Tag Archives: fiction writing

Origins of the Frog Monster

As guest author at a book club meeting recently, I was asked about the egregore, a figure in my latest novel Ghosts of Lock Tower. In the story, the egregore is a thought-form, a monster that originates as an internet meme but soon takes on a life of its own.

Ghosts of Lock Tower
Ghosts of Lock Tower is available on Amazon.

As I explained to the book club, as much as possible in my fiction, I like to base magical content on the real thing—that is, magic as it is actually believed in and practiced in our world. I have researched this quite a bit, and both historical and modern occult practices are represented in Lock Tower.

Two Schools of Magic

The protagonist, Abby Renshaw, is an initiate of the Circle of Harmony, a magical order loosely based on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Founded in the late 19th Century, the Golden Dawn became a wellspring of modern occultism, and there are still Golden Dawn groups practicing today.

Perhaps the best-known book on the Golden Dawn, by Israel Regardie

During the story Abby encounters another tradition, called “Postmodern Magic,” which is (again, loosely) based on contemporary occult practices grouped under the collective term “Chaos Magic.” As explained in Wikipedia: “Chaos magic has been described as a union of traditional occult techniques and applied postmodernism – particularly a postmodernist skepticism concerning the existence or knowability of objective truth. Chaos magicians subsequently treat belief as a tool, often creating their own idiosyncratic magical systems…”

A character in Lock Tower explains to Abby that he was drawn to Postmodern Magic because it is “free of doctrine and bullshit, a completely scientific search for truth.” Abby finds this appealing, but also worrisome. Postmodern magic lacks the structure and guidance she is used to from the Circle of Harmony. Yet is also offers power that she needs.

The Concept of the Egregore

Two concepts from Chaos Magic that figure prominently in Ghosts of Lock Tower are sigils and the egregore.

We’ll leave sigils for perhaps another time, but (again quoting Wikipedia), “Egregore (also egregor) is an occult concept representing a “thoughtform” or “collective group mind”, an autonomous psychic entity made up of, and influencing, the thoughts of a group of people.”

Source: Supernatural Magazine, Image Source: https://supernaturalmagazine.com/articles/egregore

Notice that an egregore is both made up of the thoughts of a group of people (usually an occult circle) and also influences their thoughts. An independent entity, created by thought, that manifests in the world and affects peoples’ minds – if you spend any time on social media, it is no stretch at all to see how this idea compares to a meme.

The egregore in Ghosts of Lock Tower begins life as a character in an online game. Soon he is adopted as a meme representing collective rage and hate.

But why a frog?

The egregore first appears early in the book. Abby has a nightmare that takes place in a virtual reality game world. She runs in terror through dungeons and corridors filled with dazed and injured young people. Finally:

I enter an upper chamber, like a temple or throne room. Suits of glittering armor stand along the walls. More kids are lined up in a queue, approaching a throne. On the throne sits a huge white frog, with mad angry eyes in its head—and dozens more eyes in its stomach. A girl approaches the throne, and the frog monster opens its mouth. She shrieks as he sucks her in, like sipping cola through a straw.

A frog monster
A Frog Monster similar to the one in the novel. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/480266747758596316/

When I drafted that scene, the image of the egregore as a giant white frog spilled readily out of my unconscious. It was only later that I realized a connection. In our own little world there is in fact a meme (or egregore) that started as a harmless online character but transformed into a powerful emblem for hate. You may have heard of Pepe the Frog .

Pepe the Frog from New York Magazine
Pepe the Frog, from an article in New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/04/the-whole-world-is-now-a-message-board.html

The ways of the group mind are vast, deep, and strange, gentle reader. Like Abby, we all must look for principles and guideposts to help us navigate the chaos.

*********************************************

To learn more about Abby’s quest to combine the two forms of magic, check out Ghosts of Lock Tower here .
You can also read more about the frog monster in this (free online) story published by Harbinger Press: “Return of the Egregore.”

Interview with Fantasy Author Kasper Beaumont

This month we have an author interview with Kasper Beaumont, creator of The Hunters of Reloria trilogy (young adult sword and sorcery) as well as fantasy short fiction. December 14 will see the publication of her newest work, a contemporary urban fantasy titled Captive of the Darkness (Hidden Angel Series, Book One).

Kasper Beaumont

Welcome Kasper. Please tell us a little about yourself and your writing.

G’day Jack.  Great to be here, thank you.  Your Triskelion Books website sure looks interesting, and I’ll be checking out your Mazes of Magic book for sure. I love Egyptology.

Oops, back to the question. Yes, I’m an Australian author of fantasy books.  Four in The Hunters of Reloria series (yes I called it a ‘trilogy’ and I fail at maths haha). I have now started on another trilogy (slow learner here) and think it will be three books, but I do find my characters have their own ideas about things, so we’ll wait and see.

When did you first decide to be a writer?

In primary school I was that geeky kid reading Lord of the Rings while my classmates were enthralled by Dr. Suess. I guess that was the first clue. When we swapped our creative writing books and read each other’s work aloud, my friends couldn’t even pronounce, let alone comprehend, some of my stories. Oops, sorry guys. At least we’re on good terms now. One friend named Becky recently gave me a Galadriel award for creative writing. (She totes made up that award, but I gladly accepted.)

I then grew up, went through uni where my assignments struggled to fit in under 2K or 5K word limits. Then after having a few halflings (kiddos) of my own, I rediscovered my love for creative writing.

What first drew you to writing fantasy?

My first thought to answer this is laziness (chuckles). I’m not one to spend hours in libraries researching the past when I can create my own worlds. I have vivid dreams, such a halflings and fairies playing in wheat fields or mace-wielding lizardmen being tossed into the air by a dragon.

I guess another instigating factor was when my eldest child started school and I thought it would be a cool project for us to write a book together and see our ideas in print.

Are there particular books, movies, games that were a major influence on your work?

The Belgariad series by David Eddings was one of my faves growing up. I felt pure joy and the excitement of waiting for the next installment in the series. It’s probably why I chose to pen a series instead of a single novel. You get more time to formulate and expand your ideas over several books.

