4 Sword Myths For Writers

4 Sword Myths For Writers

Swords are fun!

No, really — they are. I’ve gotten to play with a variety of them, from several different time periods, as a regular stage combat performer with New England-area renaissance faires, and they’re all a blast — even if (or perhaps especially because) it’s all fake.

Along the way I’ve learned a great deal about real-life swordplay from people far more educated about such matters than I, and I’ve put that knowledge to good use in my fantasy work, crafting swordfights that are exciting and dynamic but still well-grounded in reality. On the down side, it’s become a lot harder for me to enjoy swordfights in fiction because I’ve become too aware of how under-informed the general public is about how swords function in practical use.

So I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned over the years, and I’m going to start with this major caveat: do not take anything I say here as gospel. I’ve researched and continue to research period martial arts and weapons work, but there is always going to be new information out there — or different takes on existing data. You see, historians are an argumentative lot, and those who specifically study ancient arms are no different. You want to see sparks fly? Gather together a group of sword experts and ask them whether it’s best to parry an attack with the flat of the blade or the edge, and then stand back and enjoy the show.

The point is, someone somewhere is going to have a differing opinion about the information I’m presenting, and they’re not necessarily going to be wrong — but they’re not necessarily going to be completely right, either. Use this feature as a starting point for your own research and decide for yourself what works best for your storytelling purposes.

MYTH #1: Swords are heavy

Here’s something you can try at home. Grab a gallon jug of milk or water and swing it around vigorously for five minutes. Exhausting, isn’t it?

That’s why a typical medieval longsword weighs only about three pounds on average. The people using them are going to be swinging them for a long time, and a heavy sword is going to wear the user out more quickly—especially if they have the added burden of armor weighing them down. That isn’t to say there weren’t heavy swords, but A) even big pieces of steel (so-called “great swords”) such as the Scottish claymore or the German zweihander weren’t as heavy as you might expect, and B) these swords had very specific purposes and required different techniques. They were not everyday all-purpose weapons.

Related note: a common sword feature often called a “blood groove” has nothing to do with providing a victim’s blood with a handy channel to run down, thus accelerating his untimely demise (yes, that is a common misconception) or making the sword easier to withdraw from a human body. The proper name for this feature is the “fuller,” and its purpose is to lighten the weapon without compromising its strength.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?

When you give your character a sword, there are a lot of factors to consider, but there is one key question you need to ask: what sword best suits the character and what he needs the weapon for? A rapier or court sword isn’t necessarily going to make sense in the hands of a large, strong, slow character, just like a claymore wouldn’t make sense in the hands of a small, fast character. You wouldn’t arm a character with a short sword if you’re going to pit him against cavalry, and you wouldn’t want a character hefting a zweihander if he’s expecting to be fighting in a confined space.

Other factors such as the time period, geographic region, etc., will also factor in, but I’m a big believer in starting with the character and building from there.

Regardless of the character and the context, do your research on the weapon you have in mind so you can portray its use correctly.

MYTH #2: Swords are sharp

I’m sure if you think about it, you can name at least one movie or TV show or book in which a warrior neatly slices through an armored limb with his mighty sword.

Yeah, no.

A sword was once described to me as a sharp hammer. It has an edge, and under the right conditions it can indeed cleave through a person, but it is not a magical Ginsu that could slice neatly through one layer of plate steel armor, the chainmail beneath that, the gambeson (a thick padded jacket) beneath that, the flesh and muscle and bone of a human limb, and then through another layer of gambeson and armor.

(Unless, of course, it is a magical weapon, but that is a different matter.)

Could the edge penetrate armor by cutting? Yes, but that is not a universal result of taking a sword to armor. Sometimes the damage would be blunt force trauma. It depends on the weapon, the user, the armor he’s facing, and the circumstances of the fight.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?

Swords are surprisingly complex tools. You do yourself as a writer a disservice by not learning as much as you can about them so you can portray their use convincingly and correctly while still wringing maximum dramatic effect from them.

This can lead to some fun changes in how you construct fight scenes. Readers love a dramatic death blow that takes a villain’s head off, but if the villain in question is wearing a helmet that partially covers the throat and/or a gorget (a piece of neck armor), that final sword blow might not be so final after all — or it will break the bad guy’s neck rather than cut through it, which I’d argue makes the death stroke that much more brutal.

Again, you’ll have to do some research, particularly when you introduce armor to the mix. Chainmail (or, for you purists, maile) armor is designed to prevent cutting damage so a sword’s edge isn’t going to penetrate — but that same armor isn’t going to be worth a damn against a stabbing attack or the blunt force trauma that comes from a blow of any kind. Know your weapons, know your armor, and know how they all interact with each other.

MYTH #3: Katanas are awesome

First, let’s all acknowledge that the plural of katana is “katana” — if you’re speaking Japanese or a Japanese speaker is saying the word in English, but for us Muricans, “katanas” is acceptable as the plural form.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Katanas are probably the most iconic sword type in pop culture, and they’ve become almost mythic in nature. Unfortunately, how they’re portrayed in pop culture is almost pure myth, and it’s largely Hollywood’s fault.

Even their creation is less impressive than you’ve been led to believe. You might have heard katanas were folded hundreds of times in the smithing process, but that’s not true. They were only folded a dozen times or so, and that was a purely practical technique to strengthen the blade by hammering out the excess carbon in the cheap pig-iron (called tamahagane) available to smiths. It wasn’t about creating an edge that could slice through anything; it was about making swords that wouldn’t break on their first use.

