Recently, I was chatting with a friend, a talented writer, who was having trouble getting a new short story off the ground. “My new story is very pretty,” she said, “but not going anywhere. I have characters, a setting, and some leads but they stump me.”
My friend had seeds, ideas that sparked her imagination, but was having trouble figuring out how to grow them into a story.
Notice I say grow, because I think of stories as organic, living beings. They need time to gestate before they can be born.
At times, all fiction writers face this dilemma. Here are three approaches that might help you get past the problem.
Using this model, sit down at the keyboard and ask yourself:
What does my protagonist want?
What are the obstacles?
What actions will they take to overcome these obstacles?
What will be the result/resolution?
Keep asking and typing your answers until the muse circuit kicks in and starts to show you the story.
2. The Backwards Approach
A similar technique is to start with the ending. If you already know what conclusion you want, great. If not, start by asking how you want the story to end.
Picture the ending (resolution) in your mind. Then keep asking yourself,” How did we get here?” “What happened before this to get us here?” “What happened before that?”
Rinse and repeat until the story comes clean.
3. The Character Interview Approach
This method works best if you have some of the story pieces but are not sure about the characters. Remember that character goals and conflicts drive most stories, so you need to have a clear vision of who your protagonist is and what they want. You also need to know this stuff for the other important characters.
Treat it as an interview. Imagine your main character sitting across the table from you.
Now ask how you can help them. What is their problem or trouble? What do they need? What’s stopping them from getting what they need?
Once you have some answers, you can also turn this into a group session. Bring in one or two other important characters and lead a discussion. Focus on how the new characters relate to the protagonist and whether they are supporting or hindering the goals.
What do you think?
What do you think about these three techniques?
If you are a writer or aspiring writer, what methods do you use to grow your stories?
The Treasure of the Sun God is Book 3 of the Conjurer of Rhodes series. In this novel, our hero Korax has returned to his home island of Rhodes after adventures and misadventures in Egypt and the Greek capital at Alexandria.
Though young, Korax is a skilled magician and student of the Mysteries. He wants only a peaceful life as a citizen of Rhodes and son of a merchant family. But times in Rhodes are hard. Bad weather and piracy have combined to decimate the shipping trade. When the loss of two of his familys’ trading ships threatens catastrophe, Korax decides he must invoke Poseidon, the Lord of the Sea, who is known to be sympathetic to the pirates of Crete …
On the evening of a dark moon, Korax walked alone to the end of the mole. He wore a hooded blue cloak trimmed in silver and carried a wineskin and a ceremonial dagger. On his chest was the amulet Miriam had designed.
In the past month, two more cargos from Rhodos had been stolen by pirates. Worse, word reached the town that the family’s vessel, the Melancarmia, had sunk in a storm off Locri. Korax had decided he must speak with the god of the sea.
Behind him, the last remnant of daylight died over the city. All around him surged the gray, unquiet waters. He climbed onto the parapet wall and pulled the stopper from the wineskin.
Whispering words of offering, he poured the wine onto the rocks below.
Returning to the center of the parapet, he drew his dagger and traced a magic circle in the air, an invisible boundary of protection. Next, he drew the sigil of Poseidon, then of Set, the Egyptian god of the abyss.
He spread out his arms and spoke his summons: “Poseidon, son of Kronos, tamer of horses, earth-shaker, lord of the sea, accept my humble offering in peace and deign to speak with me. Arise from your golden palace beneath the waves and come into my presence, mighty lord.”
He waited. After a time, a gust of wind lifted his cloak. The nocturnal sea surrounded him like an enormous living spirit, a god of old and dreadful power.
“Mortal man of Rhodes, I know you. You have sought to pierce my intentions with your tiny mind. Now you would cajole my will with a meager spilling of wine?”
The voice, compounded of wind and wave, reverberated to the bottom of Korax’s soul, where it roused an instinctual terror. Korax lowered his arms, pressed his feet firmly on the rock.
“Mighty Poseidon, I am in truth but a puny mortal, and have no wish to rouse your enmity. I only ask what I can do, what the men of Rhodes can do, to appease your wrath and secure your protection.”
The wind blew harder, salt stinging his eyes.
“Of old, three sons were born to my father Kronos, the devourer of his children. When we gods overthrew Kronos and chained his body to the pillars of the world, we divided his realm into three. Zeus took the sky, Hades the underworld, and the sea became mine to rule. Earth and Olympus, we agreed to hold in joint and equal dominion. But now on earth and sea alike, men disdain my worship. Those who do offer prayers and sacrifices make empty gestures; the awe and fear have dwindled in their hearts. I will not succor them.”
Korax lifted his chin and answered, “It is true that many men have lost their belief in the old gods. But the seafarers of Rhodes still honor you with all due reverence. I have sailed with them, and I know this to be true.”
“I will not debate my whims and actions with you—I am a god! I will make the waves crash and the storms blow as the urges strike me. So it has always been and will always be. As for the sea-wolves, the men of Crete worship me with fitting veneration. I will not scorn their sacrifices, nor will I help the Rhodians destroy them.”
Now the wind was howling. Back along the mole, Korax could see the spume of waves splashing on the rocks. He saw no further point in trying to placate the sea god. He only wished to end the audience and withdraw himself to safety.
“Mighty Poseidon, tamer of horses, earth-shaker, lord of the sea: I thank you for your presence here at the boundary of your realm. To pay you further homage, I will make worthy sacrifice at your temple.”
