Photo by Ricce

Photo by Ricce

What is time? If you’re writing SF/F, steampunk, or any other fictionally odd genre, it’s a question you may find yourself wondering. How would time differ from one place to another? How do we measure time? What would cause a shift in time?

Some writers choose to think far outside the box, using different “turns” of planets, and other methods to distinguish what parts make up an hour/parsec/etc. For the mathematically inclined, the study of the measure of time can be endlessly fascinating–and even from a linguistic perspective it’s a whole ton of fun. Our own world has plenty of wonderful history on the subject!

Initially in The Aldersgate, I didn’t consider time to be much different than our own. Earena is very like earth in size and shape, and distance from the sun (the year is a little longer, but not by much). So in the first draft, everything in minutes, seconds, hours, that’s sort of thing. As the steampunk aesthetic started to make itself more apparent, as well as the reigning Queen’s obsession with machinery, I thought I’d use a “tick” as a minute and a “turn” as an hour–like in a clock. The second hands, technically, tick as well, but so do the hour hands in older technologies. I like it anyway!

One of my pet peeves in fantasy literature in particular has to do with the language of the year. How many books have you picked up that say, “he was eight summers old at the time,” or, “she had already lived eighty winters.” Yes, seasons are important and, yes, it works as a method of time. But it’s hackneyed, folks.

I honestly haven’t used a substitute for the year yet, because I need to do more research into the effects of two moons on a planet  like ours. I imagine messing with tides, and phases would change the way that people perceive of time a bit. I do know that when the moons are both at their fullest, it’s Spring–hence the whole Blooming Day theme in the first few chapters. Moons, of course, have all sorts of wonderful mythological connections to women, so there’s that too. I just need to pick an astrophysicist’s brain for a while, and then I can come up with some concrete answers.

At any rate, whatever choose to do with time, make sure it’s consistent throughout, and make it your own. Time is a fascinating subject–real and imagined–and is often a small detail that, when done right, can really help transport your readers into another world.

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If you’ve followed along at all in The Aldersgate Cycle, you’ll have seen some immediately obvious instances where gender matters significantly, mostly noticeably in the shortage of women spoken about in the first few chapters. It’s this shortage of women that’s driven Queen Maelys to retrieve all the young women from the Continent and bring them to Hartleigh Castle in Queensland for safekeeping. I don’t think this was a particularly overt feminist statement on my behalf, rather a situational fact that helped drive the story along, and answered a question I had: What if there weren’t enough women? I still ask plenty of related questions, and I’m not certain I’ve answered them all yet, but I’m working on it. In fact, the entire structure and culture of my novel is, in many ways, directly connected to that main question.

I don’t think feminism is a good descriptor of how I view the world. It isn’t as simple as that. Through my travels, friendships, and experiences, I’ve come to see gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation in a rather different light than I once did. I decided, in light of the difficulties still existent in our world, to say something important on the subject, but in a decidedly fantasy setting.

You see, it isn’t just the lack of women that drives much of the novel. Because, laying in bed at night some year or so ago, asking myself many of the questions related to the shortage of women (why so few women born? what do people think?) I came upon a surprising answer. It’s not that children are any less frequent, but that something else is being born. Fraternal twins are a common occurrence in Earena, and boys often grow up with brothers their same age. However, it isn’t always the case with girls.

More often than not, twin births of the non-male variety end up with one girl and one ungendered baby. And by ungendered, really I mean non-sexed. These babies are literally lacking in any distinguishable sex characteristics.

Being inspired by high-minded Victorians and their like, the unsexed children–called Sibs, short for Siblings–are not considered citizens in any capacity, regardless of rank or relationship. Society has deemed that any human incapable of furthering the species is a non-entity. For three centuries this led to an entire class that bordered on slavery and, in some cases, worse. This is also tied to theories of the construction of the Other, of course, but that’s another post altogether I’d think.

What the Sibs are now, and where they reside is something of a mystery (at least to those of you who aren’t me, or who’ve read the first draft). But their story is at the heart of The Aldersgate Cycle, an undercurrent that propels much of the narrative, but often unseen.

You can imagine the questions I have to ask myself when writing the Sibs. But it’s something I take time to do, because I want to do it right. I don’t want it to be comfortable, because it isn’t–but I want to do it justice above all. (And this is not to mention, of course, the culture at large’s general acceptance of homosexuality–considering there’s such a surplus of men, you can see how that might be convenient.) The Sibs as a culture are probably my proudest achievement to date, in some ways being the ultimate steampunks (complete with tattoos and plenty of amazing inventions).