Katanas were also not the samurai’s weapon of first choice. Rather, it would come out after better options such as the longbow and spear had failed or were impractical for the circumstances.

How they’re used in pop culture bears little resemblance to real-world techniques. They were designed for fast cutting, and if you watch an actual master swordsman in action, they flick the sword similarly to how you’d flick a fishing rod.

Blocking and parrying with a katana? Not so fast. Take a hit on the edge and you ding it up badly, making it less effective for its intended purpose. Take a hit on the flat and you risk snapping the blade, which is thinner compared to medieval longswords, which could take a solid hit on the flat.

(Cue historian argument in three, two…)

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?

The katana as audiences know it is so ingrained in the collective consciousness, a writer could portray its use as we’re all accustomed to and few people — mostly pedantic sorts like me — would question it.

But if you want a challenge, research how katanas were actually used in battle and throw your reader a curve ball — but don’t be surprised if the masses then chastise you for “not knowing how a katana works.” Sometimes, reality isn’t your best option.

MYTH #4: Swords make a cool “SHRING!” sound whenever drawn.

No. They don’t.

Scabbards are typically made of leather or wood. Neither of these materials make a metallic “SHRING!” sound when a steel sword is dragged along them.

Just saying.

And why can’t someone have a steel scabbard, you ask? Well, they could, but why would they want one? It’s heavier, and the repeated act of drawing and sheathing a sword would dull the edge quickly. More likely, a warrior would have a leather or wooden scabbard with decorative caps of brass or bronze — or, yes, iron or steel — but they wouldn’t make contact with the blade in the interest of preserving the edge.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?

Here’s the thing: fiction, especially visual media, throws in a lot of dramatic flourishes that enhance the mood of a moment but, if you stop to think about them, make no sense whatsoever, and the metallic ringing sound of a sword being drawn is one of them. It’s the period equivalent of cocking a firearm for dramatic effect (even though doing so actually achieves something in the case of a firearm, i.e., chambering a round).

As with the katana, audiences have been trained to accept, even expect these moments, so chances of getting called out are minimal, but audiences are also getting savvier every day. Tropes that used to slide on by unnoticed are becoming distractions.

Knowing where, when, and how to add some sizzle to your steak, even if that sizzle is complete nonsense, is part of the craft of effective storytelling. If a sizzle moment adds value to the narrative, add it, but if it risks distracting readers and taking them out of the story, reconsider it.

BONUS NON-SWORD MYTH, MAYBE: Flails were common medieval weapons

The flail — a solid, sometimes spiked iron or steel ball at the end of a chain, usually attached to a handle — might not be a real weapon.

This theory, that the flail was either a ceremonial instrument historians mistook for a weapon or was completely made up and had no real-world basis whatsoever, popped up within the last few years, causing no small amount of controversy among historians.

I’m inclined to side with flail deniers mostly because I’ve used flails in shows and they are wildly impractical weapons.

Here’s another home experiment. Remember that gallon jug from the first myth? Once it’s empty (very important), tie it to a two-foot length of rope or twine to create a crude flail. Now, find a target — a tree, your fridge, a willing volunteer — and hit it with your flail. You’ll notice that even with something as light as an empty plastic jug, you get some satisfying impact. It’s easy to imagine how much damage you could do if that jug was a steel ball.

Now step back from the target and swing your flail. Notice what happens when you miss.

That’s right: it comes right back at you — and there’s no way to stop it.

If you’ve got an argument brewing about how the flail could be made a viable weapon, I’ll direct you to this great article by Paul Sturtevant (https://www.publicmedievalist.com/curious-case-weapon-didnt-exist/), but I’ll reiterate as a past flail user: they suck as weapons.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?

A friend of mine once observed that in genre fiction (sci-fi, horror, fantasy), audiences are happy to accept big ideas like dragons and magic without questioning them but will get hung up on details based in what we consider universal reality. If you tell your readers the main character is a fireball-throwing sorcerer, they’ll buy that, but if you tell the audience your character once survived two weeks in a dungeon without any food or water, they’ll call you on it.

Impractical weapons are a trope of modern fantasy, and as a rule readers will go along with it if you lay the groundwork properly, but it’s in your best interests to understand what your weapons’ practical applications and limitations are, and maybe use those in the story to add realism to the fight scenes.

Jeremy Flagg: Curator of “The Final Summons”

Jeremy Flagg: Curator of “The Final Summons”

The New England Speculative Writers is putting together its first anthology. The theme, “The Final Summons.” Submissions by members are due January 31st. More details about the submission can be found here. Three curators will be reading through the slush and putting together the best stories. We thought it’d be good to interview each of the curators and give a little background about who they are and what they’re looking for in this anthology. Jeremy Flagg is one of the co-founders of NESW and he’s on the hunt for diverse authors and equally diverse characters.

What is your background in literature?

I’ve been writing since 2006 and in 2009 I self-published my first novel. In 2015 I landed my first publisher for my sci-fi superhero series. I’ve published two non-fiction, six fiction books, and been part of five anthologies. My own writing ranges from young adult to superhero science fiction depending on my mood at the time. For my short stories, I find myself compelled to write horror, a genre I’ve always loved. In 2011 I became the Municipal Liaison for the Massachusetts Metrowest region of National Novel Writing Month and started the Metrowest Writers with some other excellent authors.

What are some of your favorite fantasy & sci-fi novels?