He bowed low and stayed down. Gradually the wind died away and the powerful immanence dissipated. Korax rose and quelled his fear with long, deliberate breaths.
The sky was starless. Across the harbor, the braziers and lanterns of the city cast the only feeble light. Korax picked his way warily back along the mole, pressed on both sides by the dark and sinister sea, feeling defeated and utterly alone.
Lately I’ve been feeling like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. (Yes, I know I’m not the only one.) Thinking of that phrase this morning reminded me of Hecules and how he carried the sky (or some say the world) on his shoulders as part of one of his labors.
As you might remember, Hercules (Greek Heracles) was a demi-god, a son of Zeus. In the myth, he murdered his wife and children in a fit of madness. To atone, he was given twelve nearly-impossible tasks to perform. One of the last was to obtain the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The titan Atlas, who held up the heavens (or some say, the world) was one of the few who knew the location of the sacred garden where the apples could be found. Atlas refused to disclose the location, but offered to fetch the apples himself if Hercules would hold up the sky while he was gone.
Contemplating the story, I wrote this poem some years back…
Hercules with the Sky on His Shoulders
Who’d have thought the sky could be so heavy?
Below it looks so empty, full of light,
Not this altar slab of bloody marble
Pinching the bone at the back of my neck.
I should have thought to fold the lion skin,
Make it a pillow to soften the pain.
The Nemean Lion–there was a foe.
His famous hide no blade or point could pierce.
Lucky I caught him sleeping, belly full.
Still, not many heroes, or even gods,
Could have strangled him, won that prize pelt. But
I was stronger then, not so worn with toil.
So many labors, monsters, wars–For what?
Expiation? How can that be justice
When you can’t even remember the crime?
Only awaking from a drunken sleep
To recognize the slaughtered innocents:
My wife, my babies–No! Don’t think about it.
I might have been a fool to trust that giant;
He seemed a bit too ready to oblige,
As if, almost, he knew I was coming.
Maybe Hera put a plan in his ear:
Offer to fetch the gold apples yourself;
Leave him supporting the sky forever.
Oh, that would be so very like the gods:
Send a man fishing in a leaky boat
Then wonder at his prayers as he’s drowning.
Better luck to try and drain the ocean.
That’s always been my way: tear up the roots,
Topple the whole…Yes, look where it’s brought me.
What would happen if I just let it go,
Slip aside and let the Cosmos collapse?
Would Olympus fall, and Zeus my father–
If he is my father–Would his house fall?
The glorious palace, the smug, bright gods…
If I could only be there to see it.
But would it be so bad to wake a shade
In Hades realm, to slowly fade to nothing?
No more tragedies, no scenes at all,
Just a quiet, merciful dissolving…
No! I can bear this pain much, much longer.
My knees will not buckle; I am resolved.
When the giant returns, although it be
Only to smirk and gloat, I’ll find a way
To make him take back his burden, and then
Carry the apples back to Argolis,
Laugh at the king’s dire disappointment
As I spill them glittering at his feet.
I will finish his trials, every one.
And on the day I’m released, scale the heights
Of Olympus, break down the shining doors,
Storm through the gaggle of horrified gods,
Face Zeus, stare into his uncaring eye,
And demand to know the reason.
Hope you liked my little poem. And if you’re struggling to hold up your world right now, take heart.
Stories are strange things. They grow from tiny seeds—characters, actions, imagined events. Often for me, a story really takes off only when two or more completely unrelatedideas come together. This seems to create a kind of magical tension as I wonder “How can these things fit together?”
My newest novella, Ghosts of Prosper Key, evolved in this way. It is the fourth of a series, the Abby Renshaw Supernatural Mysteries, so I already knew the back story. Abby is a teenage “true magician,” student of a tradition founded by her ancestors in the town of Harmony Springs in rural Florida.
At the end of the preceding novel, Ghosts of Lock Tower, Abby has succeeded in overcoming magical challenges and dangers spawned by the occult. She is living with her grandmother and starting college. She has relationships with elders in the magical circle, as well as two guys she is interested in romantically.
Idea 1: Molly is Haunted
Abby also has a best friend, an aspiring journalist named Molly Quick. All of my readers seem to love Molly, due to her bravery, insatiable curiosity, and no-nonsense approach to things. In Lock Tower, it was also revealed that Molly has native talent as a spiritual medium.
So I wanted this story to focus on Molly.
What’s her situation? She’s in her last year of high school, applying to colleges. Like many sensitive and intelligent kids, she is scared of the coming changes, scared of growing up. These fears haunt her. Because of the subject-matter of the series as a whole, these fears manifest as paranormal events.
Molly is haunted. But by what?
Idea 2: The Setting
One thing I love about this series is that it lets me write about out-of-the-way places in Florida. A location I had visited and wanted to use as a setting was Cedar Key.
This island lies off the northwest coast of the state. The area is known as the Nature Coast, as it has little population but lots of swamps, ranches, and nature preserves. Today, Cedar Key is a remote, “old Florida” tourist destination.
But the past has a different story to tell.
In the late 1800s, the Cedar Keys (as they were then called) were one of the most populous areas in Florida. The island then known as Way Key was the end point of the east-west railroad and the major port on Florida’s west coast. Fishing, oyster farms, and especially timber were major industries. Because of over logging, the economy began to decline in the 1890s. Then, in 1896, the area was devastated by one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the United States.