Movies I enjoyed growing up were madcap adventures like The Three Musketeers, The Goonies, modern spins on classics, such as Neverending Story, magical escapism such as E.T, and I can’t overlook my fave of all time, Star Wars, for sheer entertainment value.

You were born and raised in Australia. In what ways would you say that influenced your work? Put another way, do you see any particular differences between Australian fiction and that of other countries?

Mateship is a strong theme in Australia. Being the driest inhabited continent and prone to bushfires, the people are tough and form deep bonds where we look out for each other. I guess that is why my characters develop such deep friendships and risk their lives for each other, like the traditional ‘Aussie digger’ soldiers in the World Wars.

Sometimes I write of things we lack in my country such as historic castles and particularly documented histories. Our culture here is very old, but has limited written or man-made edifices, more a sense of one with nature and lore stored in the minds of elders and passed down from generation to generation.

Can you tell us about your newest work, Captive of the Darkness?

On Riley’s 18th birthday, she is told she’s a demon hunter, like the rest of her family. She shrugs the news off in disbelief but that very night she unwittingly enters the lair of a powerful demon and her whole world is turned upside down.

She meets a stripper nicknamed Cupid, who states he is prisoner of the demon. He is a graceful ballet dancer forced into slavery but yearning to escape his dangerous master. When she sees a glowing aura around this young man, she realizes he isn’t just any ordinary lad, but something very special. She knows she must try to save him.

Captive of Darkness Cover

As urban fantasy, Angels and Demons is a departure from your Hunters of Reloria series. What influenced you to take this new direction?

Good question. I think my reading interests have been leading me in this direction for many years. After years of loving epic fantasy, I’ve been reading a lot more paranormal and mature content and guess this is where my inspiration developed. Influences would be The Fallen series, Anita Blake Vampire Hunter, Sookie Stackhouse, Anne Rice, etc.

Also, my love of culture is evident in the ballet dancing and the artwork (more in the 2nd book, so I won’t elaborate). I still do love coming-of-age and graduation themes though. It’s such an important part of life, and I think that being around and writing about young people keeps me young at heart too.

How would you describe the challenges of writing urban fantasy versus epic fantasy or sword and sorcery?

Hmm…I guess for me it was a more mature writing style and language. They are quite different genres. In the Hunters of Reloria series I could just throw in a twin planet or a new form of magic without having to explain the physics of how that would work or why. The beauty of writing in an alien world, anything is possible.

In the Hidden Angel series, I feel more responsibility to make the paranormal abilities and characters believable as though this is just a part of the real world you didn’t know about. I have thrown in a few little ‘Easter eggs’ of places that people living in Redcliffe and Brisbane may recognize. One is even a hotel which was demolished but has been reborn in another location in Captive of the Darkness.

The Hunters of Reloria books are described as YA (young adult) fiction while Angels and Demons is adult fiction? How did you adjust your writing for the new audience?

I’m hoping there aren’t young readers here, but if so, please look away now.

The main mature concept introduced in Captive of the Darkness is male exotic dancers. You know what they say, sex sells, baby. That may sound a bit cocky, but to keep it real, I write what I like to read and hope there are readers with the same tastes as mine who would like to follow me down the rabbit hole.

Elven Jewel Cover

While we’re on the subject, can you tell us a little more about The Hunters of Reloria?

This fantasy adventure begins when the magical continent of Reloria is threatened by cruel, scaly invaders called Vergai from the wastelands of Vergash. These invaders are barbaric and are intent on destroying the protective elven forcefield and conquering peaceful Reloria. The Vergais’ plan is to steal the Elven Jewel which is the key to the Relorian defence system.

Halfling friends Randir and Fendi and their bond-fairies are the first to discover the invaders, and they embark on a quest to save the Elven Jewel. They leave their peaceful farm village with their fairies and race against time to stop the invaders. They join forces with dwarves, elves, men, and a mysterious dragon, and call themselves the Hunters of Reloria.

The quest is perilous, with numerous encounters with the ruthless Vergai, who are determined to fulfill their mission. The Elven Jewel is stolen and the quest becomes a race to the portal to retrieve the jewel before it can be taken to Vergash. A battle for Reloria ensues where the consequences for the Relorians is death, unless Vergai are stopped.

How would you describe your writing style?

I fly by the seat of my pants. At best I have a general outline of the story and sometimes even then I change the plot in the middle of writing. The uncertainty is quite fun and keeps me on my toes. With work and family commitments, I don’t always get to write every day, but I do enjoy writing a lot when I have the time.

This past year I created two wonderful online groups with my friends Cheryllynn Dyess and Marsha A Moore and later have been joined by around 20 other wonderful collaborators of whom I’d like to particularly mention and thank Rennie St James.

The Fantasy & Sci-Fi Readers Lounge and
The Fantasy SciFi Author Support Group

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Join a group, read aloud, get feedback, and hone your craft. We all have to start somewhere, and practice makes perfect. (I’m the Queen of the clichés today, it seems).

I think the most important advice is to keep going. Not everyone who reads your work will love it. Even the biggest writers in the world have had rejections, so don’t quit when someone doesn’t like your work.

In closing, is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?

May the force be with you. Never give up, never surrender. Live long and prosper. Home is behind, the world ahead, and there are many paths to tread through shadows to the edge of night, until the stars are all alight.

If you know and like those four quotes, then you know where to find me.

Also, a review is the best gift you can give an author.

Happy reading, cheers,

Kasper.

___________________________________________

You can find Captive of the Darkness on Amazon

Can an angel be hiding here on Earth?

A veil of secrecy is lifted on Riley’s 18th birthday. She thought she knew the world, but now discovers she is a demon hunter. It doesn’t seem real, but then she meets Him, a charismatic young dancer with special powers.

He is a prisoner of a powerful demon.

What secrets does this stranger hide? Will Riley risk her own family to save Him?

To learn more about Kasper Beaumont visit these links:  

Kasper Beaumont
Hunters of Reloria series
Hidden Angel series
Website: www.huntersofreloria.weebly.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kasperj.beaumont
Twitter: https://twitter.com/KasperBeaumont
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kaz.beaumont/

 

Introducing the Winged Lady

Or how I won Aristotle’s approval for my novel in progress.