I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction and fantasy. In fantasy, I always found myself moved by Lynn Flewelling’s “Luck in the Shadows.” Her attention to Seregil and Alec’s emotional and social turmoil, brought them to life. She also created a realistic romantic relationship between the male leads that took center stage for one character but not the other. This struggle resonated with my own experience in the LGBT+ community.

I also find myself fascinated by R.A. Salvatore’s “Demon Wars Saga,” which focuses on Jilseponie, an amazing female lead. Salvatore’s departure from traditional magic systems is paired beautifully with a lead character who is thrust into an impossible position when all she wants is to survive in peace. Her determination in the face of world gone mad tugged at my heart-strings. I enjoyed the emotional rollercoaster.

Nightwatch and Daywatch wetted my love of dark fantasy. Not quite horror, but always with dark air about it, Kuyanenko Sergei knows how to set a tone. Introducing me to the wonders of Russian story telling, he captivated me by reinventing the noir detective as a misguided do-gooder vampire. Sergei strips away the pop culture associated with vampires and witches and creates a fresh modern tale woven with classic themes.

My favorite science fiction book is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. His ability to take technologies just beyond our current grasp and infuse them with religion had me reeling. I also appreciated the fantastical element of the metaverse with sword wielding hackers. There is something amazing about this idea of being able to jack into another world and be another version of yourself. I wanted to be Hiro Protagonist growing up.

What excites you most for the upcoming anthology?

I’m thrilled to see the many interpretations of “The Final Summons.” But more than that, I’m excited to step into another character’s world. I have no idea where each story will take me. I am looking forward to feeling, seeing, and doing as this character does. I also wants to see what amazing scenarios and worlds each author can develop in a short space. I don’t know if I’ll be an elf, a teen wizard, or a rogue fighter pilot in outerspace. The mystery has me eager to read.

I’m also interested to see how the idea of “summons” works into the plot. I don’t know where it’ll take me as a reader, but I want to immersed in a unique world and without chapter after chapter to give this information, I’m excited to see how the author will weave it into their story.

Is there anything you’re specifically looking for?

Diversity. I want characters unlike myself. I want to see the rainbow of gender expressions that avoid clichés. I want people of color who bring their culture into the character’s history and experiences. I want ethnicities I’ve never encountered and have a chance to step outside my own experiences. I want characters who have more than one emotional setting. I like them to be strong and weak, brave and fearful. I love the flaws in our humanity and believe these make for memorable characters.

Maps, Maps, & More Maps

Maps, Maps, & More Maps

World Map for Jennifer Allis-Provost’s Parthalan Series created by Derranged Doctor Designs

Let’s talk about maps and their role is the world building process.

Most stories will benefit from thinking about the locations featured in them and placing them in the larger context of the world in which they exist. You may not need many maps and you may not even have to create them yourself but even a short story about a single location could benefit from a map. It can be a simple floor plan where the action takes but it’s a good idea to plan a little so the story can flow naturally around and through the location.

Of course, some genres scream for maps more than others. Fantasy stories pretty much requires a fair bit of world building and lots of maps. You need maps of towns and the surrounding area and you need area/world maps showing typography, vegetation, resources, political boundaries, wind currents, ocean currents, latitude, roads and, trade routes. You don’t need all this all at once and if you apply Tenet 1, then you’ll only build want you need as you need it.

Space faring stories may need maps of planets and star systems.

Other types of speculative fiction, say a super-hero yarn or a steampunk adventure, may benefit from maps as well. Maps of the period or of specific locations so that you remain consistent from scene to scene.

Obviously depending on the needs of your story, you may be able to find the maps you need as you research for information about your world. This is most likely for stories set in a specific historical period and stories involving real life locations. But others genres require you to create your own maps.

How do you do that? Well, you need a graphics program like Photoshop so you can create them. Another option to investigate is random generators. They can create world or area maps quickly if you don’t care about the shape or typography of the world. If you do, you need to roll up your sleeves and draw something yourself.

I use Photoshop for my map of Thalacia because the roads are in one layer, the vegetation is in other, and so on. I use a trick from wargaming and place a hex grid on the map so and figure out where to place trees, coastlines, cities, and other objects. Hex grids are used to simulate natural boundaries. The grid is in its own layer so I can hide it easily.

To create town maps, I’m using a new program I found called Cityographer. It does some of the work for you and then I export the map and edit it in Photoshop.

For floor plans I use Dungeonographer and draw what I need.

As you can see there’s a lot to do, which why Tenet 1 is so important, only create what you need.

So with a few maps and some general notes on the world, you’re ready to take a deep dive. Actually you’ll need several. We’ll look at one those next time.

Happy world building!

NESW Open Call for Anthology Submissions

NESW Open Call for Anthology Submissions

Accepting submissions to
“The Final Summons” Anthology!

New England Speculative Writers is proud to announce we are accepting submissions to our first Science Fiction & Fantasy anthology until January 31st, 2018. We’ve thought long and hard about the themes, terms, and how we plan to promote it.

Theme  The Final Summons
Description

A final call to action for our characters.

What does the “Final Summons” mean? Is it the end of a world? The end of a long war? The changing hands of a political hierarchy? The promise of only one more spell? The handing down of a death sentence or banishment? The possibilities are endless.

Whether by magic or science and anything in-between, we want to see character driven stories in unique and original settings that answer this question. The stories can be in any fantasy, sci-fi, or overlapping genre. But most of all, we want stories that will immerse the reader in a journey that will answer in some way, “What is the final summons?”