So, I thought: if Molly is haunted and if our heroes visit Cedar Key, the ghosts must originate there.And if there are unhappy spirits roaming the place, they most-likely lived during that great hurricane.
Idea 3: The Tempest
So now I had the main character, her conflicts, and the setting. But something was still missing. Who were these ghosts? Why were they restless?
It had something to do with that hurricane.
For research, I read the book The Cedar Keys Hurricane of 1896: Disaster at Dawn by Alvin F. Oickle. The events were both frightening and amazing. The island that is now Cedar Key was leveled, while nearby Atsena Otie Key (then known as Depot Key) was inundated by a ten-foot storm surge.
Their whole world washed away in a night and a day.
Pondering that, I suddenly thought of a famous song that the spirit Ariel sings in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! now I hear them. Ding-dong, bell.
(Act I, Scene 2)
Sea change. The sea rising up and changing everything. That idea resonated strongly. My story had some relationship to The Tempest. But what?
As you might recall, the play concerns Prospero, a powerful magician who has lost his Dukedom by betrayal and now lives on a remote island with his daughter, Miranda (and spirits that he conjures).
Prospero raises a storm to wreck a passing ship which, he happens to know, contains the party of Alonso the King of Naples and Prospero’s own brother, Antonio, who usurped his place as Duke of Milan. Ferdinand, the son of the king, swims to shore and is found by Prospero. Put into service by the magician, he falls in love with Miranda, and she with him.
So: Molly haunted by ghosts, a powerful father and his daughter, a tempest and disaster, a love story.
My completely unrelated ideas had come together.
The story had taken off.
Throughout the action of Shakespeare’s play winds roar; confusion reigns and disappears; love is found; moral order is restored; and all the lost characters reunite in the end.
As Gonzalo, the loquacious king’s counselor, summarizes:
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars: In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom
In a poor isle and all of us ourselves
When no man was his own.
(Act V, Scene 1)
These days, of course, our own world is facing dangers and changes of every kind. Will we all drown in wreckage, or will we emerge on some better shore having found ourselves in unlikely ways?
We can hope for the best. That’s what stories are for.
This post presents an excerpt from The Lights of Alexandria, Book 2 of the Conjurer of Rhodes series. The story takes place in the city of Alexandria in the Third Century BCE. At that time, Alexandria was a crossroads of learning and culture, a cosmopolitan center such as the world had not seen before.
Our hero, Korax, is a young Greek from the island of Rhodes. Owing to some careless conjuring, he ended up a slave in Egypt. After two years as a scribe at a temple on the Nile—during which time he gained initiation into the Mysteries—Korax escaped his captivity. Now he has come to Alexandria with the aim of mastering his magical gifts. Using the name Astrametheus, Korax has applied for membership in a society of scholars and magicians from many lands.
Late one night, they summon him via psychic message…
The mist had cleared from the sky, leaving the moon a golden shield hung on a tapestry of stars. Korax hurried through the dim, deserted streets. He had dressed in a chiton and sandals, wrapped the gray chlamys over his shoulder. He had considered bringing the beaded satchel, but decided not. Instead he had slung on his sword-belt. The streets of Alexandria were patrolled by a watch, but at this late hour, in this part of the town, robbers might be lurking.
As he neared the grounds of the Paneum, he saw that the iron gates stood shut and guarded by two sentries. The men wore black hooded cloaks and carried truncheons.
“Reveal your name and business,” one of the guards ordered.
“I am Astrametheus of Hermopolis. I believe I have been summoned.”
The man nodded. “Surrender your weapon to me.”
Korax removed his sword-belt and handed it to the sentry. The other man pushed the gate open.
Passing inside the wall, Korax was confronted by a figure dressed in a loose white robe and holding a lamp. The person’s face was concealed by a cowl and a mask of hammered gold. From the size and slender shape, Korax guessed it was a woman. She raised a finger to the lips of the mask, commanding him to silence. Then she gestured with the lamp for him to follow.
At first, Korax wondered if his guide might be Miriam. But after a few steps, he concluded not. This person moved with a sinuous confidence, unlike the rather stiff adolescent stride he recalled in the young Jewish woman. Beneath the hem of her robe, small feet appeared, bare on the grass. Korax glimpsed the sparkle of a toe-ring.
They entered the pavilion of Pan and moved through the shadows. Behind the statue of the god, the secret door stood ajar. The guide motioned Korax to enter first. Bent at the waist, he felt his way down the passage. Soon the height increased and he could walk upright. Faint illumination appeared ahead.
The tunnel ended in the great circular chamber at the interior of the stone mound. Moonlight glinted through slanted vents in the distant pinnacle. At the center of the black floor burned a ring of lanterns.
A solemn voice issued from the area of light: “Let the candidate come forward.”
Korax and his guide stepped noiselessly across the chamber. As they approached, he spied perhaps forty persons seated on cushions, each behind a flickering lamp. Twelve of the company sat in an inner circle, the others in a second circle outside the first. All of the figures wore white robes with hoods and gold masks with the same blank, enigmatic expression. A dense cloud of incense floated in the air.
Korax was led to a seat in the center of the concentric circles. His guide repeated her earlier gesture, warning him to silence, then withdrew to take a place at the outer circle. Korax stared at the masks and waited.
For a long time all was quiet.
