Blythe’s Keep

Blythe’s Keep rests atop a precipice, other stonework peeking through the tall grass beneath the fortified tower, the rugged slope giving way to a half-broken cliff. The cliff descends steeply to the well-traveled road below, giving anyone at its crest a commanding view of the lowland. The road holds traces of ancient highways, massive paving stones laid snugly together, broad leafy trees spaced alongside to shade the path.

Some distance past the cliff, a tributary of those paving stones wend away from the highway, climbing the gentle slopes which rise to the keep’s cliff face. Their old course now lies buried by landslide and overgrowth, and whatever they led to—older than the keep, without a doubt—remains hidden as well. The main highway continues on, undisturbed.

The keep is recent, in the comparative ages of laid stone. Built under the direction of the warrior called Blythe, it rises about five stories from the clifftop and is still broad at its tapered peak. The remains of its sloped roof peek above the weary crenelations of the roof’s edge. From its position at the top of the cliff, any occupant of the keep could interdict traffic along the road as they wished. They could, similarly, prevent anyone from interfering with travelers upon that road.

The stories about Blythe generally agree that he was an affable bandit who rose to prominence by winning over the people living in the lowlands around the cliff and its hills. With their allegiance, he levied tolls on any who passed along the highway that ran below his cliffs, while also running off his more violent or less restrained competitors. The money he gathered with the support of the local folk went into maintaining the road, buying better tools for the locals, and building the beginnings of the watchtower which would become his keep.

It’s also well known that Blythe had an acquaintance, Insuza, with an interest in the old, dead, and arcane. Her particular expertise varies by the retelling, but it’s always considerable. Stories vary on the nature of their relationship: lovers in some tales, comrades in arms in others, sometimes both, sometimes merely professionally connected. Regardless, in every story about his keep, Insuza was consulted early and often during its construction. Something about the keep, something about where it was built—and perhaps what lay beneath it—drew her like a moth to the flame.

At some point, however, she disappeared. The keep was finished, and only Blythe remained. Blythe died a petty lordling, with his own fortified tower that he rarely left, but without any heirs to his name. All agree that he was lonely, that he slept poorly, and that it was best not to mention Insuza in his presence.

Antiquarians argue about what could possibly have driven the involvement of Insuza, and collectors of old tales disagree about what happened to her. Some point to the ancient stones which stick out like jutting teeth from beneath the tower’s feet, and say that Blythe found ruins when he laid the foundations of his keep. According to them, Insuza’s expertise was requested to know where it might be safe to build. When her knowledge was no longer needed, they say, she departed.

Others agree that ruins were found, but say that Blythe and Insuza ventured down into them only to find something horrid. Here the tales diverge once more; one branch believes Insuza emerged from the ruins, while the other claims she was lost below. Regardless, all agree that Blythe blocked off access to the ruins and set himself to guard them with his keep, perhaps patiently waiting for Insuza’s return from her research elsewhere… or dreading the moment when she’d come knocking from below, in some more horrible form.

Update, 1/27/21

This week has not gone according to plan. Last week didn’t quite either, but this week has been worse.

Suffice to say, the writing isn’t happening as intended. As desired.

However, I’ve finally read a few books again. I somehow went through a rather bad dry spell for the past several months. Maybe more like the last year. I guess I’m not actually surprised.

But reading these books has been reinvigorating, exciting, inspiring. It’s like I spent long enough drawing down my reserves of enthusiasm that the wells ran dry, and these books are filling me back up again. They’re not all exactly what I’m looking for, or fine literature per se, but they’ve all reminded me of what I love about fiction. Reading them has been wonderful.

I’ll probably write about the books here another week, when I’m not driving my partner to their grandfather’s (tiny, outdoor, socially distant) funeral.

Life ends, life continues. C’est la vie.

And as my mom pointed out, maybe this will be good fuel for more writing to come.

The Cairn of Morag

High in the windswept hills, where rain and fog shroud the grassy slopes and leave dew on brambles and gorse, a vast pile of boulders rises from between the slopes. As tall as the hills around it, taller even, the pile is known as the Cairn of Morag, and it is large enough to bury a giant. Should an intrepid explorer choose to risk themselves, it would be possible to squeeze in through the gaps between the stones, where wet trickles down and the darkness echoes with the quiet rattles of shifting pebbles and small skittering feet.

