In the Beginning, There Was the Prologue

A few months ago I wrote about folding backstory into a narrative to give your readers the vital information they need without hitting them over the head with a history lesson. In that post, I quoted this received wisdom:

Don’t use prologues.

That advice comes from agents and traditional publishers who believe, based on the contents of their slushpiles, that “prologue” means “deadly boring waste of my time.”

MedeaThe actual definition of prologue is a separate introductory section of a literary work. Etymologically, the word comes from the ancient Greek prologos, which described the preamble to a play that established the setting and provided background information to enhance the audience’s understanding and appreciation of the drama. The Greeks may have given the prologue its name, but I’d lay odds they didn’t invent the literary device. Knowing human beings, I imagine we’ve been prefacing our stories since people could speak.

Another argument against the prologue is that readers don’t read them. I’ve heard this from several people, who say they flip past any text labeled “prologue” until they find “chapter one.”


White Walker in television’s Game of Thrones

Say what? I can’t imaging skipping any part of a novel, least of all the prologue. It is part of the creative work and must be read as such. If a prologue is a boring waste of time, that’s the author’s fault, not a problem with the literary device. When done well, a prologue provides not only essential information to understand the plot, but also catapults the reader into the story. Think of the prologue to Game of Thrones, where G.R.R. Martin introduces the White Walkers. We don’t see a Walker again for several books, but the deadly encounter in the prologue lurks at the back of your mind, reminding you that all the squabbling over the Iron Throne is just a warm-up for the clash between ice and fire yet to come.

So what can we, as authors, do to encourage readers to stop skipping our prologues? For me, the answer isn’t “don’t write them.” Instead, I want to rehabilitate the prologue’s reputation. With that in mind, I offer this list of do’s and don’ts for prologues.

  1. Hook the reader. The first line of the prologue is the first line of your book, so don’t waste it. Also, don’t write a great first sentence and then ruin it with a backstory data dump—a bored reader will snap shut your cover (or snap off your preview screen) and move on. As an example, let’s suppose I’m writing a fantasy inspired by World War I. I could fill my prologue with dry geopolitical details about the history of my world, or I could portray the fuse-lighting event:

Cover-snapper: In the year 3642, the Western Alliance declared war on the Eastern Axis. The conflict began a month after the assassination of Queen Eleanor of the Hinterlands by Otto Smithson, an embittered serf who resented the quartering of the Queen’s troops in his village.

Hook: Otto’s gaze traveled past the rifle sights, down the length of cold steel, and through the sultry summer air to a patch of skin between the queen’s hairline and her eyebrows. Exhaling relief, he squeezed the trigger.

  1. WoT01_TheEyeOfTheWorldKeep it simple. Don’t ask your reader to learn the names of a lot of strangers who disappear in a few pages. The prologue of The Eye of the World, the first novel in Robert Jordan’s 14-volume, cast-of-thousands epic, includes just two characters and one major event. In contrast, a pre-publication draft of my novel Blade of Amber began with a prologue in which a young Queen Elekia lights the fuse for explosions that will occur decades later, during the timeframe of Blade and its sequel A Wizard’s Lot. Yet while Elekia’s actions are central to the novel, the circumstances surrounding them were complex. In that failed beginning, Elekia interacted with half a dozen different characters about matters which themselves required a lot of explanation and backstory. Early readers got overwhelmed and lost,BladeofAmber_final_sized for SW and many never made it past that opening. Blade’s prologue now features a simple story about two children playing with a piece of technology that plays a central role in the story: the Device. The Device works like the transporters on Star Trek, allowing individuals to travel instantly from place to place. By accidentally setting it off, the children allow Vic, the protagonist, to escape from bondage, which is the first major turning point in Blade. Meanwhile, Elekia’s backstory appears much later in the novel, when the reader knows all the players, such that her history is illuminating rather than confusing.
  1. Don’t include it, unless the story won’t work without it. A prologue should be as vital to your novel as a handle to a teapot or a foundation to a house. While a prologue is a stage-setting device and not part of the main story, good prologues always portray action that has major implications for the plot. Don’t waste your readers time with dry history, but do show your reader the seminal event that will bear the fruit of your plot.

