Category Archives: Ideas

Real World Booty: Plundering Reality to Meet Your Fantastical Needs

Hopefully that title won’t bring me too many people searching for porn.  One of the greatest sins of the writer is disappointing your reader, intended audience or not.

What I want to talk about in this post is both the issue of cliches in fantasy, and how to more effectively draw inspiration from the real world for your science fiction or fantasy.  I’ll be looking mostly at fantasy here, though.


So, fantasy is often accused of being a mass of cliches, or an idealized Medieval Europe.  Also of lacking diversity, and rehashing the same few tired plots.  And it’s true.The quest narrative, the rightful king narrative, and the invasion/war narrative are three of the most popular plots in fantasy, no matter what the setting.  Urban fantasy tends to focus on murder mystery or heist plots, with the occasional corrupt authority/dictator and secret cabal thrown in.  Etc.

And that’s understandable.  They’re the most popular plots already, they’re easy to conceptualize, and they have a mass of associated tropes to draw on.  Honestly, as broad as that list is, it’s hard to imagine there even are other plots to take.  And where would one find the inspiration for them, when fantasy itself is so inbred and cliche?


The answer to that question, as the title of this post hopefully suggests, is the real world.  What are or were hot-button issues in the real world during various historical periods?  Especially ones outside of the traditional mediveal European settings?  And how can we makes use of them while avoiding things like cultural appropriation?


I’ll give a few examples, and hopefully conclude with some useful methods of finding more.


1. Industrialization is one such plot.  It’s almost the entire basis of steampunk, much like the digital revolution is the basis cyberpunk.  The difference between the two genres might provide some useful thoughts.  Cyberpunk relates to the information revolution.  Control of data and information drives many of the plots.  Hacking, after all, a mainstay of cyberpunk, is about liberating information and fighting manipulation of it and the invasive gathering of it.  Steampunk is about the effects of urbanization and industrialization on public morals, the class divide, etc.

2. One way to find inspiration is to take an era in the real world and tease out what the major concerns of the people were.  You can fine-tune it even more, and look at different groups in the same era.  During the 20s, you had prohibition occupying the minds of the government, the criminal element, and the various classes, especially the working class.  You had suffrage occupying much of the middle class.  Both of these are public morals issues as well as economic and political issues.

3. The colonial period deals with religious and economic issues.  The colonists wanted to practice their version of correct Christianity.  The British Empire wanted to increase its economic power and prestige as compared to the other European countries.  Countries like India, China, and Japan worried about growing European power and influence.  The proliferation of opium in China courtesy of British traders was a public morals issue for China, and an economic one for Britain.  The forced opening of Japan near the end of the period dealt with global influence and cultural contamination.  Cultural contamination is often a strong possible plot point.  So is the ability to trade.  Britain and America desired coaling stations to power their ships, which Japan could provide, though it didn’t want to, and trade targets for their goods–again, something Japan had but didn’t want to engage in.  British opium grown in India had a ready market in China, and the British needed the money to fund their colonial pursuits, but the Chinese government hated it, and indeed several wars and rebellions occurred in China over the issue of such foreign influence.

4. The decay of the samurai class in Japan is another example of a plot point not based on wars or quests or murder mysteries.  The ease of training conscripts with guns and the fact that samurai martial arts could not compete on the battle field with many modern war technologies created a great deal of social unrest in the upper classes, of which samurai constituted a large portion.  Centuries of power and tradition came under threat with the influx of Western goods and technologies.

5. Resource management is another common source of tension.  Water rights, various magical analogies to resources and resource management, the rise of land prices in response to some new perceived value.  All of these could drive fantasy plots just as easily as evil overlords or imminent invasions.

6.  Taking from the modern day, important inventions, magical or otherwise make good plots points.  Look at the many effects of social networking technologies like Facebook have had on our own society.  The cotton gin, railroads, steamboats.

7.  Things like intra-governmental conflict are also good sources of conflict.  Analogies to states rights, or who controls interstate commernce and what such a term covers, especially in the face of new ideas or technologies could drive a fantasy novel.  So could large movements of people, such as illegal immigrants to the US.  Famine or disease or political revolution and exposure to other cultures and ideas could drive stories.  US influence pre-war on Afghanistan.  Religious movements such as the Taliban or the Great Awakening.

8. Finally, something I’ve always been interested in, more low-stakes conflict, as seen in general fiction or YA contemp.  Conflict between less powerful members of society can illuminate conflicting forces as good or better than conflict between powerful sorcerers or kings.


