Wednesday, 29 August 2012

World Building: Countries

One of the things we do as fantasy writers when we get the crayons out and start drawing maps is to sketch in rough borders between countries. If you're anything like me, those borders will be largely aesthetic. It becomes an exercise in producing interesting shapes, rather than in political theory/history/economics. Now, I'm only really qualified to talk about the history aspect, but I do think countries generally have more to their shapes than that.

Here's a quick question, how do countries come into being? Obviously these days, there's a formal process of recognition, but in the past, things were generally quite complicated. Look at the formation of Germany or Italy in the nineteenth century. Look at the gradual creation of the UK from the post Roman period up to 1707 (formal joining of England and Scotland) and beyond.

So, where do they come from? Ideas play a part. One idea is that distinct ethnic groups ruling areas, and its replacement with broader administrative areas. In the middle ages, for example, we had a transition between Kings 'of the Franks' whose will generally didn't apply to the Normans, and Kings 'of France' whose will eventually did, at least in theory. Part of that was selling people on the idea of France as something real. The same can be said of Britain. The notion of 'Britian', as well as its flag, is actually a marketing ploy created by James I (and VI). When he started his reign in England after Elizabeth's death, he was not king of Britain. He was the king of Scotland, and he was, separately, the king of England. He strove to create a notion of shared national identity through symbolism. It didn't work quickly, or arguably well.

Warfare plays a part. Historians are generally wary of the notion that there 'has' to be a war to sort out major issues, or that these things sort anything out, but there very frequently are wars to build countries, for the not unreasonable reason that the rulers of separate little bits of land tend not to want to be swept up in other people's empire building. In many cases, medieval nations were the shapes they were because of the ease or otherwise of sticking an army there to remind the locals whose kingdom they were in. Borders were however far the warriors on the other side of them let you push them forward.

Which may explain why geographical features often end up not quite being the border. Things like major rivers and ranges of hills offer natural ways of hampering an advancing army, so they tend to get settled on as borders. Except that things are never quite that simple, because people push for a bit of extra land, and the other side push back, and then they make a treaty with a lot of complicated maps.

Which can lead to the concept of overlapping countries. Or disputed regions, if you want to think in today's terms. Except that it's not quite the same, because often you were talking about rather larger regions. And also bad mapmaking. And a lack of international oversight. With the result in the UK's case that Scotland would sometimes claim as far south as the Humber as its legitimate teritory, and try to impose its laws, while England would claim... well, most of Scotland, really. And the people in between often didn't see anything of their kings or their retainers for years on end and spent their time stealing from both sides and trying to live a quasi-independant existence.

What I'm saying is that countries aren't just pretty shapes on maps. They're all kinds of other things. They're symbols. They're attempts to define an identity. They're ongoing arguments with the neigbours over the exact position of the dividing hedge. And any world building you do needs to reflect that.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Medieval Fight Books and Writing How To Books

I still occasionally like to chat about the middle ages, and I’ve also read a couple of those writing self-help books in my time. You know, the ones that tell you that only their way of doing things is going to let you consistently sell work, and that persuade you that whatever you were doing before is therefore automatically wrong. How do these fit together? Well, I found myself thinking of medieval fight-books.

Fight-books (Talhoffer’s is described as a Fetchbucher, which is presumably where the term comes from) are big books that show up at various points through the (mostly later, but occasionally central) middle ages. Two of the most famous outline the systems of Fiore Di Liberi and Hans Talhoffer, and are big in Historical European Martial Arts Systems today, largely because they take a lot of the guesswork out of how people might have used the weapons available to them.

The thing is, while they’re instructional manuals in the broad sense, and people do learn moves straight out of them (such as some longsword moves, throws and dagger moves I picked up one sunny day a few years back), that isn’t the only way they function. Or perhaps even the primary way they function.

For one thing, they don’t always show all the detail. I’m told that with some techniques, practitioners are working from experience to piece together the gaps between hand drawn illustrations. Certainly, one of Fiore’s dagger ‘plays’ only made sense to me and the class I was in because I happened to know aikido’s ‘gokyo’ or fifth technique, a kind of straight armlock press down from the front. It showed the finishing point, but not the whole way into it. There are whole categories of technique where the teacher would be needed for additional detail.

