Story Research – Letting the Brain Assist the Heart

Research BooksAn Intricate Mess:

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” ~Albert Einstein

I’ve written about my approach to world-building before, in general here, and in regards to names and naming here. But my friend Heather Reed recently undertook a new historical fantasy project, and she asked me specifically about my approach to researching the Broken Oaths trilogy. In looking back at my notes, I’m both excited for her and amazed.

Excited because they remind me of the adventure of the hunt, and the thrill of discovery. But amazed by the wide and disparate variety of sources that I mined for my story elements. In wading through what can only be called a disorganized mess, it’s a wonder that I was able to arrive at anything coherent.

This is one of the reasons I subscribe to the notion of a story muse. I’m the antithesis of organized, which seems contrary to being a good researcher. And yet somehow I was able to pull a story out of my intricate mess.

As an example, I give you my namey-namer cheat-sheet (see photo). It’s a simple 81/2” x 11” sheet of plainLOBO Cheat-sheet white paper that started out as a short list of possible character names. It’s now covered, front and back, with hundreds of names and obscure references. Please note there is very little means of organization, other than a handful of breakdowns by character group. And yet it continues to serve me well. I’m not sure how I find such a crazy resource helpful, but every time I need to check a name, this is my go-to reference. Honestly, I rarely need it. It’s mostly in issues such as: “Now what’s that secondary character’s grandmother’s name again?” And somehow I know what part of which side to look to find gramma’s name. This from a guy who honestly can’t recall his own phone number. Go figure.

Getting Wet:

“Pearls do not lie on the seashore. He who desires one must dive.” ~Chinese Proverb

We’re in the information age, right? And with so much access to a mighty river of information, the toughest part is going to be finding the tributaries and offshoots that apply to your story. In order to do that, sticking your toe in will not do. You’re going to have to get wet.

JORDANES Origins & Deeds of the GothsAnd you never know where the currents will carry you. For example, my quest for original source material about the Goths swiftly revealed a scarcity. Which is why I was so excited to find one of the few existing documents about the Goths by a Goth—Jordanes’ The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. Although I quickly realized Jordanes was writing about previous generations with few specific references and an obvious quantity of bluster, one note caught my attention and held it. He claimed that the Greek myth of the Amazons originated with the Ancient Greeks’ discovery of a group of Goth women whose husbands and sons had left them on the north shore of the Black Sea to raid in Persia and Egypt. I was fascinated, and it led to months of study of the Amazons and related myths and topics. And ultimately, to my creation of the Skolani—an all-female warrior sect that plays a prominent role in all of my work. All from a paragraph in an ancient treatise. There were no kickass warrior women on my radar at the onset, but oh-how-glad I am that I was willing to dive and found my way to them. They are most certainly a pearl.

There’s a lot to take in, on most any subject. But it’s difficult to pick and choose your sources. I say dive in and let it wash over you. Go with the flow. You might end up somewhere you like.

Panning For Gold:

“The subconscious is a hundred times smarter than we are. We’re just taking dictation.” ~Steven Pressfield

In hindsight, I wish I’d worried less about delving for specifics. I wish I’d gone in with only the idea that I was going to educate myself and feed my enthusiasm, knowing the rest would more or less take care of itself. Because that’s what ended up happening.

As another example, in my research of the Goths, I began by broadly perusing subjects pertaining to the Germanic Tribes at the height of the Roman Empire. I studied their social structure and kingship. I went on to study their laws and mores, settlement layouts, agriculture, games and amusements, clothing and jewelry, migration (causes and effects), and their weapons and warfare. What I really wanted was more specific information about how they governed themselves. Sadly, there is little information, and much of it is conflicting.

futhark ring hiltsBut in the course of my search, as I studied the last topic—weapons and warfare—I now see what became the roots of my solution. There is an entry in my notes from a book called Battle-ax People, by Olivia Vlahos. The note pertains to the expense and significance of swords, and how certain swords became important relics passed from father to son, occasionally symbolizing a legacy of chieftainship. From another book called The Everyday Life of Barbarians: Goths, Franks, and Vandals, by Malcom Todd, I note that some important swords are inscribed with oaths, and occasionally such oaths appeared in the form of rune rings, attached to the hilt. The two notes are only a few sentences each, and were taken several months apart. And yet they clearly led to the Futhark swords of the Gottari ruling clans—the symbolic relics which represent the leadership of my two ruling clans.