I also had to consider how to refer to non-gendered people in terms of language. I spent days researching, and finally turned to Middle English for inspiration. I ended up with the following:

he = she = hea

him = her = hean

his = hers = heas

In the third case, it’s pronounced “HEY-ah”. At first it was decidedly awkward to write. In spite of my attempted unbiased approach, I found that I would still think of individual Sibs as either more female or more male, and slip into the usual pronouns. But now, as I work through the second (and in some cases third) draft, it has become quite natural and comfortable. I’m quite happy with the results.

I do believe in the power of literature, especially that which requires we suspend our disbelief just a little. It’s one “what if” removed from our own world, true, but one that lends an important voice to my narrative. My opinion may not be agreed upon by everyone, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that. I try not to come across as pedantic or judgemental in my telling, and rather, simply want to put the question to the reader and ask: “What would you do, in a world like this?”

from Chapter Ten: Below

“They’re Sibs,” Emry chimed in from next-door. “Or so they’ll have us believe.” He hardly sounded convinced, and Cora wasn’t sure what to make of that.

“And we have names, and proper pronouns, thank you very much,” replied the Sib. “My name is Ezz. And you can call me hea. Not he nor she but hea. Not his or hers, but heas. Not to him, or to her, but to hean. That’s the basics. Heas, hean, hea.” It sounded like “Hey-ah”.

Cora frowned, trying to process Ezz’s little grammar lesson. “So you’re neither…”

“Neither male nor female,” Ezz replied, folding heas arms over heas chest. “Which I’m sure is terribly difficult for you to even conceive.”

I will admit it. I love clothes. I love fashion. I love style.

But let me qualify that. I don’t love clothes in the omigod-I-have-to-have-that-purse-that-Carrie-had-on-Sex-and-the-City way. I don’t love fashion in the have-to-get-that-three-hundred-dollar-pair-of-shoes-because-they’re-so-in way. I don’t love style in the omigod-she-should-not-be-wearing-that-it’s-so-2004 way.

I love the cult of clothing. I love studying what people wore, finding out why they wore it, learning about different trends, ornaments, garments. (In fact, in the third grade I was convinced I’d become a fashion designer.) This is particularly true when it comes to women’s fashion. I haven’t got the time to dedicate to it here and now, but what’s considered acceptable or daring for women has fluctuated so much through the centuries, it’ll make your head wobble.

So it’s no surprise I’ve landed myself into the realm of steampunk and Victorian clothing, is it? Perhaps no other period of design so typifies absolute decadence and divine beauty more than the Victorian Era. In spite of some rather rigorous modesty going about, the dresses are a perfect symphony of texture, whimsy, creativity, and culture.

That said, some of the most fun I have (writing is, on occasion, quite fun, in spite of rants to the contrary) is describing clothing in The Aldersgate. Between the royals, knights, ladies, gearlings, Sibs, and the rest, it’s both a wonderful adventure and a great excuse to peruse the dozens of beautiful garments posted by various sites and resources online. My favorite site, hands down, is Vintagetextle.com not for the least of which is their amazingly high-resolution photographs that allow me a close enough view to see the individual bead-work and embroidery. If I start linking photos to all the dresses that I’ve incorporated into the closets of my main characters, we’d be here all day. (Okay… here’s one, but just because it’s so perfect: Cora’s dress for walking around in Vell day to day: linen with a jacket and contrasting dark brown embroidery… )

I also take liberties because, strictly speaking, my book has nothing to do with our world directly. So though the fashion is Victorian-inspired, it’s certainly not held to the same societal standards. A great place for those of us with steampunk leanings to start is the LJ community steamfashion. Though I don’t often dress up myself, these sassy and savvy individuals post their delightful designs on the community board and always, always inspire me. It’s become something of a gateway for designers, too.

Fashion is a study that many have taken up, so whether your story takes place in the here and now, or the long ago, you’ll likely be able to find something that can help you flesh out your characters wardrobes.

Here’s some notes on main characters and their clothing:

Maelys I – Queen of the Realm, so of course, she’s at the height of fashion. Elizabeth I was a clothes horse too, and since she’s a partial inspiration for Maelys, I wanted to be sure that facet of her personality showed through. Maelys prefers black with gilding. Anything with gold embroidery, bead-work, or other ornamentation. My favorite costume she wears is a black and peacock green, complete with feathers for a head-dress and gold slippers.