TombsIn another case, your opening narrative may be as vital as that teapot handle, but it doesn’t meet the definition of a prologue: a separate introduction. Prologues usually involve characters who play a only peripheral role in the story or events that occurred years, decades, or centuries before the novel’s timeframe. Therefore, if your prologue features your protagonist, just title it “Chapter One.” Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan begins with a prologue that initially features the mother of Tenar, the central character. The preamble then glosses over Tenar’s early life as a child priestess before the book settles more firmly into Tenar’s point of view in chapter one. LeGuin is my literary idol—the author whom I most admire—so I hate to question why she labeled this opening “Prologue” instead of “Chapter One,” since it’s mainly about Tenar. I suppose the change in point of view from third person omniscient to third person limited might justify setting apart the opening as a prologue, but the separation seems unnecessary to me. On the other hand, LeGuin would probably argue that Tombs is about Tenar’s rediscovery of her self—her identity—and her consequent liberation from an oppressive regime, so the story of her early life as a sequestered priestess isn’t part of the main action of the novel, its purpose is to set the stage. Well…much as I hate to argue with a literary master, Ms. LeGuin and I will have to disagree on this one.


AM Justice

AM Justice

A.M. Justice writes fiction from distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. When she’s not critiquing the work of literary giants, she divides her time between her writing fantasy and historical fiction and writing for the healthcare industry. For updates on her work, she invites you to follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page, or visit her website


Bridging the Gap Between the Expert and the Unknowledgeable

by Chantal Boudreau

Bruce Blake’s post on the unreliable narrator got me to thinking about narrators, or PoV characters, who are unreliable because of a lack of knowledge. Some readers are able to accept the character’s failing. Others find their narrow perspective hard to handle, especially if the reader is an expert in that area. Their ignorance, even if justified by circumstance, can be frustrating.

One example of this I ran into was when I had a test reader who worked in IT try out a story I had written involving technology gone wrong – a story where the protagonist was a technophobe and for the most part techno-illiterate. The character’s distaste for technology was a reasonable explanation as to why the protagonist had rejected the technology found in the story in the first place, which was an important component of the plot. My reader took issue with the main character’s technological ignorance, trying to impose his own understanding upon the unwary man (he should know this, he should expect that, he should be able to explain these things), even though as far as their technological knowledge base was concerned, they were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Technology was such a fundamental part of the reader’s identity that it created a disconnect between him and the protagonist that he just couldn’t circumvent.

I’ve seen this gap work the opposite way too, when a character is an expert and the reader lacks knowledge. I found this problem with Technicians and Scholars in my Fervor series and some of the more knowledgeable wizards in Masters and Renegades. The character gets excited about things that may not generate as much interest in the average person (think Sheldon talking physics to Penny in The Big Bang Theory) but his or her drive regarding a particular topic could be essential to the plot. As a writer, you may need to demonstrate that the character’s quest for knowledge can border on obsessive, but doing so can risk boring or even alienating the reader, so you have to tread cautiously.

So what can a writer do if this gap can’t be avoided? How does one bridge that gap for the reader while remaining true to the character and the story? How does a writer prevent that frustration or disinterest?

There are a few options. The first is being constantly aware that any difference is there. A writer can remind the reader of a character’s lack of knowledge through narrative or dialogue, at appropriate times, to reduce frustration. A writer can be conscious of when a learned character threatens to share to the point of an info dump. Listening to an expert blather on about a particular topic can put a less interested person to sleep.

Another option is to foil the gap with a secondary character – one more like the reader. That other character can point out an unknowledgeable character’s weaknesses with some sympathy or give the expert character a blank stare or a questioning look…or even a yawn… when they start going into too much detail. He or she can lend some understanding as to why the first character does what he or she does. This way, the impact of any knowledge gap on the reader is lessened.

As much as a writer wants the reader to get inside a character’s head and relate to them, this won’t always work when there is a significant knowledge gap between character and reader. Sometimes the relationship has to be sacrificed in part for the sake of realism. The character can still be likeable and may offer up other traits in common with the reader so they can sympathize with them to some degree, but there may always be at least a little disconnect on an intellectual level. That’s not necessarily a bad outcome. A writer will never be able to capture the full interest of every reader with every character. And sometimes lending a reader a new perspective is the whole point of the tale.

Just something to consider the next time a character in a story you’re reading makes you say: “why would he/she think that?”

Will we rewrite all great male superheroes into women?

by Autumn Birt

Thor is now a woman.

Hopefully I’m not the first one breaking that to you and you’ve read the news. Marvel has rewritten the rugged, slightly depressed but definitely sexy, hero into a heroine. This goes along with other additions of great male characters, including a lovely she-hulk, spiderwoman, and heck, if you’re old enough, you can throw She-Ra in there. Actually researching this post, I realized there is a whole series of She-morphed names. There is also She-Dragon, She-Thing, She-Venom, and SheZow (ok, the last one is a little amusing).

imageI firmly believe there are not enough great female characters across all genres. Certainly not enough ones that break from stereotypes such a mother, protector, or sexualized icon. Sure, we are doing better than a few decades ago, especially in the indie arena. But there is still a prevalence in new literature of male dominated storylines, especially some genres. How many female detectives are out there or hard-nosed, tactical women military thrillers?