Mosses and lichens sheathe the outer stones, a green-and-gray coat that hides the cairn from distant eyes amongst the surrounding hills. The cairn is home to birds, snakes, rabbits and other small creatures, but travelers in the area speak of something far stranger: near dawn and dusk, stories say, a red fox prowls the stones with eyes that glow like the sun. Rumor has it that those who’ve seen the lights on the cairn come down with fevers, beset by visions, haunted by the dead. This illness is, perhaps, a judgement; those who’ve killed find themselves hunted in their dreams by the beings whose blood they’ve shed. Those who’ve lost loved ones speak of reconnecting, with all the touching love and horror such a meeting may bring.

The people who live below Morag’s Hills, farmers and shepherds, masons and miners, leave out small offerings to the fox and avoid looking towards the cairn. Some of their stories say Morag was a giantess, a shapeshifting witch who blessed the land around her hills and taught the first smallfolk there to farm. Those stories say that she was struck down by a jealous god, or perhaps a demon, but was too strong to be truly slain. Stuck in the realm between life and death, her old body buried by the smallfolk she had cared for, she took on the form of a red fox with sunlit eyes to watch over her hills until the moon fell from the sky.

Other tales claim that Morag was once human, a sorceress who ruled the nearby land from her hill-keep and drew down the light of the moon to feed her growing hungers. In these stories, Morag feasted on the flesh of her subjects, simmering them in her twelve cauldrons until the meat fell from the bone, reducing the blood-broth to jelly. When the stars could finally watch no more of her profane rites, they sent down servants and maledictions, burying the hungry Morag—and all her treasures—beneath her own tower. These stories say that the red fox, Hale, is the last surviving servant of the stars, and that he continues his watch over Morag’s cairn to be sure she never rises again.

Whatever truly happened, whether those stones cover a giantess, a sorceress, or some legacy more banal, few these days approach the cairn. Only those greedy or desperate enough to seek the truth, or willing to risk their lives to see the dead, travel high into those hills near dawn or dusk.

Novelizations Panel Schedule, Arisia 2021

Come hear me (and other people) talk about Movie Novelizations!

1pm EST, Saturday Jan. 16th, this coming weekend.

I’m only on the one panel this year. This is a far lighter load than I had last year, when I was on seven panels and modded four of them—one of those by surprise (the Harassment one).

Part of me is a little sad about doing less this year. I really do enjoy being on and moderating panels, for all that I was worn out by it last year. But another part of me is fine with it; I have a weekend that I can use to do other life-things. I won’t come out of this weekend feeling run down from running around constantly and talking non-stop for hours on end.

And yet.

I enjoy nerding out about a hodge-podge of topics, and I enjoy listening to other people speak knowledgeably about their areas of expertise, and I *really* enjoy shepherding panels through their explorations. I’ve made some good friends, people I value reconnecting with, over the years that I’ve been at Arisia. I’ll miss seeing and talking with them this year. I’ll miss being on panels with them.

There were fewer panels offered this year that called to me, fewer panels for which I thought “oh that one fits me to a T” or “I could really add something there.” I don’t think that lack is beyond normal variation, especially given the trying circumstances for any convention this year. And I don’t mean that there aren’t good panels on offer, merely that there weren’t as many that felt correct for me.

If you’d like to hear about movie novelizations, or the struggles involved in translating any given story across media, come check out this panel on Saturday. I hope you’ll see me there.

I had a different post, but news

I’m sure plenty of other people are writing similar things. I haven’t been able to focus since I was told to look at the news yesterday afternoon. An angry mob pushing their way into the halls of Capitol Hill, handled with kid gloves by the same law enforcement that beat so many over the summer, attempting to disrupt and undo the peaceful transfer of power that our democracy is built on…

Side note: I don’t want more people shot by law enforcement. I do not think more of yesterday’s mob should have been shot or beaten or anything else. I just want the phenomenally more peaceful protestors of color, those arguing for less police violence who have been treated so much worse over the last summer in the same city, to be handled with more generous restraint.

Resignations of Trump’s Cabinet members at this point are fervently clutched fig leafs, unless they come with something like the following statement: “I was unable to convince a majority of fellow cabinet members to invoke the 25th amendment. As such, I am resigning instead of continuing to support President Trump. I recommend that the President be removed from office immediately, by impeachment since none of the remaining cabinet will speak out.”

Society is a collective agreement about reality. Our democratic republic relies on that consensus reality being broadly shared by a sufficient mass of citizens. Without that shared reality, democracy fails.