Korax’s spine grew tense and achy. A tingling crept over the skin of his arms. He took deep breaths to quell his emotion, but the smoky incense made him lightheaded. He could feel the minds behind the blank visages, probing him.
Needles seemed to prickle his nerves. The prickling grew sharper, till tiny worms of flame were crawling all through his body. His limbs trembled. He forced himself to keep still, to stare resolutely.
Abruptly a jolt shuddered through him and the fire vanished. His whole being was enveloped in an aura of peace and relief. A tall person rose from the inner circle. When he spoke, Korax thought he recognized the voice of Krateros.
“My brothers and sisters of the Paths of the Mysteries, this candidate seeks admission to our Society. What is your judgment of his worthiness?”
“He is most worthy,” said a woman’s voice from the outer circle. “He has talent and a brilliant mind.”
“Brilliant yes, but inconstant,” said a deep male voice with an Egyptian accent. “He lacks clarity and depth.”
“He is young,” answered another. “He only needs cultivation.”
“He knows Thoth-Hermes. I sense the god’s influence.”
“Yes, I felt it too. A peculiar paradox: His knowledge is shallow, yet his experience is profound.”
“He is courageous.”
“But also willful and proud.”
“Once he was arrogant, but his soul has been tempered by suffering.”
“He feels the pain of others and knows compassion—rare in one so young.”
“I sense that his spirit is lost. He is not sure what he wants.”
“Surely that is true of us all to some degree.”
“Still, it worries me that his heart is frivolous.”
Knots tightened and re-tightened in Korax’s belly. Their perceptions sliced him apart, he thought, with the cool efficiency of a chef filleting a fish.
“His ability is undeniable, but does he have sufficient dedication?”
“He has promised to serve the gods. That is a worthy ideal.”
“Yes, and he holds to that strongly.”
A hush settled over the enormous chamber. Korax waited nervously, straining to keep still. Finally, the man he believed was Krateros spoke again.
“I thank you all for your assessments. By their tenor, I believe we are agreed to offer this young man membership in our Society. Is there anyone who disagrees?”
“So let it be done.”
The masked figures stood all at once. They picked up their lamps and filed after Krateros, who had turned and was pacing across the floor. Korax clambered to his feet, his knees unsteady. His guide appeared beside him and indicated he should follow. They took their place at the rear of the line.
A chant began, rolling in low powerful tones through the long procession. The sound vibrated inside Korax’s head: three lines in some archaic tongue; three more, in another language he did not know; then a third verse in Egyptian:
Light rushes forth In rays manifesting From the mind of the One
At the edge of the chamber, the procession moved up a curving ramp. It mounted to the first gallery and turned a complete circuit. The chanting never altered as the company filed up the next ramp and around the second gallery.
In all, the magicians ascended seven ramps and circled seven galleries. Each circuit grew shorter, as the walls of the enormous space curved inward toward the summit. At the top of the seventh ramp, Korax followed his guide into a narrow cleft of rock. At one point, the way grew so narrow he had to turn sideways to squeeze through. The chant had ceased, and for an alarming moment he feared he had lost the company. Then he emerged to find his guide awaiting him at the base of a winding stair. They climbed together and walked out onto the roof of the Paneum.
The moon now floated in the west. Stars glinted in the blue vault, seeming to reflect the countless lights of Alexandria that twinkled far below.
The company had formed a single circle within the round parapet. Korax was led to the center, where Krateros, still masked, stood before a plain stone altar. On the stone sat two gold vessels: a bowl full of wine and a platter piled high with cakes.
“Here at the summit of the Temple of Pan,” Krateros said, “we honor and worship all gods and goddesses. Young stranger, known to us as Astrametheus, I bid you welcome.”
“Welcome.” The word echoed around the circle.
The priest lifted the bowl and handed it to Korax.
“I give you wine, the blood of the god who eternally dies and is reborn: Osiris, Adonis, Dionysus. May his sacrifice renew the strength of your blood.”
As Korax tilted the bowl to his lips, the voices repeated the divine names.
“Osiris. Adonis. Dionysus.
Krateros held the gold plate. “I give you bread, the gift of the goddess who eternally sustains all life: Isis, Astarte, Demeter. May the fruits of her body replenish your spirit.”
All in the circle chanted: “Isis. Astarte. Demeter.”
Korax took a morsel and ate it.
Krateros said: “All gods are one. All goddesses are one. All life is one. This is the Mystery of Pan.”
The priest’s hands came up and lifted away his mask. “Now, Astrametheus, it is my privilege to welcome you to our company, the Society of Alexandrian Pan.”
The Lights of Alexandria, along with the other Conjurer of Rhodes titles, is available on Amazon.
The stories are set in the 3rd Century BCE—the Age of the Seven Wonders of the World—in Egypt and the Aegean. In Book 1, Korax, a young man from the island of Rhodes, finds himself a slave in Egypt. His memory is in fragments, but as the story unfolds more memories return.
In this excerpt, told in flashback, he recalls his first unwise experiment with conjuring …
Korax stood at the window of his bed chamber, staring down at the dark city.
A long line of torches pierced the blackness, winding up the streets in silence. Tonight was the eve of the Dionysia, the Bringing In of the god. By custom, the young men of Rhodos carried the god from his temple in the harbor district up the wide hill to the theater. There Dionysus would be installed in a shrine to watch the plays and performances and preside over the revels.