The New England Speculative Writer’s anthology is looking for fifteen (15) stories written by New England authors that speak to an adult audience in a serious manner. We want new worlds, new foes, and creative lead characters. We want to avoid falling back on exhausted tropes or established worlds by genre leaders. We want your voice to shine as you summon this tale.

What We Don’t Want We want to avoid erotica and explicit sex as well as romance as central themes. Please do not include any stories with animal cruelty, child abuse or gratuitous violence (we’re okay with violence to move the story along, but make sure it’s necessary.) We will not accept stories that promote racism, sexism, or messages of hate. We will not accept Fan Fiction.
Deadline January 31, 2018, 11:59PM EST
Restrictions Must be a resident of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or Vermont. Must be member of New England Speculative Writers (Can Join for Free below)
Word Limit 4000 – 7000 words.
Pay $50 (USD), 1 Contributor Copy, 1 Digital File
Genres Science Fiction & Fantasy
Language English
Rights Accepted works will grant New England Speculative Writers first exclusive English-language rights for one (1) year and non-exclusive English-language in perpetuity for digital, print, and audio formats. The author of each short story will retain the copyright to their respective work.
Simultaneous & Multiple Submissions No simultaneous submissions will be accepted. Multiple submissions from the same author will be considered but please note that only one story per author will be accepted to allow for variety and diversity. Previously unpublished stories only, no reprints unless requested.
Funding We plan to fund the cost of the honorariums, editor, cover artist, and layout, via a New England Speculative Writers Kickstarter campaign that we will launch in 2018. Any costs not met by the Kickstarter will be funded by the editors.
Publication Date February 2019
How to Submit Register or Sign In for how to submit.

To join, sign up for free using the register link below. Once you’ve registered, all submission details are located under the member area.

Register | Sign In

Best of Luck to the Sprinters of Words

Best of Luck to the Sprinters of Words

GOOD LUCK!

We cheer for your impending success

Authors Many Rights For Every Story

Authors Many Rights For Every Story

BAM! You’ve written a book. A contract is on the table. A pen stroke later your fate is sealed. If you’re lucky, an agent is acting as a resource, making sure the terms and conditions work for you. They’re explaining the fine print and in the long run, their commission should include making you aware of what the document you’re about to sign contains. In the world of indie publishing, agents are a luxury and often times authors navigate the legalities on their own. Contained within that contract are a list of rights being requested by the publisher. Let’s demystify the complex terminology.

The story you’ve written is yours for the moment. When you give away rights, any rights, you are giving away pieces of ownership to your story. These actions might be partial, whole, temporary, or permanent. It’s up to you as the author to keep track of your rights and what you have to give away. Failure to do so could result in something as mild as being black-listed by a publisher to legal ramifications.

Technical Jargon

Copyright – You are the copyright holder. This is your creation, born from your imagination. It might also be referred to as originator or the assignee (which means you legally have the ability to sign documents on behalf of this work.)

Exclusive – A contract will almost always include the word exclusive. The publisher wants to be the only person able to reproduce your work in a particular medium. They may only ask for exclusive digital rights, meaning they are the only company who can produce your work for the duration of your contract.

Non-Exclusive – You are allowing a publisher to print your work, but retain the ability to print it with another publisher at the same time. This is common in anthologies. They may ask for exclusive rights for a set amount of time and then revert to non-exclusive allowing you to reprint it elsewhere.

First Option – The publisher wants the ability to offer you a contract for your next work (usually in the same universe as your originally contracted work) before you send it other publishers or self-publish. This can work in your favor to help you skip the typical submission process. Make sure it has a termination date if no offer is made so you can publish it elsewhere if your first publisher is not interested.

Mediums

Print – You are giving away the physical rights to your story. This means the intent is to produce a physical, tangible material. It can include magazines, novels, novellas, or anthologies, but it only means the physical product.

Digital – You are giving away the digital rights to your story. Often this means eBook or digital magazines rights but can also include content on a website. However, now with the advent of audio, some contracts lump them together. It is best to make sure your contract explicitly states digital AND audio in that case.

Audio – You are giving away the digital and physical rights to audio. Physical and digital you ask? Yes, some places still produce CD’s for audio books. Some publications include podcasting in with their audio rights as it is still voice actors interpreting your work.

Territories

Worldwide – This means rights for the entire planet, folks. If they say “worldwide print,” this means they own print rights everywhere from India, to Croatia, to the United States. Some contracts use this as a blanket statement because they want everything despite having no intention of printing in international markets. Unless the publisher has a reputation for doing outstanding international work, this should be narrow as possible. Worldwide rights and only printing in the U.S. market removes your ability to print in French.

Language – Can get a bit more complicated than a simple territory. English rights is the most common (for U.S. residents) but without clarification in the contract, does this include English rights in the United Kingdom? Do Portuguese rights mean Portugal and Brazil? Make sure language is not the only thing dictating territories. For smaller presses it is extremely common that only English Language Rights are requested. If you are giving away your language rights for foreign territories, be sure the publisher has an established track record in that market.

One & Done

First Rights – You are giving away the “firstness” of your story. Nobody has ever published it before (including yourself.) This often includes if you’ve given away a story for free to your mailing list or on your website. First means first ever. Some publishers will split first into first print and first digital. Look for this specifically.

All Other Rights – Buyer beware. This phrase in a contract means the publisher is asking for rights for everything beyond the book as well. Television? Movies? Audio? Stage-Play? Comics? This phrase will rob you of every right to your book. This phrase should be a contract killer. If your book is highly successful, your publisher will have the ability to negotiate the television adaptation. Unless you’re certain you know what you’re doing, avoid at all costs.

