Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Birth of a New Fantasy?

What makes a great Fantasy novel/series?  We've talked about this before, I'm sure.  But a few more thoughts rumbled across my cognitive railroad recently, so I thought I might share them with you.

First of all, I'm thinking of all the character-driven fiction that is out there, Fantasy is at the head of the pack.  Character has to be the single most important commodity in a good fictional work.  All you have to do to see this is think about the Lord of the Rings novels or the Harry Potter novels.  Pick out your favorite characters.   Betcha can mentally see every detail about them right down to their shoelaces.

Secondly, the theme of magic has to fold into the main story line effortless and seamlessly. The magic has to be so flawless, so natural, that without it the whole book would fall to pieces.

That is so true if you consider how magic plays such an intrinsic, natural role in the world of Harry Potter.  Easy to see that without magic, Harry Potter becomes just another near sighted kid with thick glasses.

Thirdly, and this is very subjective viewpoint, there has to be a sense of dread . . . of foreboding . . . that foreshadows terrible things to come.  Terrible things must happen in order for Fantasy to succeed.  It doesn't mean that the whole story will wind up on the dark side and everyone dies.  But it must foreshadow a great struggle is about to take place.  That struggle between the forces of Good versus the forces of Evil.

Fourthly, there has to be vivid imagery.  What is a good Fantasy if you cannot mentally see the images in your mind's eye? That's like watching a great sporting event on the television with the screen suddenly going dark on you.  What the hell . . . . !?

Lastly, there has to be some stunningly written lines; quotable lines that just ring in your mind and stay with you.  Phrases, passages, entire sections of the book so composed poetically they are retained indefinitely with you through the passage of time.

So the other night . . . while driving my six year old grand daughter home from her kindergarten, one of those memorable lines popped up in my head.  From that one line a series of images began to unfold. (yes, you may see some visual/verbal residual images from some other pieces I have written.  But trust me; the 're-hashing' if you will is far, far different from the original)

I'm sharing the opening chapter with you.  Pick out, if you can, the passage that captured my attention.  Tentative title of the new book is Treachery and the Dark Gods.  


"Methinks Bear, this man is too thin and too durable for my liking.
He is like old leather, well worn and impervious to weather.  A
man that does not shirk from his duty. Bad times for rogues
like us, my friend.  Bad times . . ."