And there are many more things than what I’ve listed.  Almost infinite sources of inspiration.  Even odd small facts you ran across in a Facebook post or magazine article.


In summary, here are three major sources of inspiration I feel have been previously untapped or not fully utilized:

1. The common concerns of various eras in various countries, such as Prohibition or urbanization in the US.

2. Conflict in microcosms of society as opposed to the macrocosm: War shortages in one neighborhood in a medium city as opposed to soldiers on the front lines.

3. Changes in a culture or society brought about not by war or good vs. evil, such as the decay of the Samurai class during the Meiji era of Japan or Southern planters near the end of slavery.

1 Comment

Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Fantasy, Ideas, Speculative Reality, World-building


Tags: , , , , , ,

Comparing and Picking Mediums

Somethig I’ve always loved to do is compare the same story told in different mediums.  99% of the time, I will think the book is better than the movie, assuming it came first.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t think adaptation decay can be limited or even avoided.  It most certainly can.  Sometimes, translation into a different medium can even change the story entirely.  And this actually works more often than trying to stick to close to the original, which, if it is good, will usually be much to suited to its original medium to adapt well.  To be clear, I think that is a mark of good crafting, not bad.

I began my story career with the goal of writing commercial prose fiction.  Not screenplays, no epic poems, not webcomics, not cartoon scripts.  But as a consumer of stories, I’m also a big fan of anime and manga, and every now and then I get the desire to create something in one of those mediums.  Usually manga, since I have nowhere near the toys and skillset to produce any sort of decent animation.  Currently, I have a lovely idea for a manga I want to write which could also work quite well in prose.  And as happens every time, I can’t decide if I really wouldn’t write it as a book.  I don’t have the ability to professionally publish a manga (or a comic, don’t get me started; see NOTE).  Whereas I’m pretty well able to get a book ready for publication, I know the submission process, and I know how editorial and publication will go.

(NOTE:  You can’t write manga/manhwa if you’re not Japanese/Korean, live in Japan/Korea, blah blah blah.  A manga is a comic and a comic is a manga, and I’m calling it manga because I read Asian shit, not American shit, neitehr of which I really think are shit; I’m just tired of this dumb argument.)

And why whould it be a problem whether I know how to get a manga/comic published?  Because, while writing began as a hobby, and I do it for fun, I also want to put my work in front of readers and I’d like to be compensated for the time and effort I put into it.  I’m all for free short stories and Creative Commons, but a little recompense here and there would not go amiss, and traditional publishing still gets your work in front of relatively more readers on the average.

So, should I do a manga or a novel?  I’ve had this discussion a million times before, and the novel has always won out.  But this time, I’ve decided it’s going to be a manga or nothing.  For one thing, the character design and world-building process is very different.  Writers use character sheets and pick actors to represent them and some even draw their characters.  But anime/manga character design takes this a step further, and the resulting image is something that consumers see.  There is no editing hair or eye color to better relate to the character, and appearances tend to be more deviant from the human norm–for various and mostly good reasons.  In fact, the necessity of always considering the direct visual aspect in manga makes the entire process different.  You can convey more and less information in various areas due to the conventions of the medium.  While the story evolves novel-like in my head,Im very curious how that will compare to the actual manga I come up with.  What will I have to twist or sacrifice or get to add to fit the medium?

And of course, there’s just the plain fan.  Doing character design is totally awesome, and the same thing for other concept art.  Whether the actual story art will be as exciting I don’t know, since I’ve never written a full manga before.  That said, this manga is going to be less stylized than most Japanese manga, or at least those that have made it to the US.  Since this is not shounen manga, say, but YA literary fantasy.  I plan to post it online for free, probably starting on my DeviantArt account, since I don’t feel like setting up a website for a fun excursion.  How soon it starts going up will depends on how much time I have to work on it, and how quickly the research and world-building goes, but I expect to have some OC character sketches ready pretty quick, and uploaded as soon as I have access to scanner.

Now, I’ve decided this is not going to be a blog for posting my own work.  It’s intended entirely as a discussion blog for various aspects of literature.  But because I plan to pair the first few manga chapters with their prose counterparts to use for comparison, I will throw up another page or two, and occassionally bring attention to them in my posts.  I expect there to be a clear but not necessarily overpowering difference due to the two different media of execution.  Experiment, here I come!

Leave a comment

Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Ideas, Manga


Tags: , , ,

Annoying Questions People Ask Writers: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Writers are always complaining about things that people ask them, and this is one of the most cited questions.  There are tons of different answers, none of which are right for everyone, or even for someone all of the time.  There are just so many places to get ideas and inspiration from, and many, many methods of combining these things into something that could actually support a story.

