…Still a Traveler

Speaking of new worlds to explore, I would be remiss if I didn’t include my passion for music. I should compile a list of best bands to listen to while reading fantasy novels. This one would definitely be high on that list.


Post-Graduate Life:The Long Home

Nothing has changed.

No, I’m kidding. It’s been a while since I’ve managed to find time to blog or write, and my life has felt scattered and unorganized because of that. Writing is truly one of my biggest centers. A focuser. And apart from that, many things are different–the biggest of which has the been the move.

Everything feels more temporary than it used to. More rushed. Not busier; it’s not at all what I thought. But it is less easy to define a day’s activities in a sentence than it used to be. Everything that happens seems to be punctuated with commas, breaths are shorter, and I’m looking around for what I might call “home” not just as a more permanent living place, but in the work place and other aspects of life.

Finding time to write more often will undoubtedly help with that.

This whole thing reminds me of a Christian Wiman poem I read recently while watching the Arizona clouds meander by in the West’s infinity skies. It was during a road trip with some long-time friends that this poem struck me with thoughts about home.

Home is momentary, a way of seeing, a sweet lingering in a cloud before it drifts beyond the form [we’ve] found for it.

Life is about transitions, I suppose. Everything settled is an in between-time spent preparing for the next transition. I used to hate transitions and moves and changes. Still do to a degree. I used to be afraid of unfamiliar places. Part of me still is. It’s the part of me that looks, or hopes to find the same shape in the cloud I just saw. And it’s the same part of me that not only misses that shape but also wants to move on too. Get things over with.

But things are never over with.

The cloud is still there, and there’s a new shape, and it’s made up of all the same principles, and even (in my case for now) people.

So home is a thing of fine fluidity, and transitions are adventures.

And no matter how melancholy it may seem, things were never meant to stay the same. Life has as many metaphors as it has transitions, so I won’t go on. But I look around me, and I find that all the things that have remained the same are the things that count most, that will hopefully never change.

One of these is writing, and I will have to adapt to different schedules, write in smaller places–create as fiercely as ever. Oh, and on the best days I’ll have to share them here with you all.

There are still so many more words to be written and to be read. So many more adventures to have.

I have an aphorism artfully written on a board I keep with me. It says: “Life is a novel. Let God be the novelist.” There’s more to be said about that metaphor–stuff about characters and about freewill. But sometimes I’ll say it to myself, and I like to let it hang in the air and be what it is.

And I feel at home.

On World-Building

Most fantasy enthusiasts would agree that world-building is vital for the life of any particular novel. Just like a character, the landscape itself should have dramatically vivid attributes that define it and set it apart from the monotony of average  fields, mountains, rivers and seas (and even those can come alive with the right details). An imaginative author can design a world that is as memorable as some of the best characters of that genre.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of material to work with–much more than just an array of flora and fauna which may or may not be alien. Worlds have scars and weather patterns (consider Sanderson’s Way of Kings and the brilliant world defined primarily by its volatile storms and wind-hardened creatures).

Think also in terms of cartography. What makes Kevin Anderson’s Terra Incognita series so intriguing? Or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Even the inhabitants of that world don’t know what lurks over the horizon. It makes for some wonderful suspense. Some authors think big, taking in whole atlases and mythologies; some think small, ruminating on an old building or focusing on one city in great depth.

Wrapped up in all these considerations are seasons, animal behavior, abnormal catastrophes, storms, etc…and above all: Culture. The world is tied inseparably to the people and the people to the world. How do they shape each other? The fantasy/science fiction author has to become a biologist, and archeologist, a historian, and an anthropologist all at once. Not to mention a psychologist and a linguist. The best writers employ a whole college of disciplines.

We fantasists have to be as much in this world as anyone else. We have to be paying attention. Doing research. Learning, jotting stuff down, and drawing maps. The best imaginary worlds are still tied to ours in important ways. There are no rules, but there are guidelines.

This brings us to the wonderful paradox of fantasy. Readers need some realistic grounding and will therefore complain if a world has no anchor in reality. If the seas are made out of toxic wastes, the fish better be monstrous creatures who can breath it. If the whole world is covered in snow, people won’t be wearing sandals. Usually a fantasy world will have great similarities to ours with only small, plot-defining differences. It’s easy to get out of hand. It’s easy to forget the world for the story and both suffer from malnutrition.

Landmarks are a good way to avoid loosing readers. Reminding them of that unstable volcano in the vicinity of the spider-infested forest where the action is taking places could be a beneficial detail–especially if you plan on making the lava flow later. Introduced landmarks should be used, should become part of the plot. One of the most common complaints about certain fantasy authors is that they’ve become over indulgent to the world they’re creating, adding details that don’t add to the understanding of the information important for the plot. This is a fuzzy line, but when an author’s writing for themselves it’s noticeable.