I am working once again on the Glimnodd Cycle, epic sword and sorcery set in a unique magical world.

Presently, I am in the thick of writing the first draft for Book 3, tentatively titled Tournament of Witches. And I don’t mind telling you I’ve had some trouble getting this one rolling. I have a pretty detailed outline, composed some time back, for the second and third parts of the book. The opening was the problem. I needed to collect my crew of characters (six warriors, a witch, and a wandering scholar) where I left them at the end of Book 2 (A Mirror Against All Mishap) and get them going on their next adventure.

Five of the crew are living in a remote colony in the south polar region of Glimnodd. Hiding out, because they now possess the Cloak of the Two Winds, an important magical treasure that , inevitably, powers from all over the world are looking to claim. Meantime, two of the warriors have returned to their former lives as hunters. The other warrior, Eben, has been living in the port city of the polar colony, squandering his loot on drink and dissolute living.

Since Eben is the protagonist of Book 3, I knew I needed to open with him and his sorry circumstances. I imagined him waking up in an alley, hung over and having been robbed. Poor Eben.

One of plot elements that intrigued me most didn’t appear until part 3 in the outline—people with bee wings. By that point, our heroes have arrived in distant Larthang and returned the Cloak to its rightful owners. Now they are embroiled in political and magical intrigue, part of which involves the drell. The drell are insect-winged people from a neighboring land. One of them, a lady, is kidnapped as part of the plot.

Autumn Fairy by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
An image close to my idea of a drell. Autumn Faery, by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. source https://www.pinterest.com/pin/296533956689319731/

So how could I tie all this together and get my characters and story moving.? After worrying over this for some time, a solution came to me. The drell lady from part 3 is an agent for one of the factions searching for the Cloak. She appears in the opening scene with Eben. As I wrote on a social media post:

“Sometimes it’s takes a while to realize that the bee-winged lady from Part 3 is the same as the witch’s agent who discovers the hero drunk in the alley in Chapter 1.”

Shortly after figuring this out, I took it a step further and made the villain from part 3 one of the other parties searching for the Cloak in Part 1. These revelations not only introduce important new characters right at the start, they tie together the dramatic events from part 3 with the book’s opening. The whole plot is now much better unified. And didn’t Aristotle cite unity as a crucial element of drama in The Poetics?

My new book is now okay with Aristotle. What a relief!

Here, in draft form, is the opening scene for the new novel…

Cold wind tickled his forehead and eyelids. Eben blinked, painfully coming awake. Squinting into the gray dawn, he recognized the worn brick wall of an alley, smeared with frost. Rime and icy winds were normal enough in Fleevanport at the end of Third Winter. Waking from a drunken sleep in an alley was also, regrettably, typical for him these days.

Not typical was the sparkling woman floating over him in the air, her vibrating bee-wings blowing cold air on his face.

Eben shut his eyes and rubbed the back of his head. At least the drunken dreams were growing more interesting. Groaning, he reached inside his fur overshirt, fingers groping for his purse.

Gone. Robbed again, no doubt by some doxy he had stupidly followed from a tavern. How often had he fallen for that ploy these past two seasons—roaming the waterfront, drinking far too much, squandering his hard-won loot? At least this time the thief had left his fur cape and hunting knife.

Persistent humming made him open his eyes. Startled, he sat up then squinted hard.

The gleaming lady still hung in the air, her wings a blur. She had the body of a slim woman, dressed in gauzy garments that could have offered little protection from the cold. Black hair, banded by a gemmed silver crown, a slim and angular face, coppery complexion, eyes that turned up at the corners—eyes like black onyx bead, watching him.

Vision or real, Eben thought her the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen.

She floated down, dainty belled slippers settling on the cobblestone. Bending to peer at his face, she spoke in halting Low-Tathian.

“You are … all right?”

Stiff and aching, Eben struggled to his feet. He was small for an Iruk warrior. Even so, the top of the lady’s head just reached the level of his chin. He examined her wings, still now, blue-veined, silvery, rounded like bee-wings, sprouting from her back.

“Oh, I am all right,” he said. “And how are you?”

She smiled, revealing white pointy teeth.

“And what are you?” he added.

The wings fluttered and she rose into the air, stopping when her eyes were level with his.

“I am named Trippany. And you are an Iruk?”

“That is so, my pretty flying girl. But from what nation do you hail? For, assuming you are real and not an illusion, I have never seen the like of you.”

Her tone grew solemn and proud, the words coming like a speech she had rehearsed. “I am an envoy from the House of the Deepmind in Larthang.”

That might make sense. Larthang was far away and strange, known to be a land of great mages. Who could say they had not bred such creatures as this by their magic?

“That is odd,” he said. “You do not look Larthangan.”

Her mouth quirked in a half-smile. “My people are the drell. You know … how Larthangans look then?”

Suddenly, Eben realized this was leading into dangerous territory. He rubbed the back of his head. “Well, of course. Their trading ships sometimes sail these waters.”

The lady seemed to sense his secretiveness—and was having none of it. “I seek the Cloak of the Two Winds,” she stated flatly. “Do you know where it can be found?”

Eben tilted back. He forced himself to show a puzzled frown. “Why no …  How should I know such a thing?”

Of course, he did know. The Cloak was in the possession of the witch Amlina. She, along with three of Eben’s former mates, lived in hiding at a farmstead in the hills half a day’s journey from here.

The lady floated a bit higher, glaring down at him now. He hoped she could not read his thoughts

“I’ve head tales of it,” Eben muttered casually. “A great thing of magic, is it not? Stories have reached this port that it was stolen some time back, taken from some great witch of Tallyba who has slain in the battle.”

“Those same tales reached Larthang,” the bee-lady said. “Some of them say the Cloak was stolen by  a witch of Larthang, in league with warriors of the Iruk folk. Others say that same witch used the Cloak to scatter a Tathian fleet … at an  island called Alone.”

Eben shrugged, wondering if he should reach for his knife. He would hate to kill this lovely creature, but he was sworn not to reveal Amlina’s hideout. “You seem to know more about it than I do.”

