Mythological Creatures

I love mythological creatures. I have one problem with them, though. I see the same ones EVERYWHERE. I read a lot of fantasy and urban fantasy books, and some creatures seem to be staples of the genre. Dragons, elves, fairies, ogres, trolls. They’re usually done well, but it gets repetitive.

When I started my fantasy project, I decided that I wasn’t going to use the typical mythological creatures. I wanted use ones I’d never seen before. Since they were new to me, maybe they’d be new to my readers too, and pique their interest.

I spent days doing research. And while I ended up with a lot of names, I couldn’t find a lot of information about them. There just isn’t much to find about obscure creatures that don’t even exist. Much of the information I did find was conflicting, and often reflected folk legends told across hundreds of years. The good news is, I’m writing a fantasy book. I can make up whatever I want. Using these creatures as a foundation, I can pick and choose which aspects I like, and insert them into my story however I please. So far, only a couple have made appearances: A strix, an amarok, and a thunderbird. They’re all massive, and all predators, and all a bit terrifying. I’ve had a ton of fun using them, but I ran into a problem here, too.

Most mythological creatures are predators. And huge. They’re awesome, but they don’t fit into every situation. I didn’t want to fill my world with everyday animals (deer, squirrels, fish, etc), but I don’t want to try to make them all up, either. That’s when I had another idea.

I call them “animals that don’t sound real but are”. Not very catchy, but it gets the job done. Again, I was looking for animals that most people don’t hear about often, or at all, something to make my story a bit different from everyone else’s. Some of these animals are pretty cool. Some are just plain weird. Here are the ones I’ve used so far: Lamprey-a jawless, parasitic fish; Babirusa-cousin of the pig, with long curling tusks; Markhor-large species of wild goat with corkscrew horns. Again, I’ve tweaked them a bit to serve my purposes, but I’ve had a lot of fun writing them, too.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a story about dragons. Maybe someday I’ll write a story about dragons. But a lot of people use dragons, and I don’t want to be a lot of people.

Writing What You Know

Conventional wisdom tells writers to write what they know. Which makes a sort of sense, because how can you write something that you know absolutely nothing about? The problem with that approach is that I don’t know very much. I’m well-educated, sure, but as far as life experiences go, I’m a little short. I’ve done some travel, and moved around a bit, but nothing that would be overly interesting in a story.

In addition, I write in a fantasy genre. One with magic, and fantastic creatures, and epic adventures, not to mention a completely different world. If I were to only write what I know, I wouldn’t be able to create a story like that. I could write about a dietitian who goes to work every day and watches TV in the evenings, but that would be an incredibly boring character. Other genres face the same issue. How many authors do you think are spies for the CIA, or have murdered someone, or have turned into a superhero? How can they write a story like that if they haven’t experienced it?

I don’t remember where I heard the phrase, but I think it’s much more sound advice. Write what you can learn. Through the power of the internet, I can research jobs, hobbies, far away locations, history. I can learn anything I want to. Example: in my current fantasy project, I attach my protagonist to a tanner as an apprentice. I’m not a tanner. I don’t know any tanners. But I read many articles on the subject, including the materials they used, the process of tanning, even maps on how tanneries were laid out. I’ll never be an expert, but it gave me the background to be able to create a (hopefully believeable) character who is a tanner.

Another thing I do is read. A lot. Sometimes obsessively (check out this post about my love of library books). I’ve been reading fantasy books since middle school, at least (I don’t remember much of what I read in elementary school, so maybe further back than that). Every story is different, and every author is different, but in reading so many of them I have a pretty good feel for the aspects of a fantasy book. I’ve lived these stories, and loved these characters, and I can use those experiences just as much as my own to shape my stories.

Some experiences transcend circumstances, and can be incorporated into any story. I’ve fallen in love, had my heart broken, experienced loss, moved away from home at a young age. I’ve been terrified of change, and had my dreams crushed, and been overjoyed. The circumstances don’t matter. I know those feelings, and I can impart them to my characters, molding them into who  I want them to be.

