Category Archives: Setting and Milieu

Really epic Epic Fantasy

lotr posterI love epic fantasy. It’s always been one of my favorite genres to read, and of course the very first book I tried to write was epic fantasy. Didn’t go so well, but I have an epic fantasy series I plan to release eventually, so I’ll get there.

What makes epic fantasy so, well, epic?

The best epic fantasy, whether they’re a Tolkien spin-off or some other giant, multi-volume series of tomes big enough to prop up the sagging foundation of a house, there are some common elements that make great epic fantasy work.

Think Tolkien. He was really the father of epic fantasy, and a big ingredient in his special sauce was the world he created. Many other successful fantasies leveraged that world and resonated with the work Tolkien did. World-building is a huge element to most epic fantasy, and few authors do it so well.

The Name of the WindOne who does is Patrick Rothfuss. In The Name of the Wind, he creates a vibrant world, full of magic and music and poetry that does an unrivaled job at transporting readers into another world. Fans want to explore the world with the hero, linger there, and wallow in the depth of the vibrant cultures he creates.

George R.R. Martin takes a different approach. His political intrigue and huge cast of characters who get killed off more than just about any other series, transports readers in a very different way. The intricate plot, warring families, and intense action has captured an entire generation of readers.

Usually when we think of epic fantasy, we think magic, and the king of awesome magic systems is Brandon Sanderson. Whether the dark, gritty world of Mistborn or the hugely epic Stormlight Archives, Brandon always delivers intricate magic systems and unexpected twists and turns that keep readers clamoring for more.

There are many other great examples of epic fantasy, but these are enough to get a sense of the challenge facing authors trying to break into the epic fantasy world. The stories really need to be epic, usually there’s a large cast of characters, the stakes are as high as they can get, and the magic can be in a powerful magic system, an intricate political world, or a setting so majestic people don’t want to leave.

So what are your favorite epic fantasies, and why?

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Setting as Character

This is my second post this month in the “special sauce” category. Last time I talked about research. This post is about writing, and how to add interest to the story.

Writing, as an avocation, is as prone to fads, convention and conformity as pretty much any other human endeavor. If you pay any attention to the reams of “advice” that are thrown at aspiring writers from all corners of the literary world, you will soon see not only the current orthodoxy, you’ll see the currents and tides of changes to convention as one fashion fades and another rises…

For example, the current conventional “wisdom” includes the following “rules:”

  1. Never, ever, ever have a prologue.
  2. Adverbs are the sign of weak writing.
  3. You have to grab the reader by the throat in the first sentence, or you’ll never get to the second.
  4. Passive voice must be avoided like a literary leper.

I could go on.

One of those current conventions is that long, detailed descriptions of places and things are BadWrongWriting of the first order. After all, it violates several of the most important rules. It’s passive. It’s full of adjectives and adverbs. It interrupts the action.

It has been said by many successful editors and writers that it is unlikely that J. R. R. Tolkien could have gotten The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings published in today’s market. Too flowery. Too slow. Too…. boring.

If that is so, it’s a shame. As a writer, part of my joy in writing is in building worlds and bringing them to life for my readers. But reality is what it is, and as much as I personally love that style of writing, I have had to accept that if I want to write stories that are accepted by both editors and readers, I have to respect that convention, even as I hope it fades.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on bringing my worlds to life. Instead I’ve taken another approach, and that approach is what I call “Setting as Character,” meaning I treat the world as a dynamic, interactive part of the story, instead of as a passive stage to move my characters around and through.

Here is an example of what I mean. Suppose you have a setting of a lush jungle and your protagonist has to find a ruined temple to advance the plot. You’ve gone to great trouble to create that jungle in some detail, including deciding the major flora and fauna, the weather cycles, the climate, and some level of history. Having done that you could bring the reader into that jungle like this:

“Dammit!” Joe cursed.

Blood welled up from shallow cuts on his forearm. With a gloved hand, he yanked the tangled, thorny tendrils of devil’s rose free, sending a shower of drops flying, making him blink. The cool water eased the oppressive heat, and he closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the sensation.