Korax watched in reverent quiet as the procession passed below his window. Young men in satyr masks carried torches to light the way. Priests clad in red and purple robes walked behind, swinging censers smoking with incense. Three other priests held the tethers of black goats, to be sacrificed at the end of the procession. Next, amid a blaze of torchlight, youths in masks of horse and mule pulled the sacred cart, overflowing with grapevines and blossoms. Within the cart rode the statue of Dionysus, the graceful, long-haired god, dressed in a panther-skin and holding his vine-wrapped wand.
In past years Korax, lover of plays and aspiring poet, had walked in the torchlight procession. But tonight he waited until the last marchers had passed, then quietly closed his shutters. Tonight he had a private appointment with the god.
Korax left a lamp burning on his bedside table. He lay down but did not sleep. All of his plans and preparations were complete. He only had to wait and gather his courage.
In an hour midway between dusk and dawn, when he was certain all others in the house were asleep, Korax crept from his bed. He picked up the lamp and noiselessly opened the door of his chamber.
He stepped down the passageway, past his father’s room. There the hallway opened onto a gallery overlooking the courtyard. The waxing moon of Dionysus rode high in the west, silvery light glinting on roof and vine. But ahead the passage was walled again, and Korax crept with the utmost care past his mother’s door. He turned the corner into the women’s quarters, where the female servants slept and did their weaving and mending. At the end of this hall, he paused before a thick, black door. He pushed it open cautiously, wincing as it creaked on its hinges. He glanced anxiously behind him, then slipped inside.
The chamber was large, with high rafters opening to the eaves of a slanted roof. It was built to be a weaving room, but Korax’s mother had long ago claimed it as her private domain.
When Korax was a young child, his mother had slept in this chamber, and he in a small bed in the corner. His earliest memories were of playing here as a babe, of watching his mother at her loom. Until age six, he had also witnessed the magic rites she performed here, often in the company of handmaids who had accompanied her from Thrace. Korax had gazed with fascination as his mother wielded a crooked wand or a bronze dagger glittering in the firelight. He had listened, entranced, as the women invoked the Great Goddess with sonorous Thracian chants that he only half-understood.
When Korax had reached school age, he had been moved to his present bedroom, at the opposite end of the house. It had felt like an exile, and he had trouble sleeping for many nights.
But within half a year, he had found his way back to the mysterious realm of the witches. The family sometimes slept on the roof in the heat of the summer. Korax discovered a loose slat where the flat roof that covered most of the house bordered on the sloping roof above his mother’s chamber. Thereafter, on nights of new and full moons, he would often sneak from his bed and climb the ladder to the roof. Removing the loose slat, he would watch unobserved from his high vantage point as Anticleia and her maids performed the rites of Hecate.
Korax remembered enough from those spying missions to know how to conjure a spirit or god—or so he believed. But first he needed to borrow a few of his mother’s instruments.
A small altar covered in black cloth stood against the far wall. There he found the serpent-handled knife, laid before the gold statue of Hecate and the smaller, wooden figures that represented Anticleia’s ancestors and household deities. Searching through casks and baskets nearby, Korax took scented candles and a cake of incense.
He left the black door ajar and hurried, quietly as he could, back down the passageway. The blood was thumping in his ears by the time he reached his own door.
His writing table, set before the open window, would serve as the altar. He had already laid it out with ivy, the vine sacred to Dionysus. Now he lit two candles from the flame of his oil lamp and set them on the table’s edge.
From a storeroom downstairs he had taken a brass brazier, the size of a large wine bowl. This he lined with a layer of charcoal, then lit it from one of the candles. Now three fires were burning.
On a chest nearby, a thrush fluttered in its tiny wicker cage, wakened by the shuddering light. Korax had purchased the bird from a stall outside the Temple of Dionysus and smuggled it into the house under his cloak.
Korax paused to calm his mind. What he was about to attempt was dangerous, some might even say blasphemous. He wondered, after all, if he should stop. But then he felt the sore place in his jaw, and remembered the cause of that injury. He thought of all the times he had been hurt and humiliated by Patrollos and others like him.
With a trembling hand, Korax reached for an incense cake. When he dropped it into the brazier, the flames shot up a brilliant orange and spat a gout of perfumed smoke.
“If fiery destruction be the fate of Korax, son of Leontes,” he whispered to himself, “then at least he will singe a few enemies before he burns.”
Not a bad conceit, he thought, as he picked up the dagger.
Outside the window, Rhodos lay quiet in the glimmering moonlight—the city asleep, all unaware of Korax and his magic. He traced in the air symbols of invocation he had watched his mother use. Then he spoke the words he had prepared, pitching his voice at a low murmur so as not to waken the household.
“I call upon you, Dionysus, lord of many voices, patron of players and poets, god of the wild places and the wild heart. I, Korax, son of Anticleia of the Thracian tribes, child of the witches of Hecate, summon you now in all your power and might to come before me. By flame and smoke, I conjure you to appear.”
His hand shook as he put down the dagger. The fire in the brazier sputtered and writhed, seeming to glow brighter, to blaze with the very presence of the god. Korax stared entranced, and for several moments forgot what he intended to do.
Then he remembered the singing contest at the Guild of Aphrodite. Patrollos and his friends would be there to try to win the prize.
And Korax would be waiting for them.
He steadied himself and reached for the birdcage. Opening the top, he grasped the thrush tightly and pulled it out. Gritting his teeth, he held the fluttering, struggling body close to the fire as he picked up the knife.