So, I kind of write what I know. And I kind of don’t. Thoughts? I’d love to hear yours in the comments.

Introducing New Characters Partway Through a Story

I ran into a conundrum this morning.  I’m writing the beginning of chapter 10 in my fantasy project, and, like I’d planned, I’m deviating from the protagonist and telling the story of what’s happening in a different part of the kingdom. Which got me thinking. What does conventional wisdom say about adding important characters partway through a story? I did some basic research, and discovered that conventional wisdom doesn’t really have a good answer. Like every other aspect of writing, you can do it if you write it right. Like that helps.

Here’s my situation: The first 9 chapters focus on the protagonist, a young man from a small village who is about to discover the world is a lot bigger than he thought it was. The main conflict of the story, hinted at a few times within those 9 chapters, revolves around a vendetta against the royal family, which the protagonist is going to be unwittingly drawn into.

To get that conflict going, I have to explain events that are happening outside of the protagonist’s purview. Enter the crown prince. He’s the perfect character to experience these events, but I’m worried that it’ll be jarring to the reader to suddenly be reading from a different character’s perspective. I intend for him to grow into a more important role, and he’ll be critical in resolving the conflict, but readers won’t necessarily know that upon first encountering him.

One of the Reddit threads I read on the subject made reference to George R. R. Martin. He’s notorious for adding characters left and right and giving them unique storylines. He makes readers care about them, then brutally kills them off. I love Game of Thrones, but I don’t think it’s an adequate representation of what I’m trying to do here. I don’t have nearly his skill, so while I can appreciate the example he’s set, I don’t think it’s something to actively model my writing after.

In the end, I decided to go ahead and write the chapter as I originally intended. Unless I truly change my entire story, I can see no other way to accomplish what I need to accomplish. The prince is important. Hopefully readers will agree with me. And if I make them care about him, it won’t matter that he’s introduced late.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comments are always welcome and can be added by clicking on the title of the post.

Forward Momentum

I’ve had a lot of trouble being productive this week. My forward momentum has stalled. Part of that is a discipline issue. Take, for example, yesterday. 9:00 hit last night, and I hadn’t yet gotten any writing done. I was tired, and my head hurt (it’s been raining for days), and it was late, so I chose to just watch some TV instead. That’s on me.

This post isn’t about the excuses I used to not write this week. It has been a busy week, and I’ve been gone a lot in the afternoons, but if I’d been as disciplined as I should have been I would have fit at least a little work in somewhere.

Rather, this post is about pointing out how easy it is to keep not working when I’ve already begun not working. Did you take physics in high school? Remember inertia? Merriam Webster-“a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force”. I know writing isn’t physics, but the same principle applies. The more I let myself slide on not getting work done, the easier it becomes to not get any work done. I need an external force (discipline) to change that trajectory.

What about motivation, you ask? Motivation is unreliable and ultimately worthless. There’s a great post by NerdFitness’s Steve Kamb called Motivation: You’re Doing It Wrong. Motivation inspires us to make a change and gives us a push, but it isn’t enough to sustain us through the long haul. Last night, I was completely lacking in motivation. That’s where discipline needs to step up.

Discipline is what makes me get out my laptop late at night and pound out a few hundred words because I haven’t gotten around to it all day. Discipline is what makes me choose to write instead of finishing the book I’m reading or watching new episodes of my favorite show on Netflix. Discipline is what’s going to get this project finished when I simply don’t feel like doing it.

All is not lost, though. Just like inactivity builds forward momentum, productivity does the same thing. As I mentioned in my post Back Into Creation Mode, I’ve been away from this project for a little while. I lost all momentum whatsoever, and I’m still trying to get it back. But once I do, that momentum will only build. Once I’m fully immersed in my story and churning out a couple thousand words a day, it’ll drive me nuts to not be working. Writing will consume my thoughts and keep me awake at night planning my next chapter. I won’t need as much discipline, because I’ll be completely motivated to keep moving forward.

Let me know what you think in the comments. How do you stay disciplined? How do you find the drive to keep working when you just really don’t feel like it?