But is the answer rewriting formally make characters into female?

After reading a self-proclaimed tirade (not mine!) that took on this trend of remaking classic superheroes that have been men into women, I’m not so sure.

This insightful, if rowdy, comment that questioned why Thor had to become a woman and why does everyone wonder if the next Dr. Who incarnation will be a female made an excellent point. Thor has always been kick ass. There are female Asgardians. Why the heck does he have to become a she. I had a crush on Thor as a teenager. Now I’m admittedly confused.

The same can be said of Dr. Who. There are (were?) female Time Lords. Heck, the Doctor has a daughter! Why should he be recast as a woman? Does he need to be? What niche will that fill? Is it some final validation that women are important and have ‘come of age’ in the world of superheroes?

Gosh I hope not, because it feels as cheap as some of the rather unimaginative names. She-hulk — realy?

Apparently spiderwoman isn't a human woman based on that body...

Apparently spiderwoman isn’t a human woman based on that body…

Captain America, Thor, Superman, Spiderman… the list goes on, they’ve been around for awhile. So have Wonder Woman and a few other female characters that were, admittedly, invented more of a sidekick with a great body. Does remaking the guys into women fix this trend or are we just out of ideas on great characters?

At least the Xmen gave women a powerful role with some unique powers. And just when I started to believe that Marvel won’t take a risk on a unique woman superhero, they update Ms. Marvel by promoting the original to Captain and named a Pakistani-American teenage girl as the new Ms. Marvel. Wow and wow. Apparently someone out there at Marvel comics isn’t afraid of creating new ground for women or superheros. Even if Thor is now a woman.

And there are many amazing female characters not actually based on men out there in the indie universe. That is the trend I’d like to see growing and acknowledged. Writers are not out of great ideas for amazing characters. Heck, they can even come up with interesting names!

And as for this trend to create doppelgangers of male characters in female bodies, I hope it ends soon. The lack of creativity to create an exciting new heroine feels like a slight as big as only seeing sexy superheroines in tight leotards (at least the men get similar clothing!) who often need to be rescued.

What do you think? Is Thor better off as a woman?

Autumn is finalizing edits to her next dystopian story line, Friends of my Enemy, while pecking away at a new epic fantasy and planning a vacation in Peru. She needs a time travel device ASAP. Find out more about Autumn and her writing at her website or find her online on Twitter at @weifarer or on her Facebook page.

Reliably Unreliable

by Bruce Blake


fightclubRecently, I had a few extra minutes on my hands during my lunch at work, so I decided to fire up YouTube and waste a little time watching a video or two. The first one I decided on was a top 10 list…specifically a WatchMojo video counting down their version of the top movie narrators. Among them were two of my favourites: Fight Club and Memento, both of which are excellent examples of the use of the unreliable narrator.

I can’t say too much about Fight Club without giving stuff away (the first rule of Fight Club is don’t talk about Fight Club), so you’ll have to trust me that Edward Norton’s unnamed character (known even in the credits simply as ‘the narrator’) is completely unreliable in his relating the events of the movie.

Memento is easier to take a look at; the premise of the film revolves around a man who cannot recall recentdownload memories trying to track down his wife’s murderer. As the narrator of the movie, we know from the start that we will have to question everything he thinks he knows and every decision he makes. How can we trust the word of a man who can’t remember what happened only a day ago? (On a side night, if you haven’t seen this movie, you should. The screenplay was written by Hollywood’s current ‘it’ director, Christopher Nolan, and the story is told in reverse chronological order, not as a gimmick, but because it needs to be. Brilliant!)

The unreliable narrator is a device that has long been used by writers to keep things from readers, to set up surprises and keep us all guessing. I use the unreliable narrator myself in my Icarus Fell novels, keeping a tight, first person point of view through the entire first book, then loosening up to a couple of other POVs in books two and three. A few readers have expressed some level of frustration with this, because they only get to know what the character knows, but that is entirely the point. In these books, and many others, it is intended for the reader to be thrown slightly off kilter, to have events tinted by the narrators opinions, memories, biases, and so on. It can make for a more immersive read.

untilIfindyouAnother great example of the unreliable narrator can be found in John  Irving’s Until I Find You (it’s also a great example of how to write exquisitely flawed characters, as are all of his works). The first half of the book follows the main character, Jack Burns, through his coming of age as he and his mother search for his father. The second half is detailed by the grown up Jack as he retraces his youth and the unreliability of the young narrator is revealed bit by bit, until we see that Jack`s flawed memory has led both he and us seriously astray from the truth.

So what is your opinion of the unreliable narrator? Does it to the piece, or do you feel cheated by not knowing for sure if you are reading the truth? Who are some other memorable narrators who couldn’t be trusted?