Trump and his abettors have been working for years (decades in the case of Fox, conservative talk radio, and now their more radical news network and podcast heirs) to carve away enough people from that consensus to cover their own autocratic impulses. In many cases, this means working hand in hand with fascists and racists. The preponderance of Proud Boys and neo-nazi affiliated groups in the mob yesterday have been there all along (in case no one remembers Richard Spencer yelling “Heil Trump” after the 2016 election). They aren’t a majority, as our elections have amply demonstrated, but they sure can make a lot of violent noise.

Speaking of which, it seems strange that there’s so little coverage of the makeshift bombs found at DNC and RNC headquarters in DC yesterday.

Regardless, there must be consequences of some sort for these actions. Inciting violence and insurrection is bad. And letting people (Trump in particular) get away with it is worse. He’s reopened a wound in American society, or perhaps simply pulled off the pus-laden bandage and gleefully rubbed shit in it until it became gangrenous.

Ignoring gangrene in hopes that “time will heal all wounds” is an excellent way to die.

Movie Novelizations at Arisia 2021

I’ve had a writing break. I’m still on break, as it were, at least for another day or two. Working at home so much even before the pandemic means that I’m used to the struggle of easing myself back into my work schedule. Doesn’t make it easier. Reading about people’s struggles adjusting to working at home last March and April was vindicating, and offered guilty nourishment for my schadenfreude.

This year I will be attending Arisia virtually, and will only be on one panel. Organizing Arisia for 2021 seems like a particularly difficult and thankless task, so I am glad that a) someone else is doing it, and b) they’re still doing their best to run a convention despite COVID-19. After working digital LARP camps this summer, I really didn’t want to be on more than one or two panels in a weekend, so this is perfect for me.

The panel I’m on this year will focus on movie novelizations. I hope to include some exploration of other translations of story across media (from pure-text to text with illustration, animation, or live action… and vice versa). I’m fascinated by the ways in which stories (and the story-telling arts) change as the medium shifts, and the ways that story elements become more or less accessible for audiences across different media.

I don’t think that any particular narrative tricks are *impossible* to translate from one medium to another, but they’re certainly not all equally easy to alter.

Take, for example, the ability to convey internal emotional state. A story told purely via text can be first person, granting the reader direct access to the character’s emotional and physical state. In live action form, on a screen, that character’s emotional state is only accessible through the viewer’s interpretation of the actor… with as much (or more) variation in interpretation due to a viewer’s personal response to an actor.

Or perhaps I should compare the ease with which text can dilate and contract time, glossing over the details of a battle in a few sweeping sentences (Lloyd Alexander does this neatly a number of times in his Chronicles of Prydain series) while giving tight focus to an emotional conversation. Live action film can do these things, but I think the audience’s perception of time (and how time works on the screen) is different than the assumptions of a reader. Meanwhile, film can convey a myriad of elements in one shot, encompassing more details (and background clues) in a single frame than is feasible by text; Knives Out is a glowing example of this.

All of which is to say, I’m very excited to nerd out about this with other similarly excited people. I think there’s a lot of good material to explore.

I’ll post more details about when this panel will be when I know more myself.

Musing on Emotional Arcs

Quick bookkeeping: I’ll be away next Thursday, and likely won’t post here. I’m not traveling. But I am planning to spend more time on video calls with family in other time zones, and generally taking a break. I hope you’re all staying safe.

When it comes to making progress in my writing, I frequently feel as though I’m swimming against a tether, trying to pull a ship on the strength of my strokes alone. The only reassurance I have comes from comparing my older pieces to more recent ones, comparing what I missed then to what I possess now.

The biggest change I’ve noticed, over the course of about seven years, is a heightened appreciation for the emotional content of a story; feelings are fun to play with, especially pathos.

For a long time I focused myopically on the tension and climax of a physical plot: threat, danger, difficult circumstances, and the struggle to prevail despite insurmountable challenges. I had trained for that. Running RPGs for my friends prepared me well for creating fun obstacles and leaving my players overwhelmed… but just barely able to pull through and win the day.

When I spoke with fellow students in my MFA program, and when I read their work, it was clear that this was a place others struggled. I heard friends lament their “inability” to write conflict, tension, and danger, or bemoan the difficulty they found in forcing their characters through awful challenges.

To be clear, none of them were unable to write those things, they just weren’t used to doing it.