Is this everything? Absolutely not. But it will help you start making sense of the open calls put on by publishers. If something in a contract or request appears vague, ask for clarification. If the publisher isn’t willing to provide it, that is the red flag necessary to move on. Even if you are approaching publishers without an agent, have somebody with legal expertise examine your contract. There are professional organizations that will assist authors. It’s stressful, it’s exciting, but be sure you are worrying about your long-term career as you put ink to the contract.

Breaking down World Building

Breaking down World Building

Tenet 1: Build only what you need 

So you want to write a fantasy story? Great. One thing you’ll need is a world to set it in. The term for doing this is world building. It’s a bit of a misnomer because the world part isn’t what you think. It’s a frame of reference thing.

For example, the Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time and many other stories require a whole world to tell their tales. But Thieves’ World doesn’t. For that, you need a very detailed city and lots of characters.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, only requires the bits that are different from the modern world. So you need the school he goes to and some idea about magic and potions and the back story of some characters.

My point here is world building varies from story to story and gets me to my first point: build only what you need because building a whole world can take months or years and drive you mad with all the details. So I’ll repeat myself: build only what you need.

How do you do that? Well there’s no one way to do it. You can read articles online and even a book entitled, Planet Construction Set, which will outline aspects to consider. But all that’s not needed to get started. A simpler — and in my mind — an easier way is to think of the world as a character in your story. Is the world modern? Medieval? Futuristic? Steampunk? Ancient Greece? Set in a specific period or location? In each case you’ll need different information to define the world.

What’s the technology level? What races or groups exist? What religions and government? As you answer these questions, you’ll quickly sketch out and define the world and provide yourself with a skeleton for the information that will come later. Of course, to answer these question you may have to do some research on religion, government, technology, and so on.

Don’t be afraid to do it. I will serve you better later.

That begs the question: how do I know when I’ve built enough? Answer: you won’t. Or more precisely, you can’t know, at least unless you start writing. You’ll hit points where you need more than you’ve got. That’s okay. You can stop and work those parts out. I don’t recommend skipping over that point in the story; it will likely lead to extra rewrites and revision. I also don’t recommend that you start writing until you have a general sketch of the world; otherwise, you’ll be working without a net and decisions you matter later will introduce inconsistencies, which will lead to rewrites.

Example

  • Here’s how I’d answer these questions for my fantasy world:
  • Is the world modern? No
  • Medieval? Yes with magic thrown in.
  • Futuristic? No
  • Steampunk? No
  • Ancient Greece? No, but there are influences of ancient Greece in the world like the name of the country, Thalacia and its capital Andropolis.
  • Set in a specific period or location? Specific period, no? Location yes; Thalacia
  • What’s the technology level? Medieval, no black powder weapons. But magic which can simulate modern technology if I let it. I decided not to because it would ruin the flavor I am trying to achieve. Magic as seasoning, not entree. When I write stories focused on my favorite wizard, then magic can be the entree.
  • What races or groups exist? Lots of them: elves, humans, dragons, giants, dwarves, gnomes, lizard men, goblins, and other associated fantasy races.
  • What religions and government? Religions: several, the christian sect, jewish, muslin, and various pagan religions, plus most other races have their own beliefs. There are also older religions that have died out from humans of past centuries.
  • Governments: Most races have some form of government, monarchies mostly. Humans government vary worldwide; in Thalacia, the feudal monarchy prevails. And most other races have a similar form of government with a strong single leader, like a king or thain or tribal chief or matriarch, depending on the race.

Once you know all this, or at least some of it you can think about maps. And that is the topic for another post.

Choosing to Physically Hurt your Characters

Choosing to Physically Hurt your Characters

(expanded from a blog post written in 2016)

Maybe it’s because I am a physical therapist and my husband is a physician, but we really hate medical shows. We recently rewatched DOCTOR STRANGE and both of us started yelling at the TV during a scene where Strange and another doctor are looming over a patient in the OR as they are about to do brain surgery and neither of them are wearing masks.

If you ask me to suspend disbelief over magical portals into multiverse realms, I’m there, but get something so basic wrong and you’ve lost me.

So back to the movie. . . After a brief cut-away, the scene continues and we next see both doctors wearing masks. AARGH. Continuity, anyone? (There are other continuity issues in the movie, but that’s a different blog post.)

But even worse than the medical care being depicted wrong, I get really bent out of shape when injury, illness, and disability is done poorly.

Injuries need to serve a purpose in your narrative

Choosing to injure your character is like every other choice in a story. It has to exist for a reason. Preferably more than one reason. Does the injury deepen characterization? Drive the plot? Limit your character’s abilities? Force your character to problem solve more fully? Change the way others relate to them?

If the only reason the character is injured is to engender sympathy, then the injury is a thin device and adds little to the overall narrative. One of the dangers of incorporating injury and disability in a story is falling into the cliché of the ‘noble victim.’ Equally problematic is when the character is injured or disabled simply to motivate the actions of the non-injured protagonist. Both choices remove agency from the character and render that person into a plot-device.

But injury and disability can be written well. One of my favorite depictions of physical disability in speculative fiction is the Vorkosigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold. The protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, was exposed to a poison in utero that prevented normal growth of his bones. He is considered a mutant by many in the rigid conservative society in which he was born for his deformities and has fragile bones. His frailty forces him to compete in a vicious political landscape using his wits and his will. He is both brilliant and insufferable and a wonderful, fully realized character.

