Guest Post by JD Byrne
Good fantasy has to be realistic.
Wait, what? I mean, that’s pretty counterintuitive, isn’t it. The whole point of fantasy is that you can make up anything you want. Whereas its close relation science fiction has to deal with, well, science, fantasy is only limited by the imagination of its writer. So why worry about it being realistic?
One reason is that it’s practical. Unless you’re writing something really avant garde and creating a different world from the ground up, even the most fantastic stories take place in a world that looks a lot like ours. Middle Earth may have hobbits, dwarves, and orcs, but it still has a world that works basically like ours - people need to eat and sleep, have to figure out ways to get from one point to another, and figure out how to get along with each other. All of those things are rooted in our experiences of our real world. After all, you can’t have a second breakfast without a concept of breakfast, right?
Another reason is that details matter when it comes to the most important part of speculative fiction - suspension of disbelief. In fantasy, more so than science fiction, the author is basically asking readers to trust them, to come along with whatever weird stuff is going to happen just because. Still, there are things, little details, in any story that can kick a reader right out of a state of disbelief (I’ve written before about what I call “flying snowman” moments, after a John Scalzi blog post). Maybe your fantasy heroes are riding horses into battle after they rode 100 miles in two days without any mention of food, water, or rest. For some readers that might kick them out of the story.
It’s not that you can’t have something in your fantasy world that does the job of a horse but doesn’t need rest or nutrition, but you have to build that up on its own. There’s a difference between getting a fantasy element “wrong” - if such a thing is possible - and getting mundane real world details that are still relevant to your world wrong. A two-foot tall pixie probably can’t wield a five-foot long steel sword, but who says the sword has to be made of steel? It doesn’t, but you need to lay the foundation for that. It’s sort of like the old saw about learning the rules before you can break them - you need to know why you’re doing it differently and consider whether it’s worth it.
While research is necessary to write good fantasy, it doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, sometimes doing the research can open ways to deepen your world and help make the story better. Let me share a couple of examples where that’s happened to me.
In my novel The Water Road a pair of characters are out in the woods searching for a mythical city in the trees when they’re set upon by bandits. One of them, Rurek, takes an arrow in the leg from the bandit leader, Spider. I never intended the wound to be fatal, so once it was in Rurek’s leg I had to figure out how to get it out. I’m so glad I did some research rather than just going with my gut. Turns out how to deal with an arrow wound is largely dependent on the kind of arrowhead is involved and there are some really nasty ones out there, ones designed to inflict maximum damage if taken out incorrectly.
That made me think - what kind of arrow would a guy like Spider use? It made me drill deeper into the character than I had initially. He only shows up for this scene, after all, and was hardly that important in the grand scheme of things. But using an arrow designed to do maximum harm, particularly to someone who would react as I had (pull the damned thing out!), is precisely the kind of guy he was. The research allowed me to complicate Rurek’s situation even further (and allow a new, important character, to show some knowledge and skill) and give some idea of just what an evil person Spider was.
In my short story “The Destiny Engine” (which you can only get by signing up for my mailing list), the main character has a massive steampunk contraption that, he says, can see a person’s other possible futures. He has to input data into the machine at some point, so I initially had him sitting down at a typewriter-style keyboard. A beta reader wondered whether such keyboards were in wide use in late 19th-century Wyoming where the story was set.
I looked into it and, as it turns out, keyboards were a thing back then, but they hadn’t standardized into anything like we know today. Instead, there was a wide range of size, design, and functionality. I found a picture of one that was basically a brass globe with keys sticking out the top on long stalks, so typing on it looked kind of like giving a robot a scalp massage. So while it wouldn’t have been wrong to put my main character in that story in front of something that looked like a typewriter, how much cooler was it to have him manipulating a brass robot skull!
Since research is important for writing fantasy, what’s the best way to go about it? There are several options, depending on what it is you need to know.
First, you can draw on your own knowledge of whatever area it is you need to research. That’s kind of cheating, but a knowledge base is a knowledge base, regardless of where it comes from. When it came time to write the battle scenes in The Endless Hills (the second part of The Water Road trilogy) I fell back on the reading I’d done my entire life about battles from various conflicts in the 18th and 19th centuries. I looked up a couple of things, but it was to confirm more than learn from scratch.
