiarity with DSM, either from an earlier course or from Laura’s course materials (available at one of the links above). Enrollment is limited to about 10, though, so if it sounds interesting, you may want to check it out sooner than later.

Mining the Miners (and Writers)

Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trai...
Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush (I’m the fourth man from the bottom). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a recent visit to the Klondike Gold Rush site in Seattle, I was reminded once again that the people most likely to make a killing in a gold rush are the folks who sell stuff to the miners. The saying in Seattle at the time of the gold rush was that the city-folk sought their¬†fortune “Mining the Miners.”

While there are always¬†a few in a gold rush¬†that find a fortune, nearly everyone else does not. You’d think picking up gold lying on the ground would be more lucrative! Of course, the gold is only lying on the ground for the first lucky few, then it is hard work. I’ve always found gold rushes fascinating and have read a fair amount about them over the years, enough to appreciate why people go and also enough to know that it would be pretty stupid (for me) to join one.

But now I find myself aspiring to be a successful writer. All you have to do is look at the payout of a Dan Brown or a JK Rowling, and the horde of starving writers in the shadows behind them to realize it is another form of gold rush: yes there’s wealth in them thar pages but the average writer isn’t going to find it. I long ago came to terms with that. I like writing for the sake of writing and while I might not do it with the same dedication if there wasn’t some glimmer of at least a modest payout, it’s a better use of my time than a lot of other pursuits.

However, extending the gold rush analogy brings you face-to-face with the people selling writing services. There’s no right or wrong to that, of course. There’s a demand for it and many of the services are quite good. But having recently joined the Writer’s Digest mailing list, I’m now¬†receiving a flood of offers for $90 webinars and the like.¬†It feels… very much like mine-the-writer. I have to hand it to the Writer’s Digest guys, they have a finely tuned sense of what is too much:¬†they manage to slip in just enough interesting blogs along with all the solicitations that I haven’t yet turned it off but I’m close to doing so.

It’s not that I don’t use or don’t¬†like some paid services: there are great workshops and services out there. But a flood of $90 webinars seems over the top. If I did just a fraction of them I’d blow my writer’s budget in three months. I’ve also seen writers spend way too much time taking courses and not actually writing.

In the end, this is just an observation but I’ll confess a little niggling doubt: one of my favorite demotivational posters shows a ship wreck with the caption (paraphrasing from memory): “What if the only purpose to your life is to serve as a warning to others?” Which begs the question, what if the only purpose of my writing is to line the pockets of those mining-the-writers? (Below is a similar poster I found at

Mistakes: what if that ship is my book? Courtesy
Mistakes: what if that ship is my book?

Conquels: What to do when you can’t do a sequel (yet)

Guild War's 2 Divinity's Reach
Guild War’s 2 Divinity’s Reach (In-game Screenshot)

I was a little disappointed to find conquel already in the Urban dictionary. Regardless, it’s the solution to my next project: something contemporary with my current SOTA project. I like the setting and if the current project does well, I hope to do a sequel with it. But there’s sensible advice out there not to start a sequel until you know Book 1 will do okay, since it is kind of hard to place Book 2 without its predecessor. And the SOTA setting is one where it is reasonable to have contemporary events that then can join together so… next project will (probably) be something that I¬†can do stand-alone but whose sequel could also merge with my current project’s sequel.

As for a premise, I’m thinking of leveraging my post on Pavia, City of¬†a Hundred Towers: maybe it’s a guy thing but I’ve always liked the imagery of spires, especially ones that are basically vertical palaces. And, I’ll confess I haven’t spent all of my spare time writing, I have also played Guild Wars 2 where I find the city, Divinity’s Reach, very striking. So, I was thinking of a setting on a huge, floating city with a thousand towers (hey, why stop at 100) and a premise where an Archon, repulsed at his own evil actions, scattered his memory across all these towers. The rest is still a bit fuzzy but next steps at this stage of the project are going to be to work with character flaw, inciting incident, turning points, black moment and resolution. None of which is very remarkable, except this will be the first time I’ve started with that rather than retrofitting it, so I have hopes this will all hang together better.

