Cartography À La Carte

I firmly believe that good writing will obviate the need for flyleaf maps. If an author can’t adequately describe his story’s setting without resorting to another medium of communication, he needs to put in more work. However, as value-added accessories, especially to a fantasy novel, maps can perform some important functions.

One of the key effects of classic fantasy is the generation in the reader of a sense that the world is deeper and wider than what is currently known. Whether that takes the form of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, Tolkien’s seemingly-endless ancient histories, or Sanderson’s periodic tables of undiscovered magic, it lifts—if only for an instant—the blinders of familiarity from our eyes and reminds us what it was like to be children filled with wonder and fear at a world bigger and wilder than we could possibly comprehend. But here’s the tricky part: this effect is achieved not primarily through invention, but rather insinuation.

If I as an author simply tell you that a thing exists, then it becomes known. Known things can be classified, quantified, categorized. It might still be weird or dangerous and inspire curiosity, but the mystique stirred up by an activated imagination won’t transform it into something far more.

However, if I hint that something exists, it’s like an invitation, a stimulant. Does the bizarre inscription summon a deity? Do the grass-swallowed ruins have a history? Can the precisely-formulated elixir grant even greater power? This is where maps come in.

Fantasy maps aren’t just bird’s-eye visualizations of the narrative. I’ve seen ill-considered ones from some big-name authors that do nothing but follow the route our heroes take on their quest. They’re just mostly-blank canvases bisected by winding rivers of detail. You can predict the plot progression just by glancing at them. This elicits no wonder, no added value.

I’ve also read books that feature fully-populated flyleaf maps, but which seem to go out of their way—literally—to justify the inclusion of every last hamlet and geological particularity, such that by the time our heroes finish crisscrossing every square mile in the known world, any chance for cartographical wonder is lost as surely as if nothing at all had been shown.

A good fantasy map, on the other hand, behaves like a real-world map. It isn’t partial to those regions you’re planning to traverse in the immediate future, and it encompasses more territory than anyone could or would realistically encounter within a short-term timeframe. By imitating reality, it reinforces our illusion that the fantasy world is real. And the real world, as we well know, contains many places we’ve never been and sights we’ve never seen.

Hey, look at that. What’s that spot on the map? That’s an odd name—what’s it mean? Will we ever go there? Will we ever get to find out?

That’s the kind of value a good map can bring to a story that’s already strong enough to do without. Ideally, fantasy maps should engender more questions than answers. They should expand the world, not shrink it.

The Plot-Paint Thickens

Now that the work of selling my series has passed out of my hands, I’ve been free to focus on finishing Book Three—a wild waltz through a kaleidoscope of espionage. It’s good to be back in the saddle and traversing new ground. As of now, I’ve completed 45% of my initial 100k-word goal for the novel.

But the thing about kaleidoscopes of espionage is that they demand plotting. Which is not my strong suit. Ugh. Fortunately, it’s actually quite simple to create a complex plot if you know the secret three-step formula: (1) create a simple plot, (2) identify all its holes, and then (3) explain them. Voila!

So if I’m being honest, my plotting process looks a lot like a four-year-old’s interrogation.

Me: “Why does W happen?”
Also me: “Well, I guess because X.”
Me: “But why does X happen?”
Also me: “Well, I guess because Y.”
Me: “But why does Y happen?”
Also me: “Well, I guess because Z.”
Me: “But why …”



In other news, the inimitable Hannah Gunderson, Painter of Arlam, has unveiled a gorgeously pensive new portrait of Ilina Lightkeeper.

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Retrospective Tuning

While others have spent the month of November churning out 50,000-word first drafts, I’ve been finishing up the big new adventure sequence that opens Book Two. Yes, the bulk of that novel has been complete for some time, but when I peeled it off from Book One I created the need for additional introductory material.

Each installment of my series begins—after its punchy prologue—with an “Overture”: a largely self-contained episode which encapsulates themes explored by the novel as a whole. The Overture in A Sea Sought in Song covers Ilina’s encounter with the spiderworm, thereby introducing her relational fears and religious doubts. In Book Two, it’s Hugh Conrad’s turn to get encapsulated.

Which means he gets to go fight Soviets in the backcountry of postwar Iceland. Woot!

Though this was a fun sequence to write, it wasn’t without its difficulties. Not only was I forced to conduct historical research, and maintain the plot discipline of a functional short story, I had to do so under awkward circumstances. The two other Overtures I’d written had preceded their respective books, and I’d used them as opportunities to tune my thematic orchestra. Here, I needed to conjure the same effect after the symphony had already been performed. I needed to reverse-engineer a spontaneous manifestation of theme.

This felt disturbingly like outlining.

But it’s done now, and I’m pleased with how it turned out. And in celebration, I present to you … Hugh Conrad. I finally convinced him to sit down and have his portrait painted by the inimitable Hannah Gunderson.

Verse Sans Context

One of the results of my series’ subdivision has been the need for more poetry. It’s no secret that I love epigraphs. I love the sense of mystery, significance, and anticipation they can create at the outset of a hefty fantasy tome, and I want to provide that kind of experience for my readers.

This is the poem which now opens Book Two. I knocked it out last week while waiting for an animation to render at work. I don’t mind sharing it, as it wasn’t so long ago that Book Two was just the second half of Book One. I’m pretty happy with the tone it sets for what is now the dire Second Act of the Seed of Glory Sown in Sorrow saga.

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Larger than Life

If you’ve visited A Sea Sought in Song’s cast listing on my website, you’ve seen the quality of Hannah Gunderson’s artwork. But did you realize how huge her portraits are? Me neither! I just received her original sketch of Ilina Lightkeeper, and it’s even larger than life!

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The plan is for each character profile to eventually get its own individual portrait. So check this space frequently for new additions to the cast gallery!

You Can’t Subvert What You Haven’t Built

In case you don’t religiously check my website for updates, I’d like to point out a recent addition to the “True Facts About My Fake World” wing: this explanation of a prevailing in-world historiographic model, complete with illustration.

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Cyclical history is great, because it creates expectations. Expectations are great because they allow a storyteller to direct an audience’s attention. And that’s a level of control which comes in real handy when you need to pull off a slight-of-hand maneuver. The missing card can slip invisibly from the sleeve only when everyone’s transfixed by the twirling top hat.

But in order to subvert expectations, you need to have established some in the first place. And that takes work. The bigger the intended surprise, the more work must be invested in the preliminary setup. Not ostentatiously, of course: the conservation of detail allows genre-savvy readers to spot a head-fake coming. A given expectation must fade into the background, becoming the very air the characters breathe, an unseen context that isn’t questioned.

So yeah. Arlam’s historical cycle has a clockface’s worth of epochs, but the hour-hand’s invisible.

That’s not suspicious at all.