This is as good a place as any to amplify a piece of advice I’ve heard almost every writer give - that to be a good writer, you need to be a serious reader. I’d expand that to say it’s important for writers of fiction to read a lot of nonfiction, too, to learn about the world around them. Not only do you broaden that internal knowledge base you can use while writing, sometimes history or science or whatever can provide some pretty good fuel for future stories.
A second good place to go for research is other writers. Writers each bring their own experience and knowledge to the table, which can be a powerful resource to tap into. The example I gave above of needing to know how to get an arrow out? When I went to Google to find the answer the first result it returned to was to a subsection of a writers’ forum where people shared their expertise. Writers tend to be a helpful bunch, so make the most of what those around you know.
Third, you can take advantage of the knowledge of experts in whatever field you’re looking into. Sci-fi writers routinely consult with physicists, rocket scientists, and the like in order to get the science in their stories right (or at least plausible). Fantasy writers can do the same. Setting a story in a world that’s based on feudal Japan? Find the nearest college or university that teaches Japanese history and reach out to the professor. They might be happy to talk to someone about their subject who is writing a novel about it.
Finally, when it comes to research, there’s always the option to hit the books, whether literally or electronically. Google is great, but be skeptical of sources and weigh competing information carefully. Books are even better, if you’ve got access to a good library somewhere close. You can even go and spent time in places that inspire the world you’re building. Want to set a story in a castle - go visit one! It’s easier said than done, of course, but it can be done.
Research sounds a lot like work and sometimes it is. Sometimes you’ll find out things that torpedo an idea or a particular story element. More often, you’ll shore up your own world, deepen you characters, and maybe even find something to spark your creativity even further. It’s worth the effort and your readers will thank you.
JD Byrne was born and raised around Charleston, West Virginia, before spending seven years in Morgantown getting degrees in history and law from West Virginia University. He's practiced law for more than 15 years, writing briefs where he has to stick to real facts and real law. In his fiction, he gets to make up the facts, take or leave the law, and let his imagination run wild. He lives outside Charleston with his wife and the two cutest Chihuahuas the world has ever seen.
There's no "real" blog post this week, and for that I apologize. It's more of a "here's what I've been doing recently, tune in next week for the regularly scheduled bullshit." It's also the answer to the "hey, why isn't there a new video on the YouTube channel this month" question.
Well, for starters, I got sick. Yay.
It's nothing serious. There hasn't even been vomit involved. But it's sucking the life and energy out of me like a vampire. Part of it is likely the weather. In Minnesota, it's finally stopped snowing and started raining. It's that chilly, almost-hail type of rain, too, the kind that almost guarantees spending the day inside with kleenex and blankets. Also that rain is going to be freezing, melting, and re-freezing a few times over the weekend, and the snow created massive potholes that we now have to avoid, which is going to turn driving into a hellish level of Mario Kart.
The other part of the illness probably has something to do with the fact that I've taken to working seven days a week every other week thanks to two of my three jobs.
Or it could just be something one of my roommates coughed on me. They've been sick a lot recently, as well.
In short, it's just been a good time all around.
All right, enough about that illness and rain nonsense. Let's get to the fun stuff.
What I've been writing:
There's some other stuff, too. A paranormal novella for Less Than Three Press that got rejected and needs editing. My own novel involving wolves with wings and telepathy on another planet that's just been outlined. A novella series involving vampires that's being pushed on the backburner. But right now Green Snake and Homestead are the important ones.
What I'm reading:
The next book review will be Words of Radiance, the second book of The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson. (You can read my review of the first book, Way of Kings, here.)
Could I have chosen to read one of the other books on my shelf that are all less than 1200 pages? Yes, absolutely.
Was I able to resist buying Words of Radiance when I saw it in the bookstore and started reading it right away? Of course not.