As for Guild Wars 2, it’s free to play after the client purchase and I have to say, is the best MMO I’ve played in years. It feels a lot like World of Warcraft, at the time it came out (not today when it feels horribly dated). Any given new element of Gw2¬†is evolutionary more than revolutionary but they added so many great evolutionary items that they have fundamentally improved game play, which, in sum, feels revolutionary to me. Plus it is just gorgeous to look at, and unlike any other MMO I’ve tried, has actually given me some great ideas for my own stories (idea seeds, not ideas to plagiarise ūüôā ). For those of you who game and haven’t tried it, it’s worth a look.

Niggling Characters

This isn’t really about niggling characters, it’s about the two main aspects of the¬†writing craft I learned in the last year. One is “don’t ignore niggling doubts” and the other is the importance of strong characters. Well, the second one is more something that I (think) has really, finally, truly¬†clicked, after all, you can hardly read a writing blog or craft book without the author mentioning it (but what do they know?)

Cover of "Shrek (Full Screen Single Disc ...
Dreamworks made me love an ogre and a donkey…

Niggling doubts are one area that’s a little different for me. There’s always a sentence or a scene or an opening that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Typically, I’m not quite sure if it’s a problem and, more often, I may not be sure what to do about it. So I leave it in, thinking, “Let’s see what the readers think. Maybe they’ll like it.” Bad idea. They never like. Sure, some may not comment on it but someone always will and after they do, it’s time to kick myself, thinking “Why didn’t I just fix it before I sent it out?”

It happened most recently in a revised chapter 1 for SOTA that I put through critters. I wasn’t sure if the exposition was too much in chapter 1. It was. And thing is, before queuing it, I knew it. I should have fixed it but in the end I wasn’t really sure what to replace it with. (Although queuing it wasn’t a total loss, some of the feedback did point me in the right direction.) So, new resolution, never ignore the niggling doubts. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on for the past year but I’m done¬†with letting the niggling prose slip through.¬†If something doesn’t feel quite right to me, it won’t feel any better for someone else. Afterall, I’m the author of said prose;¬†if someone as¬†biased as¬†me isn’t sure about it, who will it work for?

Hotel Transylvania
Hotel Transylvania: even a silly movie can hook you with good characterization.

The other thing that finally clicked has to do with characters: characters that appeal to the reader from the first scene but still are changed by the story. Here, I’m sure I’ve got a lot of work to get it right but what has changed for me is the realization that my stories aren’t going to go anywhere without solving that part of the puzzle. Interesting settings and clever plots are nice, and there’s always some author who can get away mostly with that (techno thrillers¬†can sometimes survive with cardboard characters) but I don’t like stories where the characters don’t engage me so why should I write them?

This realization has partly come through analyzing what appealed about movies and books I like. Why did I like Shrek¬†so much? I remember hearing the premise and thinking “Donkey and ogre, that’s completely stupid.” It was the characters and, especially, watching Shrek¬†change. Even something as silly and in the end forgettable as Hotel Transylvania was fun. It was predictable yet the characters still had me cheering for them. The Harry Potter series is another example. The setting is amusing and endearing although silly in many ways. The plots don’t always work for me although some of¬†the twists are fun but it’s the characters that grab me, including Hogwarts: it’s more character than setting for me.

TMSO has a great series of posts on how¬†Pixar handles this. I’ve also found Laura Barker’s Discovering Story Magic to be a great way to define the characters in a way that can help shape my stories and (hopefully) connect my plots to characters that engage the readers and have them cheering by the end.

Anyway, it’s off to the next false summit for me ūüôā

Happy writing.

The Medieval Fortress: Castle Encyclopedia for Writers

Cover of "The Medieval Fortress : Castles...
Cover via Amazon: The Medieval Fortress

Want a book that explains the parts of a fortress with copious line drawings, provides a very wide range of castle pictures and floor-plans, and perhaps most importantly for the writer, lots of info on the scale, purpose and history of different castles? The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages by the J. E. Kaufmann and H. W. Kaufmann may be the book for you.

