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.


Motivation and the Writer, Part 3: Instrumentality

In my last post I expanded on my first post. Because I am that kind of person, I’m going to now expand on the post which expanded on the first post.

What I’ve been talking about is Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of motivation and the reasons why you or that guy or that gal might not be motivated to complete the novel you started. Expectancy theory has three parts: expectancy (which I covered last time); instrumentality (which is what this post is about); and valence.

This particular post is about instrumentality, or the belief that a person (you) will receive a reward if the performance expectation is met.

What the heck does instrumentality mean, anyway? Simply put: a thing that serves as a means to an end.

So you’ve written a novel. At the end of all that work what reward is waiting for you, or more to the point, what reward do you expect? Is it sales? Is it a sense of self-worth? Is it fame? If a person lacks trust in the process (e.g., they’ve written novels before but they never sold), instrumentality might be holding them back from trying again. This is usually where most authors fall flat: the process doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.

Why is that?

There are many reasons why a person (you or me) might feel that our efforts will not lead to the outcome we expect. One of them is a lack of trust in the process—it didn’t work before therefore it won’t work this time. It’s a rather pessimistic viewpoint, but it’s also the reason I hear the most from writers.

Let me give you an example. Arthur the Author just finished a novel. It is well-written, and because he did his research he knows it must be professionally edited. Rather than rush the novel to “print,” Arthur does all the right things: makes sure it is as error free as possible, commissions an artist to create an excellent cover, sets up a marketing strategy that’s robust, etc.

Finally, it’s time for Arthur to release his novel. In the first week, the novel sells ten copies. This isn’t such a big deal because other authors have told him that sometimes sales will start slow but then pick up steam after about a week.

In the second week, Arthur’s novel sells six copies. Hmm. Well, Arthur is an optimist with an internal locus of control of reinforcement that tells him this failure must be because of his marketing efforts. So, Arthur the Optimistic Author listens to more authors, runs more campaigns, purchases more advertising, and gets so involved in social media that he forgets to eat.

By the end of the third week, Arthur has sold two more copies.

Arthur is despondent. Maybe he is not as resilient as he thought he was, and he considers giving up.

Is this the end of Arthur?

Nope. Because Arthur knows the process and he’s heard from other writers that the more books he has out, the better his sales must be. While not abandoning his marketing efforts, Arthur writes another book.

Write. Publish. Repeat.

After all, Arthur heard the process works from writer after writer after writer. It has to work for him as well.

Flash forward one year. Arthur the Author has written and published four novels. He’s worn out from all the social networking, blogging, and offline marketing he’s been involved in. Yet all of that effort has failed to push sales to an even respectable level. In fact, he’s sold a combined total of 56 copies and is over $8,000 in debt because of “doing what they said to do.”

Arthur quits.

This is just a scenario, but it’s happened over and over and over again. It happens because people expect that all the effort they put into a novel should result in sales, should result in exactly the same thing they see happening to other writers.

People are told that their performance is instrumental to success.

“If the process works for so many, then why doesn’t it work for me?”

When another writer becomes depressed in the process and wants to give up, we have a tendency to push them harder. Raise your hand if you’ve heard or said these things:

  • “It’s going to get better.”
  • “You need to get more involved in Twitter.”
  • “Just be patient.”
  • “The novel is great and word of mouth is sure to boost your sales.”
  • “Maybe you should try [insert marketing technique here].”

We need to stop this. We care too much and want to help those in our shoes because we can sympathize. Every time a writer is on the brink of quitting because of poor sales, other writers have a tendency to do everything we can to make sure they “keep plugging away.”

It’s not helping.

I’m not saying we should say the opposite, either. “Yes, you do suck.” “Yes, readers aren’t smart enough to understand your plot.” “You’re right: it should sell.”

These statements are equally as hurtful as the “advice” statements. A person who has been disheartened by instrumentality—they no longer trust the process—does not need that feeling reinforced by someone else.

So what does Arthur need? What would help Arthur get through this downturn in his motivation? After all, he has the confidence to write novels, yet he now feels beat up by reality and it seems all of his work doesn’t net the result he’s expecting.

That’s a post for a different time.

For now, though, examine your own motivation. Are you confident (do you have expectancy)? If so, do you see instrumentality in what you’re doing (is the outcome tied to your performance)?

If not, you probably need to ask one additional question: what did you think would happen?