So that's about it. I've got a bunch of guest posts and interviews with a bunch of very talented writers lined up for you guys, as well. But if there's a particular topic you want me to cover, then please let me know in the comments, or you can contact me directly.
The next YouTube channel will be Dynamic Duos and literary foils.
Right now I'm going to take a nap, because--joy!--it's raining again, and I'm still a little sick.
See you next week!
Today we'll be interviewing the Canadian science fiction novelist Zachry Wheeler, author of Transient. According to Amazon, it's basically about vampire spies in the future. (Paranormal sci-fi?) I have not had the opportunity to read any of his works yet, but after this interview, I'm thinking I need to change that.
What cool and exciting things have been happening in your life recently?
I was recently invited to give a presentation on Writing From Book to Film at the annual Dublin Writers Conference in Ireland. I am a regular on the convention circuit where I give presentations on numerous topics, but this will be the first time that I cross an ocean to give a talk. I have visited Dublin many times and love the city, so I am very excited to return on a business trip.
The reason I am giving the presentation ties directly into another exciting thing that happened. My novel Transient is currently in development with Voltage Pictures (The Hurt Locker, Dallas Buyers Club) to become a feature film. I have been very active in the process, which is quite rare from an author perspective. I have even edited the script, which gives me a screenwriting credit on the movie.
The whole experience has opened numerous doors in the industry where I now serve as a script doctor for other projects. As a result, my other series Max and the Multiverse is in the beginning stages of being adapted for television.
Wow! Living the author's dream of seeing their work go on the big screen! (Well, it's a dream for some of others. For others, it's a nightmare, but it looks like you'll be making sure the abomination of the Percy Jackson movies doesn't happen to Transient.)
Is your recent book part of a series? If so, can you tell us a bit about where the story is heading?
My most recently published book would be Max and the Banjo Ferret, which is Book Three of my Max and the Multiverse sci-fi comedy series. I have also published a short story since then entitled The Item of Monumental Importance, which takes place between the first two books.
As far as the series arch goes, I have managed to reach a resting point with the completion of the third book. There is still plenty more story to tell and I plan to continue the series for many books to come, but I am no longer leaving readers on a cliffhanger ending.
Aw, but cliffhangers are so fun! They're the best way to torture readers.
Can you tell us about what you're currently working on?
I had started a spin-off series for Max and the Multiverse and wrote a large chunk of the initial draft, but the project ended up sidelined in favor of the Transient sequel. This was mostly due to the first book getting selected for the Prime Reading program at Amazon. The spike in popularity has renewed interest in the sequel, hence the refocus. I had already outlined the next two books, so it was just a matter of getting to work. I am finishing up the first draft and hope to be editing very soon.
What did you edit out of your book?
When I wrote the initial drafts of Transient, much of it read like a technical manual about vampire biology. The material was interesting to me, but it significantly bogged down the story. It was my first book and I had no idea what I was doing, but after years of editing and revising, I learned that most of the backstory was superfluous. I ended up trimming a novella’s worth of material from the final draft. And for those who have read the book, that’s where the “recon” sections came from. They allowed me to maintain pace while doling out important details.
So, basically, editing the exposition. The bane of so many authors.
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else required for your creative process?
Definitely a night owl, but my writing times are largely sporadic. I write at all hours, usually after I work through the current narrative arch, no matter what time that may be. As far as necessities go, I need coffee and silence. I don’t see how writers keep their concentration with music playing. I can get yanked out of the process by a car horn off in the distance.
Funny! I just started a habit of playing classical music on my laptop while working. Now I can't live without that white noise. (Probably because it tunes out all the annoying car horns.)
Do you have complete control over your characters or do they ever control you?
I would say a little bit of both. For the most part, I can steer my characters in the directions I need them to go. But every now and then, the narrative will shift course because someone needed something that I hadn’t foreseen.
A lot of authors are frustrated by readers who don’t understand how important reviews are. What would you say to a reader who doesn’t think his or her review matters?
It pains me to admit that ratings and reviews are absolutely critical to the success of every writer, especially indie authors. It helps to view ratings as reputation currency, the cred we use in order to get seen and promoted. I will often soften the request by saying that reviews don’t need to be complicated, just a sentence or two is perfectly fine. It’s the ratings that are most important.