Injuries need to have consequences

A second pitfall in writing injuries is when the injuries serve the needs of an immediate plot point but have no follow through or consequence in the story as a whole. This is something common to thrillers where the hero gets shot only to be patched up by a sympathetic side character and then saves the day when any mere mortal would be writhing on the floor waiting for emergency services. Getting injured hurts. Even if no vital organs are damaged, the shock post gunshot or stabbing or burn can easily take down the strongest, most fit individual.

Shock is a protective reaction by the body and is part of a complex series of reflexes that take place without conscious thought. Typical shock reactions include: decreased blood pressure, rapid, weak pulse, lowered core temperature, rapid, shallow breathing, nausea or vomiting, dilated pupils, and loss of consciousness.

It’s far more likely that your injured character will go into shock than run into the lair of the bad guys, rescue the damsel, and ride into the sunset. And shock, if untreated, can actually be fatal.

One of the protagonists in my Halcyone Space series is dealing with the aftermath of a head injury he sustains in DERELICT, book 1. His impairments are disabling. He experiences nausea and vomiting, crippling headaches, vertigo, and is unable to focus on his computer screen or read. His experience of his injury and the choices he makes as a result of not improving drives his plot arc in ITHAKA RISING, book 2. He believes only a neural implant device will help him, but his young age is a contraindication. So he finds a black market source for one. There are consequences to his actions, ripples that effect him, his family, and the political landscape.

The cover character in PARALLAX (book 4) is an upper extremity amputee. In the world of Halcyone Space, technology allows for prosthetics that are nearly indistinguishable from physiologic limbs, but she chooses a more primitive looking device. She has specific reasons for that choice that are critical to her character, backstory, and plot.

Injuries need to be written realistically

Another problem in writing injuries is when the author gets the physiologic details wrong. Absent magical healing or hugely advanced tech (and even those need to have limits and consequences), injuries take time to heal. Even the mildest of tendon strains can take several weeks to fully heal. Broken bones can take six to twelve weeks or more depending on the severity of the fracture and the overall health and age of the person. Deep cuts and penetrating wounds are a huge infection risk, as are burns. Infections can be fatal, even in a technologically enhanced world.

I had a 25 year career as a physical therapist before I became a writer. My specialty area was orthopedics and chronic pain management. When my characters get hurt, they are well and truly hurt. Their impairments continue to have consequences throughout the series.

My advice to writers wanting to show the realistic consequences of injuries, illness, or disability is this: Work backwards. That will keep you focused on continuity.

Decide the impairments and limitations you need your character to demonstrate first. Then build the mechanism of injury to get there. There are a multitude of websites that discuss symptoms of various injuries, illnesses, and disabilities. Some include:

These sites are a great starting point. To go deeper, speak to a medical professional (if you ping me on Twitter @lisajanicecohen I’ll do my best to help out), and someone who has dealt with the condition you are considering. And, like anything else, know that one person’s experience will not be generalized to all. This is especially critical in writing a character with a disability.

Want to harm your character? Remember three key issues: It must serve a purpose, it must have consequences, and must be portrayed realistically. Otherwise, you risk weakening your story and losing your reader.


LJ Cohen is a Boston-area speculative fiction writer. After a 25 year career as a physical therapist, she now uses her anatomical and medical knowledge to harm the characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. You can find her work at http://www.ljcohen.net

5 Things Writers Get Wrong About Guns

5 Things Writers Get Wrong About Guns

I grew up in a house filled with guns. Not like, stacked on top of the hutch, or leaning against the wall in the corner of the living room full of guns, but we had multiple weapons. Shotguns, rifles, pistols. Bolt action, lever action, pump action, revolvers, I once even owned a slingshot.

My father was a veteran of World War 2, and two of my brothers fought in Vietnam. Most of my uncles served during World War 2 as well, so hunting and guns were just a part of our culture. Hell, half my friends I grew up with enlisted, and more than one friend I have now is either Law Enforcement, or still active duty. We went target shooting, clay shooting, and ate what we killed. Guns were tools in our family. You were entertained by them, you found food with them, and God forbid… you defended the family with them.

No one was ever shot. We took gun safety seriously. We did our homework on them, and treated them with respect.

Sometimes writers respect the guns they write about. Sometimes they don’t do enough homework and I include myself in that group. Despite being a gun owner and carrier of one at times, when I write about guns, I still risk making small mistakes. Sometimes, I make mistakes, and sometimes, those mistakes pull readers out the stories I’m writing, or illustrate that I don’t do my homework.

Can’t have that.

So here I am, and I’m going to outline five bits of advice I can give writers about using guns in their stories.

  1. It’s a magazine, not a clip. Bullets (or rounds, or in some cases shells) for a semi- or fully automatic weapon typically come in magazines. They are spring-loaded little boxes of danger that feed fresh rounds into the weapon’s chamber as the gun is fired. You can shorten magazine to mag if you like, and no one will get angry, or think you’re an idiot.

    But God help you if you say ‘she loaded a fresh clip into her pistol.’ Clips are open metal devices that hold a small batch of rounds physically close together. Typically just a few rounds. They’re antiquated, and rarely used in weapons that a modern character is likely to bring to a gunfight.

    Think of this when you write; No one would load a paper clip into a gun.

    We can get into belt-fed ammunition in a different article.