                Treachery raised its ugly head, as treachery always does, with cold steel thrust into warm flesh by the hand of a friend tenderly embraced.
            The old man, leaning on an ancient, blackened briar-oak staff taller by a foot than he, dressed in the cast off rags of several different woodsmen clans, stood beside the mud speckled thistle wall of the hamlet's only blacksmith and eyed suspiciously the arrival of a Great Rider astride a giant winged warbird.  The warrior, wide of shoulder and narrow of hip, dressed in leather and unadorned gray surcoat of a clanless rider, descended from the plain saddle of his large bird stiffly and fondly rubbed the creature's plumed head as the creature turned to eye its master with one dark eye.
            Narrowing eyes suspiciously, the old man thought he recognized both warrior and bird.  The bird itself was instantly identified.  The richly multi-colored plumed crown of the giant black bird told him the giant was from the Hogonot Mountains more than five hundred leagues south from this hamlet.  Rare, this bird was.  Rare and expensive.  A bird from the Hogonot rarely left the towering peaks of their homeland.  Rare even more the bird trained for war.  A giant bird, fifteen hands high from the warrior's shoulders, the majority of its plumage as black as a moonless midnight.
            In the pens of a trainer of war birds in the walled cities of Burkhar or Gils a creature of this beauty and size would bring a fiefdom's ransom for a price.  More gold than a man like he, or this warrior, would ever see in their lives.  Which, curiously, rubbing the stubble of his chin thoughtfully, stuck him as odd.  How came a bird of this quality fell into the fold of such a simple warrior?
            Gripping the staff in his hand more firmly he turned his attention to the warrior.
            Plainly dressed with nothing to suggest allegiance to anyone marked the warrior as a noman.  A noman . . . someone who claimed to be a warrior free from any familial or clan obligations.  A free peasant.  A rogue.  A freed man-at-arms.  A villain.  A thief.  All could equally describe the true essence of a noman.  Was this man a true warrior?  Or more like a simple backwoodsman or landless farmer clothing himself in the rags of another?
            Around the warrior's waist a simple belt of leather.  Hanging from the leather on two sturdy chains the plain wood and leather curved sheath for a dragon's scimitar.  The only weapon visibly the warrior seemed to possess.  Even this was most odd.  A dragon's scimitar.  The single-edged, curved blade of mankind's mortal enemy.  An enemy who had not been seen this far north in more than a hundred years.
            The war tossed a copper coin to a tow headed boy and pointed to his bird.  The boy, grinning, nodded eagerly and raced toward the black giant.  The bird eyed the lad with one large eye cautiously and then made an odd sound of a snort before lowering itself to allow the boy to remove the saddle from its back.
            The tall warrior, brown hair falling past his shoulders, eyed the boy for a second or two before turning and exiting the large rough wooden corral reserved for the mounts of visitors arriving for the festivities.  The man had a high forehead, a straight edged, narrow nose, and a firm chin.  Done one cheek vertically was the faint red line of a healing scar.  Cleanly shaved, with dark brown eyes, the noman flashed an engaging, boyish smile to the old peasant and nodded pleasantly as he passed him and moved toward the stall of a peasant farmer selling fruits and freshly baked breads to the growing crowd.
            Around them the hamlet of Grol buzzed with frenzied activity.  Wet weather and thick mud seemed not to deter those came near and far to see the Lord Vladimir marry the youngest daughter of Lord Michael in grand ceremonies in tomorrow's coming eve.  Hundreds of faces, known and unknown, filled the muddy streets and single inn of the hamlet.  Merchants, money lenders, acrobats, troupes of actors and musicians all pressed themselves into the small hamlet looking for lodgings and commerce.  Outside the two encircling wooden palisades for walls surrounding the hamlet, a hundred or more brightly colored pavilions designating the temporary residence of noblemen and dignitaries filled a flat field.  Bright banners and gaily colored pennants of all sizes and shapes fluttered in the soft late summer's breeze as crowds, curious and in awe this sumptuous display of power and wealth, traveled back and fourth from hamlet to the encampment constantly.
            Grol was Lord Vladimir's largest hamlet.  A sad statement, if one was so inclined, to measure the wealth and grandeur of the lord and his holdings.  A small fiefdom, the furthest northern holding of old King Gar, with nothing of value except vast expanses of virgin forests with limitless game and mighty rivers festooned with fish of all kinds.
            No one came to Lord Vladimir's lands to trade.  Twice a year, in the summer months, the king would send a hundred heavy wagons drawn by teams consisting of sixteen massive oxen each, to collect the gigantic felled trees the fiefdom used to pay its yearly taxes with.  In the fall a far smaller caravan would make its way over the rutted swipe of a forested trail to Grol to collect the fiefdom's share of crops.  If it were not for these caravans making their way from the capitol city of Gils to Grol the outside world would know nothing of the fiefdom called Grolland.
            Yet, most oddly, the powerful Lord Michael, the all powerful High Constable to King Lars, wished to marry his youngest daughter to the frail child who had but recently inherited the fiefdom, Lord Vladimir.  Vladimir was a sickly youth too young to draw straight razor across a chin filled with beard to cut.  Yet the boy was fair to look upon. There was a boyish youth to the duke which appealed the feminine persuasion whenever the boy made an appearance.  He was a gentle ruler who ruled with a gentle hand.  Everyone within the domains he claimed as his own loved him.
            Nevertheless,    in the eight fiefdoms which comprised of the Kingdom of Old King Gar, Grolland was the poorest of the lot.  The land had no wealth to speak of.  What population there was to be found in the fiefdom could be found primarily in two small hamlets.  Grol and Haddow.  Why a powerful lord like that of Lord Michael would wish to marry his ten year old daughter to Lord Vladimir was beyond comprehension when the news arrived from the capitol.
            The High Counselor to King Lars was a legend.  Some said he was, in the Kingdom of Ghen, even more powerful than the man who held the throne.  A warrior of great personal daring, a general in his king's army of unequalled ability, a nobleman bestowed with great wealth and god-like beauty and indomitable courage, why he seemed so eager to convince King Lars the need to hurriedly wed his youngest to Lord Vladimir was indeed a great mystery.
            The Kingdom of Ghen, to the west and somewhat south of the lands of Old King Lars, was powerful and wealthy beyond measure.  It stretched for two hundred leagues southward into the foothills and mountains of the Hogonot, and for another five hundred leagues eastward across the vast open plains of the Talan Steppes until it reached the sandy shores of the Beiting Sea.  The kingdom was riddled with iron, gold, and silver mines.  Its merchant fleets sailed the known seas bringing in even more wealth from foreign lands.
            The royal families were wealthy enough to breed their own warbirds.  It was said each baron of the kingdom, of which Lord Michael was the first among his peers, could independently field armies of five thousand or more of their own.  So again . . . this mystery of wishing to bond the House of Michael to the House of Vladimir was a mystery too incongruous to contemplate.
            It was this . . . this great mystery . . . which had drawn the old woodsman to the hamlet of Grols.  And he, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he eyed the back of the strange warrior in front of him, suspected it was the same motivation which brought this creature to Grol as well.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Must Finish This Novel. Must . . . Finish . . . This . . .

