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.
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!
How to write a romance that's already started rolling
Romantic subplots (or rom-subs, as I call them) are a huge part of speculative fiction, or any kind of fiction, really. We can't go two feet without stumbling into a pair of characters making out. I've complained about it before, and will continue to complain about it in the future, because it's often poorly handled. I've even written a few articles on the matter to help fellow authors with their rom-subs (see, How to Write a Romantic Subplot Parts One and Two, as well as How NOT to Write a Romantic Subplot).
But for this post, we're going to focus on a very specific breed of rom-subs today: the part of the relationship that comes after "The Big Kiss." We all know this moment. After several episodes/hours/books of flirting, bickering, and saving each others' lives, the characters finally--finally!--acknowledge that they want to be in a romantic relationship and make out properly for the first time.
And this is where the majority of romantic subplots end. All of the writing goes into setting up the relationship between our leading man and leading lady, and then...we don't get to actually see the relationship. Which is kind of a bummer. Because it feels like we go through all this work and turmoil without any reward.
And as a writer, I get it. Creating a relationship is a lot more exciting and dramatic than maintaining one. However, for the purposes of sequels, second acts, and just for my own peace of mind, we're going to be looking at how relationships are written after they're actually...you know, relationships. Rather than the will-they, won't-they nonsense.
But before we begin, I'm going to level with you: I am probably the last person in the world who should be writing this blog post. Not only am I still relatively new to published writing, but my own personal love life is pretty much non-existent. I didn't date in high school and only had one S.O. in college (and we broke up after less than a year). And most of the time, even though I am now getting back into dating, I usually have little to no interest in romance. So I know that I am far from an expert in building and maintaining romantic relationships in real life, and real life is the building blocks of fictional life.
However, I can tell you how any type of relationship looks in a story, including how one is done so well that even I think Wow, that looks really cool and realistic. So today, an attempt is made. Whether or not it's actually helpful to your writing, you decide.
SFF Characters Suck at Relationships
The first book (or movie, or season, whatever) ended with not only the villain defeated and the day saved, but also with the author's OTP kissing and starting a romantic relationship. It's now book two, and what's one of the characters' main problems? Their relationship is failing! Oh, no!
Seriously. Writers tend to have a really hard time writing functional relationships. The characters are having major problems that one of the characters has to confide in their bestie about (Nyota Uhura and Spock from the Star Trek reboots), or they've even broken up (General Leia and Han Solo in Star Wars: the Force Awakens). Sometimes, this makes sense. Not every relationship is destined for a fairy tale ending. Real life doesn't work like that, and neither should fiction.
But this problem is everywhere. Almost every romantic subplot that gets to continue from The Big Kiss runs into huge issues. And even when they don't, even when everything is fine, we rarely get to see the two characters actually do the relationship thing.
Look at Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in MCU. They start a relationship in Iron Man 2 and have some issues that they get to overcome in Iron Man 3, which is great. But then the next time we hear of their rom-sub is in Civil War, where Tony tells Steve Rogers that he and Pepper are "taking a break." Which is usually code for "breaking up or on the verge of doing so." This comes out of nowhere, since, while she doesn't make an appearance in Age of Ultron, it is established that she and Tony are still going strong. And THEN, the next time we hear from them in Spiderman: Homecoming, they're apparently back together again and Tony's proposing to her, which she accepts. Then in Infinity War, Tony's talking about possibly having kids!
Now don't get me wrong: I would much rather watch big explosions and ass-kicking in a superhero movie than dedicate an hour to the romantic subplot. But at the same time, you can't just skip over huge chunks of a character's life and relationship with others and expect everyone else to be able to follow along. You'll just give your readers whiplash. You're the writer. You have to write the damn thing.
Writing the Relationship
Because my life experience has left me woefully unprepared for this kind of thing, I'm going to be pulling from two stories that do manage to do the relationship thing very, very well: Avatar: the Last Airbender, and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson / Heroes of Olympus / Trials of Apollo series. (Minor spoilers for all of them.)
The ATLA show was the set-up for the romantic subplot between several characters, which are then explored in the comics that take place a year after the war. (If you haven't read those yet, please do. They're awesome.) Zuko and Mai do end up breaking up, and while Sokka and Suki seem fine on the surface I personally have been getting the vibe that there are some issues brewing. But Katara and Aang's relationship has been golden. They've continued to travel the world to bring peace and balance to the four nations, and have of course run into several obstacles and issues. Many Fire Nation colonists don't want to leave their Earth Kingdom homes. Aang's trying to preserve Air Nomad culture despite being the only living airbender. The South Pole is trying to modernize to keep up with the rest of the world, which grates on Katara.
But through all this chaos, just like all the chaos that happened in the show, Katara and Aang are there for each other. They continue to support one another and watch each other's backs. Only this time there's a bit more kissing and they call each other "sweetie." (Which I personally have a soft spot for because that's what my parents call each other. It's really cute. Fight me.)
Then we have Rick Riordan's books. Again, there are a ton of relationships because he went a little overboard in Heroes of Olympus, in my opinion. Piper and Jason, we find out in Trials of Apollo, did break up, but they're still friends. Nico and Will continue to be sickeningly adorable, dorky, and snarky. Leo and Calypso are still figuring it out but have managed to weather the first major test to their relationship: surviving a quest with a de-godified Apollo.
But of course, the main couple is Percy and Annabeth. They got together at the very end of the original Percy Jackson series, and despite that one hiccup where Percy was missing and amnesiac for eight months (because Hera is a bitch), their relationship has continued to be solid. They continue to fight bad guys. They continue to snark at each other and occasionally argue. They continue to lead the other demigods on crazy adventures and almost die.
Now, this piece of advice and personal wisdom I'm about to give is probably extremely obvious. Especially to experienced authors. But as I've said, most writers seem to be bizarrely incapable of writing the relationship after it gets started, so it needs to be said.
The common thread between these stories is simple: the characters in the relationship continue to be themselves. They don't act any differently other than the fact that they trust and rely on each other a little more. At least, the successful ones do. Part of the reason Zuko and Mai didn't work out is because Zuko didn't confide in her, or anybody, as the pressure of being Fire Lord started to get to him.
Basically, your characters are always themselves. They just get a little extra spice in their life now that they have a significant other. If they get lost in their relationship or start acting like a completely different character, then they probably shouldn't be in that relationship at all.
For an in-depth look at rom-subs as a whole, check out Overly Sarcastic Productions' video here.
Black characters--or I should say, well-written, non-stereotypical black characters--can be hard to come by in sci-fi and fantasy. Chances are, if the book is written by a white person, almost all of the characters are white, and those that aren’t are minor and two-dimensional. Even the best authors are guilty of this. Does anyone recall seeing any black wizards in Hogwarts?
For those of us well-intentioned white SFF authors, we see this and want to help. But we don’t want to come across as racist by badly writing a black character, so the question is: how do you write black characters?
The good news: it’s pretty easy.
Yes, this is very similar to how you write women characters. Remember: it’s not the person themselves who are different because of something as superficial as skin tone. It’s how other people react to that person’s appearance. That is what shapes the character.
Obviously if you’re writing a historical piece, do your research. Adhere to the rules of slavery, segregation, and whatever other horribly racist mandate we had going on at the time.
And no matter what genre you’re writing, even high fantasy or super futuristic sci-fi where you can create all of society’s rules, governing race, and ethnicity, there are some stereotypes you want to avoid.
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!