“I am not so sure.” the lady peered hard into his eyes. “You are Iruk. And you were heard in a tavern last night, boasting that you had seen an entire Tathian fleet blown away by magic.”

Casually as he could, Eben slipped his hand toward the knife handle. “I don’t remember saying that. To be honest, I’ve been told I am a terrible liar when I’ve had too much to drink.”

She eyed his hand on the knife hilt. “I see. Perhaps also you lie at other times?” She flew higher, floating out of reach. “So then, you cannot help me find the Cloak?”

“I fear not.”

“You … disappoint me. But I shall keep looking.”

The angle of her wings changed, and she looped away, higher into the air. Light flashed, and Eben thrust up an arm to shield his eyes. When he looked again, the lady was gone.

Eben wiped his forehead and heaved a deep breath. He glanced suspiciously up and down the alley.

Had the winged lady been real? Certainly the conversation was too prolonged for a simple drunken dream. But perhaps she was a vision, sent by some sorcerer or witch to interrogate him? Amlina had said that many mages would seek the Cloak of the Two Winds, once it became known that it was loose in the world.

Eben vowed to be careful … and avoid so much drinking.

excerpt © 2019 by Jack Massa, All Rights Reserved

You can learn more about the world of Glimnodd here.

Or check out the first two books on Amazon:

World-Building for Fantasy – Three Tips

Creating worlds for fantasy and science fiction is a topic beloved by many. And, of course, there is plenty of excellent advice available online. Two of my favorites are Brandon Sanderson’s “Rules for Magic”  and this series by the excellent Brenda Clough.   There are even dedicated tools you can use, such as the highly-regarded World Anvil.

But imagining an entire world is no easy task. For all the great resources available, writers often struggle. In this post, drawing on examples from expert authors, I’ll provide three tips for setting up a fantasy world that is both imaginative and unique.

1. Story Before World

World-building can be great fun. It can also be a rabbit hole. Many people spend endless hours defining every nook and nuance of their world—history, climate, geography, sentient races, religions, magic, technology.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if you want to write fantasy stories, you need to put the story first. Put your focus on the primary elements of story.   Who are your characters? What are their goals? What are the obstacles to those goals? How will they seek to overcome those obstacles? Let all your world building efforts be driven by those questions.

Take for example The Queen’s Poisoner by popular author Jeff Wheeler. The story takes place in a pretty standard medieval-style world (with a few unique and intriguing elements). But the focus is first and foremost on the characters—as we follow our young hero Owen through the tribulations of being held hostage in the castle of a tyrant king. The history, politics, and other background information are revealed gradually and always in terms of how they relate to the dramatic story.

Or consider the massive and massively popular The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss constructs a complex and richly-detailed fantasy world. But again, the setting is only gradually revealed in the midst of dramatic action. In this case, we are presented with multiple narratives—the first, a framing device that introduces the hero, then multiple sequential stories as the protagonist relates his history to the “Chronicler.” This is also a truly epic example of story construction.

2. Make It Distinct

For all the efforts spend on world-building, many writers fall into the trap of imitation. All too often readers find themselves in worlds that seem like copies of Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons: orcs, witches, werewolves, elves, dragons, shapeshifters, vampires…

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But the best fantasy worlds have something that makes them unique and special.

In The Name of the Wind, we find (among other things) a complex set of “arcanist arts” (including Sympathy, Sygaldry, Alchemy, and Naming) which function according to precise scientific laws.

Or take NK Jemison’s award-winning The Broken Earth Trilogy. In Book 1, The Fifth Season, we meet the orogenes, a unique kind of humans with the power to sense and tap the tectonic forces of the Earth. These books might best be called science-fantasy, since the orogenes’ powers are linked to a biological explanation. But the author’s depictions of how these powers feel and are experienced are nonetheless fantastic.

In world-building for my own novel, Cloak of the Two Winds, I tried to imagine one thing to make the setting unique. The world, Glimnodd, is a place where arcane arts have been practiced for ages. Part of the legacy of all this witchery is that magic winds blow over the seas, changing water to ice or ice to water. Yes, I came up with that on my own!

3. Make it Relevant

Fantasy is escapist literature, and I’m all for it. But unless a story is relevant to readers, they won’t care about it. And for a fantasy story to be relevant, the experience of the world and the characters must be relatable.

In other words: What about the current state of our world does this fantasy world portray?

I learned this lesson when a friend read an early draft of Cloak of the Two Winds. The freezewind and meltwind in the story were created in ancient times as a kind of pressure-release. So much magic and sorcery were practiced that their cumulative effects had plunged the world into chaos. To keep the world in balance, the two winds now bleed off excess magic energy.

In the story, the Cloak of the title can control these magic winds. But it has been stolen and is being misused by a mad sorcerer intent on bringing the world back to chaos.

What about all that is relatable to our world? I didn’t realize it myself until a friend referred to the story as involving a “climate emergency.” In our world, overpopulation and technology are threatening us with chaos. Perhaps technology, wisely applied, will help us restore the balance.

As another example, consider Jemison’s The Fifth Season. The treatment of the orogenes by the dominant humans is relentlessly horrible—and depicts how oppressed people are and have been treated throughout history. The depiction is powerful and brutal. Jemison herself discusses this in a thread on her Twitter feed.

Best of All Possible Worlds

So, if fantasy writing is your thing, consider these three tips to make your world-building and your story as great as they can be.

  1. Put the Story before the World
  2. Make the World Distinct
  3. Make the World Relevant

Let me know what you think.

Books mentioned in this post:

The Queen’s Poisoner by Jeff Wheeler

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Fifth Season by NK Jemison

The Cloak of the Two Winds by Jack Massa

A Priestess of Aphrodite, Part 2

In last month’s post, we introduced Berenicea, one of the main female characters in The Treasure of the Sun God. She is a prosperous hetaera (courtesan) and also a Priestess of Aphrodite.

As mentioned last time, because of the historical circumstances of the ancient world, I found it challenging to create women characters who are both realistic for their time and relatable for a contemporary audience.