Good advice. I sometimes hear, "You shouldn't write for reviews. You should write for your heart and soul."
Okay, but I need to eat...
Do you have any advice for new authors?
(Deer in headlights.) Holy hell, where to start. If I had to boil it down to a single bit of wisdom, it would be to temper your expectations. Writing is the easy part. Getting it polished, published, and promoted is where the real work begins. I would say that publishing a book is 10% writing and 90% other crap you never wanted to do.
If you could have a dinner with one fictional person, who would it be? Why?
Rust Cohle from True Detective. My worldview is largely misanthropic, but not in a debilitative way. No other fictional character has ever captured my intrigue like Rust, who mirrored my own views on life, the universe, and everything. I would love to pick his brain over a dinner conversation.
If you could go to any fictional world, where would you go? Why?
Pretty much any world in which humans have colonized space. My one enduring dream to leave this planet and explore the cosmos. You know those “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore” memes? Yeah, that’s me every day.
Hey, you might get your wish! According to scientists, this planet is toast unless we get our act together.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
I spent a decade in the music industry before I started writing as my primary outlet. I fronted several rock bands in the past and released four studio albums. I have always pursued some sort of creative endeavor, but never thought that it would be writing, which fits my personality much better these days. I just don’t have the energy to jump around the stage anymore. And for anyone interested, you can check out my old acts online: The Mayhematic and Sydewynder.
You're getting old, Zach. ;P
Thank you for coming onto my blog!
Brainstorming new blog post ideas
For serious bloggers, the general rule of thumb is to have your blog posts planned out at least a month in advance. (Others will argue at least six months, but those tend to be the full-timers.) This limits the amount of frenzied writing, sloppy editing, and hair-fraying panic that can accompany writing. This is great in theory. But life has a bad habit of cluttering our schedules, and before you know it, that glorious time period where all of your posts are planned out, written ahead of time, and scheduled in advance has run out, and we're left scrambling to throw together a last-minute blog post to satisfy our readers.
Or maybe you're new to blogging, haven't even set up the website yet, and are frozen in terror because, what? You're supposed to do this every week if you want a following? More? Where do you even start?
Worry not, friends! Like so many other bloggers online, I am writing this post to help you answer that very question. When you're staring down the white screen of death, dreading the impending deadline, how do you come up with a juicy topic that will satisfy your readers?
I actually struggled with this question myself. Minutes before writing this very post. And several more times throughout my blogging career. Procrastination is a fine art, lovelies, one that I have mastered. As such, there are several tips that you can use.
Tip #1: Keep an Ongoing List
Earlier this week, I looked at my calendar with despair. At the end of 2018, I had planned out three months of blog posts. Three! And not just posts for this blog, but also for my monthly column The Bitch Shelf at Luna Station Quarterly, as well as my YouTube channel. I'd even been writing book reviews and writing tutorials weeks in advance to buy more time to work on the videos and stories.
But now that time was gone, and I hadn't refreshed the buffer zone. I now had to come up with a completely new topic, and I had to do it now if I wanted time to actually write the damn thing.
Luckily, I plan for such emergencies. I also have the habit of writing down every thought that goes through my head. Which is why I keep an ongoing list of potential blog posts in my journal.
For me, this list is divided in two parts: topics on how to write, and commentary on the SFF genre. Obviously I also do book reviews, too, but as I write those down as soon as I close the book and then schedule them as needed, they don't need to be listed.
Some topics never leave the list, because they can be written over and over again. My "Top Ten Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books" or "Favorite Horror Movies for Halloween" are constantly changing as I consume more media. I can bust those out every few months and they'll never grow old. Lists are an old favorite of bloggers for this very reason.
Other topics can really only be done once or twice (like "How to Come Up with Your Next Blog Post") before your audience gets bored, so it's important to keep this list up to date! Keep your journal handy wherever you go, especially if you're browsing your chosen topic online. If you're writing a blog about fishing, and you see a YouTuber give bad tackling advice to their audience, write down what that topic is so you can write a post about it later. Or if you read a post that brushes on a particular subject but doesn't really get into it as deeply as it should, write that down and come back to it later.
