Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Sea Peoples

I've found my new novel. And the research is insane.

It came in a moment of inspiration. I can boil it down to one terse statement of purpose (always a good start!) But that statement would be phrased in keywords referencing some of what was going through my head at the time and thus would only make sense to me.

Things like Ozymandius (the Shelly poem, also a similar by Sandburg). The influence of W.W.I on J.R.R. Tolkien. H.P. Lovecraft. The Anabasis of Xenephon. The heroic quest and the concept of the five-man band. Minoan Crete. Bronze-age trade networks. Akhenaten's Egypt. The Belisarius series.

The part of my elevator pitch that I can share, however, is, "...during the Bronze Age Collapse."

Not that this is that explanatory either. It is a complicated and under-documented era in history. Which, honestly, attracted me; the sources are thin and contradictory enough that you can make a lot of shit up with a wave of, "it is defensible that..." or, "sources don't say..."

But that's for the actual collapse. See, here's the problem. Something collapsed and there's remnants of it and stories about it and a whole batch known about it. Oh, and worse? Dark ages don't last. New cultures flower, and some of their stories and myths are buried in that less-documented past.

See, the time of this story is also at the height of power of the Egyptian New Kingdom. Literally Ozymandius (Shelly was inspired by Ramses II, and he and Ramses III document fighting the Sea People.) Tutankhamen and the rest of his interesting family is only a few generations earlier.

And when we come out of the dark ages and the Greeks start writing stuff down again, one of them is a fellow named Homer. Yes, the Trojan War theoretically takes place during the Bronze Age Collapse. And if that wasn't does much of Exodus.

Yeah, sure, these are pretty heavily disputed and sources, as we say, disagree. But whether there was a Troy and where it is and when Jerrico fell and who was the Pharaoh of Exodus can be endlessly argued in academic circles, it still remains that if I'm writing a story during the collapse, and any of the peoples mentioned actually show up as characters, I'm going to have to know their cultural background. I need at least a smattering of the myths and beliefs and oral traditions and philosophies.

And it gets worse. The Homeric Age and Egypt's Golden Age are both very, very popular. On the one hand, then, you've got fans. On the other side, you are going to have critics. Harsh ones.

(And it doesn't stop there, of course. There's also the wee bit of Ancient Warfare, which has a lot of cranky opinionated people studying it, and it wouldn't hurt to know a little Biblical history, and even though it collapsed hundreds of years ago the Mycenae more or less took over the islands and trading empire but...deep breath...there's never anything wrong with studying the Minoans a little more.)

In a similar good news, bad news way, the popularity of some of these areas means there are unusual research opportunities. I'm all about the look and feel; it is one thing to be able to say "dromon," it is an entirely different (and much better, for the reading experience) be able to say something about what kind of wood or how the sails are used or otherwise put across what the characters see, hear, smell, etc.

There are re-enactors and mummy rooms and epic poetry and recreated historical music and foods and reconstructions of buildings. There's opportunity here to immerse in, if not the actual culture, then something similar enough so it can be extrapolated and approximated. And, yes, I've started pricing plane tickets to Athens.

So far my tentative research list is archaic arms and warfare, Homeric epics, ancient seafaring, Egypt's New Kingdom, Egyptian philosophy, early writing systems, early Greek philosophy, Mycenaean culture, the Hittite empire...

But the first step is getting a general grounding in the period and seeing if I can indeed write a heroic quest in which a rag-tag bunch of misfits (tentative list includes a Mycenaean mercenary, an Egyptian scribe/court magician, a Cretan born seer) fight their way across a war-torn world to solve the mystery of the Sea Peoples. "...during the Bronze Age Collapse."

Monday, September 11, 2017

"It was a dark and stormy year..."

I keep having these ideas that cross historical times with fantasy elements. More or less. I'm interested in that intersection between the rational and the fantastic, particularly as a societal conflict. That's making me think of several possible time periods.

First is a somewhat hazy zone somewhere between Victorian and Edwardian, the place where antiquarianism is giving way to modern archaeology. When the map of history is slowly losing the "Here be monsters" in its margins. Not to say there aren't still endemic and deep-seated misinterpretations of both ancient and living cultures. Far from it; this is an age of the uncovering of Troy and extensive biblical archaeology. An age, also, where Piltdown could reside in a place of honor because that ridiculously obvious forgery supported what a part of the western world wanted to believe of itself.