The challenge was brought home to me in the reactions of some of my beta readers to Berenicea. One woman had a hard time understanding the character, and in particular thought the scene between her and Thalia (see last month’s post) added nothing of value to the story. Another reader, a man, found Berenicia “too good to be true” and said that she read too much like “a male fantasy.”

“Aphrodite of Rhodes”. Statue of the Goddess rising from her bath, copy of a work from the Hellenistic period. source https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/S10.16.html

 

Responding to Beta Readers

Of course, every reader is different, and it can be hard for a writer to know when to make changes based on beta feedback. But when more than one reader finds a similar problem with a character or plot point, it tells me I’d better examine the issue.

In this case, at least two readers were not finding my priestess understandable or sympathetic. When this happens, I think the writer needs to take a close look at the character and “imagine harder.”

Re-imagining the Priestess

Who was Berenicia in my mind?

Her type of character was based on historical sources: an accomplished hetaera, a mistress and companion to leading male citizens. But she is also more than that. As a teenager, she heard Korax sing of how he saw the Goddess of Love within her. That moment changed her life, and set her on the path to become a priestess. In her mind, being a priestess means embodying her ideal vision of the goddess she serves.

A theme of the whole Conjurer of Rhodes series is that the immortals can only act in our world through human vessels. Berenicea conceives of herself as a vessel for the Goddess of Love. She strives each day to embody that ideal and express love for everyone.

Aphrodite and Adonis. Attic red-figure squat lekythos, ca. 410 BC. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=530718

 

Rewriting the Scene

With these thoughts in mind, I rewrote the scene where Berenicia speaks with Thalia. Here is the revised scene, with the changes in bold. (You can compare this to the original scene in the previous post.)

Standing on the harbor quay, Berenicia pours a libation and speaks a prayer to Aphrodite. She asks that the goddess bless the men of the Rhodian navy who have just sailed off to war, and asks particular protection for two men she loves, Korax and Patrollos. She is overheard by Thalia, a young noblewoman who is the sister of Patrollos and betrothed to Korax.

At last, she turned to leave. But along with her servants, someone else watched her, a small young woman with golden hair and eyes red from crying.

“That was beautiful,” she murmured. “I am Thalia.”

“I know who you are, my lady.”

“I knew that Patrollos and Korax both love you. But I did not realize how you also love them.”

Berenicea smiled. “You did not think a woman like me capable of such love?”

“No … Please forgive me, I meant no insult.” Thalia started to withdraw.

“Wait.” Berenicea approached her. “I took no offense.”

Thalia peered into the hetaera’s eyes. “May I ask you a question, priestess?”

“Of course.”

“Mistress Thalia! Your parents sent me to find you.” One of the woman servants from the House of Philophron called from a few yards away. “It is time to go home now.”

“Tell them I will be there in a moment,” Thalia said.

“Mistress, you should not be speaking with … that woman.”

“I will come in a moment. Go!”

The servant scowled but turned and bustled off.

“What is your question?” Berenicea asked.

“Why are they both so in love with you? You are very beautiful, of course. But so are many other women. I feel there must be more to it.”

“They are my friends, but they are not in love with me, not in the way you mean. Patrollos responds to the goddess, because she loves him so much, loves his weakness as well as his strength. And Korax—Well, he just needs a place to rest his head.” She ended with a fond smile.

But Thalia frowned in confusion. “I do not understand you.”

Berenicea sighed. “They do not love me, but the goddess within me. I am simply her vessel. She is what most men seek in women. Because, whatever love men bring, she blesses it and makes them feel it is wonderful, and that it is enough.”

“But, then … is there nothing for you?”

“Oh, yes.” Berenicea said. “There is service and sacrifice, but also much joy. Because I feel Aphrodite’s love inside me every day. And she loves the whole world.”

Thalia blinked and shook her head. “I am no priestess, and I could never be so selfless. I fear no one will ever love me the way Korax loves you.”

Berenicea stared at her, as if listening to a whisper. “I suggest you pray to the goddess. Ask her to fill your heart. I feel that … First she must teach you to love yourself. After that, well, you may be surprised.” Smiling kindly, she caressed the girl’s hair with both hands, then bent and kissed her forehead. “I give you her blessing, dear child.”

The priestess straightened, to find Thalia’s eyes shining with fresh tears.

Excerpt from The Treasure of the Sun God (c) 2019 by Jack Massa


Results

I sent the revised scene to the two beta readers mentioned above. Both of them felt it was an improvement, and that it gave them a clearer picture of Berenicia.

What do you think, gentle reader? In the context of an historical novel, can you relate to a priestess who strives to live the ideal of loving the whole world?

Aprhodite with Swan, from Rhodes. Source https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Aphrodite_swan_BM_D2.jpg

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Learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes books

Find The Treasure of the Sun God on Amazon.

A Priestess of Aphrodite, Part 1

In the Conjurer of Rhodes books, I tried to create characters who are not only well-rounded and interesting to a modern reader, but realistic for the times in which they lived. This is a challenge for every historical novelist.

Women in Antiquity

When writing about the ancient world, it’s especially challenging with women characters. Greece in particular, was notoriously patriarchal. Wives were essentially treated as chattel, and women for the most part were either wives, slaves, or prostitutes. (See Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves – Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah B. Pomeroy.)

Yet free women did have certain legal rights, and wives had considerable power within the home. Prostitutes (hetaera) might be educated and independent, and could rise to social prominence. It was not uncommon for hetaerae who began their lives as slaves to earn their freedom and become quite wealthy.

Hetaera at a Symposium, source https://www.ancient.eu/article/927/women-in-ancient-greece/


From Slave Girl to Priestess

Berenicia, one of the main women characters, fits into that category. When we first meet her (in flashbacks in Book 1) she is a flute girl, of Celtic heritage, red-haired and lovely. A slave in the house of a well-known courtesan, she has just come of age and become a prostitute.

When our hero Korax sings a hymn to Aphrodite and makes it plain that Berenicea has inspired him, the girl feels the stirring of the goddess within her. She begins to believe she can become more than simply a slave girl, and thereafter asks her mistress to train her as a priestess.