Entropy.  That's what has been plaguing me.  Entropy.  The natural effect of a body in motion to eventually lose steam and come to a complete halt.  I confess . . . that's me.  Entropically challenged.

A few months back I began writing a novel about a Roman career soldier who recently retired from the legions of Augustus Caesar.  Rome; circa approximately 10 A.D.  A brilliant tactician.  An astute observer of the human condition.  A ruthless bastard when he has to be.

His name: Decimus Virilis.  Decimus The Lucky.

I began the novel at the request of someone who thought I'd be the perfect writer creating a character who was party action-figure . . . and part Sherlock Holmesian in nature.  And I admit, in the beginning I went bang one crazy writing it.  I created the character's persona, gave him an seemingly complex and bizarre set of murders to solve,  even created his supporting cast.

And then I scratched my way to the middle (or pretty damn close to the middle) of the novel . . . and that's when entropy set it.  The middle.  Where to go?  Why this dark alley and not that one?  Which character should die and which one survives?  Why the hell did I set the story up like this to begin with!?

No, I don't outline the book first.  I don't write detailed notes to follow along.  Yes . . . maybe I should.  But No . . . I'm never going to do that.  To me scoping out in detail the entire novel before you start reading it is just killing any and all interest in me to write the story to begin with.  Three-quarters of the fun in writing something is the sense of discovery in the writing process. 

A writer is like Indiana Jones suddenly stumbling across a Mayan or Aztec tomb deep in the darkest, most inaccessible jungle, never before seen by Western Man,  just begging Indiana to open it and discover what's inside.

But sometimes . . .

You get to the middle of a book and what opens up before you are labyrinths of possibilities to hurl the characters into . . . and each labyrinth is just as enticing as the next.  So which one do you choose?  This is where entropy comes to play.  You pause.  And in pausing, the clock starts ticking.  And ticking.  And ticking.

So . . . you tell me.  Should I finish this?  Here's the first chapter (slightly rewritten since the last time I shared it).  Tell me what you think.  I could use some feedback.



            With a shrug from a shoulder he slipped off the short toga he favored and then took the first tentative step into the hot bubbling waters of the bath.  Behind him his servant, a pepper haired old Roman soldier by the name of Gnaeus, eyed his master ruefully and then bent down and retrieved the short robe from the marbled floor.

            In the flickering light of a hundred oil lamps burning in brightly polished brass lanterns hanging from the marbled ceilings on long brass linked chains he eyed the black marble columns of the private bath, noted the rich drapes which hung from the marbled ceiling, felt the warmth of the marble floors he stood on and nodded to himself in pleasure.