Bruce Blake is the author of 8 novels, 15 screenplays, half a dozen improv scripts, a volume of backwards haiku, and a complete set of encyclopedias written in pig Latin…or perhaps he is also an unreliable narrator.

Motivation and the Writer, Part 4: Instrumentality Redux

I’ve been going on and on about motivation, specifically Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory and how it applies to writers. (Mind you, it applies to many things a person does, but since I’m a writer and one of those armchair therapists who teach this stuff on a regular basis, I’m being specific to the writer-set.)

Vroom’s theory has three parts. First, there’s the bit about expectancy, which is a fancy term for confidence. Second, there is instrumentality, or the means to an end. Finally, there is valence, or value to the person.

I’m not going to jump into valence just yet. I have a few more things to say about instrumentality. Specifically, I’d like to ask you a few questions:

  • What did you think would happen?
  • What exactly did you expect?
  • What is this “outcome” that’s supposed to be tied to your performance?

You might say these three questions are related, and you’d be right. They are essentially the same question asked three different ways.

So, what did you think would happen? You wrote a novel, but before you gather your riches, you probably should ask yourself a very important question: Why did you write a novel?

  • Did you write a novel because you knew you could do it?
  • Were you pushed by your family or peers to put your big toe in the deep end?
  • Were there voices in your head who told you it was time they told their story? (That’s not a stretch, by the way; I should tell you how I ended up writing Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors.)

Motivation LinksIf you can answer “why” you wrote your novel (and this isn’t an easy question), it’s time to ask a follow-up question: What do you think you’re supposed to do with the novel?

  • Are you supposed to sell it?
  • Are you supposed to let it sit on a shelf and gather dust?
  • Are you supposed to get an agent to buy into your idea and sell it for you?

Give yourself some time to answer the “Why” and “What now?” questions.

Go ahead; I’m patient.

Now, let’s pretend you answered those two questions with the following: “I wrote this novel because I wanted to write a story I’d like to read;” and “I want other people to read the novel and feel my emotion.”

Okay, without getting into Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you just said you’re looking for esteem from other people. And that’s perfectly okay. We’re animals who can be motivated by either self-esteem (“I did a good job”) or external esteem (“People think I did a good job”).

With an answer to the “Why” and “What now” questions, an author will typically chose the path that’s most known to them. If, for example, the goal is to get the words into the head of other people, the novel must be either sold or given away, which means it must be published.

And here is where writers fail to stay motivated. If a novel is supposed to be published and sold in order to meet the need of esteem, what happens when it doesn’t sell?

Now, I’m asking you a lot of questions, but that’s the way discovery works.

Instrumentality—the belief that effort leads to outcome—is a major downfall with writers at all levels. It creeps in to the conscious and injects doubt into our brains like a corrosive ink. That corrosion then eats away at our motivation until we can no longer stomach the thought of seeing our work fail to sell or our genius fail to be recognized.

I understand this, and if you’re in this boat right now, know this:

There is still hope.

Hope rests in resilience.

And resilience rests…in the next post.

The natural world inspires the supernatural

Where do fantasy writers get their ideas?

By Scott Bury


For me, most of them come from the natural world. I know, it seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.

My popular horror story, Dark Clouds, was inspired by the wind, as well as the challenge: “What’s the scariest opening line for a story you can imagine?” I came up with this:

Matt always knew when his mother arrived in town: the wind would swirl from every direction at once, sending the neighbour’s weather-vane spinning clackety-clack and the yellow and brown leaves whirling along the road like a child’s top.

A year ago, I took a white-water canoeing trip for Last week, I went on a four-day white-water canoeing trip down the storied Mattawa River in Ontario. The Mattawa was a key part of the fur trade from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and probably long before that, as well. Its source, Trout Lake, east of North Bay, Ontario, is only a couple of kilometres from the shore of Lake Nipissing, which flows westward into Georgian Bay and the Great Lakes, and links to all of western Canada as far as the Rocky Mountains.

If that’s not inspiration enough for several historical novel series, the Mattawa is typical of the Canadian Shield: pure water stained brown by tannins from evergreen trees, a forest broken only by bare Precambrian rock. Beaches are rare in Shield country. Instead of a sandy shore like you’d find along the ocean, the forest here reaches right down to the edge of the water, and often into it, as well.

The forest itself is dense; from outside it, it’s hard to see into it at all. Deciduous trees are covered in needles from forest floor to tip, and stubborn bushes grow between them. While there are some clearings and occasionally a clear area under the canopy, walking through the forest usually requires stepping carefully over bare rocks left by the last glaciers.

The forest has a dark, brooding quality to it, although in reality it’s quite gentle and accommodating—just considering the numbers of campers there every summer.