I don’t see any notation that I’d put the two together—inherited swords symbolic of leadership and rune rings on hilts—at the time. But when it came time to outline, a symbol was needed, and there they were: the Futhark swords. I invented much of the rest of the elements of their governance from other tidbits gleaned over the course of my research, and it all fell into place once I had the Futhark swords. So I’d advise you not to bother looking for bright baubles as you go. Just scoop it in. Your muse (or your subconscious) will sift through for the gems.

Take It From Me (Or Don’t):

It might seem silly, now that you’ve read this far, that a guy who admits he’s a disorganized and somewhat aimless researcher is now going to give you advice on researching. But I am (going to give advice, not silly—or is it both?). Take it or leave it. It’s all in good fun (as any research for fiction should be).

*Find your passion! As I say, this should be fun. If you’re passionate about your subject or era, your research will not only be easy, but a pleasure—something you’ll look forward to doing.

*Give yourself ENOUGH time, but not ENDLESS time. If you’re having fun researching, as you should, you might find a point of diminishing returns. At some point we all have to stop researching and start writing.

*Start online, but zero in with books. Nothing beats the internet for gaining a broader understanding of a topic or era. But you’ll soon realize that if you want any depth and citation, you need to go to books. I buy as many as I can, but for most of us, trips to the library become an indispensable part of any major research project.

*Don’t be afraid to follow the rabbit down the hole. I think I’ve pretty well illustrated this point. If you’re writing about Goths and Romans in the 4th Century AD, don’t be afraid to spend a few months chasing Amazons across Ancient Greece and beyond. Or something along those lines.LOBO Research Notes

 Let Your Brain Assist Your Heart:

“I’ve noticed this effect: When writers undertake to write a story, the insights and information they need to write it well tend to arrive unasked for. Those things arrive at the right moments, perfectly timed gifts from the story god.

Or, is it rather that an author’s brain, working on a story, begins to grab available information and synthesize it, which is to say bend, blend and meld it to the purposes of the story?

Is it magic, serendipity or synthesis? Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s accidental. I think authors make it happen. It’s the brain assisting the heart.” ~Donald Maass

Don’s quote above is from a comment he made on a wonderful WU post this week. The post is largely about the mysterious and seemingly random serendipity of the power of the brain, by Maureen Seaberg, the co-author of Struck by Genius. And, as he often does, for me Don took the post to a whole new level.

The Dreamer, by Caspar David Friedrich (1835)I allotted a year to research when I began my manuscript in earnest. And I ended up with a pile of notebooks even larger than the one pictured above. But once I started writing, I rarely dug through that disorganized mess (perhaps in part because it was disorganized). The insights and information I needed tended to arrive as perfectly timed gifts from the story god. Or did my brain somehow know better than my conscious self which bits to grasp and gather, to then “bend, blend and meld to the purposes of the story”? Either way, I’m glad I somehow found my way to allowing my brain to assist my heart.

Moving forward, I’m hoping I can repeat the process, but I’m not too worried. I’ve already stumbled onto streams that have led my subconscious to begin the bending, blending and melding all over again.

Now it’s your turn. Is your research organized? Do your notebooks have color-coded tabs and an index? Do you trust that your brain will know better than your conscious self, and will assist your heart?