The degree to which sacred prostitution existed in Greece is controversial, although it seems to have been well-established in other ancient cultures. (See “Sex in the Service of Aphrodite, Did Prostitution Really Exist in the Temples of Antiquity?” and also “Ancient Greek Temples of Sex.”)

We also don’t know a lot about the priestesses of Aphrodite and their position in society. However, given the evidence we do have for Greece (especially Corinth) and the fact that during the Hellenistic period— when the Conjurer of Rhodes books are set— there was considerable influence from Eastern cultures, it seems plausible that a young courtesan in Rhodes might also become a priestess of the Goddess of Love.

A few of the books used to research the Conjurer of Rhodes series.

 

Courtesan Meets Future Wife

What would such a woman be like?

When we meet Berenicia again, in The Treasure of the Sun God, she is in her early twenties. Both a priestess and hetaera, she is beautiful, educated, and a patroness of the arts. She owns her own house and entertains a select group of clients. She is the lover of both Korax, who has returned to Rhodes, and his rival, Patrollos.

In a key scene, Korax and Patrollos have just sailed off to war. A crowd has gathered to watch the departure of the fleet. As the citizens disperse, Berenicia stands on the dock, pours a libation, and speaks aloud a prayer to Aphrodite, asking that the goddess may protect both of the men she loves. She is overheard by Thalia, who is the sister of Patrollos and betrothed to Korax.

Here is the beta version of that scene.

At last, she turned to leave. But along with her servants, someone else watched her, a small young woman with golden hair and eyes red from crying.

“That was beautiful,” she murmured. “I am Thalia.”

“I know who you are, my lady.”

“I know that Patrollos and Korax both love you. But I did not realize how you also love them.”

Berenicea smiled. “You did not think a woman like me capable of such love?”

“No … Please forgive me, I meant no insult.” Thalia started to withdraw.

“Wait.” Berenicea approached her. “I took no offense.”

Thalia peered into the hetaera’s eyes. “May I ask you a question, priestess?”

“Of course.”

“Mistress Thalia! Your parents sent me to find you.” One of the woman servants from the House of Philophron called from a few yards away. “It is time to go home now.”

“Tell them I will be there in a moment,” Thalia replied.

“Mistress, you should not be speaking with … that woman.”

“I will come in a moment. Go!”

The woman scowled but turned and bustled off.

“What is your question?” Berenicea asked kindly.

“Why are they both so in love with you? You are very beautiful, it is true, but is that the only reason.”

“They are my friends, but they are not in love with me, not in the way you mean. Patrollos adores Aphrodite through me, because she accepts his weaknesses as well as his strengths. And Korax—Well, he just needs a place to rest his head.”

Thalia frowned in confusion. “I do not understand you.”

Berenicea put a hand on her shoulder. “My dear, men adore me because I give them my adoration. Whatever love they bring, I bless it and make them feel it is wonderful, and that it is enough. That is the secret of Aphrodite; she welcomes all offerings with an open heart.”

Thalia’s face was solemn. “I understand your words. But is it really that simple?”

Berenicea lowered her eyes, amused. “Simple to say, less simple to do. But if every wife practiced this secret, even a little, there would be less work in the world for hetaeras.” She caressed the young woman’s hair. “May the Goddess bless you always, my lady.”

Excerpt from The Treasure of the Sun God (c) 2019 by Jack Massa

 

Readers’ Reactions

When I sent the novel to beta readers, their reaction to Berenicea, and to this scene in particular, convinced me I had a problem. What the readers had to say, and what I did about it, will be the subject of the next blog post.

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Check out the Conjurer of Rhodes series here.

Five Ways to Show Backstory:
5. Sprinkling Exposition into a Scene

This month we wrap up our series on conveying backstory in fiction without losing dramatic momentum.

Review: What We’re Talking About

In the Introduction to the series, we discussed the elements of dramatic writing as described by Jerry Cleaver in his book Immediate Fiction. As illustrated, these essential elements are

  1. Conflict, defined as character want/goal plus obstacle
  2. Action by the character to deal with the obstacle.
  3. Resolution, success or failure, leaving the character closer or farther from their goal.

All of this is supported by

  1. Emotion. To identify with your characters, readers must feel for them.
  2. Showing, the crucial method of presenting the story.
Five Elements of Storytelling, adapted from Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver

Again, we’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that readers will understand a scene. This might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

The problem we’re exploring is how a writer can convey all of the backstory without losing the reader’s interest in the immediacy of the drama.

Technique #5: Start a Scene Then Drop in Sections of Backstory

This is a technique that is often employed but not often discussed. As a reader, once you start noticing it, you’ll see it is used often.

Basically, the author starts a scene in the present, ideally with an emotional hook to engage the reader. Then after a few lines, the narrative skips back to reveal backstory. This is not a flashback, just bits of exposition sprinkled in, usually from the point of view of the character that we are following in the scene.

Essentially, the writer drops a scene in the reader’s lap, gets them involved, then steps back here and there to explain the backstory.

Example from Kim Stanley Robinson

Science fiction and Fantasy typically require the author to cover a lot of backstory—specifically, details about the world in which the story is set and how it differs from our world.

This example is from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, an epic, award-winning novel about the colonization of the Mars. The scene takes place on one of the first colony ships, right after launching. One hundred carefully-selected colonists are celebrating.

In Torus D’s dining hall, they mingled in a kind of cocktail party, celebrating the departure … Maya wandered about, sipping freely from a mug of champagne, feeling slightly unreal and extremely happy, a mix that reminded her of her wedding reception many years before. Hopefully, this marriage would go better than that one had, she thought, because this one was going to last forever … Maya turned down an offered refill, feeling giddy enough. Besides, this was work. She was co-mayor of this village, so to speak, responsible for group dynamics, which were bound to get complex. Antarctic habits kicked in even at this moment of triumph, and she listened and watched like an anthropologist, or a spy.

“The shrinks have their reasons. We’ll end up fifty happy couples.”

“And they already know the match-ups.”