I find it hard not to think of stories when I travel there.

Elementalssetting off

The four elements—earth, water, air and fire—are the basis of many mythologies and fantasies. And sometimes, they seem to be trying to communicate with us humans. On the first day of our trip, we encountered driving rain and stiff winds that came directly from the direction we wanted to travel—and coincidentally, directly opposite to the prevailing winds. Think they were trying to tell us something?

mattawa 3Mist can evoke mystery (hah!), something hidden, menace, secrecy and even sleep. These images from the early mornings in August remind me of any number of stories, as well as some new ones in my mind. What do they make you think of?

Stepping stones

steppingstonesThis rock formation is called the Stepping Stones, located at the entrance to the Mattawa from Trout Lake. Actually, they only reach about halfway across the river, and if you wanted to step on them, you’d better get used to having bird shit on your shoes. But it’s hard to resist the idea of a ford abandoned halfway through its construction, or maybe a crossing that was destroyed by forces unknown.



Other species

On our first night on the trip, we were visited repeatedly by a group (I don’t want to say “flock”) of six female mallard ducks. They came up on shore right at our campsite and didn’t seem at all afraid of six humans.feathered friend

Six ducks, six humans, a random encounter in the wilderness. There’s got to be a story there.

I used human-animal encounters several times in my first novel, The Bones of the Earth. In one occasion, the hero, Javor, was aided by a griffin. I meant that to symbolize the hero’s alliance with solar or celestial forces.

In another section, though, Javor bumped into a bear, which scared him silly. What was the fantastical symbolism? To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a bear is just a bear.


Scott Bury is a writer of fantasy and other genres, based in Ottawa, Canada. His first novel, The Bones of the Earth, is a historical fantasy set in Dark Age Eastern Europe.



Character Study

296b225b9da0d54dd0014110Why do we read? When I was young, I thought I liked stories for their plots. The books that caught my attention in the library or bookstore usually had a dragon, horse, or sword-wielder on the cover, promising hair-raising battles and edge of seat adventures. Give me Dragonflight or Lord of the Rings, Treasure Island or the Black Stallion. Nothing would raise my gag reflex so fast as the suggestion from a teacher or librarian that I might try a book with an “interesting” character whose problems I could “relate to.” Or so I thought.

LittleWomen20I thought I needed dragons or battles or at least horses to enjoy a book, yet at the same time I read and reread plenty of novels without them. There were the books with an ordinary bully instead of a dark overlord for a villain (Nellie Oleson vs Sauron), and there were even books with no villain at all. The March sisters of Little Women battle societal expectations and a smallpox outbreak, but no one, not even Aunt March, tries to thwart them. Indeed nothing extraordinary happens to Jo March and her three sisters, which is, in fact, Jo’s constant complaint (and a problem I could relate to). Yet I gorged on Jo’s coming of age at least a dozen times during my teens because I loved her and all the other characters in Little Women.

So let’s face it, great characters make a story great. Yet what is it that makes a character great? I think the key is complexity of thought, feeling, and behavior, but that’s just my opinion. Since I make my living as a science writer, I’m used to evaluating questions in terms of evidence. So I set out to study the question of character by surveying other writers.

scientific-method-key-elementsIn science writing, before we report study results, we describe the study method. My survey was informal and qualitative. I asked only 1 open-ended question rather than asking a series of questions with answers scored on a numerical scale (eg, 0 = strongly disagree, 4 = strongly agree). This was the question:


Please name your favorite character from literature and give 2-3 specific reasons why he or she is your favorite.

I surveyed writers belonging to a Facebook group composed of novices, professionals, and everyone between who share a common desire to improve their craft. Only 21 out of about 500 members responded. Favorite characters came from a wide variety of genres, including children’s literature, fantasy, thrillers, science fiction, and the classics. Some of my favorite answers included:

Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Jo March. They kicked ASS in times when most women had no choice but to let men rule their lives.

[I love] Samwise from LOTR because he’s so solid, he’s so grounded in the Earth real, Emma Bovary too, because I can so believe how she would get trapped within her own romantic thinking: the compelling hobbit who won’t let the troubles cause everyone to forget what is better, and the poor woman whose love of the not real makes her lose what is real.

Scarlett O’Hara. I admire her strength, independence, and headstrongness. Most of all, I love how she’s a “lady” by appearances on the outside, but a do-what-I-have-to-do-and-screw-everyone-else bitch inside.

I’ll go with Tyrion Lannister. A basically good guy in a family of scum suckers who has no real option but to be somewhat loyal to them while simultaneously knowing how messed up they are and wanting their approval and love. And [he’s] HILAAARIOUS.

Hamlet, because he’s thoughtful.