            The Baths of Juno Primus, with its marbled columned porch and impressive water fountainsRome. It sat three blocks away from the gigantic Balisca Julius, the elegant and impressively enclosed public form and administrative building just completed in the heart of the city.  The baths, rumored to have been built with donations from the Imperator himself, were equally impressive.  It may have been true.  He knew Gaius Octavius.  An old man now known as Gaius Octavius Caesar, the Augustus.  Knew the old man was that kind of person.  A trait this Caesar took after his great uncle and adoptive father Julius. Both had a passion for building.  Building large, grand structures out of the finest marble.  Converting in one life time a once dreary, almost rural, city called Rome into a  world class megalopolis. 
at the base of its portico steps, was the newest public baths in

            Smiling to himself Decimus Virilis stepped down into the warm clear waters and lowered himself onto a marble bench.  Closing his eyes in relief he stretched arms on either side of the bath and leaned back and heaved a sigh of relief.

            He sat in the water and allowed his senses to wonder.  Vaguely in other parts of the large bathhouse he heard the voices of men mumbling or the splashing of water.  Somewhere a woman's voice, probably that of a serving girl, was laughing merrily.  Somewhere else the tinkling of goblets clinking together told him men were enjoying their wine. The baths was a giant complex filled with senators, generals, politicians and the rich from all walks of life.  Cabals were being hatched.  Dark secrets were being revealed.  Roman politics in its darkest, most cynical forms being orchestrated by those who lusted for power.  Sighing, he gently pushed the cacophony of noise from his mind, and allowed the heat of the water to seep into aching muscles and a tired body with its soothing fingers of sensual delight.

            He was an average size man in height.  But the numerous scars which tattooed his flesh in a bizarre matrix of randomness, along with the amazing display of muscles he yet retained, would have indicated to any on looker this man was anything but remotely average. 

            Twenty two years soldiering in one of the many legions loyal to Octavius Caesar had a way of hardening a man's body . . . a man's soul.  From Hispania to Egypt; from Illyrium to Gaul.  One legion after another.  Fighting.  Fighting Gauls.  Fighting Spaniards.  Fighting Romans.  Hundreds of skirmishes.  Several pitched battles.  Stepping over friends and foes alike lying on the ground dead, sword dripping with blood in one hand and shield in the other.  Battle fields littered with the dead, the dying, and the cowering for as far as the eye could see.

            Twenty two years.

            Watching fool politicians appointed to command riding prancing horses, banners and Eagles rising in the sunshine, with men shouting and hammering their shields with the swords, only to, months later, see the legion either decimated and defeated.  Or decimated and barely clinging to victory.

            Twenty two years.

            Rising up through the ranks.  First as a centurion in the tenth cohort . . . essentially the raw recruits of a legion.  Proving himself as both a leader and as a fighter.  Attaining on the battle field the promotion to tribune and assigned again to a tenth cohort to begin the rise again through the ranks.  But eventually . . . with a little luck at surviving defeats as will as victories . . . rising eventually to primus pilum, or First Spear; the top ranking centurion commanding the First Cohort in any Roman legion.  And finally, from there, to being promoted to a tribune and given the rank of prafectus castorum.  The highest rank a professional soldier could attain.  Third in command of a Roman legion.  The soldier's soldier a legion's twenty or so tribunes and eighty or so centurions came to with their problems.  The soldier expected to maintain discipline in the army.  To feed the army.  To provide the arms. To mold thousands of disparate individual souls into one efficiently killing machine.

            But no more.  No more.

            A life time of soldiering was enough.  With what few years of good health remained to him he would enjoy as a free man.  He had accepted all the accolades, all the honors bestowed on him by noblemen and commoner, and retired from the army.  He no longer served anyone.  No longer took orders from anyone.  No longer felt obligated to anyone.  It was a strange feeling.  A dichotomy of emotions.  On one hand was the feeling of joy . . . immense joy of finally, finally being in command of his own fate.  On the other hand was this feeling of extreme loss. An odd emptiness hanging just below his consciousness.   As if there was something critical was missing.  An order given and yet to be obeyed. Frowning, he inhaled the hot humid air of the baths and opened his eyes.