“I entreat you, Dionysus, to bend your power to my will. Inspire me with your brilliant music and fill my heart with poetry. But discomfit my enemies. Reduce their songs to foolish babble. Stitch their tongues inside their mouths and bind their wits like the hooves of fatted lambs. Rain laughter and derision on their efforts and bring them only shame. Thus I conjure you, Dionysus, god of poets and players, lord of many voices: Do thou as I will!”
Gripped by a fearful ecstasy, Korax lay the bird on the table and cut off its head with a stroke. Blood spurted, and he squeezed the quivering body in his fingers and poured the blood into the fire.
The writing of this novel took far longer than I like to think about. Suffice it to say that the original outline was developed sometime in the last century. So it is extremely gratifying to me for this mind-child to see the light of day at last.
This third volume of the saga sees Amlina the witch and her Iruk warriors sail to Larthang to return the Cloak of the Two Winds to its rightful owners, the witches of the House of the Deepmind. Epic fantasy often involves a journey, as well as a multi-layered plot rife with contending forces and intrigue. Tournament has all that aplenty.
The Golden Land
Larthang, Amlina’s homeland, is the westernmost of the Three Nations and has a long history of deep magic. But along with great witches, it is a land of warriors, sages, scholars, philosophers, and poets. Elements of the cultural background are drawn from ancient China, mixed with other historical sources, and transposed into the magical universe of Glimnodd.
The Iruks, barbarians from the south polar region, are largely unfamiliar with Larthang and unsure what to expect. In this excerpt, as they near the coast, the scholar Kizier gives them an introduction to the history and politics …
Their destination was Randoon of the Onyx Gates, one of three major ports on the Larthangan coast, each built at the mouth of a river. Kizier described the city one evening, as he and Eben sat in the stern beside the windbringers. It had become their custom to spend an hour or two there each day reviewing and practicing Eben’s language lessons.
In ancient times, the scholar said, the three rivers had flowed free and wild from their sources in the west and north. But during the first centuries of the current era, when the Dynasty of the Tuans was established and the great witches of Larthang practiced their arts, the rivers had been tamed. Now levees and dams controlled the floods and maintained irrigation of the farmlands. Inland, a grand canal linked the three rivers at Minhang, the Celestial Capital.
“But why is it called Randoon of the Onyx Gates?” Eben inquired.
“This you will see when we arrive,” Kizier answered. “On each side of the river stands a mighty tower fashioned of smooth, precious stone. These towers control a magical force that can be raised from the riverbed like gates of onyx to prevent ships from passing in or out of the channel. This witchery guards Larthang from invasion by sea.”
“So? Do the other ports also have such defenses?” Eben asked.
“Indeed,” Kizier said. “Hanjapore of the Jade Gates to the south, and Haji-Chan of the Moonstone Gates in the north.”
“The history is all very interesting,” Lonn grumbled, speaking Low-Tathian. Standing at the helm, he had listened to their talks in Larthangan for days now and was understanding much of what they said. “But I am more concerned with the greeting we’re likely to get when we land.”
“Yes, and with good reason.” Kizier shifted to Low-Tathian himself.
“This war faction that the drell described,” Eben said. “They tried to take the Cloak once. We haven’t spotted any naval vessels since Fleevanport, but once we near the coast of Larthang, what then? Will Amlina wield the Cloak against their ships again? If not, how will she keep them from taking it? But if she does, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be received as friends when we do reach Larthang.”
“All true,” Kizier allowed. “But there are other powers in Larthang.”
“You mean the witches at the House of the Deepmind,” Eben said. “They who sent the drell.”
“They, yes. And still others, I am sure. It’s many years since I studied in Larthang, and no doubt the political situation has evolved. But I can tell you this for certain: by tradition there are three powers in the Golden Land, known as the Three Pillars of the Throne. The Witches, who practice the arts of the Deepmind; Warriors, who practice the arts of war; and Magistrates, who administer the laws and maintain the civil government. Within these three orders, or estates, there are always factions and sub-factions, and constantly shifting alliances. Above all sits the hereditary ruler, the Tuan. In name, the Tuan is supreme, but in practice he or she must balance the contending forces of the three estates.”
“Are the witches always women?” Eben asked. “We know that elsewhere in the Three Nations, mages and sorcerers might be men as well. Is this not true in Larthang?”
“No and yes.” Kizier seemed to relish conveying the complexity of these matters. “The House of the Deepmind, known as Ting Ta Roo, is the supreme magical power and home to the Five Revered Arts. It trains only women and only they may properly be called ‘Witches of Larthang.’ But there are other, lesser traditions of deepshaping and deepseeing that teach both males and females. These schools train prognosticators, alchemists, and conjurers, as well as scholars and sages who may include mysticism as part of their studies. Any of these practitioners might be called mages, but never Witches of Larthang.”
“Sounds very complicated,” Lonn grumbled. “So, assuming we manage to land, Amlina will need to seek out her fellow witches, since she plans to surrender the Cloak to the House of the Deepmind.”
“Yes, but perhaps not just any witches,” Kizier said. “Some witches are allied to the so-called Iron Bloc. This we have seen already. No doubt there are other factions in the three estates who would love to possess the Cloak and the power it brings. Amlina has chosen to surrender the Cloak to the Archimage in Minhang—but how we will get there is an open question. Indeed, what will happen when we land in Randoon? That I cannot even guess.”