Snoopy. Rascal. Suave. Hero.

Characters with multiple votes included Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice), Raistlin Majere (Dragonlance), Jo March (Little Women), and Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind). The answers also revealed three overall themes. Most respondents liked:

  • Male characters who succeed despite a weakness, disability, or moral failing
  • Female characters who succeed because they’re strong
  • Male and female characters who defy convention and who also put others ahead of themselves

Acknowledging the sample is too small to draw firm conclusions, I still propose distilling these findings into 2 general guidelines:

  1. Your character should succeed (everybody loves a winner)
  2. Avoid stereotypes

Simple, right? Recommendation #1 here has more to do with plot than character. People tend to favor happy endings. We can all admire Flaubert’s brilliant characterizations in Madame Bovary, but only one of the survey respondents picked Emma Bovary as a favorite character. Everyone else picked someone who achieved his or her goal, or was at least still alive and trying at the conclusion of the latest volume in a series.

Recommendation #2 ought to be self-evident, but given the vast number of cookie cutter characters in existence, it bears repeating. Most authors do a decent job fleshing out their protagonists into three-dimensional figures with quirks and flaws as well as strengths, but their supporting characters often come straight from central casting. Of course, a writer doesn’t need to write a full backstory for every stablehand or hotel clerk, but every elf need not be a paragon either. (Tolkien peopled Middle Earth with drunken, oafish elves as well as somber virtuous ones.)

Nearly every scientific report concludes with a call for more research into the topic, and that’s certainly needed here. The characteristics of a “great” character may not be fully definable, just as the identification of every new subatomic particle only points to another that cannot be detected but whose influence betrays its presence. We may never have all the answers, but that won’t stop me from asking the question:

What do you think makes a great character great?


Photo on 7-25-12 at 12.24 PM #3_2A.M. Justice writes fiction about distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. She is the author of The Woern Chronicles, a fantasy series peopled with characters who defy stereotypes, and a contributor to Four Doors Open, a collection of essays written by real women who do the same. She encourages you to visit her website, follow her on Twitter, or like her Facebook page.

Do hippogriffs lay eggs?

by Autumn Birt

My husband is entirely at fault for this post. And Bruce. We’ll get to Bruce’s role in a bit. First, my husband…

There are two reasons my husband became… well, my husband. The first was because I owned a green Jeep. The second was because I knew how to cook. I love food. Actually, food is love in my family. Thank goodness high metabolism runs in my genes as well, ‘cause we have LOTS of love. I introduced my husband, then boyfriend, to this concept very early. Jump ahead… many years to last fall when my husband discovered Big Green Eggs.

Homemade soft pretzels cooked over a wood fired Egg... because I can!

Homemade soft pretzels cooked over a wood fired Egg… because I can!

If you have yet to discover Big Green Eggs, stop reading this post now and block it from your memory. You just don’t need to go farther. But if you love food, especially grilled and smoked, if you ever thought baking bread or pizza over a wood fire sounded like a great idea in the fall… well, you’ve probably already heard of Big Green Eggs. Despite my eye rolling and near epileptic fit at the cost, I now use my Big Green Egg more than my oven. And on those two to five nights a week that I’m standing on my porch (through thunderstorms, snow, ice ‘events’, and gorgeous evenings), as well as occasional breakfasts and lunches to cook something tasty on my Egg, I wonder… what exactly laid it?

This is where Bruce comes in.

About the time my Big Green Egg rolled into my life, Bruce wrote a post on some of the great resources in his fantasy library. Many of them ended up on my Yule list… and I did receive the Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. What fantasy author doesn’t have at least one fantasy creature resource list or grimoire sitting around?! So well armed on the myriad creatures of fable and myth thanks to Bruce, I set out to determine what creature lays big green eggs.

element encyclopedia of magical creatures John and Kaitlin MatthewsI’d like to note that I’m assuming no infant, endangered mythical creatures are harmed in the production of Big Green Eggs. One, because I’m vegetarian and don’t want to destroy the love affair I have with my Egg and two, because the line separating the top ‘lid’ from the bottom charcoal chamber is straight. I picture the hatching process running like an egg cesarean. Hatchlings-to-be whose emergence is imminent are helped along before they break through the fragile – and valuable – shell. Otherwise, considering the rarity of mythical creatures as it is, this would not be a very sustainable business venture!

Considering these are eggs, that mostly limits the search for potential parents to feathered or reptilian creatures. Nothing is one hundred percent straightforward with these sorts of creatures though. Considering the size of even my Egg, which is a medium and over a foot in diameter, dragons come to mind. I have to admit, standing next to a large or extra large Egg and thinking about the beast, especially a dragonish beast, that must have laid it… my palms get a little sweaty. That is a seriously large animal! Who would even have the gall to take an egg from such a creature (and survive)?!