I don't think this can be nailed down to a single year. You can have Budge and Petrie meet, but the latter is still fumbling and the former is more than a mere antiquarian. Nor can you concatenate the decipherment of Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs, cuneiform and Linear B. The stories of each of these, taken alone, also spreads across decades of which far too many of the stories are too interesting to want to leave out.

And oh yeah; the fantasy element? I don't know. I don't know if I even want it, except for the crassest of reasons (shelf space for SF/fantasy is bigger).

A new one just occurred to me today. And that's basically the EC Comics Weird War Tales, but using WWI. Because you can leave the weird completely out and the conflict that interests me is still there. It is the conflict that most steampunk stories shy away from recognizing; the old empires are falling, the old ways, the rigid social classes, the flower of French Chivalry and all that are falling as everyone flails around trying to get a grip on the quite literally world-changing technology of mechanized warfare (and industrialization in general).

Of course that's a slower process than just one war. It is just a place and time -- especially the earlier parts of the war -- where you can throw it into sharper relief. And more than one story, fiction and non-fiction, has already been written with just that same focus!

There's again no real need for the weird here. It is also unclear what roll the supernatural (or otherwise non-part-of-history) elements. To put it in strictly Lovecraftian terms (I wouldn't want to use the Mythos, not even in a serial-numbers-filed-off way, because it doesn't go where I want to go with it), you could have unspeakably ancient, indescribable lurkers in the dark representing either the fears of the coming modern world (as Lovecraft used them) or the reactionary and irrational. Or have the weird split, with something like Lovecraft's Migo representing the darker side of technology, fearful and impossible to fully understand.

One possible direction to take this is alternate history; that a completely new element is introduced, quite possibly one that reflects and emphasizes part of the existing societal conflicts. Such as (given purely as illustration because as an actual idea I hate hate hate it) zombies erupt in the middle of no-man's land and both sides have to turn their efforts towards combating, understanding, and possibly exploiting them.

A rather different venue, and one of my first ideas, is World War II. I particularly like the Pacific War for various reasons, but in any case. This could be a Secret History -- there are quite a few mysteries around and quite a few odd secret organizations and adding a few occult ones to the mix is hardly even fantasy (until and unless they actually manage to get something to work). Plus I'm fascinated by the side players, the civilians, the Coast Watchers, the boffins, etc.

Or it could turn alternate universe as various supernatural entities enter the fray. In any case, the key place where I would approach this period differently than the earlier war is that in this one, humanity is the greater monster. Or to be more specific; Cthulhu rises from the ocean and we start dropping nukes. And nobody is happy. Except the writer, because I am fascinated by the dawn of the nuclear age, the cast of characters, the way scientific questions were confronted, etc.

The last period of interest is modern day. And the sub-setting is archaeo-gaming; the intersection between archaeology and games. Here the core conflict is not exactly science versus tradition, or rationalism versus the demon-haunted world, but more the way modern Archaeology is trying to be honest to the facts and sensitive to other cultures, versus commercialism and lowest-common-denominator audiences and all the ways "it's just a story" can be used to trample the real concerns of real peoples.

I realize that sounds a lot more didactic and preachy than it should be. It wouldn't be. And there's plenty of space under the basic umbrella for retro-tech and paleo-gaming, the vibrant current cultures of emulators and 8-bit music and arcade restorers and all that. And real current concerns about intellectual property and cultural appropriation when archaeological artifacts can be scanned and those files printed in physical media or reproduced within virtual worlds.

All bunnies are, again, free for the taking. If you think you can write it, then you have my blessing.

And the rabbit's foot dropped today, during lunch. I'll write more (far too much more -- you know me!) on it soon, but the gist is that my area of interest is the Ancient World and the period of interest is....The Bronze Age Collapse!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

No research? Hah! I'm cursed.

Well, yeah, the chapter I'm working on is in its own way a big set-piece, bringing together threads and hints that were spread out over the rest of the story. So I was going to have to look up at least a thing or two.

But really I'm doing the research because it is so fun. Take the boarding school in Scotland. Gordonstoun, the real Gordonstoun, is a perfect choice. Aristocracy went there. It has an unusual emphasis on physical fitness -- at its founding it had a physical regime which verged on Spartan. Someone over at Eidos did their research. So already excuse to talk about the weirdness of Sparta, and to quote Wellington.

And it looks like he didn't actually say Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Dammit, march of history!

Then I hit the best quote of all. Prince Charles went to Gordonstoun. Which he called, pithily, "Colditz in kilts." Oh, yeah. I gotta write about this place now.