But, because I think about this kind of stuff a lot, and becuase, like all good writers, I have more ideas than I could ever manage to use in my natural lifetime, I’ve come across an answer to this question that describes how I get ideas most of the time, and which corresponds fairly well with what many other writers have described as a common process for them.

Since I’m a writer, I’m going to tell you a little story, rather than writing a long boring essay:

Our story begins about 4 billion years ago, before there even were writers to come up with ideas in our solar system.  The Sun was here, but the planets were yet to be born.  A massive disc of material left over from the Sun’s formation, called the solar nebula, was as close to planets as the solar system had gotten.  Much like the cultural soup that every human being inhabits, this disc was full of tiny little grains of stuff, held together by some force; in the solar nebula’s case, this force was gravity.  Over time, these little dust grains began to collide with each other, and every now and then gravity would cause some to stick together, creating a larger piece with more gravity than the little pieces surrounding it.  As time passes, these larger chunks collide again, their mass building and building, clearing out the space around them, until they bccame around 10 kilometers in size.  These huge masses of dust and gas were called planetesimals.

The collisions continued, and these planetesimals increased in size at rates of a few centimeters per year.  Just imagine all the little interesting facts and scraps of information you encounter daily.  Over time, one or another begins to take on weight as you learn more things about it, and over time, it might become an opinion, or a desire.  And these opinions and desires feelings and thoughts and hunks of knowledge are just like our little planetesimals.  Over time, the planetismals crashed together, and snagged most of the remaining dust and bcame the planets.  And each planet is like a little idea, starting from a tiny grain of thought, and gradually accumulating a mass of information and images and words, until it becomes the basis for an incredible story.

And most writers have tons and tons of these ideas orbiting them, or still forming.  And because, unlike the sun, we have an infinite sea of information surronding us for our entire lives, there are always more ideas, more little thought planets forming around us.  This process is called “accretion”  and it’s where almost all ideas come from.  For example, the first grain of the idea behind this post came from an Astronomy class I took at a community college over the summer.  And then many many threads trying explain where writers got ideas began to collide, and were caught up in the gravity well of that astronomy course, until eventually there was enough mass to support and atmosphere, in which grew little tiny forms of life that finally evolved enough to smack me on the back of the head and say “Duh!  Here’s where we come from!”


Posted by on July 3, 2011 in Authors, Ideas, Writing


Tags: , ,

Why I Subscribe to Blogs

I have recently subscribed to a new blog, Invincible Summer from lovely YA writer Hannah Moskowitz.  This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually the first new blog I’ve subscribed to in a year.

So why did I subscribe to it?  Did I stumble upon it on Google?  Find a link on a bookmarking site like reddit or  No.  I kept running into links on other sites and blogs.  Took part in some conversations on Absolute Write.  After about the fiftieth link on blogs to which I am already subscribed, I stopped by and read the first ten posts on the blog.  Several of them were exactly the sort of thing Ilook for on a writing blog, and so I copied the url into my googlereader.  Now, I’ve done similar things with other blogs, but I ended up not subscribing.  Here are the five most common reasons I subscribe to a blog, and the five most common reasons why I do not:

Why? (In no particular order:)

1.  Links from blogs I already follow.  The more the better.  They tell me that there is a consistent pattern of valued and valuable content.  These can be posts about the link only, or they can be round-ups.  If I start to recognize your name on a round-up post, I am very likely to give your blog itself a look.

2.  Meeting the blogger in a community setting, such as a forum for writers.  My top forum for finding good blogs?  Absolute Write.

3.  I buy one of the bloggers books and like it.  if I like your book, then I have a reason as a reader to look you up.  If I like your blog, it’s because I enjoy it as a writer, as well.

4.  I see one of your books on Amazon or Wikipedia.  These are the places I go when someone recs a book to me.

5.  Guest posts on blogs I read.  These are fantastic advertisements for your own blog.  They mean someone I trust likes what you have to say, and they are a good sample of what I expect to find on your blog.

Why not?

1.  I go to your blog and I see advertisements.  If I get to the point where I’m reading through your recent posts to see if there’s a pattern of value, I don’t want to see adverts for your books.  I don’t want to see contests, or giveaways.  All of these things are fine.  But they are not what attracts people to a good blog.  A good blog gives something to the reader, it does not only solicit money for the writer.