A Gothic Identity Crisis

My mom doesn’t like Goths. Not that she’s ever really known one. But she seemed confused and displeased when I first told her my trilogy was rooted in the conflict between the Goths and Rome. I know I have really well-informed readers here, but on the remote chance you share her confusion (or displeasure), I thought I’d clear a few things up—as I tried to do for Mom. Hopefully, confused or not, you’ll find it interesting.

A Tale of Two Goths: Turns out my mom’s confusion was what led to her displeasure. I was talking about the Germanic Tribe of the Goths, and their cultural and sometimes violent clashes with the civilized world, represented at the time (during the first five or so centuries AD) by the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, my mom had conjured images of pasty-faced youths with blue lipstick and multiple body piercings, rolling out of bed at midday after a night of crazed dancing to industrial techno music to voice their opposition to the Roman Catholic Church.

I wrote an article for the homepage of my website called The Origin of Epic. In it, I reveal that my interest in the Goths began early, when I read that Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan were based on the Goths. When my school history courses covered the fall of the Roman Empire, the Goths, being the first to sack the city of Rome, were always among the featured antagonists. The seemingly divergent viewpoints (cool horse-warrior good guys vs. evil horde that helps to extinguish the light of the civilized world) led to an ongoing curiosity.

So when I mention the Goths, I’m thinking of Éomer son of Éomund, bearer of the sword Guthwine. Mom, on the other hand, is thinking more along the lines of Edward, wielder of Scissorhands.

Roman Disdain/Admiration: One of the challenges I faced in featuring the Goths in my story was the lack of literary sources. Although roughly the same percentage of Goths were literate as Roman citizens (around 15%), alas the Goths left few surviving writings. The writings of Romans such as Tacitus and Marcellinus demonstrate a sort of love/hate fascination with the Germanics generally and the Goths particularly. Tacitus says they “…all have fierce blue eyes, long red or yellow hair, and huge frames apt for sudden exertion.”  Grave site analysis has borne him out on their size. Goth males were, on average, four inches taller than their Roman soldier counterparts. And as for the red or yellow hair, it was greatly admired back in the homeland’s cities. Blond wigs and hair dyes were all the rage in imperial Roman high society.

Although Roman authors speak admiringly of the Goths’ physical beauty, battlefield fierceness and valor, and chaste marital bonds, they also speak of their impulsiveness, lack of capacity for reason, and proclivity to sloth, drink, and gambling. Hmm, that last part sounds a bit like… just about every powerful group of humans speaking of their foe.

Goth as Pejorative: So I explained all this to Mom, and she was still confused. “If that’s true,” she wondered, “why then do these young goth kids whiten their faces, darken their lips, and blacken their hair?”

The answer, as it so often does, lies in literature—or, in this case, in a literary movement. But in order to understand the origin of Gothic literature, we’ve got to take a quick look at Gothic architecture. Gothic describes the architectural style of the middle to late medieval period. But the term was attached to the previous era’s style by the new architects of the Renaissance. They meant it as a pejorative—archaic, outmoded, severe and ungainly.

It’s Alive! By most accounts, the Gothic movement in literature started with a single book: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1765). Contemporary readers were enthralled by the book’s suspenseful weaving of the medieval setting and the supernatural trappings of the plot. So much so that the book instantly spawned hosts of imitators. And so a thriving genre was born, and Europe’s aging and ungainly gothic castles, manor houses, and monasteries became the setting for ghosts, monsters and the undead. Flash forward a couple hundred years, and fans of the creepiness still dress to suit the macabre underpinnings Walpole established. These fans are my mom’s preconceived Goths.

When Goths Were Still Cool: In 451, as the western Roman Empire slowly crumbled and at the urging of Emperor Valentinian III, a confederation led by the Visigoth king, Theodoric I, defeated Attila the Hun and his Vandal allies at Chalons, France. The Gothic kings had become central to the inner workings of empire. I mention this because, however you heard it in history class, the empire did not fall when Rome was sacked by the Goths under Alaric in 410 (also, did you know Alaric considered himself a member of the imperial military, and marched on Rome to demand his rightful status and pay for his men after fighting to defeat a Frankish usurper at the Battle of the Frigidus?).