Coras dress at the beginning of the book, but in blue

Cora's dress at the beginning of the book, but in blue

Cora Grey – As an Alderclass girl she’s expected to wear certain clothing to reflect her status and her age. If given her choice, she’d most likely ride around in breeches, but at the story’s start she’s made to wear a hideous blue gown that I imagine is early 1870s style, low shouldered and covered–covered, I say–with yards and yards of bustles, ruffles, and lace. Far from her own sense of style, I torture her for a few chapters by making her run around in it, corset and all, while being pursued by the Order of the Oak. Yes, I’m mean.

Brick Smithson – As a boy from the territories, and a blacksmith to boot, Brick doesn’t have a lot to choose from when it comes to fashion. He wears the clothes he’s given or made, and it usually includes rough-spun britches, suspenders, and a linen shirt. Nothing fancy, but somehow… I’d say it works rather well for him.

Emry Roy – Like in many cultures, the bards of Earena are supposed to wear specific clothing to identify them as such. Emry is no different. But by the time we meet him, he’s significantly more bedraggled than your garden variety court bard. His shirt would be light yellow linen, over which he has a high-cut brown vest (no v-neck, but it’s flush at his collar-bone, typical of Islander clothing). His slacks are green with gold piping on the sides, tucked in to the top of his high brown boots. He’d wear a long camel-colored duster, as well, with a pin on the lapel in the shape of a lute on a leaf, in silver.

Sir Gawen of Fenlie – Though the Order of the Asp has abandoned a strict code of dress in recent years, Gawen–being of the Alderclass sort, and a consummate gentleman–still adheres to the old school. He wears a high tan hat belted across the brim with black and yellow braided leather. His duster is darkest brown, and his uniform (if you can call it that exactly) is comprised of a linen shirt dyed sage green, a white nubuck vest, black trousers, and brown chaps.

Every book has its own song. You can’t always hear it, but it’s there. Sure, it isn’t the kind of song that you can play on your iPod, but any story has its own melodies and harmonies, moments of dissonance, and at last, resolve.

Before our words were written, they were sung. This served not only to make the telling more beautiful, but also more memorable. Words are much more easily committed to memory with the inclusion of music. Sometimes when I’m in a rut writing wise, I take out my guitar (or ukulele, or keyboard) and work out melodies, then harmonies, listening for the story within the music. Sure, that sounds terribly new-age, but it’s a part of world building for me–it helps me understand what I’m doing more clearly.

Most of my world building happens while listening to music, it’s true. There are certain songs that I associate so intimately with characters (Cora, Runaway Horses, Philip Glass; the Aldersgate itself, Samuel Barber‘s Adagio for Strings Op. 11; Sir Gawen, most of Sir Edward Elgar). I’ve had some of the greatest epiphanies simply driving in my car, listening to whatever Fine Tuning or WCPE will give me.

Stories are a force to be reckoned with. The right (or wrong) story can inspire a nation to greatness, or plunge them into a war. And most of our most beloved songs are just that: inspiring stories. From national anthems to battle cries to stadium rock outs–we seem to understand stories on another level when music is involved.

To come to my point though, music ought to be considered during your world building sessions. Even on our planet, small as it is, what is considered to be beautiful music is as varied and individual as can be. While many of us from a Western tradition puzzle at the music of the East, they puzzle back at us. So consider what your characters might like to listen to, and what sort of musical traditions have grown up in your culture. Note, too, that music has a habit for driving people to all kinds of unsavory behaviors–even Mozart was considered scandalous in his day!

My inspiration for Emry Roy, my resident bard, was a hybrid between a court bard from the Irish tradition and the folk singers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America. For a great resource, I turned to the Popular Songs in American History site which (blaring midi excluded) is a delightful window into popular music in a variety of time periods.  Some are simplistic, and seem trite to us know–but there are some incredible gems. How about this bit from the song “Eight Hours” by I.G. Blanchard (so delightfully steampunk):

From factories and workshops
In long and weary lines,
From all the sweltering forges,
And from out the sunless mines,
Wherever toil is wasting
The force of life to live
There the bent and battered armies
Come to claim what God doth give
And the blazon on the banner
Doth with hope the nation fill:

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest
Eight hours for what we will;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest
Eight hours for what we will.