There are many fine books on castles and depending on what you are looking for, this may or may not be your best choice. Osprey’s gorgeously illustrated Norman Stone Castles (1) The British Isles 1066-1216, for instance, is a lot more readable albeit focused on a particular time and place. Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and France Gies is a wonderfully readable introduction to castles with attention to the people who really made such a place function (cooks, stable-hands, and so on). There are many full color books with better photographs and floor-plans.

But for a survey of castles in all their myriad forms, for floor-plans of the famous and obscure, for a sense of the scale of castles, not just the outer dimensions you can read from any floor-plan but thickness of walls, arrangements of battlements, gatehouses¬†and drawbridges, this book is hard to beat. I’m not really sure who the authors. I suspect they are “just amateur” historians with a love for castles. I put that in quotes because there is nothing wrong with dedicated amateur historians. They typically write better books than the professionals who get too hung up on impressing other academics at the expense of dreadfully dull prose and historical interpretations that are feeble and caveat’d to uselessness.

The illustrations are all black & white, which is fine for the line art (very nicely done), and not so fine for the castle photographs. The book is divided into an overview of castles and their components followed by a survey of historical castles by region. Even as a history nut with a special thing for the middle ages and a love of castles, this book showed me castles I never knew of, castle features I never considered, and provided dimensions I was eager to have. Where it really shines are the drawings and explanatory text of castle components, from the 5 different wells and cisterns, to the four diagrams of various machicouli (machicolations) that clearly show size and how they work, the eight different ways to make a drawbridge, to more arrow-loop styles than you could imagine. Looking for an architectural flourish or wondering what that odd bit of a castle is for? Then this encyclopedic book is for you.

But it isn’t for everyone. The text is a bit on the dry side and the descriptions of the castles are cursory. I checked the Amazon reviews expecting to find they were mediocre, prepared to plug a book that while not perfect has its merits. Instead, I found almost all 5 star reviews. Curiously, the edition listed there was published in 2004 and my copy is 2001 with, from what I can tell, identical text but a different cover. I have a suspicion that most of the reviews are ‘plants’ by friends of the authors. So, don’t expect a 5-star book, but buy it or check it out of the library if you want to understand castles and all their shapes and pieces.

Here are a few tidbits from the book that might be of interest if you are crafting your own castle. Measurements in the book are in meters but I’ve converted back to English.


A section of Rome's Servian Wall at Termini ra...

One thing that usually irritates me in these books is a lack of generally useful dimensions. How tall and thick was the average wall? This book gives you both generalities and specifics. The typical Roman wall was 4 times as tall as it was wide and normally at least 9 feet tall. Thus a 40 foot high wall might be 10 feet thick, with walls tending to get thicker in the late Middle Ages (probably as a reaction to better siege weapons including cannons). Some specific wall dimensions: Rome’s Servian walls were 13 feet thick and 21 feet tall (stubbier¬†than typical but perhaps to provide a road atop the wall around the city). Actual wall thickness varied with need (thinner where the fortification was less vulnerable, for instance). Also, unless very thin, they were general faced in cut stone with rubble fill, not cut stone all the way through.


Keeps varied a bit in size, with a typical one 65 to 100 feet tall. Exceptional ones were as high as 120 feet with walls usually 5 to 7 feet thick but as much as 13 feet thick or even thicker. Moats could be 65 across and 35 feet deep: we’re not talking about a little ol’ ditch here. In many cases, the moats were stone faced and where possible, served as the quarry for the castle.


As an example of the treatment you can expect from this book, the discussion of towers not only shows illustrations of a range of towers, square, circular, half circle, octagon and more, it explains why the different forms evolved (mostly has to do with protection against sapping and fields of fire). Ever wonder what an architect did if he was concerned about the enemy seizing a tower and using it against the defenders? This book shows you with diagrams of open-backed towers that provided no protection towards the inside of the keep.


Ever wonder how the towers and keeps were capped? In modern fanciful reconstructions, you see soaring, conical peaks, were those really used? Yes (as you can also tell from Medieval illustrations like the books of hours) but this book will give you several cross-sections, of not just the roof but the stone-vaulted intermediate floors.