The temperature extremes that Eggs endure also points to the dragon potentiality (and away from not fiery creatures like hippogriffs, which, it turns out, do lay eggs). I’ve used my Egg during Maine’s lovely and brisk winters where you can throw a cup of boiling water in the air to make snow fireworks (someday I’ll post a list of things we do in Maine to stay entertained during the winter… who knew kayaks were useful in January?) and gotten it well over 500 degrees without any sign of strain or cracks.

Relative size of the mini and large Big Green Egg to a person along with potential parents

Relative size of the mini and large Big Green Egg to a person along with potential parents

So dragons for the big Eggs seems logical. But what about the small ones like the mini version? Small dragons? Or maybe a phoenix? Now the idea of raising a flock of phoenix for egg production like some sort of fiery chicken sounds doable… and might be a potential green energy heat source! Hmmm… I wish my reference book contained more on care and feeding!

I’ll keep looking through my book for more potential egg-parental creatures. I don’t think I’ve even begun to compile the complete list! Let me know if you have any suggestions. :)

– Autumn has gone insane. She likes it here though and is being very productive in her writing as all those voices in her head finally make sense. Find out more about Autumn and her writing at her website or find her online on Twitter at @weifarer or on her Facebook page.

The Evolution of a Landscape

by Chantal Boudreau

I’m not sure if this is true of all writers, but when I start writing something I decide not to finish, that doesn’t spell the end of it. If I’m creating a new story idea or novel concept, I’ll often beg, borrow and steal from defunct tales that I think have worthy bits and pieces which will serve as effective building blocks for something else – a literary version of reduce, reuse and recycle.

Sometimes it’s characters. In my sixth Masters & Renegades book (likely to be released a couple of years from now) one of the protagonists is a wizard name Angellica whom I recovered from the shambles of an earlier novel that never made it past chapter one. I liked her though, so I couldn’t let her die with the rest of the story, so out she came for something else.

Sometimes it’s objects. Angellica had a family heirloom, the weavecharm, I wasn’t about to abandon either, so I built it into book six as well. It actually proved to be a valuable plot device and inspired the next two books in the series. It placed an important role in those two novels as well – continuing on without Angellica.

Sometimes it’s places. Seaforest is the setting for most of book six, but it’s also the setting for part of book four (hopefully out later this year) and is mention in the first book of the series Magic University, since two of the characters have journeyed from Seaforest to the Admission Trials. But Seaforest, and it’s capital city, Feltrey, didn’t start with my current fantasy series. It didn’t even begin with “A Fly on the Wall,” one of my first short stories recently published in the Bellator charity anthology.

In fact, Seaforest grew up from a rather rough and ragged version of itself spawned by my disastrous trunk novel written in my teens and never to see the light of day again (I’m still embarrassed I let a couple of friends read it – it’s just awful.)

But I did want to preserve the basic concept. It was initially home to a rather primitive village in the woods alongside a salt lake the natives called a sea. I liked the rustic beauty of the area in my mind’s eye and I could relate well to it, because I grew up in a wooded area beside the ocean. So even though the novel ended up trunked, that wasn’t the end to Seaforest. In order to be used properly, however, because it was in its most basic form, it needed to evolve. While it had a foundation, it lacked history, it demanded politics and most of all, it cried out for character.

It didn’t get all of those things right away. I started writing a novel set in a neighbouring principality that touched on some of the nuances missing from Seaforest when it was mentioned – some of the politics…some of the history. That novel was tossed, as many were when I first started writing novels, but I kept the developments to Seaforest, determined to see it to its full potential.

I finally did manage to firm Seaforest up a little more when I used it as the backdrop for two successfully completed short stories, “A Fly on the Wall,” mentioned before, and a yet-to-be-published tale called “Eliza’s Shell” which was actually a non-genre story I converted to a fantasy format. Now I had Feltrey, the principality’s capital, established. I felt the place demonstrated real character with a good understanding of its history and background, as well as a strong impression of the landscape, flora, fauna and population. It felt real, but the short stories only gave a glimpse of the place as a whole. To finalize its evolution, it had to be openly explored.

That didn’t happen when I reintroduced the principality of Seaforest in Magic University. While important to Tom and Snyder’s backgrounds, Seaforest wasn’t an integral part of the storyline, so it remained mostly an enigma, talk about in passing by some of the characters, shrouded by secrets and suggestions. This did set it up to play an important part later in the series, which it does starting in book four, Victims of Circumstance. This is where Seaforest finally gets to display its development in all its complexity and detail. Locations are visited and everything from weather to architecture to high-end politics are discussed (all important to the story and not just thrown out there – I don’t like encyclopedic demonstrations of world-building.)