So find your musical inspiration, and flavor your world with it!

by Nyo

by Nyo

The more I read, the more I experience, the more I question the validity of good and evil as portrayed in many so-called worlds. Certainly there is something within us, as a species, that consistently seeks to weed out good from bad, light from dark, wrong from right. We need our causes, our passions, our drives, in order to go about our daily lives feeling as if we are doing as we ought, happy with our choices.

There is perhaps no other literary genre that so adheres to the dichotomy of good and evil as fantasy, since it itself was borne out of the same womb as the myths that define humanity. As our cultures have evolved, we have brought along new religious undertones to play a counterpoint–the Son of God, Shiva the Destroyer, Morrigan the Goddess of War–in our search for good and evil. While this is not true with every writer, most tend to write from this same tradition, wanting to cast villains and heroes because, in all truth, that is what readers respond to. It’s hard-wired into us.

But because it’s hard-wired, does it mean it’s correct?

I do not deny that there is evil, nor that there is good. What I question is the clear-cut manner in which villains and heroes are drawn. To me, every character must be flawed–in a way, every character should have the potential to be a villain, just as every person has the capability to do extremely terrible things. I decided in The Aldersgate to blur the lines, to create monsters out of heroes, and to force my characters to choose sides. But I want my readers to follow the progression, to develop as the minds of the characters develop. This is by no means an easy task, since each character (at least to me) is very much intertwined in the heart and mind of the writer themselves. Doing evil deeds, selfish deeds, making wrong choices–these are not easy to write. Love stories are easy to write. Dinner parties are easy to write. Triumphant processions are easy to write! A downward spiral from despair, to madness, and then to utter selfishness and corruption… that is not so easy.

Consider what good and evil mean to you, and mean to the culture you’re writing as you build your world. Try and shed the preconcieved notions you’ve gleaned in your lifetime to go beyond black and white to examine the grays. A certain amount of tension is important, but so much of what we see of “good” and “evil” has to do with perception. Some people may think of the Crusaders as mighty heroes, but I daresay that wasn’t the opinion of the Jews in France and Germany.

I have as much trouble with “purely” good heroes as with “purely” bad heroes, especially when the dead start piling up. A good writer will examine what exactly are the ramifications for the decisions each side makes, will make the reader do more than just cheer for the good guys and scoff at the bad guys.

For my final comment, I’ll say one last thing.  I’m on board with the Lord of the Rings 99.9% of the time. I adore it. I am indebted to it. But the fact that Orcs are fundamentally evil, that they are a race of creatures inherently bad, beyond salvation and corrupt is certainly uncomfortable for me. And I understand Tolkien’s perspective in writing the books (being a product of the World Wars as well as a devoted Catholic), and know where he was coming from–I only wish that he left a little more wiggle room (gosh, even C.S. Lewis gave one of the Calormenes a ticket to the New and Improved Narnia in The Last Battle).

What I’m saying is this: take time to tell your characters’ stories, even if they’re under the flag of the Eye. Everyone starts somewhere.

So, we’ve established that religion isn’t easy. It’s neither easy to pull of, nor is it easy to convey. But it’s something that many SF/F writers find necessary. It succeeds to a variety of degrees, I think, but most of all it does bring us closer to a culture that is not our own. Even if we aren’t particularly religious ourselves as readers, we can understand the impact religion has on a culture.

Now I’m writing about the other religions in the Aldersgate Cycle. Aside from the non-religion of the state, there remain vestiges, especially in more rural districts of the Territories and, further north on the Isle of Mor. As well, a second culture of people, known as the Sibs have their own connection to the old gods, one that they posit has gone unbroken since the Great Collision (the cataclysmic event that happens 400 years before the story starts).

Have I lost you yet?

Both those on Mor and the Sibs have a nearly identical pantheon. Both their societies are ordered by seven clans which, on the whole, coincide with gods and goddesses, though have slightly different names. I’m personally fascinated by a variety of mythologies, and having studied the Elder Futhark (Norse Runes) recently, it has certainly influenced the names of the clans (which happen to coincide with the first six letters of the Rune alphabet–not that original, perhaps, but it works for me at the moment).

Beyond that particular pantheon, there are other movers and shakers. Lee Renmen, a Knight of the Order of the Asp has fashioned himself a kind of shamanistic priest, dedicated to rediscovering the life-force of the earth through nature, experimentation, and dream visions. He does not worship gods as we would understand, but rather worships the manifestations of nature, something completely self-discovered. His story is long (too long for a post here) but he’s a fascinating character. His influence on the Order of the Asp has turned it into a quasi-religious Order.

