Fantasy research – creepy in fantasy (Coraline)

One of the lovely things about writing is that often your research involves reading other stories. Not to lift work, of course, but to understand tricks of the trade, analyze what worked, or didn’t, and try to figure out why. One of the key things War of Shadow needs, in certain parts, is an element of creepy. I want the setting to feel slightly uncomfortable as the characters move through the landscape. So, in an effort to understand how other writers do it, and discover tricks to how it might be adapted for my ow purposes, I started by picking up Coraline by Neil Gaiman. There are other books in the queue, but that was the first. It’s a book I should have picked up a long time ago. I did see the movie just after it came out, and thought it was very good and pretty darn creepy.

First off, my opinion of the book – Inside the first couple chapters, I felt as though it was more of a sketch, and left me wanting. However, the story really picks up the second time Coraline goes into the world in the other flat. All throughout, the imagery is very good, and the writing excellent. As I went through, I’m not sure I felt particularly unsettled, or creeped-out. The last few chapters were just suspenseful enough, not overdone, and I was compelled to go on to the next page.

From the perspective of a writer, if I take only one thing away from the book, is the suspense at the end. That said, I did read it for the creepy, and I have to say that I don’t know what I was expecting to feel while reading the book. Perhaps that I’d lose a bit of sleep thinking about a disembodied hand because I’m waiting for it to scrabble out from under the bed? Maybe find my self thinking twice about opening a locked door in case I might find button-eyed mockeries of a loved one? No, I didn’t feel any of that. But was that the point? Probably not.

In verbally ruminating upon the story, my wife reminded me that Coraline was meant to be for younger readers. From that perspective, had I read this when I was a child, it probably would have kept me from sleeping. However, as an adult not so much. The reason, I think, I didn’t find it as creepy as I may have been expecting is because Coraline does not, except for one place, seem to be in any imminent danger of certain death from the Beldam. It sort of feels like this is a possible outcome, at some distant point in the future, not an immediate threat. I sort of wonder if that distinction doesn’t tend to temper the ‘creepy’ for me. I also wonder if this was not by design, to make the story a little less horrifying for young readers.

After having read this book, did I learn anything about writing creepy?

I think so. First off, you need to rely on the principle of “things aren’t what they seem.” I can see this being difficult for the writer to pull off in a fantasy novel because the reader already isn’t familiar with the world. I think it’s one of the reasons I’m having some trouble with it. There are so many things being introduced, this concept can be a bit of a challenge to really highlight. How does the reader know that we’re dealing with something that’s not quite right? In urban fantasy, where the world is generally the same as the one we’re sitting in, you can rely on that familiarity to set the bar for ‘normal.’ In this case, unexpected things are going to seem unusual to the reader, and the character only needs to react in a manner generally consistent with things not being as they should be. I think the same trick can be used when you have an unusual world. The reader will have to rely on cues from the characters. Elements of the world that are mundane to the characters should read that way. When things are supposed to be creepy, they should be contrasted with things that the character takes as normal, as well as what the reader would consider normal.

Another thing that I was reminded of while reading this book is the choice of words used for imagery. In one particular example from Coraline, Neil Gaiman uses the look of a spider to describe the color of the other mother’s skin. What he did there was use something generally regarded as uncomfortable (I mean who likes spiders, really?) in the description when other descriptions would suffice. Of course, this is just how it’s done, although it’s also easy to lose sight of when you’re trying to manage some 100K words of text. Think about any particular story that has a bit of creepy to it. Inevitably there are sentences about slithering snakes and the jerky motions of spiders and the like. However, I also think that this can be overdone.

For now, I’m not quite ready to begin going back and polishing in this particular flavor, I’d like to finish a few other books for research, and I’d rather focus my attention on finishing up the first drafts of the last 2 – 3 chapters of War of Shadows (I really need to start working out a name that I plan to use, or this is going to stick.) and also finish fixing up the bits that need help.

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World building – governance

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When I started getting into the nuts and bolts of the plot of War of Shadows, I needed there to be a fairly solid government system. It would have been easy to just have a king and some lords, but I decided to go in a little deeper. Perhaps I was thinking about Duke Leto vs. Baron Harkonnen, and how that appealed to me. While reading Dune, I never really understood how the title of Duke related to the title of Baron, so I looked up peerage. I think I learned something there, I don’t remember. What I do know is that I wrote up an entire governance system for one country in my world, which I forgot about. While re-writing chapter 17, I decided I needed to work out something about a title. So, I went back to my notes to see how the ranks compared. At first I skimmed through my notes and though I had copied a Wikipedia article or something, but it also seemed oddly specific. After a few more minutes of reading, I realized that I had actually written up an entire peerage, based off of the British system, for my country and also a bunch of details on how the governance works in the country. It’s set up for political intrigue and back-stabbing. Anyhow, since I thought it was fun, I figured I’d share it, so here it is, as it appears exactly in my notes (Beware, this hasn’t been edited!):


 Concerning the governance of Swarendrin

The kingdom of Swaerendrin is a strong monarchy. The king is both head of state and chief executive. However, the power of the king is somewhat balanced by the noble classes. These are largely hereditary titles, being passed to the eldest son. In instances where there is no son to inherit the title, the king may assign the title at his own discretion. In very many cases the king holds these titles and lands himself, to be assigned to allies. Titles of nobility amongst the Swaerem are as follows:

Duke – This is the proper title of the most senior lords amongst the nobility, though the name of the title is rightly dhaat. However, very few indeed refer to the title directly, instead using the honorific ‘Lord’ in lieu of the title, and is often accepted as the right title. It is the highest rank of nobility behind the king.