So that, in a nutshell, is how Seaforest evolved from an underdeveloped tract of land to a full and active principality playing centre-piece to my novels. You hear a lot about the creative processes involved in fantasy world-building, so I thought it might be nice to share some of my own experiences with this. I’d be interested to know how others bring their fantasy landscapes to fruition, be it by some assembly of individual components, evolving from a basic concept as I have done with Seaforest or some other way altogether.

A Moving Story

by Bruce Blake

The building they're destroying

The building they’re destroying

Two weeks ago yesterday, I did one of those things we all dread…I moved. It was something the family was forced into rather than a choice, and by that I don’t mean we were bad tenants and the landlord expunged us from the building. No, the cute little 8 unit 1940s building we were in is being knocked down to make way for a three-story apartment building and, though moving is a pain in the behind, it is still preferable to living under a pile of rubble.

The last time we moved was a horrible experience. My son (seventeen at the time) and I did it ourselves. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the truck I rented broke down and we had to be towed over 80 kms. On top of that, it was my birthday. After that comedy of errors, I promised myself I’d hire movers the next time that particular Hell came around.

They say women forget the pain of childbirth so that they will have more children; I say the same is true of men when it comes to moving.

As the date approached, my wife urged me to call one of the local, short distance moving companies (we were only hauling the contents of our lives 8 blocks),

The new one they're building...we don't live there.

The new one they’re building…we don’t live there.

but I resisted. My faulty logic kicked in and I realized that I now have a son who is almost twenty…I didn’t need a couple of sweaty fellows with a big truck and a dolly, all I needed was a U-Haul, a case of beer, a couple of pizzas, and Erik and a few of his buddies. What twenty year old wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to help move with the promise of a couple of brewskies and slices of ‘za? Truly, it was a foolproof plan…until it turned out Friday was the day the move needed to happen.

What are most twenty-year olds doing on a Friday? That’s right: Working or going to school.

Undaunted, I picked up the truck, followed by retrieving my son from his grandparents’ house. His friends were still coming to help–the lure of free beer and food is too much for most men–but we would be on our own until late afternoon, so we formulated a plan. Since it was just the two of us, we’d move the smaller things, hoping to kill enough time that his friends would show and help out with the larger items.

By four in the afternoon, when his first buddy showed up to help, we had completely loaded and unloaded a sixteen foot truck and had arrived back at the old place for a second go. Coincidentally, this was also about the time my age started to make itself apparent–sore knee (I swear it’s from an old football injury), aching back (lacrosse?), and a variety of scrapes and contusions. With the addition of this third warm body, things went minutely faster, though the friend–in school to become and engineer (and not the type that drives a train)–was set on being the guy who Tetrised everything into the truck.

No way, pal…that’s my job.

The new digs

The new digs

An hour later and most of my belongings were set in the road rather than being brought into the truck. Apparently this is the best way to figure out how to pack them. Along about then, young man number three shows up, and that’s when things take a turn for the worse. It seems even with beer and pizza in the near future, three young men who have been friends for years (one them tired from moving all day) would rather monkey about and draw penises on the walls of the building being knocked down a la Superbad. Big penises, small penises, flowers with leaves on their stem that look suspiciously like male genitalia, even a figure strategically positioned over a light switch.

My three helpers found all this several levels beyond amusing. Me? Not so much. All I wanted to do was finish and put my weary body to bed (if there was still enough time to put a bed together by the time we finished).

Magically, six hours later, the job was finally finished. It had been thirteen hours since I picked up the truck. The sun had long since set, the crickets began chirping, and at least one helper gave up and went home to his girlfriend. Fear not, though, all the pizza was consumed, and with relish. The part I find most difficult to believe out of the entire adventure is that my young helpers only imbibed two beers between the three of them.

No wonder it took so long to move…my helpers weren’t human men, but some kind of robots or clones.

What 20-year-old doesn’t want an ice-cold beer?

An example of the tasty brew my helpers chose not to drink

An example of the tasty brew my helpers chose not to drink

You may be wondering right now if you’ve stumbled on the wrong blog; isn’t the Guild of Dreams normally about writing? It is, but we all need a break once in a while, don’t we?

What horrible moving stories do you have to share?


On a side note, if you haven’t gone to see Guardians of the Galaxy yet at your local cinema, do yourself a favour and get out to do it soon. Funny, entertaining, warm and fuzzy, and only a couple of swear words. Worth every penny of the $312 it costs to take the family to see a movie.


Bruce Blake is the author of 8 self-published novels and has moved way too many times in his life. Normally you can find him frequenting coffee shops putting pen to paper, but don’t look for another week or two, as he is still recovering from his ordeal.