            What was he going to do with himself?   The need to be gainfully employed was of no concern.  Retiring from the position of profectus castorum meant he left the service of the Imperator as a wealthy man.  Almost twenty three years of being first a centurion and then a tribune meant, among other things, being involved in the handling of his men's savings.  Yes, most of the men he commanded spent their wages on women and drink as fast as they could.  But a number of men in any legion had learned to save some money back.  To throw it into the cohort's banking system in the hopes that, if the army was successful and cities or provinces were plundered, their meager savings would grow.

            The final three years of his army life had been a considerable financial boon.  As perfectus castorum  his staff had been in charge of the entire legion's savings.  Several thousand sesterces worth.  If an officer was astute in his men's investments a sizeable profit could be had by all.   And if a legion was fortunate to be favored by its commander, or legate, for exceptional service, the reward would be even greater.

            He was not called The Lucky for nothing.  Lucky in war.  Lucky in investing.  Lucky in being related to the richest man in the empire.  Gaius Octavius Caesar.  Money was of no concern to him.  He would live comfortably for the rest of his life.

            But what to do?  What exercise to entertain and stimulate his mind?  He needed a challenge.  A goal . . . a . . . puzzle . . . to keep his wits about him!  Without some challenge for the gray matter in his skull to dwell up life was nothing but a series of boring mannerisms to endure.

            Closing his eyes again he idly heard his servant Gnaeus pouring wine in a large goblet for him.  And then . . . a brief silence.  An odd silence.  And out of place silence.  Softly followed by just the lightest whisper of heavy cloth rubbing across the leather scabbard of a sheathed gladius.

            He didn't move or show any outward gesture he was aware of a new presence behind him.  Resting in the water of the bath he appeared to be asleep.  But ever nerve in his body was tingling with delight!  He heard the soft tread of three distinct sets of sandals.  With one of the three, strangely, without question an old man. Opening eyes slowly he noticed the colors around him . . . the blue of the water, the black of the marble columns, the white of the marble bath walls . . . seemed to be a hundred times more intense!  For the first time in weeks he felt alive!  And when he heard that distinct shuffling of feet and the odd hissing of someone finding it difficult to breathe he almost laughed out loud.

            "Good evening, cousin," he said quietly, coming to a standing position and turning to face his unannounced guests.

            Three of them stood above him looking down at him as he stood in waters of the bath.  Two of them were big men dressed in the distinct cuirass and greaves of the Praetorian Guards.  Around their shoulders were short capes of the royal purple trimmed in silver thread.  Underneath their left arms were their brightly polished bronze helms.  At their waists lay the short blades of the Roman gladius. The double edged weapon that had carved out a vast empire for the City of Rome and its people.

            Between the two was an old man slightly stooped over and dressed in a dark wine red toga.  Around his shoulders and covering the curls of his white hair was a plain woolen cloak and hood.  But there was no mistaking this man.

            "Good evening, Decimus Virilis," Augustus Caesar said, an amused smile spreading across thin lips.  "I see you still retain all your limbs and most of your senses."

            "No thanks to you, Imperator!" Decimus laughed, making his way out of the bath completely unconcerned about his nakedness and men armed standing before him.  "You've tried to kill me at least a hundred times!"

            "One of my few failures I'm sure," replied the old man, chuckling.

            "So tell me, cousin.  To what pleasure do I owe you receiving your company in a public bath house suddenly ordered vacated by a detachment of your Praetorian Guards?"

            The old man's eyes, bright and alive, looked upon his distant cousin with mirth and pleasure.  They had known each other for years.  Ever since Decimus, as a boy of fifteen, ran away from home and joined his first legion.  A legion he happened to be commanding in Greece facing Mark Anthony so many years ago.  Nodding approvingly, the old man moved closer to the younger man, took him gently by one arm and squeezed it affectionately.

            "I am in need of your services, cousin.  A very delicate situation has come up that must be addressed swiftly and surely.  Swiftly and surely with . . . uh . . . only the talents you can bring to bear."