— from Tournament of Witches, Chapter Ten.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Jack Massa. All Rights Reserved,
This month we are pleased to present an interview with John (JC) Kang, author of TheLegends of Tivara, a multi-volume epic fantasy “series of series” that includes, among others, The Dragon Songs Saga and Scions of the Black Lotus.
Welcome JC. Please tell us a little about yourself and your writing.
Thanks for having me! I’m an acupuncturist by trade, a Wing Chun Kung Fu instructor for fun, and I do a little writing, as well. I generally write epic fantasy with a mix of cultures drawing from Earth’s history.
When did you first decide to be a writer? What first drew you to writing fantasy?
I grew up both GMing (Game-Mastering) and playing D&D, and as a teen, I’d stood in line waiting for Dragonlance books to come out. As something of a misfit, I tried to write a story set in my game world then. It was a total mess. Twenty years later, I came across my worldbuilding materials while cleaning out my room in my childhood home. Of course, as an adult, I had a better understanding of matters like economies and gravity, so I decided to recreate the planet that I’d envisioned as a teenager.
On the seventh day, I rested. It was then that I realized I would probably never play D&D again; and since as a DM, my players always frustrated me with their free will, I decided I would write.
Are there particular books, movies, or games that were a major influence on your work?
Besides Dungeons & Dragons, Civilization was a huge influence in terms of giving me the idea of a second world with Earth Cultures. Of course, Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia were huge literary and media influencers when I was growing up.
Do all of your stories take place in the same fictional universe? How do you approach setting and world building?
So far, yes! The primary characters of one series might make a cameo in another, and there is one character who appears in all of them.
For world building, one of the most important things to me is continuity and interconnectivity. For example, I created a low-orbit moon which is tidally locked and always in the same place in the sky. I started to think, how would that moon influence the people viewing it from below? What cultural practices would that lead to?
Yes, I remember thinking what a cool idea that moon was. It gave a science fiction touch to the fantasy world.
I am always interested in the magical aspect of fantasy. What inspires the magic or supernatural elements of your stories?
I give each ethnic group their own form of magic, but it is all based on borrowing wave energy from an abundant mineral on the planet. Each culture describe the manipulation of frequency, wavelength, and amplitude to alter reality it in different terminology: For example, the “Roman” Diviners hear the Gods’ Whispers to Divine; whereas the “West African” Mystics sense the Resonance for sorcery; South Asians channel Vibrations into fighting prowess, etc.
I think a big challenge of fantasy is creating magic that is plausible and understandable to the reader. Do you construct rules-based magical systems or approach it in some other way?
I would neither call the magic system hard or soft—it’s firm. There are definite rules, but I don’t keep track of mana points or anything like that. The key to me is consistency: if there is magic, how will that affect the development of a culture, and the cultures around it?
Of all the characters you’ve created, who are your favorites and why?
My favorites have changed over the years, but now, I would say it is my half Asian/half-elf ninja. Originally, she was just a minor character meant to show the world was a mix of Eastern and Western fantasies; but my first critique partners loved her so much, she got an important back story. She’s fun to write because the snark in her viewpoint.
How would you describe your writing style?
Technical? Not technical writing—I actually worked in that field at one time—but rather, the idea of structuring variety in sentence structures and patterns. Beyond that, I can’t say I’m a brilliant wordsmith who knows the perfect word to evoke the perfect image.
Your biography includes professional experience as a Chinese Medicine Doctor and a martial arts instructor. How have these experiences added to your fiction?
Martial arts has helped me choreograph fights. Chinese Medicine has helped come up with some cool sayings.
What are your current projects? When will we see your next book?
I’m currently working on the sequel to Masters of Deception, which chronologically takes place between Crown of the Sundered Empire and Orchestra of Treacheries (though the sequel to Crown, and possibly a serial) will squeeze in between those last two.
I’m also working on a cyberpunk-Progression Fantasy mashup.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read a lot. Critique, because if you’re like me, in reading unpolished works, you will see what doesn’t work, and you’ll realize you probably make the same mistakes.
In closing, is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?
I’m deeply humbled by those who’ve spent time reading my stories. Thank you!
Nevertheless, when you invent a magic system as an author, you need to be aware of the First Law in particular. In other words, you have to figure out how to make the magic comprehensible to the reader.
Hard, Soft, and In Between
In his essay on the first law, Sanderson elucidates with examples of different magic systems on a continuum from “soft” to “hard”:
On one side of the continuum, we have books where the magic is included in order to establish a sense of wonder and give the setting a fantastical feel. Books that focus on this use of magic tend to want to indicate that men are a small, small part of the eternal and mystical workings of the universe. This gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly know what can happen and what can’t. … I call this a “Soft Magic” system…
Sanderson cites Tolkien as a prime example. In The Lord of the Rings, the rules of the magic are never much explained. By the same token, while magic creates the dangerous situation (the Lord of Mordor and his rings), magic is seldom if ever used to solve the characters’ problems. Frodo and Sam don’t magically teleport to Mordor to drop off the One Ring.
On the other end of the continuum is “hard magic,” where the working rules are explicitly explained:
The magic itself is a character, and by showing off its laws and rules, the author is able to provide twists, worldbuilding, and characterization.
If the reader understands how the magic works, then you can use the magic (or, rather, the characters using the magic) to solve problems. In this case, it’s not the magic mystically making everything better. Instead, it’s the characters’ wit and experience that solves the problems. Magic becomes another tool—and, like any other tool, its careful application can enhance the character and the plot.