So next I needed a throwaway detail -- a place that is just background so a character has a place to have some life changing thoughts. And I have no idea why, but I thought of the mummy room at the British Museum. A little diversion first to who said it had lost its charm (George and Ira Gershwin, and there's a great cover by old Blue Eyes himself.) Then on to the Egyptian collections.

After a little poking around I came across a paper that attempts to establish a baseline for nomenclature and provenance of the mummies in their collection. And, oh, the wonders in there. About Budge buying them wholesale in Cairo, the so-called Sales Room of the Cairo museum, the factories on the west side of Thebes swapping mummies and cases and grave ornaments to make the best-looking composites for the mummy trade. And of course the complete lack of provenance up until -- yeah, you could have seen this coming -- Flinders Petrie.

Yeah, but none of this is going to fit. I decided early on that Gebelein Female 1 was the best mummy for the scene I need to write. Who was nicknamed "Gingerella" despite her brown hair because at one point she temporarily replaced the male specimen known as "Ginger" (who was a ginger -- or at least he used henna to that effect) in the mock-up pit burial he was displayed in. And, yeah, even that is too much for the scene.

Besides, I need space to talk about Roman-era grave paintings (something I knew about already) because it underscores so well the point I'm trying to make in my little ode on a Grecian Urn...I mean, Pre-dynastic Egyptian Mummy. (And, dammit -- I was going to let it go but now I can't remember if it was the very Greco-Roman paintings hung like creepy posters or a really cheap Halloween mask on the front of a wrapped mummy, or actual carved death masks that are what I was thinking of. Heck...I think it might have even been a completely different funerary I'm going to have to fact-check anyhow.)

Nope, nope, I'm wrong. Or rather, I was right before. I was thinking of the Fayum, the mummy portraits of the coptic and Roman era, and it has been contended based on comparative analysis that the apparent naturalism is less true than it could be. Which was the point I wanted to make for the story, connected as it is to preserved remains which are separated from their burial goods, the correct signifiers of status and gender, even their names -- in those rare cases that history recorded them in the first place).

And yet one more thing that won't fit into the scene. I love the life and character of the Fayum Mummy Portraits but there's something about the eyes that makes me think of the goggle-eyed gaze of Byzantine mosaic art.

Of course little of this fits, and I'm far enough above my target word count I may have to split the chapter as it is. Thing of it is, it is making me think more and more of a place it could fit. There are so many stories and so many incredible characters in the earlier days of Archaeology. From the mass of scientists and artists Napoleon gathered around him at Giza to the famous names like Schliemann and Carter to the often unsung women and non-European archaeologists whose stories are finally starting to be unearthed.

I rather want to write a novel set in that transition period between antiquarianism and modern science. The research, though -- it is terrifying just how much one could find oneself wanting to do.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Yer a Croft, Lara

Sigh. So much for no-research, no-planning, write-this-quickly. I'm working on a chapter where the main protagonist mulls over some life-changing incidents from her past. I'd considered and rejected an event from one of the alternate chronologies available.

Over the past week I realized that event could actually be worked in, thought about how it would need to be written, contemplated trashing the draft and starting a new one, then finally decided the incident might be canonical but needs to be glossed over to fit the flow of the existing story.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him

I've been getting stuck with needles a couple times a week. Blood draws, which they've gotten really good at and which hardly hurt at all. Injections of various things which, well, less so. I've also stumbled on a fun urban fantasy series, the October Daye books. Toby does blood magic, so she'd be seeing a lot of the stuff even if her approach to problems didn't end up with her bleeding out on the floor at least once a book. I've was also just offered lighting design on a new adaptation of Dracula. And I've been back to listening to the Writing Excuses podcasts, from which the biggest lesson this week for me is "go for the blood."

With all this blood around, how is it my writing of the past few years has been so bloodless?

Next post -- discovery writing and when it fails.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Inside, Outside

The peacetime Army has a little thing called a Field Problem. If they called it a camping trip you'd get the wrong idea. It is a grueling, intensive exercise that makes the regular rounds of barracks cleaning and ranges and inspections and PT something to look forward to.

My last regular Army field problem was in drizzling rain. The first night was 50% security, which meant that out of the four hours left before dawn after we'd set up camp, only two were spent sleeping. We'd dug deep foxholes in the stone-strewn earth and covered them with wet foliage and I slept in full uniform, leaning against one muddy wall with my boots in the cold water slowly filling our hole.

Eventually things eased off a little and I had a little time to read a paperback I'd stuck in one of the large pockets the Army so kindly provides. I've forgotten what it was, but the gist of it was the characters were slogging through a wet, dark, depressing world for most of the pages.