Meanwhile, I’d look at my characters and wonder what kind of people they were. My friends were writing believable people, tying them into evocative emotional relationships, and most of my characters felt like blanks. Running RPGs, I’d gotten used to setting up all the other pieces and then letting my players fill their characters’ interior worlds. Writing characters, grappling with their internal worlds and emotional experiences, I fumbled over and over again.

Everything felt like playing with cardboard cutouts. Characters did not “speak to me” or take life of their own on the page, except in little promising glimmers.

This isn’t some marvelous tale of miraculous change. My swimming metaphor above, struggling against a massive sea anchor, still feels true. But I have made progress. However it may feel, I am not stuck in place.

I’m not sure whether I’m glad that I started with more familiarity in active conflict and physical plots. But as someone who loves genre fiction and RPGs, I can’t say that I’m surprised. My “YA” reading as a twelve and thirteen year old was almost entirely 1970s & 80s genre fiction, or more recent work from those authors—largely books I’d hesitate to recommend to any young teen these days. There were a few standouts, but I suspect that I wasn’t in the right place to learn about writing characters’ internal lives or a good emotional arc when I was reading most of those books.

More recently, I have been blessed by a number of extremely good novels in the past decade, books which have helped me considerably in writing the internal emotional struggles of my characters. N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Lois McMaster Bujold, Seth Dickinson, John Scalzi, Katherine Addison, and Nnedi Okorafor all helped a great deal.

All of which is to say, I’ve been having much more fun writing emotional arcs of late, especially when I can tie them neatly into the grueling difficulties characters face in the physical plot. It’s good stuff.

Star Trek, Discovery, Idealism

Star Trek has been a part of my life since I was tiny. I grew up on The Next Generation, watching it curled up on the couch with my older sibs. While I remember the death of Tasha Yar, I don’t remember Riker without a beard (I see the impossibility there, presumably my brain edits out most of the worse stuff).

I was, arguably, too young for the show. I know it wasn’t geared towards toddlers. Some of my earliest nightmares grew out of Star Trek episodes. Those did not stop me from watching.

Of course, the same can be said for watching my sibs play Doom. Maybe toddler-Henry’s judgement just wasn’t that good. Toddler-Henry almost certainly valued spending time with sibs more than not having nightmares. That’s still true.

All of which is to say, Star Trek has a special place in my heart. Moreover, at a formative age Star Trek fed me an underlying idealism that serves as the keystone for good Star Trek stories. If you’ve watched enough older Trek you know what I’m talking about. When it isn’t there, the Star Trek-ness of the story just falls apart.

That idealism isn’t always well-written. But I admire it all the same. With it, generations of Star Trek have tried to do something that much of the rest of its contemporary narrative milieu dismissed as naive, or uninteresting, or hopelessly unrealistic. Unlike those other stories, well-written Star Trek refuels me.

All of which brings me around to Star Trek: Discovery. I’m working my way through it, bit by bit, but as much as I’m having fun seeing science fiction in the Star Trek universe it still doesn’t feel quite like Trek. This won’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with both Discovery and older Trek. Discovery’s first (and second, so far) season are dramatic and often exciting, and they have more character growth and development than I remember from TOS or TNG, but… they don’t hold the Trek idealism that I love. There are glimpses of it, moments when that idealism comes through, but it’s mostly hidden behind their larger threatening story arcs.

The most Star Trek thing I’ve seen in them so far have been Captain Pike and Number One, part of why I’m so excited for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

I have heard good things about Discovery’s third season, however. I’ve heard that it feels more full of the old idealism. I could really use that right now. So I’m still plugging away, doing my best to appreciate the science fiction show wearing Star Trek’s skin, and looking forward to it growing into something more hopeful and idealistic.

Frogfeast

The swamps that filter the end of the vast Enjeket River are known only as Frogfeast in the local tongue. This name is spoken many ways in many other languages, but they all come back to the same truths: sweltering heat, muggy air, and a cacophony of buzzing insects have fed a frog population like no other. Those who live near the edge of Frogfeast say that even the Enjeket River hippos do not venture into the swamp.

Presumably, that is an exaggeration. Enjeket River hippos are savage and truculent beasts known equally well for their ponderous girth and their propensity for violence. None doubt that a full grown hippo anywhere else on the Enjeket River would be free to do as it pleased without opposition. Surely they only avoid Frogfeast due to its foul smells and dense, sucking mud.