Taken to its extreme, hard magic systems can be like table-top gaming, where specific powers are based on point-systems. Many readers want this kind of hard-and-fast rules-based world, but I personally find hard systems less than appealing. If everything is known, where is the sense of wonder?
Fortunately, as Sanderson points out, most writers choose a middle ground between the hard and soft extremes. He cites the Harry Potter novels as a prime example.
Each of these books outlines various rules, laws, and ideas for the magic of the world. And, in that given book, those laws are rarely violated, and often they are important to the workings of the book’s climax. However, if you look at the setting as a whole, you don’t really ever understand the capabilities of magic.
This strategy allows characters to solve problems with magic while avoiding the trap of the magic becoming a predictable, rote system and thereby losing all the mystery and wonder.
Magic in the World of Glimnodd
I am big on mystery and the mystical sense of wonder. Nevertheless, magic is integral to the plot of my fantasy stories. Which means my characters often solve problems with magic. Which means the reader has to have a sense of the limits and the rules. So my stories fall somewhere in the middle of the hard-soft spectrum.
In the Glimnodd Cycle, magic is definitely and consistently a deep aspect of the story lines. On Glimnodd, magic has been around for a long, long time. So much so, that the unrestrained use of magic caused the fabric of reality to fray and the world to change. This brought about a time known as The Age of the World’s Madness, where chaos reigned, new sentient species arose, and one of the three moons flew off into space.
Later, balance was restored. To preserve the balance and vent off excess magical energies, great spells were woven. One causes the seas of Glimnodd to shine with a perpetual light. The second causes magic winds to blow which change the seas to ice or the ice back to soft water.
There are multiple magical systems mentioned in the stories. In terms of magic used to solve plot problems, there are touches of shamanic magic, alchemy, and ancient evil sorcery (with clearly defined rules in A Mirror Against All Mishap).
But the most detailed magical system is that codified and used by the Witches of Larthang. This is based on five arts.
The Five Revered Arts
The Five Revered Arts of Larthangan Witchery are:
Deep Seeing (wei shen) – The art of perceiving thoughts, images, and events through no physical sense but through the mind alone.
Formulation (jai-dah or “weaving”). The creation of mental constructs that are stored and then released at a chosen moment, through incantation and mental casting.
Trinketing (barang-xing). The fabrication of magical objects. In this art, the witch generates a magical design and binds it to a material object, allowing the power to be unleashed at a later time by herself or another person.
Magical combat (weng lei). In this art, a witch trains with dagger, sword, ritual stances, and fighting techniques. With the force of her mind she can send blades through the air or cast weakness into an opponent’s body.
Pure-shaping (quon-xing). The spontaneous use of mental power to create effects in the world.
In terms of their limitations, all five arts depend on the practiced skill and mental strength of the practitioner (the witch or ‘deepshaper’). In scenes where magic is used to solve problems, there is always a sense of struggle, tension, and doubt.
Since many of us are confined in quarantine these days, I thought a post about someplace beautiful and interesting would be in order. And, of all the places in this crazy world I’ve seen, there isn’t any more beautiful and interesting than St. Augustine, Florida.
What makes St. Augustine fascinating to me is the multiple layers of history. After 200 years of Spanish rule, the town was ceded to the British in 1763, and became a haven for loyalists to the British Crown during the American Revolution. In 1783, ownership passed back to Spain, but only until 1821, when Florida was acquired as a territory by the United States. In the 19th century, residents of the town survived the Seminole Wars and then the US Civil War.
Flagler College and the Lightner Museum
Starting in the 1880s, St. Augustine became a winter haven for wealthy northerners as the Florida East Coast Railway, built by industrialist Henry Flagler, opened the state to tourism. Flagler’s Ponce De Leion Hotel (now Flagler College) is one of several grand buildings from the Gilded Age that you can still visit.
Except where noted, all photos by the author.
Across the street from Flagler College is another hotel of the era, also built by Flagler and now housing the Lightner Museum of Art.
The interor courtyard of the Lightner is especially lovely, with its papyrus pond, arcades and gold fish.
At the back end of the museum is the reportedly oldest indoor swimming pool in the United States. Now, as you can see, it is a dining room.
On my visit, I asked an employee “Where’s the water?” She replied: “Wait for the next hurricane.”
The Bridge of Lions and Historic District
Down the street from these fabulous buildings is the Bridge of Lions, which crosses the bay to nearby Anastasia Island. On the docks by the bridge, you can dine at restaurants or take a harbor cruise (in which case you might see dolphins).
North of the bridge is the historic Spanish fort, the Castillo de San Marcos.
Across from the fort is part of the historic district dating back to the 1500s. There are narrow brick streets and numerous shops, houses, and courtyards.
Bordering the historic district on the North is the site of the original defensive gates. The history of the gates’ preservation and renovations makes an intriguing and amusing story, which we will save for a future post.
The South side of the historic district is also worth a walking tour, featuring buildings from Victorian times including some that are now inns and B&Bs.
At the southwest edge of the historic district is this lovely inlet:
Anastasia Island and the Lighthouse
Finally, if you venture across the Bridge of Lions to the island, you can visit the St. Augustine Lighthouse.
And if you’re fit enough to climb the spiral stairs to the top, you can enjoy quite a view: