There are not a whole lot of redeeming qualities when it comes to parts of Southern California. The traffic, the congestion, the pollution, the commercialization, the silicone. Although I love my family members who live out there, there is a distinct lacking in my enthusiasm to visiting the area.

However, the last time I visited my sister I discovered something that took me by surprise. Just a few miles out, away from the hubbub, the women carrying little dogs in their purses, huge sunglasses, and luxury cars is a remarkable landscape–barren, beautiful, mountainous–like the edges of my Territories. Michael and I took a detour, in spite of our limited time this time, to see it again.

So, here are a few pictures. The cave is in Laguna, CA, and the rest are around Temecula, CA. Granted, they’re taken from my cell phone so the quality isn’t great but… they never cease to floor me in their sheer grandeur. Wish I had taken more time to take more pictures, but alas.

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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!

tolkien\'s sigThough I was writing novel-length creations (these lopsided, clunky, laborious writings are the literary equivalent of badly-wrought golems, I’d say) in my tween years, and had certainly admired writers like Lewis and L’Engle before, reading Tolkien just did something to me. For good or ill, I don’t know what it was. Some mysterious magic, no doubt, but one that, more than a decade later, I still can’t shake.

What happened exactly? Well, I recall being about thirteen or so, completely ostracized from the group of friends I’d once had, and was a painfully blossoming nerd. The glasses, the sweaters–I was a postergirl for early 90s fashion nightmares, and was growing a rather sulky personality to go with it. I had just finished a stint reading Stephen King, mostly The Stand twice through, and though I knew I liked fantasy as a genre, had no idea where to go.

It was my high school librarian who suggested LoTR. They didn’t have the first installment, but figuring it was like the Narnia series, I just picked up the Two Towers and ran.

First impressions:

  • I had no idea what an Aragorn was. With no context, he was all slinky and secretive. I figured, if he was hanging out with an elf and a dwarf, he must be something as equally impressive. I imagined him like a nicer version of Gollum, a being with large eyes and green skin who could see long distances and had a remarkable way with people. Boy was I surprised when I figured out he was… well, just a guy.
  • Merry and Pippin are the whole show! I didn’t get to the Frodo and Sam stuff for a while, but I was really intrigued by the terrible twosome. They were funny, friendly, and boy could they eat and drink. To this day, I simply adore Pippin, moreso than is really warranted. But, you know what they say about first impressions.
  • Kickin’ the Rankin-Bass. Unfortunately, prior to reading the series, I’d seen both Rankin Bass films–the adapted Hobbit and its Return of the King follow up (cringe). It had been about eight years though, so as far as plot and theme were concerned, there were no big spoilers. What took me forever to get rid of however, were the huge, sparkly, luminous eyes and terrible songs. For all the care that Tolkien put into the poetry of the series, I imagine hearing that warbling bard was enough to send him to his grave again.

It became an obsession for me very quickly, this hobbit series. It was all-encompassing. I had never read a book so voraciously before, nor had I ever loved characters as much. I remember reading RoTK, and one of the chapters describes Pippin being smooshed by a troll then “his eyes saw no more.” I of course, thought he was dead. I burst into tears. (Thankfully, being a fan of George R. R. Martin, I am now a little more hardened to this stuff).

Over the next few years, I absorbed everything Tolkien I could. I read all the books in the series, multiple times. I researched the genealogies. I joined a MUSH. Yes, I ultimately “met” the man I married five years later there, too (but that’s another post, I imagine). It makes sense. Michael was as in love with the hobbits and the Shire and Tolkien as I was. It’s really that. It’s love. It’s the highest sense of love you can have in the world… except it’s with a piece of art (I feel a Pygmalion reference coming).

There had never been anything–and there may never be–that impacted me on the level Tolkien did. This crotchety old man from England who really only wanted to frolic with trees and write a novel to put his own languages in, somehow changed my life entirely.

Years of internalization, and it eventually became apparent in my own writing. It’s not that I want to re-create Tolkien’s world; truly, in the years since I’ve learned to both love and critique his work and realize it’s not all perfect (there was a time that anyone who uttered such a word in my presence would have been called a blasphemer, but hey, we all grow up). What I want is simple: to tell a good story. I want my stories to move people even a modicum of the amount Tolkien moved me. I want to continue in the storytelling tradition and help people understand themselves better, even if it’s just through a fictional character.

How did Tolkien do it? I suspect is has something to do with the intimacy of writing, especially fantasy writing. Unlike fiction that takes place in this world, fantasy requires a huge amount of trust on the part of the reader. You are turning your imagination over to the writer and letting them describe things to you that you have never seen; they speak in languages un-uttered, of creatures uncreated. And, fickle as we are, we tend to cling still to the things we understand most: the people. In the end, Frodo’s decision to claim the ring for his own is the greatest heroic disappointment of all time, because, I think, it’s the same one we’d all make. He’s not better than we are, like so many gilded heroes. He’s as flawed as the rest.

All peripheral philosophy/religion/criticism aside, a great writer takes their readers on a journey; they show them danger, heartbreak, despair, joy–but always, always, they create a window into someone’s soul. That’s the deciding factor. That’s why people continue to pick up LoTR, or Shakespeare, or Updike, or any writer that maintains the ability to be relevant as times change. We often know characters in novels better than we ever will people in our real lives.

That’s quite astonishing, I think.

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” – Gimli