Kings of a Score of Kingdoms for a Thousand Years: In tribute for their service to a failing empire, the Visigoth kings were ceded large tracts of imperial territory in Spain, southern France, and southwestern Germany. Shortly thereafter, the Ostrogoth Kings of the east were grabbing territory on the Italian peninsula and in the Balkans. For many centuries, the Spanish nobility self-identified by laying claim to being of the blood of the Goths. Because the Goths supposedly originated in Götaland, Sweden, until 1973 that nation’s monarch’s title was King of the Swedes, the Goths and the Vends.

At the Papal Council of Basel in 1434, the Spanish and Swedish delegations of cardinals clashed over the rights to sit closest to the Papal seat. It’s said the Swedes argued that since their forefathers founded all of the Visigoth and Ostrogoth kingdoms, they should sit closest to the holy seat. The Spanish delegation supposedly retorted that only the lazy and unadventurous Goths remained in Sweden while the heroic Goths conquered an empire and established their highest seat in Spain.

I’m pretty sure my mom’s preconceived Goths would never vie for such a spot.

Éomer of the Riddermark or Dracula of Transylvania? So what’s your first thought when you hear the word Goth? How ‘bout your mom? Do you think Goths will ever be cool again, or did I pick a (twice) doomed subject?

A Sword By Any Other Name (…Would Still Just Be a Hunk of Sharpened Steel)

The Grande Ludovisi Sarcophagus – Depicting battle between Roman soldiers and Goth warriors.

“Every writer making a secondary world wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien

Names—I haz ‘em: Lots of ‘em. My trilogy is based on the world of the epic culture clash between the Germanic tribe of the Goths and the ancient Roman Empire. Tom Shippey, Tolkien’s biographer, makes a case in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, that for Tolkien everything started with the names. I took him to heart. One of the first things I did, before I wrote a single line of prose, was to come up with the names.

I just found my notes, dated January ’04 (I started outlining the story in November of ’03). I made lists of Gothic, Old Norse, Greek, and Latin words I thought were pertinent to the story and the world I wanted to create. I invented names not only for characters, but for nations, tribes, cities, seas, provinces, empires (yes, plural), oaths, clans, religious elements and ceremonies. I have characters with invented names as well as invented titles, and even invented nicknames. I even named a few swords (are you scared yet?). Heck, I even named the horses; over a dozen of them (now you’re scared, right?).  

“Names, especially names which are not strictly necessary, weight a narrative with the suggestion of reality.” ~Tom Shippey  

Namey-Namer: So did I do this just to emulate my literary hero? Just to be clever? Well, maybe those were a tiny part of it. But it turned out to be a very immersive exercise. In some cases, I’m not sure if I created the name to fit the character or the character emerged from the name. For example, my heroine’s name is Ainsela. She is the daughter of a warrior queen, and her birth was associated with the coming of a prophesied upheaval for her people. In the ancient Gothic language, áin is one, but áina is a ‘particular’ one—it denotes a certain or special singularity. Sela is a Greek moon goddess, but in Gothic a silda is a wonder or a marvel. Ainsela’s tribe’s patron goddess is a Teutonic moon goddess, Horsella, who is also the patron of untamed nature and all things wild. Hence, Ainsela is ‘the special one, a marvel, born of untamed nature.’

Yes, I did something like this for every one of my names. Not all of them were quite this elaborate, but they all have meaning. Some I just had fun with, for example the names of two of the Roman antagonists. Malvius is rooted in the Latin malevelle: of evil intent. And Turgian is from the Latin turgere: to swell (as in his head, with pride).