  2. No one who knows how to shoot uses two guns at the same time, unless…

    Asian cinema loves to feature some Kung Fu knowing badass with two pistols. Or, if it’s available, two sub machineguns. Or, they’re available, two rifles, two bazookas, or two thermonuclear weapons. No one who knows how to aim anything uses two guns at the same time. It’s a function of vision.

    You can’t aim down the sights of two weapons at the same time. Our brain won’t cooperate. Ergo, if you’re shooting two guns at the same time, only one can accurately be aimed. The other might be close because of muscle memory, or just plain old luck, but it just isn’t being aimed properly.

    Shooting two guns might be used as a last ditch effort for suppressing fire (shoot so many bullets anyone shooting at you has to duck so you can run) but the reality of it is this; shooting a few times, accurately, is almost always better than spraying and praying. That’s a huge part of why regular infantry troops aren’t issued fully automatic weapons across the board. Most are semi-automatic, with an option for a short three round burst.

    Think of this when you write; You can’t reload two guns after they run out of bullets. One has to get put away. Might as well leave it put away in the first place.

  3. There’s no such thing as a silencer. Guns are devices designed to create small explosions to power a projectile intended to pierce a target, or flesh if need be. Think about that. Can you silence an explosion?

    No, not really. And you certainly can’t do it with a tiny metal tube screwed onto the end of a weapon. In actuality, there are a few weapons that when combined with special ammunition (subsonic, but there’s an exchange you have to make in power) can get the firing down to a pretty low level, but the vast majority of ‘silenced’ weapons aren’t silent at all. They’re still loud. Like, jackhammer loud. Go Google a jackhammer and get back to me.

    In fact, ditch the word silencer. No gun aficionado uses it. They use the correct word; suppressor. Which is what it does. It suppresses the noise somewhat, to gain a slight edge in surprise, or to cut down the distance the sound travels. And… there’s a loss in accuracy and power associated with most suppressed weapons. You won’t find many suppressed shotguns (though they exist, and some are pretty quiet) sniper rifles, and if you do… they’re going to be insanely expensive, loaded with custom ammo, and shot by someone who really knows how to shoot.

    Think of this when you write; You can suppress evidence, but not silence it.

  4. Full auto is almost never used.

    Remember above when we talked about firing two guns at the same time, and how infantry folks aren’t issued many fully automatic weapons? You know why? There are a few reasons why…

    They’re pretty inaccurate. When a rifle/carbine/machinegun is fired in full-auto, the muzzle (tip of the barrel) steadily climbs up with every shot. This is called muzzle lift. Combating that lift to keep the sight on target is a big part of firing accurately. Sadly, it’s hard, and even good machine gunners miss a whole helluva lot on full-auto. When you fire full-auto, you’re attempting to control an area with your bullets. Not just trying to kill someone. You’re trying to deny movement, or space to the enemy. Think they might run across an alley? Spray it with a steady stream of bullets so they don’t cross.

    They’re super, super wasteful of ammunition, especially in long engagements. The M249 SAW machine gun (a military staple for decades) fires its ammunition as fast as 800 rounds per minute. The gunner typically carries about 200 rounds of ammo in belts in pouches. Do the math on how long they can fire on full auto before they’re out. It isn’t long, which is why most decent machine gunners learn how to fire short bursts of 3-10 rounds over time. Just as effective, far more efficient.

    Oh, and if you fire too many rounds too fast, you’ll melt the barrel of your weapon.

    Think of this when you write; Full-auto isn’t a default. It’s a tool. If your character isn’t using full-auto to suppress movement, it better be as a last ditch effort to stay alive.

  5. Guns need cleaning.

    This is more of a pet peeve I know I share with gun enthusiasts, and especially veterans. Guns get dirty. Really, really dirty. Just firing them makes them filthy on the inside. Build-up clogs the finely machined parts, and if you don’t clean those parts after almost every firing, the gun will jam, misfire, fail to feed, you name it. It WILL malfunction. Maybe that’s a hook for you. A character that doesn’t know to clean their weapon…

    Also, when you’re out and about, shooting up bad guys or monsters, or whatever, guns get dirty from their environment. Did your character dive into the grass? Gun got dirty. Did they dive under a pool table to avoid enemy fire? Gun got dirty. Did they draw their weapon? Gun got dirty.

    Military service members and law enforcement people clean their weapons after they’re fired, periodically if they weren’t, and sometimes… when they’re bored.

    Have your characters clean their weapon. Could be a nice background activity under some dialogue, and worst case, you character will seem far more realistic to people who know guns.

    Think of this when you write; Their language might be dirty, but your character’s guns should be clean.

I hope you readers and writers out there found this amusing if not educational. I know it’s fun to write exciting gunplay, but it’s also a little terrifying knowing that there are so many experts out there who are ready and willing to tear your writing up.

Do your research, ask around, and write because you love to.

What’s a “Fantasy”?

What’s a “Fantasy”?

Fantasy. Why does it get grouped in with science fiction all the time? It seems to be its own distinct subgenre of speculative fiction, but if you go to any of the local Barnes and Noble stores around your home or employment, you will see that this corporate entity has determined that the two are, if not one in the same, alike or at the very least enjoyed by the same reading audience. A whole row of books under the title “Science Fiction & Fantasy” include things as diverse as a Robert Heinlein outer space novel to a Robert E. Howard barbarian adventure.

Okay, so that may be true. If you do love science fiction, fantasy may be right up your alley. But that over simplifies things … just a bit. And it actually has to do with the very fact that both these genres of storytelling are themselves splintered. If fantasy and science fiction are both subgenres of speculative fiction, then they themselves are splintered into further subgenres. And in many cases, they overlap. They in everyway can and do have similarities, if not so obvious.