Others venture into Frogfeast, however. Locals swear by the potency of medicines made from the swamp’s plants, and they are known to paddle cautiously through Frogfeast’s twisting waterways in search of herbs. Habitual herb gatherers are a paranoid lot, and will uniformly refuse to push into the dense thickets or across the larger stretches of swamp where they swear giant toads make their lairs. They are picky about where they will drink, and constantly chew the tough roots of a boring local flower.

Visitors from further afield explore where the locals adamantly avoid, hunting places where the waters pool and twist in odd colors, and the air takes on a strange tang reminiscent of molding citrus and iron rust. There they seek out twisting, sponge-textured mineral deposits which are said to form in the swamp’s waters, though they also prize other equally rare formations. Most such finds are valuable in the extreme.

The foolhardy from afar make the most noise. Most often those with more wealth than sense, they all have a conspicuous smattering of knowledge about the history of lost cities on the Enjeket. They bring tools and employed labor in hopes of discovering the treasures of those whom the Enjeket swallowed in ages past. Some few of them swear that Frogfeast itself covers a lost city, but most agree that it merely serves as a catchment basin, a suitable pan for the gold dust of drowned or desolated civilizations as it were.

Of all these, the locals have the longest life expectancies. Many from afar who forge paths into Frogfeast become lost. Others drown, pulled under by mud. Still others are sucked dry by countless leeches and too many biting bugs, or else take ill and wither away under fevers, vomiting, diarrhea and visions. Some merely disappear without trace, never to be seen again.

Then, of course, there are those who reemerge hale but with some sickness of the mind. They speak of swirls of light, and of smells that no others can find. In time, most of these who are found recover, though they all speak of dis-ease at the thought of returning to Frogfeast. They tend to give the swamp agency, and claim that the swamp would not tolerate their return. A few, humored by their compatriots, have written fanciful stories of their experiences while under the influence of those hallucinations. And some, a bare handful, travel back to Frogfeast once again as quickly as they can, melting into the swamp’s dense undergrowth and vanishing without a trace. They become ghost stories, of a sort, and travelers scare each other with tales of sightings—glimpses caught of them years later, weaving through the swamp, seemingly untouched by the passage of time.

Anger Magic, Quick Setting Exploration

I hinted at this setting idea over a year ago, but… what would a world where anger is a route to magic look like?

How closely tied are those things? Does someone who is angry automatically have access to magic, or is that something that takes more special effort? Is there something about “only some people” etc?

For my personal interest, I want any anger to potentially lead to magic. And I want the magic that comes from that to often be dangerous & uncontrolled.

But… why then would children not cause lots of deaths? Is there something about coming of age or being older? A sufficient concentration of some environmental toxin / mineral / chemical? If it’s that, why wouldn’t fetuses concentrate the already present material in the womb?

Perhaps it’s gradual tissue damage from exposure to an external source of radiation… like, the sun, or a weird alien moon. Probably thinking about WFRP here, and Morrslieb.

Let’s say that anger becomes a reliable route to magic around puberty. That means that most communities, knowing the danger posed by anger-driven magical effects, would work hard to make sure that anger was avoided like the plague. Children would be taught to not give themselves over to anger, to prevent terrible things from happening as they grew older.

This wouldn’t be healthy. Mostly because I’m not interested in it being a healthy way of mitigating anger, but also because I don’t think pathologically avoiding anger for fear of something awful happening is actually good for anyone. This could even create moments when people—consumed by terror—do terrible things to stop someone who looks like they’re getting angry, like murder in self-defense when you know someone else has a gun… grotesque, understandable, awful, socially accepted.

So if the general population avoids anger and wants nothing to do with anger-magic, where would magic users come from? Where would they come in? Who would bother to train any new generations of magic users?

Oh, oh my. What if a person was known as a great and powerful wizard because they had once been utterly furious and were known for flying into a powerful rage at the drop of a hat? And what if, these days, they had resolved the fury which had once driven them? Perhaps they would want to see the world be different, so that people didn’t kill or hurt each other out of fear of someone being angry?

I like the character, an older magician who is no longer able to tap at will into the magic which made them so well known, feared, and respected… but who still performs the role in hopes of changing the world. They might seek to teach and train younger magic users to be able to think through their anger and channel it (anger and magic both) into more productive ends.

I don’t know if this person would be the central character for anything longer than a short story or piece of flash fic, but they feel worth exploring.