The best fantasy authors can develop a world that gives readers a sense of it’s vastness or character without throwing out unnecessary details. Here’s a panoramic view of Middlearth that Tolkien gives us in The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s good stuff:

“It was now as clear and far-seen as it had been veiled and misty when they stood upon the knoll of the Forest, which could now be seen rising pale and green out of the dark trees in the West . In that direction the land rose in wooded ridges, green, yellow, russet under the sun, beyond which lay the hidden valley of the Brandywine. To the South, over the line of the Withywindle, there was a distant glint like pale grass where the Brandywine River made a great loop in the lowlands and flowed away out of the knowledge of the hobbits. Northward beyond the dwindling downs the land ran away in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale earth-colours, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance. Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.” – Chapter 8, The Fellowship of the Ring

It sets the scene for the impending adventure. Tolkien uses colors, the placement of the sun, names of places, and all the points of the compass to paint before us a tapestraic picture of a world that seems more real every moment. It puts you there. That’s the key to world building: make it real to your readers. Transport them to the world.

Get the creative juices flowing. It’s time to be writing again!

During Christmas break there’s no better way to get creative than to explore God’s creation.

It’s all here. In Great Falls park where the Potomac splits Maryland and Virginia and the rocks create for us endless castles on either side. By the river the rocks are worn and smooth from friction, but higher up its crags and crooked steps. A playground for both body and mind.

Somehow the simple act of scrambling about, fingers icy, becomes a lodestone for book ideas.

Intuitions about characters and settings assail me. I stand helpless before the Muses.

It makes me feel rather heroic!

Me on a rock

My friends probably didn’t know I was doing all this brainstorming in their company…

Hello Rocks

…And they’ll never know.
Heh heh heh

Notes from the North

Us having a great time at Mackinic IslandCamping is my favorite!

I always say that and, in theory, it’s true. Camping is one of my favorite weekend activities. Not, like, ALL the time, but sometimes. The great outdoors. Building character. Oatmeal. You know.

So I hit the road with some friends and some others that were soon to be friends, and we rolled into a sparsely wooded camp ground by Mackinaw City at about 9 o’clock to find out we might freeze to death. We knew it would be cold. We knew it would likely rain. But we meant to have a damn good time if it killed us. I think that’s really how camping goes for me most of the time. It’s all ra, ra, ra until I get there, and then I’m a practiced stubborn blockhead practically falling over myself to “have a good time” (another way of saying I was a boyscout).

Yea, I can rough it.

“I only packed one backpack, and it’s not even full.” (I said that)

“Showers? Who needs showers?” (Said that too. There’s a record of that cause I said it on FB before we left)

…Guess who made use of those showers?

Yes, yes, so I’m like some other men who think there are dude-points to be had by being uncomfortable and roughing it. Point given and taken. But I began to realize this past weekend that there is something more to spending some time in less than optimal comfort. I like my showers, but sitting around a fire with as many extra layers as I can find, everyone staring at those flames and ducking the nastier gusts of wind – there’s nothing like it.

The week leading up to our expedition had been rough – pushed me down to a low place, and I saw this as one of those escapes. Just needed to get away and get to a space where there was enough room to think. I needed a lot of room because my thoughts were big and too loud for the dinner table. Part of my worries had to do with the future; graduation sneaks up and real life pounces from those taller grassy areas we spend our lives avoiding. I spent half the ride up to Mackinaw with this insane idea I’d move to England after they handed me a diploma. It was sort of like the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day…Can we move to Australia? I can take all my friends and leave all my problems.

I even texted my mom to see what she thought about York in a part-serious part smart-ass attitude.

“You chasing a girl or a job?” she asks.

I laughed and told her I was kidding.

But just at that moment I don’t think I was, and I thought about it after. Until that week I had been chasing after a life of comfort and security. I was comfortable where I was with the friends I had and I didn’t want to budge. No thanks God.

God shakes the snow globe and I get a headache.

Heading off first thing to England was a strong reaction, possibly inducing a heavenly chuckle or two, but in hindsight camping that weekend was enough to shake me awake a little. There were so many of those “morning alarms” I don’t know where to start: Some of the greatest people you’ll ever meet, a peaceful island with no cars, scary man-eating geese, my peculiar aversion to loosing a finger to frostbite.

It was all so anti-TV-and-couch-sulking I finally had the chance to realize that it’s in the times we are not so comfortable that we feel the most alive.

This isn’t a bro claim. Bros can claim it, (or hipsters) but I think it’s truth and it caught me by surprise. It may sound obvious to many of you, (I received a comment to that effect on the ride back when I shared), but it wasn’t to me the week before, and the whole weekend centered on that point.

During our trip it rained off and on as we figured it might, but we were never once caught in it. Always we had shelter just when it started getting wet, and by the time we had to leave that shelter (the car, the tent, the ferry) it would let up.

I came to realize I was more up for an adventure than I thought I might be, and I probably don’t have to run off to another country to find it (although I’m still open to that). I just have to be willing to set aside that treasured security we spend our lives burrowing in around us like a fox hole.

Let’s be real. I’m not the biggest fan of freezing by buttocks off. But that weekend I felt like I was on top of America!