How so?   Let’s take the fact that science fiction itself can be a very contradictory term. Science is technically not a fiction at all, its fact. But when an author goes to the word processor and begins to churn out sentences to the figurative page, the fictional world of what can be evolves. But it’s more than that. A science fiction story can take place a year in the future where the combustive engine has been banned and oil has been depleted, therefore we all become horse riders, and bicycles built for two are once again vogue. So with this tale, there isn’t much scientific advancement at all. Actually such a scenario could be considered backward progression. But a science fiction tale also can be technological advances where quantum physics and Kelvin absolute zero are the main thrust of the story, and everything written is just conjecture. Magnificent, and scary things in some cases, are possible and the author now makes it so. Thereby, this is why science fiction encompasses as large and vast umbrella.

But this isn’t a discussion on science fiction alone, it is why fantasy and science fiction are sometimes interchangeable. And there is good reason. Before such ideas are pointed out, let’s look at pornography. Say What you say? Well, during the obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart spoke of pornography and he determined one thing, “I know it when I see it.” And so can be said of fantasy, right? Isn’t it cliché? Doesn’t fantasy include classic mythos that include elves and centaurs, trolls and dragons, wizards and witches? Isn’t there a hero dressed in bear skins or a large suit of armor who journeys to kill some mammoth evil? I mean, come on, “I know it when I see it.”

And there lies the flaw of the “I know it when I see it” approach. I mean, someone at Barnes and Noble felt otherwise. Sure, that person may be some corporate manager in Atlanta that knows nothing about speculative fiction. She could have been staring at a picture of the store layout and determined, just as was done with horror, space was needed. Why not remove sections and either merge them or condense them? But also, maybe she saw something that the typical defensive fantasy fan would never see. That it’s more than just floor space in a store. It’s bigger than that. Much bigger.

Again, science fiction is the place to start, not fantasy. See, with science fiction, it has its roots in fantasy. As folks began to disregard things like Baba Yaga, demon possession, or Athena pulling the sun across the sky, populations began to consign science on what was once unexplained. It wasn’t Venus who made you fall madly in love, but instead hormones and chemicals. And so speculative fiction began to turn to a mash up of the fantastic and the scientific. Laser beams, airborne discs, and green men from Mars, if not replacing, at least became the vogue substitutions for magic spells, flying dragons, and pixies.

With space opera, science fiction all but fully encompassed what a fantasy tale had once been. Rather than an alternate earth, we had a foreign planet or a spaceship. A dashing hero in an oxygen suit would save a beautiful and latex dressed woman from the four armed evil alien that had invaded our world. The weekly movie serials all the way to Star Wars and Dune brought with it telepathy (“Luke, use the Force”) and pseudo-religion such as the Kwisatz Haderach, the promised one. Besides a few things, interchange a knight, a wizard, and a princess with the latex suit and alien, and it’s so much alike.

And that’s why the Venn diagram is so central to speculative fiction, and specifically to that newly created category that Barnes and Noble gave us no matter how contradictory and generic as it seems: Science Fiction & Fantasy. When Paolo Bacigalupi released his acclaimed novel The Windup Girl, the book appeared on best sellers lists and best of lists back in 2009 on numerous genre categories … for a reason. Was it fantasy? Was it science fiction? Or was it something else? Not to go through the plot, but most folks would agree the book had elements of both. And that’s where subgenres come about. This one was classified as biopunk. Don’t know what it means? It’s got a wiki. But there are more. There’s steampunk, cyberpunk, space opera, hard science fiction, post-apocalyptic, techno-thriller, high fantasy, sword and sandle. And don’t get me into horror fiction and its subgenres, but to skirt around it, there’s dark fantasy and urban fantasy, and then the zombie apocalypse itself.

Steampunk is probably the very best example of where the line between fantasy and science fiction can get lost for many who are diehards. Oddly that wasn’t the case for that Barnes and Noble corporate manager who made such a strange decision while drinking her Starbucks latte (with stevia and soy milk, of course.) For us, the diehard, we know that DNA manipulation is different than a doppelgänger from Dungeons and Dragons. But for a science fiction fan, how can a world filled with gears and engines not be anything but science fiction. Yet a fantasy fan can see (with no issues) a walking tin man fitting nicely into a fantasy world. Didn’t Ray Harryhausen show us Talos as a giant steel man in Jason and the Argonauts?

Maybe this is a bit of oversimplification, but there is an argument to be made that determining what is fantasy, science fiction, and for that matter, horror can in many ways be a bit troubling. Sure, there are certain tropes that cannot be disputed. George R.R. Martin with his alternate world where dragons and zombies (or wights if you prefer) exist is in no way anything but a subgenre of fantasy. But when you start getting into blimps, mechanical men, the “Force”, promised saviors, demon possession, and zombie apocalypses, the activist debater will liberally throw up both facts and straw men that will erase ones thoughts of what is and what isn’t fantasy. And with variably degrees of success.

So the next time you think you know it when you see it, instead think out of the box. Besides retail space, that pretentious Barnes and Noble corporate manager, between bites of her portobella sandwich, may actually know something that a true genre fan that’s deep in the woods may not see. Eat your forty-eighth wonderfully salty French fry, but keep in mind that the zombie apocalypse is nothing more than a whole group of wights in a horror novel that started out as a psychological thriller.