2.  I go to your blog and all I see is pictures of your cats, covered in bacon or otherwise.  I am not looking for cat blogs.  I am looking for writer and/or writing blogs.  If you want to occasionally post pictures of your cats or of sunsets, or of your cute little kid, that’s fine.  But it’s a grace note, something you can foist off on me as content once I am engaged and interested.  John Scalzi likes to post amateur photos of sunsets, and they are very pretty.  I like them.  But they are not why I read his blog.

3.  If there have not been any posts for over two months.  I don’t think I need to explain.

4.  If the posting schedule is inconsistent.  This is not a big loser.  It’s why people invented blog readers, so I don’t have to check every day to see if a bloggers has dug up and displayed some nugget of wisdom for me.  It’s a small issue, but consistent posting does tell me that this blog is likely to survive long enough to be worth my inital investment.  (I am also a hypocrite for saying this, since I have updated irregularly of late.)

5.  Boring stuff/stuff I have seen before.  This is tougher.  These sort of posts will attract blogging newbies, because they have not seen all the other examples out there.  But the best blogs provide something new, something you can’t get elsewhere easily.  After the thirtieth generic query advice post, they all start to seem the same.  If they are well-written, I will forgive you.

So, here is the conclusion.  I want good content on a consistent basis.  I understand that promotional posts will pick up when a book release is imminent.  I understand tha real life gets in the way.  But if your entire blog morphs into promotion when a book is coming out, or you suddenly veer into all extras about your cats and kids, then I am likely to not subscribe, or else to drop my subscription if I already have one.


Posted by on January 5, 2011 in atsiko, Authors, Blogging, How To, Ideas, Rants


Tags: , , , , , ,

The (Real) Cost of Magic Part 1

You may have guessed this quite a while ago, but one of my favorite things in fantasy fiction is the magic.  And I don’t just mean I think magic is cool.  I love to study the way magic is constructed and used in fiction, and I think I’ve learned a lot of useful things by doing so.  One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of a cost for magic.

Everything has a cost.  You pay in calories to stay alive, you pay money to get things you want, and you pay in fuel to keep a fire going.  The cost of most things is pretty clear.  But the cost of magic is different.  Because magic breaks the laws of the real world by definition, the cost for using it is only limited by the imagination of the writer who creates the system.  I’ve seen almost everything used to pay for magic: blood, energy, sanity, physical objects, sacrifice…  Another common cost is time spent in gaining knowledge and preparing spells.

All of these can be effective or ineffective costs for magic.  And by effective, I mean that readers accept them as reasonable repayment for breaking the rules of our world.  Before I get to my main point, I think it’s a good idea to look at why these various things might be considered effective costs.  For this  post, we’ll stick with the oft-used and well-accepted “magic makes you tired” magic system:

The costs of a great many things in the real world are paid in energy.  Shoot a bow?  It takes energy to draw and hold that bow before release.  By a very simple process of transference, that energy is also what kills the poor creature that you’re aiming at.  Same is true for starting a fire, whether you strike a match or rub sticks together. 

So why wouldn’t this be an effective cost for magic?  Well, it often is.  But reasons why a reader might not find this form of magic attractive are many–we’ll deal with two, for now:

1.  It’s often not at all clear how this energy is used to create the spells effect.  Pulling back the bow string creates tension in the bow, which is resolved when the ends snap back into place upon release.  This pulls the string forward, pushing the arrow away at a good clip.  Makes perfect sense, right?  This use of a tool is what allows us to get a projectile moving at a much greater speed than we could with our bare hands.

But what about with magic?  How do we convert the energy in our muscles into a giant fireball?  In reality, we can’t.  But let’s say that we decide it takes as much energy to create a fireball as it does to shoot an arrow.  That’s quite a few fireballs, and since fireballs are generally portrayed as stronger than arrows, we’re getting quite a bit more bang for our calorie.  Which is fine; mages are often considered to be more powerful than your average person, so more efficient use of their energy is not a big leap.

But what about for bigger spells?  Mages are often shown to have the power to level cities with a single word.  No matter how efficient our fictitious conversion of energy, it’s rather much to say destroying a city of 10,000 should be as easy for a mage as killing one man is for an archer.  And, it’s not even possible for one man to hit 10,000 targets with 10,000 arrows in the time it takes our mage hero to level a city (or a region).  So now we’re in a bit of trouble.  Our energy example doesn’t have a simple explanation for our city-busting protagonist.