That’s probably deliberate. Like the self-help types mentioned above, these medieval fight masters often weren’t primarily interested in their book. In the middle ages, when making individual books was a labour intensive and time consuming process, who made money from books? Instead, the book was about establishing them as an expert in their field.

Why do that? For the same reason that Chippendale produced beautifully hand illustrated catalogues of furniture centuries later. Present the right person with it, and suddenly, you’re hired. These fightbooks contained huge swathes of techniques and weapon types, covering everything from personal combat with the longsword, to wrestling, judicial duels, even designs for war machines. They were designed not so much to teach as to show off the breadth of knowledge that someone could bring into a lord’s service, if he was willing to pay the fees of the fight master behind it. Another parallel perhaps with some of the self help crowd (except for the war machines. Why do they never do that?)

Looking at these books can be a lot of fun, but it’s important to understand some of what they were for when looking at them. It’s all too easy to assume that the writer’s claims are true, and that what they show represents all of what was done combatively at the time. In fact, there are differences between each book, and individuals would often have had their own methods. Maybe that’s a lesson worth bearing in mind today.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Some Events that Weren't in the Olympics

1.      Competitive eating for hobbits. The winner being the one who can eat the most and still have enough strength left to make it to the handily placed volcano at the end of the course.

2.      Goblin Dire Wolf Dressage. Because horses aren’t the only creatures that can learn to do this sort of thing. Though their version doesn’t include taking large bites out of specially positioned elves, for some reason.

3.      The ten foot pole and vault. Where the competitors have to get into a vault using nothing more than those handy ten foot poles they carry around everywhere.

4.      Barbarian gymnastics. Including such apparatus as the twenty foot hole with spikes, the bar room chandelier and the conveniently ivy clad wall.

5.      Sword from stone pulling. Rather a limited one, given that only rightful kings can compete, but great fun as they try to overcome different strengths of super glue on the day.

6.      Thief to wall knife throwing. The goal being to pin the official games’ pickpockets to the handily placed walls by their sleeves within the time limit. A fairly easy one, given all the improbable things fantasy types seem to be able to do with thrown knives.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Zero risk?

One thing I’ve noticed from the Olympics (particularly in things like the judo, fencing and Greco-Roman wrestling, but also in a lot of other things) is that the emphasis at that top level is often not on what you’d think. When we think of top level sports people, don’t we think of them doing brilliant things? Performing impossibly high level skills that we couldn’t hope to emulate? Yet often their focus is more on simply not making any mistakes.

The theory is simple. In an interactive sport, rather than one where you just go as fast as you can over a distance, generally, there are limits to the amazing things you can do, and by going for those amazing things, you open yourself up to being beaten. What is the result though? Generally, it’s stalling, or dull uninteresting play.

Which is why we need to take a very different approach while writing. It’s possible to concentrate on not making mistakes while writing, keeping an inner editor looking over your shoulder for structure and content the whole time, and it’s likely that by doing that you won’t break any of the ‘rules’ of writing. The trouble is, it’s also likely that you will simply produce the same book everyone else is producing.

We don’t want to play things that safe as writers. We’re aiming to produce something beautiful and spectacular, and that is only possible when we also free ourselves up to the possibility of producing something not very good. Because the alternative is trying to write with our inner editor on full, and that simply doesn’t work well.

Now, if only I could persuade some of the people in the Olympics of the same thing.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

IWSG- the next thing

They say that one of the big things when writing is to get on with the next thing. Just finish something, send it out and find the next thing to do. I’ve always found that a bit complicated, because it feels like things never run quite that smoothly. Either there’s a pause while I try to think of a new thing, or I started it before I finished the first thing, with the result that I probably didn’t finish the first thing.

Then there’s the stuff I do for a living. The game there with the ghostwriting is managing the workload, so that I have enough projects at a given time. Thankfully, I’ve hit the stage where I’m not worrying too much about where my next project is coming from, or at least, I shouldn’t, but you can always find a way to worry if you try, right?