Marquis – This is the proper title of a special class of dukes, who hold lands upon contested or border lands. These men are permitted to engage in battle and press men into service without prior consent of the king, as would be required of any other Duke. The correct title of these men is ræn dhaat, strong duke. Again, these men are referred to only by ‘lord’ in virtually all settings.

Earl – This is the proper title of minor land lords. These men are appointed by the king, and also pass the title on, but are in fact the subject of the local major lord. The right name of this title is Eord, but as with the title of duke is rarely used. Often these men are addressed by Lord, and usually described as minor lords or minor nobility.

Count – Non hereditary title bestowed by the king, for governance of large cities. This appointment has no term, and few counts last more than a hand-full of years. Often they are removed in the interest of public contentment.

Master – Non hereditary title bestowed by the duke, for smaller cities, towns and villages. These are given in terms lasting no longer than 5 years. The local lord has authority to name all Masters, except when overruled by the king. Application of the title master is excessively inconsistent and is typically applied to any man with greater authority.

Baron – land owner of noble birth, rightly called Ryen. This title comes only with land, and is subject to the governance and taxes of the Duke or Earl. Men with this title are very often tapped as caretakers of lands normally held by dukes and earls. Those possessing this title will be addressed as ‘Sir’ or ‘Lady’, but never lord. The title is inherited, but unlike other hereditary titles, the baron may choose his heir and is not obligated to gain the approval of the King, Duke, Earl or Marquis. This law has produced a number of baronesses.

Ældorman is a fighting man of either the nobility or merchant classes. This title is bestowed by Dukes and Marquis. These are the considered the trained fighting men, and are given land, though that land cannot be inherited. They are never called by their right title, and only referred to as oathmen or sworn men, these men are correctly addressed as sir or master. This title is not transferred by heredity, and is usually considered outside of the peerage. Like to all others within the peerage, they employ armbands of precious metals to distinguish themselves. While dukes, earls, barons and the like use a single arm-band as a sign of rank, these men tend to wear many, as a sign of fighting prowess.

Kingsman is like to an ældorman, excepting they are named by the king, and may only be of noble birth.

In addition to these titles, the king also appoints a council, called the kings thanes who are responsible for a wide variety of governance tasks. Also, there is the council of common thanes, who are also appointed by the king, at the recommendation of the wealthy men amongst commoners. The widely held belief amongst most is that the council of common thanes (council of thanes) holds the bulk of power in the kingdom. The lords and king permit this belief to continue as a way to make commoners think they have some control over the government, and therefore support it.

These lords do not have formal organization, and band together in adhoc fashion as needed. These affiliations are usually in accordance with the political interests of the time. The non-titled moneyed men of the kingdom, choose members of a body known as the parliament, which consists of men form their own ranks. This body is considered to be the representation of the commoners, and exercises some limited power on their behalf. Dukes and the king often permit this body to carry on as if it had real power. With such a large common population, this is considered an essential component in maintaining a well ordered society. During times of peace, this body is permitted to govern the greater part of the kingdom. However, when the kingdom is under attack or during periods of turmoil, the members of this body often line up with lords sympathetic to their own interests.

Even with the parliament in control of many routine aspects of governance, the office of King requires much more than a single man to handle even the most routine of affairs. To this end, the king has many agents and designees. The chief body among these is the council of theigns. This group consists of one dozen men chosen by the major lords of the mors, and confirmed by the parliament, though the parliamentary confirmation is only a formality. These men are intended to be advisers to the king and assist in decision making processes for the kingdom. The position of king’s theign, while prestigious, and ostensibly powerful, is a term appointment for no more than five years. These men will be responsible for becoming intimately aware of any situation the king may require advice on. They are not permitted to become involved in any topic where individual prejudice might cloud their judgment.

Along side this complex and layered government is an organization known as the sisters of fate. The sisters of fate remain largely outside of actual governance, but they play a key role in blessing all decrees and decisions made by the king, and Dukes. They also magically bind agreements, giving them real weight and the promise of real consequence should both parties fail to uphold the terms of said agreements. The sisters of fate are a far more important organization to the population as a whole, providing healing, spiritual guidance, and binding of marriages, to name a few. While some men do serve this order, they do not practice the magic common amongst the women.


photo credit: Château de Sarzay via photopin (license)

Thinking about dragons

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I was feeling non-writer creative today, and made this. I like it so I decided to post it. I took the picture last year sometime while out on a trip with friends. The main reason I took the picture was because a while ago near the same spot, I took the family blueberry picking. At the time I had told the kids the place was very near middle earth (which the adamantly refuted because obviously middle-earth is in New Zealand, and we don’t live there). Since this looked like the dead marshes to me at the time, I took the picture to try and convince them I was right. The text says something mundane in a now-defunct version of Petath, the writing system of the Jai people in my book. I think it’s more fun not to know.