Submariner: In the pursuit of creating my own distinct world, and in the interests of relating the story without the encumbrance of historical facts, I even changed the names of all ‘real’ places and peoples. I made the Romans into Tiberians, the Goths into the Gottari, and so on. I explain why in a bit more depth on the homepage of my website in a post called The Origin of Epic, but to summarize, I did it to gain a bit of distance from the readers’ preconceptions. I was hoping to accomodate total submersion in my world, to take readers on a voyage without having them bring their baggage onboard the sub. As Tolkien says above, I was hoping not just to draw on reality, but in the creation of a peculiar quality derived from Reality, and that this Reality would then flow into my world. I wanted the reader to lose themselves not in historical detail, but in story. I know there will be those of you who feel otherwise, but I believe that by suspending disbelief through world-building, the best historical fantasy actually puts the spotlight on story, thereby enhancing the emotional experience.

It can get a bit complicated, but so can actual history. In the interest of simplifying, I made up a glossary doc. In the beginning it was just a reference for me. It has over 150 entries. I ended up rewriting it in the voice of the trilogy, including a pronunciation key for each entry, and I offer it out to beta readers. I’ve had several say they enjoyed having it, a few saying it was a necessity, and one saying it intimidated her so much she never read the book. But most have said they hardly gave it a glance.

Literary Trip, or Trip-up? I know what some (if not most or all) of you are thinking. Something like: Are you nuts? Why would you trip up the reader? Why make it any harder for folks to get into your story? Why add something that will make it more difficult to get published? The names don’t have anything to do with the story, right?

To answer those questions, in order: Perhaps (by whose definition?); It’s not my intention; I hope it doesn’t, and that for certain readers it’ll aid in their submersion into story; Because being published wasn’t on my mind when I started; And that last one is a bit complicated, and perhaps is my point here (in case it’s not evident). For me, story emerges in part from world-building, and world-building emerges from names. So for me, the names have quite a bit to do with the story that emerged (I’m still a pantser, after all).

I understand that a lot of the ‘tripping up’ of readers by names can be avoided through their judicious introduction, through their being woven into the fabric of story deftly, and I’m working on it. But I am pretty darn fond of them, and couldn’t be easily convinced to change too many of them. I mean, there was a time when names like Frodo and Gandalf, Hogwarts and Dumbledore all sounded bizarre, but can you imagine any other name for any of those?

Back to those hunks of steel: The two named swords in my trilogy (Nahtsrein and Bairtah-Urrin for those who are interested—Ruler of the Night and Bringer of Light, respectively) are not magical. But they are more than mere weapons. They are emblematic of the leadership of the two ruling clans of the Gottari. They are just symbols, analogies for power—their importance placed upon them by the Gottari people. And isn’t that what story really boils down to? Stories are symbolic analogies for life.

So what’s in a name? Quite a bit… In my book, anyway.

What about you? Do you think I’m nuts? (On second thought, don’t answer that.) Do names trip you up? Do you think this is all just geek-speak, reminding you why you don’t read historical fantasy? Or do you feel names can enhance the story? Or do they make no difference, as long as the story’s good?

Regarding Kickass Warrior Chicks

9780940_mI recently read a blog post on the topic of the proliferation of empowered warrior women by Jane Kindred, and I haven’t been able to get it off my mind since. I’ve come to respect her since reading her debut fantasy, The Fallen Queen, which I reviewed for my gig at ReaderUnboxed. In her post, Jane points out that making females as violent and physically adept as males does not empower them. Indeed, since it’s a fact that women are generally smaller and not as physically strong as males, the literary trend of making them so could be viewed as damaging. She points out that women could be – and should be – shown as equals in ways that don’t involve physical ass-kicking. Using their brains, for example–Duh, right? One of the post’s commenters advised fantasy writers to think long and hard about why they would want to portray women that way.

So I have been thinking. So much so that I needed to write about it, just to clear my head.

Got Warrior Chicks? For anyone reading this who hasn’t read my fiction: warrior chicks, I haz ’em. You might say they feature prominently, in all four of my finished manuscripts. Oh yeah, and they’re kickass, if I do say so myself.