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Theory of Mine . . .

 I'm working on a theory.  A theory I think is critical for a writer's success.  Critical in making a novel either a gripping, can't-put-it-down page-turner, or nothing more than a, "Yeah, I think I read it."
Here's the theory  (it's a two-parter).

Part One:  The opening chapter of  a novel is, without exaggerating in the least, the most critical chapter for the entire book.

The first chapter not only introduces the characters who are going to play a significant role in the novel, it sets up the mood . . . the overall raw energy . . .  one feels coming out of the novel.

That overall impression of the novel, the characters and the settings, will carry on across the entire read.  Therefore the first chapter is absolutely critical

Part Two: Setting, mood . . . the raw energy of the novel . . . is established for the novel in the first chapter through the use of powerful descriptive phrasing.  Establishing the foundation for the novel requires painting a relatively complex verbal portrait.  Relatively complex, but dancing on that fine line between 'just right'  and 'too much.'

The first chapter should be ladled with succinct, clear, visual imagery and emotional shading.   It should clearly set the building blocks on the overall mood of the novel and its major participants.  After the chapter is complete, and the meat of the novel begins to evolve in chapter two and on, the heavy use of description should be quantitatively reduced.

Case in point.  Last night I was playing around with imagery and working up a possible opening for the second 'Smitty' novel I might use.  The first Smitty novel is not done yet . . . but this idea hit me and I wanted to see what it looked and felt like on the computer screen.  So I wrote a couple of hundred words and felt (still feel)  pretty good. 

But I need some feedback.  Both on my theory as a whole and on whether I've crossed that 'too much' line we are talking about.   So idea pops up in the two-watt light bulb for a brain of mine . . . why not let everyone take a look at a section of the opening page and maybe comment on it?
So here goes.  Just a few paragraphs in the opening which tries to do exactly what I've been talking about: setting up the mood for the entire novel through the use of description.

Thinking tentatively of calling the novel 'Ransom.'  Or . . . maybe not.  A bridge that can be crossed at a later date, methinks.

What do you think?


            The black hemi Dodge Challenger, glistening underneath a harsh August sun, its engine burbling sensually a growl of restrained power,  slid menacingly into the parking space between a beat up looking Honda Civic and an ancient, but immaculate,  English built Triumph TR-3 two-seater sports car and settled in for a long wait.  Behind the dark windows of the car two men sat in the bucket seats, big beefy hands folded on their laps casually,  heads rolled to the left and watching the front doors of a large, Colonial styled red brick building. A building with white trimmed windows and door frames with the name of Cameron Hall in large gold lettering above its main entrance.

            The men were dressed in dark suits.  Both men were square jawed, with very short cropped military cut haircuts, wearing dark aviators shades.  Both had wide shoulders.  Shoulders of men long used to arduous and dangerous physical labor.  Like the kind of arduous labor a soldier might find on the killing fields of  Afghanistan or Iraq.  They had also one other attribute that made them who they were.  They were patient.  Infinitely patient as they sat in the air conditioning of the car and kept an unrelenting vigil on the  long, elegant college building sitting on a grassy tree shrouded knoll a mere seventy feet away from the college's main parking lot.

            Cameron Hall was the university's main building.  The red brick building was a classic example of Colonial architecture from the bright red bricks which where its main component to the white framed windows and doors.  In the center of the building, rising up above the tree line of the old oaks and maple trees,  a tall clock tower with a huge, four sided clock, dominated the campus.  All the students, from any point on the campus, could eye the clock and know precisely how much time they had left to get to class.  Above the green clay tile pointed roof an American flag fluttered lazily in the soft Autumn breeze underneath a gorgeous cloudless blue sky.

            Encircling Cameron Hall like a nest of red bricked ducklings was the rest of the small, but very expensive, private university.  All of the buildings copied Cameron Hall's elegance and style.  Every building visibly was red bricked, white trimmed, with bright leafy green clay tile roofs. 


            Like something out of a brochure.

            The setting exuding a sense of wealth . . . vast wealth . . . just lying on the grass or rising up through the trees ready to be plucked.