The drizzle tapered away to let in a little light and warmth at almost the same moment; the characters and I climbed out of our dark and muddy holes together.

I collapsed at work Friday (collapsed is a little strong a word; I felt weak and lay down on the floor for about an hour until I felt strong enough to drive myself home.) Saturday, I was almost too weak to limp across the street for milk. It got bad enough I gave up on the desk and computer and unfolded my futon.

And in the latest book on my reading list, the protagonist got herself poisoned. She was getting weaker by the chapter while I was lying in bed reading with a perfectly good Saturday going to waste outside.

More or less around the same hour, she found her cure and I felt at last the warmth of normal circulation returning and the weakness beginning to ebb.

Well, not completely. I doubt I'll be doing any long-distance running tonight, or even tomorrow. At the moment I'm just about recovered enough to draft a couple quick blog entries.

But the rain is over. At least for now.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Words are useless, Darling. Gobble gobble gobble gobble.

I know you've tried this; take a word, one ordinary word. Taxi, say. Then repeat it over and over again. It doesn't take long before it turns into a meaningless sound. Just a pattern of letters, a pattern of vowels and consonants, a symbol that has come unmoored from that emotional immediacy of meaning.

That's sort of how I feel about writing at the moment.

Or perhaps I should say, my writing. Or it might be even more accurate to say, some writing. I'm alternating the latest October Daye book with the first book of the Arkana series. The former is still a success at that prose trick; the words, the letters, the paper are a transparent window to the world contained within.

The latter is, sadly, not succeeding. I'm conscious at every step of the choices the writer is making, from choices of plot to choices of punctuation (and it isn't helping when I disagree with them).

The trees are getting in the way of the forest. Of course in my own work, I planted those trees. In any creative work there's still a lot of boilerplate. Even at the creative heart, the ideas don't appear like Athena, fully armed. They are pulled from the matrix of your experiences. Whether you chose to say you were "inspired by" or you "borrowed from" is up to you (I tend towards the latter, when I'm not going all out and saying I "stole" the idea.)

And, yes, even if there is an intangible inspired pure Idea somewhere at the core, that idea is fleshed out, the clothing and armor it wears constructed, whether in a fluid free-form process of nearly unconscious association or in mechanical construction, engineering with known and tested elements. And the difference between those two extremes is itself in the eye of the beholder; what seems mechanistic to me might seem a creative insight to an outside observer.

But that is probably beside the point.

What's bothering me now is that greater bulk that holds no pretension to coming directly from the muses, unsoiled by the ordinary world. What is bugging me now is all that boilerplate. All the naked mechanics of chunk of exposition here, chunk of dialog here. Of the necessary interleaving of speakers, of the cadence of sentences, of the rounding of every paragraph around a single idea -- all the way out to the basic story which is almost always there, regardless of the theme, the genre, the word it is set in.

Create a character. Set him in motion after a goal. Have his journey go through a place. At some point you are reaching into the box to assemble the building blocks and it hits you like mjolnir how few are the Seven Basic Plots, or how many the Greeks had -- whichever list you have, it is too few. And how much the creation of your characters starts to resemble those children's flip books where you mix-and-match head, torso and feet to make your own hybrid creature.

Yes, it is easy to make fun of the form. Easier still if you are trying to satirize a genre; generic fantasy; "A new evil has arisen. The black-flame steeds of the Dark Lord of H'gar thunder across the once-peaceful lands. All that stands in their way are a young bard, a willful princess, a failed alchemist and a thief. All will be lost unless they can recover...the Chalice of the Snow."

When you stand this far back, sure, everything blurs together. All urban fantasies are grey in the night-time. All stories were already told before Aristophanes had even started. And it feels so futile and so silly to worry about the details of yet another one.

So there has to be something in the particulars that makes it matter. We are in our hindbrains social primates with millions of years of watching each nuance of expression and body language to tell us who is angry and needs to be pacified, who found food and needs to be followed, who is receptive and should be befriended. Most of our media is endlessly playing pictures of these naked apes so we can watch others of our kind live and react and emote, and so we can learn and affirm from them what it is to be human.

It isn't a boy that meets a girl. It is this boy, this unique individual, this single happenstance of genetic chance and unique upbringing, that meets another happenstance of genetic chance and upbringing to struggle to bridge a just a little that unbridgeable gap between every unique I. The details matter. Every word choice matters, every cadence in the dialog matters.

If it is boring, it probably means that I'm not doing it right.