Ideas can come out of nowhere: random conversations with friends and family, reading a fantasy book and thinking Man, this author doesn't know shit about characterization, or even just going for a walk outside and suddenly getting hit with an idea while listening to Imagine Dragons. Keep a list. Keep it close. And when you're in a bind and need a blog idea fast, you'll have a bunch of options to choose from.
Tip #2: Ask!
Even if you don't have an established audience, you can always find people to just ask for ideas, or better yet, ask them what they want to read about. Facebook groups are my personal favorite.
Never be afraid to tell your readers that you've been hit with writer's block and need their help. In fact, readers love it. I know I do. Some of my favorite YouTubers are constantly putting up surveys asking "Which video do you want me to do next" with a variety of topics to choose from. It's great for the audience, because we get to actively participate and feel like we're being heard and cared about by someone we look up to. And it's great for the creator, because they get an insight into what their audience wants them to talk about.
You can also ask your readers at the end of each post something along the lines of "Let me know what other topics you'd like me to cover" or "Feel free to ask me any questions you have about XYZ!" This will be another source of potential blog posts that you know you readers will want to read about, because they're literally asking for it!
Tip #3: Interviews & Guest Posts
Interviews and guest posts with other bloggers (or authors if you're a book blogger, or parents if you're a parenting blogger, or whatever niche you're in) are helpful for a variety of reasons. One is simply sharing audiences. Guest posts can be key to building your audience, as you're basically using someone else's established blog as a springboard. You can go on their site with their regular traffic and talk about your blog, or you can invite them on your blog for a spike of traffic in the hopes that the new readers will stick around long enough to sign up for your newsletter. (This happened after I interviewed my mother, Maryjanice Davidson.)
But there's another reason that interviews and guest posts are a good idea, and that is strategic laziness. Once you've secured an interview/guest post to appear on your blog, your work is pretty much done. The other writer is the one who has to do all the heavy lifting! Once they send it to you, it's just a matter of minor editing, copy, and paste.
If you run a weekly blog like I do, this means that you get a whole other week to figure out what the next post is going to be, or in my case, quickly finish reading a book so I can review it in time. And like the ongoing list of blog post ideas, if you collect enough interviews and guest posts, you can store them away for emergencies or schedule them for busier weeks, thus giving you some breathing room while also keeping your readers satisfied. Plus you get a network connection and you're promoting a fellow blogger. Everyone wins!
Tip #4: If All Else Fails: Re-Publish
Republishing old blog posts is an underrated skill that a lot of bloggers forget about. So long as the post is old enough--at least four months minimum--then chances are your readers don't remember it and/or didn't even read it because of all the other stuff cluttering their email and social media feed. (That sounded pessimistic and vaguely insulting. Sorry.) It's perfectly acceptable to take an old post, dust it off with some minor updates and edits, and re-publish it.
As a matter of fact, I had planned on doing just that for the most recent Bitch Shelf article "Superhero Movies that Fight Toxic Masculinity." Originally, I was going to give them one of my first posts on this site, "Toxic Masculinity in Superhero Movies." But the thing is, LSQ has a pretty strict word count with its columnists, and my old post proved to be too long. I couldn't cut it down to size without losing vital information, so instead I focused on one part of the post: the ending. I had ended that post with a handful of superhero movies that, at the time, were the only ones I knew that actively fought or defied toxic masculinity. This was before Black Panther, Incredibles 2, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse came out.
So now I had a much more positive, better idea for an article that was better suited to the word count and got new information that hadn't been available two years ago. It took about fifteen minutes to write and send to LSQ--along with a second, panicked email a while later, because I had originally forgotten that Spider-Verse was a thing.
But other Bitch Shelf articles, especially the earlier ones, are copied almost directly from older posts. And that's totally fine! You can do that so long as you're careful with it.
What are some ways that you (or a friend of yours) come up with blog post ideas at the last minute? Let me know in the comments!
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!