I call my work historical fantasy, but it is probably closer to alternate history than fantasy. There is no system of magic. Some readers might glean that my Gottari are based on the Germanic tribe of the Goths, and their Tiberian foes will be quite recognizable as the ancient Romans. So the most fantastic thing about the books is my creation of the Skolani, and their insertion into this otherwise recognizable alt-historical world. The Skolani are an all female Teutonic warrior sect pledged to an alliance with the Gottari. More simply put, they are a tribe of kickass warrior chicks.

Where did the Skolani come from? I read a lot about the Amazons after reading (and loving) Steven Pressfield’s The Last of the Amazons. Much later, while researching the Goths for the books, I read a fifth century treatise by a Goth named Jordanes called The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. Jordanes lays the claim that the Amazons of Greek myth were actually the abandoned wives of the Goths, who had left their women on the northern coast of the Black Sea to conquer Persia and Egypt–a premise I found amusing as well as interesting. From there, I loosely based the tribe on an amalgam of several Amazon myths, the American Indians (particularly the Great Lakes tribes), and the Sarmatians (an ancient matriarchal nomadic warrior society of the Black Sea region, from which I took the name Skolani, which means ‘We fight to be free’). They live in a Kabitka, which is a cross between a nomadic horse-culture tent-camp and a woodlands American Indian village.

Skolani girls receive martial training from the time they can stand and hold a weapon, and ride from the day they can stay in a saddle unaided. The biggest and most athletic are chosen to receive blades, and aspire to be risen to the ranks of the Blade-Wielders, the most vaunted warriors in my world of Dania.

Just your everyday garden-variety asskickers. I didn’t want the Skolani to be super-humans, or invincible, or lesbians, or asexual, or man-haters, or secretly wanting/needing men. I wanted to them to be a collection of individuals. They are both good and bad, wise and foolish, strong and fallible. In other words, I endeavored to create interesting, multidimensional characters that readers–both male and female–would enjoy getting to know.

But why? So back to my point: why did I create the Skolani? Since reading Jane’s post I’ve pondered, looking at it from every angle–again. As I said, I thought long and hard about them from the inception. I can honestly say I did it because I wanted female characters who were on the same footing as the male characters. So, to Jane’s point, did they have to be kickass warriors to be on the same footing?

The answer I’ve arrived at is, yes. My alternate history world is a violent one. When I say on the same footing, I don’t mean simply being as smart or as strong. I wanted to totally eliminate the need to justify having my male characters perceive my female characters as total equals. Never once, in any of my work, does a Gottari male utter a misogynistic or chauvinistic phrase about or to a Skolani female. Never does anyone utter anything resembling, “Oh, that is such a typical female thing to say/do.”Boudica

Strong Females: With the addition of the Skolani, I hoped to create a genuine historically-correct atmosphere in which my male and female characters could approach one another with the same respectful consideration as two males would–to have the opportunity for males and females to appraise one another both inside and outside the realm of sexual attraction. I wanted my male and female characters to be friends, comrades, occasionally lovers, or even esteemed foes, all within the context of a believably historical setting. I still believe that maintaining this intersexual dynamic in my setting would’ve been difficult without my creation.

I believe my kickass warrior chicks make my story more plausible, not less.

My Inspiration: Anyone who knows me well and has read my work can see that there is a lot of my wife in there. And, although she is not a Blade-Wielder, she is the most capable person I’ve ever met. Our relationship sprang from a friendship, and is founded on mutual respect. She has saved me from myself more times than I care to enumerate here. I often refer to her as the other half of my brain. I would honestly be lost without her. Although none of the Skolani are specifically based on her, in a way they are all modeled after her.

So, in a way, it is her fault I write about kickass warrior chicks. In a very real way, the trilogy is a tribute to her. So thank you, my Anam Cara.

Image credit: <a href=’’>demian1975 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>