She watched them laugh. Smart, healthy, supremely well-educated—was this the rational society at last, the scientifically-designed community that had been the dream of the Enlightenment? But there was Arkady, Nadia, Vlad, Ivana. She knew the Russian contingency too well have to have many illusions on that score. They were just as likely to end up resembling an undergraduate dorm at a technical university, occupied by bizarre pranks and lurid affairs. Except, they looked kind of old for that sort of thing …

Excerpt (c) 1992 by Kim Stanley Robinson

What Do We Learn Here?

This passage, part of a longer scene, drops us into the middle of the action. We’re in the viewpoint of the psychologist Maya, and each action and snippet of dialog is followed with her reflections— which provide much backstory about Maya, her colleagues, and the mission.

  • We learn about the colonists and how they were selected.
  • There are different international contingents, and we learn something of the character and behaviors of the Russian contingent in particular.
  • We learn Maya’s role, and her concerns about it. Notice the comparison to a wedding reception. This skillfully connects a context with which the reader is totally unfamiliar (a spaceship community) with something very familiar (a wedding party) which has common emotional associations.
  • We also find out that Maya’s marriage did not last, and that this group community has to last forever. For these folks, there is no coming back from Mars.
  • Finally, the comment about ‘the rational society dreamed of by the Enlightenment’ links this story of a future time with an earlier period of human history. This reflection on big-picture philosophical/historical ideas is something that quality science fiction can do in a way no other kind of fiction can.
Using This Technique

Using this method in your writing takes some practice. Begin by searching out good examples in writers whom you admire, and analyze them carefully.

Some tips:

  • Start the scene with an emotional hook. Engage the reader on the feeling level.
  • Be clear who the viewpoint character is. See the scene from their point of view and note their responses to each bit. As these responses arise, describe them and link them to the necessary backstory that the reader needs to appreciate what is going on.
  • Keep the chunks of backstory small.
  • Finish the backstory exposition no later than halfway through the scene. Then write the rest of the scene—like all of your scenes—to show conflict, action and resolution.
Your Turn

This concludes the series on conveying backstory in fiction. I would love to know what you think about this and previous posts.

Five Ways to Show Backstory:
4. Characters Tell Each Other

Returning from our mermaid adventure last month, we are back to talking about the craft of fiction.

In previous posts in this series, we’ve examined different ways that successful fiction writers present backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

We’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader will understand a scene. This might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

Technique #4: Characters Tell Each Other the Backstory

We’re all familiar with scenes where a character learns some backstory by hearing it from another character. When done well, this is a seamless and effective way to convey information.

But you have to be careful. Done poorly, this technique can easily seem contrived, the dialogue ‘stagy.’ In science fiction writing, we are warned to avoid the “As we all know, Jim” syndrome. Never, never start a speech with “As we all know.” If we all know it, why are you saying it!?

Example: From Robert B. Parker

In this example from Parker’s , Death in Paradise, Jesse Stone is chief of police for a small town in Massachusetts. He’s investigating the murder of a teenage girl, and it’s led him to meet Lily, the principal of the high school. They’ve covered the details of the case, and now the conversation turns personal.

Lily crossed her legs the other way. Jesse waited.
“How did you go from shortstop to policeman, Jesse?” 

“My father was a cop,” Jesse said. “In Tucson. When I couldn’t play ball anymore, it seemed like the other thing that I might know how to do.”

“And how did you end up in Paradise?”

“I was a cop in L.A. I got fired for being a drunk. And my marriage broke up. And I figured I’d try to start over as far from L.A. as I could.”

“Are you still drinking?”

“Mostly not,” Jesse said.

“Was that why your marriage broke up?”

“No,” Jesse said. “It didn’t help the marriage, and the marriage didn’t help it. But there were other things.”

“There always are. Aren’t there?”

“You’ve been divorced?”

“Twice.”

Excerpt © 2001 by Robert B. Parker

What We Learn in this Scene

In just 130 words here we get a lot of backstory. We learn not only about Jesse’s history (which readers who have read this far know some of already), but also a bit of Lily’s.

In terms of story-craft, notice how the exposition comes up in a scene that is mainly about something else. Suddenly, it shifts gears and moves the characters’ personal stories along.

Also, it not only tells some of Jesse’s history, but it shows us how he sees himself and presents himself to others: world weary, straight and direct, brutally honest about himself. Significantly, the prose style mirrors these characteristics, and is also extremely easy to read.

Tips for Using This Technique

Again, to disclose backstory in dialogue, you need to be crafty:

  • First, make sure the character would realistically learn the information from the other character. (Avoid the “As we all know” pitfall.)
  • Secondly, present the dialogue in short chunks, not long speeches.
  • Finally, make the disclosure part of an emotionally-engaging scene. Your readers must feel for the characters or they won’t care about the backstory.
Up Next

Next time, we will wrap up this series by discussing the last of our Five Techniques, one that is frequently used but rarely discussed: Sprinkling Backstory into a Scene.

Five Ways to Show Backstory: 3. Create a Scene where a Character Reflects

This is the fourth in a series of posts (beginning here) explaining five ways that successful fiction writers present backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

For our purposes, we’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader will understand a scene. This might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

Technique #3: Create a Scene where a Character Reflects  on the Backstory

In real life, we all spend time thinking about our problems. Your characters can do the same.

In this method, the author writes a scene in which—rather than two or more characters interacting—a single character reflects. The scene might be written in first person (internal monologue) or third person, but it is an immediate scene. That is, we are present with the character, and the character takes some actions along the way. But the focus of the scene is on the character’s reflections: on where they are in the story, how they got here, what problems they face, what they might do about them.

This technique is a very efficient way to convey lots of backstory economically.

Example: from John Grisham

This passage is from Grisham’s best-selling crime thriller, The Client. Set in Chapter 2, the scene presents lots of backstory setting up the rest of the novel. We’re following a New Orleans criminal named Barry the Blade. Expecting to meet his lawyer (Jerome) for dinner, he’s just phoned the lawyer’s office and been told Jerome left the office at 9 AM and has not been seen since.