In his own words:

“After the Great Collision, nothing in this world was the same. The old religion was forgotten, replaced by a faith of cold, stone churches, and silent gods who had turned their backs on us. This was false—this religion was a religion of lies. It was no surprise that the people turned to the Dranists; they had been praying to gods that did not exist. We had all forgotten…

“But I have spent ten years in the desert. I have listened to the stories of the old crones; I have spoken with the Tenders at their business. I have tasted the rain, I have smelled the first blood of the hunt spilled on the hot sands. The gods, they have come to me; they have whispered in my ear and directed my steps. We are all but shadows and whispers in their wake, my friends: shadows and whispers.”

I’m behind writing for World Building Month, and as such, I thought I’d take a stab at one of the more difficult subjects for the next few posts: creating religion.

First, I should mention, I’m not a planner. World building to me is 90% observation, 10% creation. That is, I don’t write every detail down in a notebook, I don’t spend hours planning. It just kind of happens. Not to say that’s the best approach, just the only way I know how!

Religion is a sticky subject, real or imagined. When you’re dealing with belief, you’re walking into extremely difficult territory, because belief really can’t be quantified. It’s a factor that for some, has nothing to do with logic or reason or proof, and everything to do with emotion, intuition, and experience.

The most important question to answer when you’re writing a novel that includes religion is to what extent society is involved with religion. That said, is there an official religion? Is there separation of Church and State? Are certain religions banned/restricted/forbidden?

You may, however, find yourself asking a different question: how is religion in general treated by the State? For instance, in my own novel, religion is highly discouraged by the Monarchy. In a word, according to them there is no religion. After a long “golden age” of the Church, a set of beliefs that included an original pantheon of seven gods, there was an upheaval headed by a woman named Drana, who was a high advisor to the Queen. To use an excerpt to elaborate:

Kaythra had many theories. But very few the Queen would like. As her mother before her, Maelys was a staunch Dranist—a philosophy which regarded the belief in gods, or God, as the instrument of weaker minds in desperate times. Dranists believed that they, not gods, were capable of the greatest accomplishments, through science, medicine, and technology. So, the arts had flourished in the last two-hundred years as the Dranists held the throne. Temples were destroyed, and all mention of religion was expunged from the law. Practice was not forbidden, but over the decades it was continually associated with thieves, the lowerclass, and outcasts.

“You recall when Drana the Philosopher decreed far and wide that if she could find one man or woman with proof of the gods, with absolute proof, that she would forever lay down her ways and convert—become a cleric, or somesuch?”

“Of course,” Maelys said, her lips twitching into a tight-lipped smile. “You know very well I have studied the Dranist texts all of my life. It was called the Calling—and no one who came to court provided any insight into the mind of the gods other than garden variety magic, superstition, and parlor tricks.”

“It is said,” Kaythra continued, slowly. “That the shaman among the Soderon thought long and hard about whom to send to Queensland, to prove the Queen and Drana the Philosopher wrong. They were prepared to send their greatest shaman, a woman by the name of Me’san, to Queensland, when a vision was granted to their shamans—a vision of a future. There they saw the shores of Queensland dry and empty of fish, and the deserts of Soderon teeming with life.”

Maelys made a disgusted face, but did not interrupt Kaythra.

The High Counselor took a deep breath, measuring her friend’s patience. “Me’san did not go visit Drana the Philosopher; she convinced the king of the time, Alsanir, that if she were to do so, the vision of the future—a future victory for the Soderons, would be lost.”

“And they believed her,” Maelys said.

“And they still do,” Kaythra continued. “I know your opinion of the Soderons is… lacking, to say the least. But they are a deeply religious people, who believe their long suffering difficulty in siring females has come to an end, through some ritual I could not understand for the life of me.”

“Ritual?” Maelys said. “They aren’t sacrificing people, are they?’

Kaythra, though brought up as a Dranist (and the current Counselor to Queen Maelys herself) has her own understanding of the people of Soderon, whom she has just returned from visiting. Maelys, however, cannot remove herself from her vantage point, and so, there’s a bit of tension.

I try not to make judgements based on my own opinions of religion, but rather let the story tell the opinions of the character. I think if done correctly, the right combination of elaboration and sensitivity can bring about religion in a very complete, very convincing way.