Unless perhaps we decide that a mage can kill 100 men with his magic as easily as an archer kills one with his arrow(whichitself  is not as easy as it would seem).  Or, maybe magic is a much more efficient tool than a bow.  Combine that with it’s utility in the great many areas in which it is usually shown to be useful, we’ve got a fairly ridiculous tool on our hands.  A bow is made for one thing, to hurl arrows at targets as fast as possible.  Yes, it’s much better at it than a human arm, but that arm can do a great many more things than just hurl an arrow.  Jack of all trades and whatnot.  So why should magic be so priviliged?  Casting fireballs, healing wounds, calling lightning, bringing rain, telling the future…  The list goes on forever.

At this point, we might add one of the other common hobbles on magic, a limit.  Perhaps magic only has a few areas in which it can function: scrying, weather magic, calling fire.  But right now we’re talking about cost.  There are magic systems that allow a mage to do all the things I’ve listed and more, so there should be a way to use costs to make such a system reasonable.  Clearly, paying with physical energy cannot handle this task on its own.  At least, not without a lot of contortions and outside limitations.

2.  Now, there are still other reasons why physical energy is not always an effective cost for magic.  One can do great things, and even if they become exhausted, why, all they need is a bite of food and a bit of rest, and they’re ready to do it again.  All it takes to level a city is an apple?  I find it hard to countenence.  What was the creator of this system thinking?

If we were making a trading card game or an rpg, that could be fine.  Once the game–or even just the battle– is done, everything can be reset, both the energy paid and also the damage done with it.  But every action in a story has consequences that last until the story is finished–or at least they should.  Reseting after one battle destroys the point of that scene; the hero is no further along in the story.  The consequence of a magical battle doesn’t have to result from magic, but if it does, being tired for a day and nothing else doesn’t cut it.  Even suffering great pain means nothing if it goes away and never bothers the mage again.  If the result of a scene is benefit to the characters, they need to have paid a fair price for it, and if the result is that they are hurt, it must be a hurt that can continue to affect their progress as the story moves forward.  Every scene needs to have that effect (or those effects), and in a fantasy, magic has a very good chance of being the cause.  So, it’s important to consider how your magic system might be able to incorporate that purpose.

None of that is to say that a form of magic which is paid for in physical energy cannot generate the long-lasting effects a good story requires.  If your character is bone-tired from hurling magical acid the day before, they may miss the signs of their pursuers, or not have the energy to save the peasant girl in the next village when she is captured by slavers. 

But there is a difference between a direct cost that hits hard now, and an indirect cost that hits hard later.  Depending on the story and its themes, it’s possible to lean more toward one than the other.  Perhaps that is the risk of using magic: you can do more now, but you don’t know if that will be worth the suffering you will undergo later, because you are no longer capable of doing anything.  You might gain twice as much money in the short term, but in the long run, you will end up with less than if you had been satisfied the first time.  But in general you will need a combination of short-term and long-term costs.

Most mages who pay for their magic with physical energy are seem to be able to achieve a great deal before the cost becomes even close to endangering their overall position in the plot.  Personally, I feel this is a bug rather than a feature.  Does anyone have some ways in which magic based around physical energy could still be effective in the eyes of a reader?


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Not All Elementalists Control Their Elements

Another random short-story recommendation:

Elementalism is one of the most common forms of magic in fantasy.  Flinging fire, whipping up the waters, hurlling thunderbolts.  Who wouldn’t love to do that?  But, like many other popular forms of magic, elementalism has lost its grip on real magic.  Because, real magic has a price.  And real big magic has a real big price.  Being tired for a few hours just doesn’t cut it.

And along some Helen Keeble and makes the magic magic again.  In Helen Keeble’s world of elemental magic, it’s the elements that are in control, and the humans who are just poor vessels of that power.  Specifically, I’m refering to two short stories in Strange Horizons, entitled “In Ashes” and “In Stone“, where we learn just what price you pay to control nature, and just how cruel the choice of who pays it.

And I guess what I’m saying here is that that’s how true magic works, or should be.


Tags: , , , , , ,

Atsiko’s Speculative Fiction Alphabet

There’s a lot of material out there about writing, but most of it is general: how to use adverbs, dialogue tags are bad, mix up your sentence length.  Then there are less general posts and articles and discussions: race and ethnicity in fiction, how to design a magic system, how to world-build, three act stories.  These things get a lot of traction and a lot of focus.

What don’t get a lot of focus are more specific issues of plotting.  Tropes, plot devices, themes.  So, for the next little while, I’ll be exploring these less-appreciated elements of fiction.  And since this is a spec fic blog, I’ll be exploring their applications in that genre.  There’ll be more than one post for each topic, so think of it as a series of miniseries.  I hope you’ll find something useful in these posts.


Tags: , , , ,