The Blade slammed the phone down and stormed through the hallway, then caught himself and began to strut as he neared the tables and the faces. The restaurant was beginning to fill. It was almost five.He just wanted a few drinks and then a nice dinner with his lawyer so they could talk about his mess. Just drinks and dinner, that’s all. The Feds were watching, and listening. Jerome was  paranoid, and just last week told Barry he thought they had wired his law office. So they would meet here and have a nice meal without worrying about eavesdroppers and bugging devices.

They needed to talk. Jerome Clifford had been defending prominent New Orleans thugs for fifteen years—gangsters, pushers, politicians—and his record was impressive. He was cunning and corrupt, completely willing to buy people who could be bought. He drank with the judges and slept with their girlfriends. He bribed cops and threatened the jurors. He schmoozed with the politicians and contributed when asked. Jerome knew what made the system tick, and when a sleazy defendant with money needed help in New Orleans, he invariably found his way to the law offices of W. Jerome Clifford…<

Barry’s case, however, was something different…

Excerpt © 1993 by John Grisham

What do we learn here?

The scene goes after on the above, but in just these 200 words we learn a lot.

We get a clear picture of Barry, conveyed both by how he acts in public and how he thinks. Notice in the first paragraph how he begins to “storm,” then catches himself and resumes his characteristic “strut.” He is emotional, but carefully controls what he shows to the world.

Notice also the rapid-fire summary of his thoughts in the second and third paragraphs. This conveys not only the information content of the backstory, but Barry’s emotional state in thinking about it.

The third paragraph is all about Jerome Clifford, and gives us a clear picture of him and his shady business dealings. While this might be characterized as an “info dump” it is kept interesting by the strong, direct writing. In that regard, note the colorful adjectives and action verbs: “cunning and corrupt”, “bribed”, “threatened”, “schmoozed.”

Tips for using this technique

To use this method in your fiction:

  1. Set up a scene where a character can think about their problems. This might be while taking a walk, working out, taking a shower, waiting for a bus—any situation where a person might spend time reflecting.
  2. Summarize the backstory from the character’s point of view. Why are they thinking about his? How will they be effected?
  3. Make it emotional. Why are they worried or tense about the situation? What’s the worst that could happen to them? (Bonus points: Can you raise the stakes and make it even worse?)
  4. Keep it short. Info dumps are only deleterious when they’re long. Then they interrupt narrative tension and cause readers to yawn. So break up the character’s reflections with present actions, keeping the reflective passages brief.

Again, this technique of building scenes where the characters are reflecting can be very effective in conveying a lot of backstory information in a short space.

Coming Next

Next time, we’ll look at the 4th of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory, that tried and true technique where characters tell each other the backstory.

Five Ways to Show Backstory: 2. Using a Sequel Connecting Two Scenes

Following up on the previous two posts (see this post for the start), here is the second of five ways a writer can convey backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

Reminder: We’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader understands each scene. This information might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives, and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

2. Show the Backstory in a Sequel Connecting Two Scenes

This technique makes us of the Scene and Sequence model, which is frequently discussed in books on writing fiction and on screenwriting.

Scene and Sequel model, adapted from various sources

The basic idea is that a story is constructed of scenes and sequels, with rising tension as we go from beginning to end. In this model, a sequel shows a character’s response to the preceding scene and sets the stage for the next scene.

A sequel is also a great place to work in some backstory.

Example: From Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon

This example is from Fool Moon, the second of Jim Butcher’s famous Dresden Files urban fantasy novels. Harry Dresden is a private eye who also happens to be a wizard. He consults with the Chicago Police Department on supernatural cases. The following is part of the sequel to Chapter 1. In a bar, Dresden has met with Lieutenant Murphy, and she has asked him to come along to help investigate an unusual murder…

“Murphy declined to ride in the Blue Beetle, my old Volkswagen bug.

The Beetle wasn’t really blue, not anymore. One of the doors had been replaced with a green duplicate, the other one with white, when something with claws had shredded the originals. The hood had been slagged by fire, and my mechanic, Mike, had replaced it with the hood from a red vehicle. The important thing is that the Beetle runs, even if it doesn’t do it very fast, and I’m comfortable with the car. Mike has declared that the VW bug is the easiest car in the world to repair, and so that’s what I drive. He keeps it running eight or nine days in ten. That’s phenomenal.

Technology tends to foul up around wizards—flip on a light switch, and it’ll be the time the bulb burns out. Drive past a streetlight and it’ll pick just then to flicker and die. Whatever can go wrong will, automobiles included.

I didn’t think it made much sense for Murphy to risk her vehicle when she could have taken mine, but she said she’d take her chances.”
Excerpt (c)  2001 by Jim Butcher

What Backstory do we learn here?

On the surface, it seems simple. The main thing we learn is that Harry Dresden drives an old, beat up car. But this tells us several things about him:

  • In typical hard-boiled private eye fashion, he lives on the edge financially.
  • He’s not pretentious in the material sense. He doesn’t need a status symbol car to bolster his ego.
  • His car takes a beating from various monsters. He’s had some interesting cases.
  • And, he is nonchalant about dealings with these supernatural dangers.

We also learn that “Technology tends to foul up around wizards.” In Fantasy, the writer has to convey a lot of exposition, because the world is, at least to some degree, different from the everyday real world we all think we know and love. How does the magic work? What are its limitations, drawbacks, and consequences? This passage conveys some of this critical information while describing Harry’s car.

One thing more: We not only learn about Dresden’s character, but also Murphy’s—again, indirectly. We learn that, despite the hazards of exposure to a wizard, Murphy is “willing to take her chances” and use her own car. Why? Perhaps she not willing to be seen riding in a beat up old VW. But also—and we are shown this again and again about her character—Murphy is tough and wants to in charge. She wants to drive.

Principle

So, what looks at first glance like a simple bit of backstory about the character’s car, turns out to convey a lot of information.

This illustrates an important principle of good fiction: Everything in the story should be accomplishing several goals. Every passage does double or triple duty: moves the action forward, delineates character, perhaps describes the setting, or explains the background for what goes on.

The best-written stories are multi-layered in this way.

Up Next

Next time, we’ll look at the 3rd of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory: Creating a Scene where a single character reflects.