Image result for stock jungle photos

A fibrous root caught his toe, making him stumble as it ripped loose, exposing a length of lichen-studded granite. The ancient rock caught his eye, it seemed out of place compared to the ubiquitous red sandstone of the area. Placing one hand on the thick trunk of a towering fern, he leaned down to study the strange stone…

In other words, make the setting part of the story. Have your characters interact with it, struggle against it, savor it…

Give your world a personality. Show the reader its spirit.

 

Research Until Your Fingers Bleed

This month the Fictorians are focusing on posts about what we, as authors, believe sets our work apart, or at least, what we believe makes our writing more authentic and compelling. In other words, what is our “special sauce?”

I’d like to think there is more than one thing that I do which gives my writing authenticity and makes it worth reading, but there is one thing I have done that seems to surprise most people.

My first epic fantasy series is set in a stone age culture, and the protagonist is in training to become a “flint-knapper” which is a person who creates stone tools. In fact, one of those stone tools, a knife, is one of the most important artifacts in the story. His skill with a bow is also critical to the story line.

When I started writing the story, I rapidly came to realize that I was having trouble writing scenes that revolved around stone age technology. I wanted to bring the reader into those scenes. I wanted those scenes to reveal the protagonist’s persistence, his struggle to master his craft, and eventually his talent and pride in creating the tools that his village needed to survive.

So I did “research.” I searched for every article or paper I could find on the ancient art of flint-knapping. I watched videos. I purchased stone arrowheads and spearheads at flea markets. Like these:

But even after that, I never really felt like my scenes reached that level of authenticity I wanted.

So I set out to learn flint-knapping myself. Luckily there was a little shop on my way home from work that sold rocks. So one day I stopped in and looked around. I got to talking with the owner, and eventually told him that I was an aspiring author who wanted to learn flint-knapping. His eyes lit up, and an hour later I left the store with a cloth sack filled with about twenty pounds of rocks. It turns out that making stone tools requires different kinds of rocks, plus some other tools, like antler tines or something similar. It looked sorta like this:

Then I set to work. I spent an hour or so after work and on weekends for weeks, bashing rocks together on my patio. It was a slow, painful and painstaking process, just to learn how to strike a blank with a hammerstone in the proper way to break off a suitable chunk of obsidian to START to make an arrowhead or spearpoint. And learning that took a toll on my fingers and thighs. Eventally I got some thick pieces of leather to protect my thighs and clothes, but there was really nothing you could do to protect your hands and fingers. If you wanted to make stone tools, especially arrowheads, spearpoints or knives, you were going to cut your fingers and hands.

And the cuts were not simple scrapes or splinters. Obsidian has been used to create scalpels for eye surgery because the result of a well-aimed blow will create an edge that is, literally, sharper than a razor. So those cuts bled copiously. My leather thigh protectors were soon stained with blood. This is a pretty good example of what that looked like:

I won’t pretend that I ever mastered the art of flint-knapping, but I did get decent enough to be able to make functional tools. But more importantly, I learned enough that when I returned to those scenes, the writing came from a natural understanding of the mechanics of the craft, as well as the risks.

“Write what you know” they say. Well, in this case, that’s what I decided to do. And I think it paid off in spades.

So, my fellow authors, when you need to learn something to make your story believable, research it, baby! Research until your fingers bleed!

Mine did.

(No, I didn’t make this. But this is what the knife in the book is modeled on. This was made by a professional flint-knapper, and is an example of what a skilled artisan can do with stone. My wife and daughter had the sheath custom-made for the knife. It’s a pretty cool combo.)

The Special Sauce Makes or Breaks it All

Pouring Chocolate

What makes Grandma’s pies better than anyone else’s?

What makes the Big Mac stand out?

It’s the special sauce, of course.

The sauce is the final layer, the finishing touch that elevates a dessert, a hamburger, or a rack of barbecued ribs from the level of pretty good to Wow!

Your favorite authors have their own special sauce too. It’s that special something that you recognize as soon as you flip open one of their books and start reading. It’s whatever they do that’s uniquely theirs, the sometimes subtle signature that makes their stories stand just a bit apart.

This month, we’re exploring the question of what what makes the best stories stand apart? What’s unique and recognizable about our favorite authors? Is it their character voice, their world building, their breakneck pacing, or their use of imagery?

We’re also going to discuss how newer authors work on developing their own special sauce. It can take experimentation and lots of practice, and it can be a really fun journey.

So stick around and share what you consider the special sauce of your favorite authors.