Friday, 26 April 2013

Pelsatia Character Spotlight: Ssalia

I like believe I have created some acceptably decent characters for my Pelsatia books, so for quite a while, I have been wanting to talk about a few of them a bit on this blog. Not quite such a while ago, I decided I'm going to do so in form of a "character spotlight" like this one. The spotlight features a (very) short paragraph of information and a quick "interview" with Ssalia, the protagonist of my currently published book (would love to incorporate reader questions in interviews, but am currently rather lacking in non-imaginary readers). More are likely to come, though only time will tell when and what characters they will focus on (I shall be patiently waiting for time to inform me of these things). Be wary of spoilers (though no major ones are in this one, as far as I can tell) and enjoy!

Ssalia was born to Sserena (daughter of Ssama and Kremet) and Talahan (son of Elana and Hanan), simple vegetable farmers making their home in the small village of Kerem, on the northern edge of the kingdom of Sserendon in southern Asakors. Since the age of eight, she has been visiting the village school of neighbouring Rinik. Though she enjoys doing "normal" things like reading, helping with the harvest and playing with her younger brother Kalan and her friend and schoolmate Alira, Ssalia is infamous not only in her home village but also neighbouring villages and towns for her peculiar adventures and exploits, the latest of which has taken her all across a whole different continent.

Interviewer: What is your role in Ssalia and the Dragons of Avienot?
Ssalia, daughter of Sserena and Talahan: Well, I'm the main character! The heroine, you could say, though I don't know how heroic the things I have done are. I wrote the original global tongue version of the book as an account of my own journey; a kind of travelouge, you could say, though I think it's also a lot more than that!
Interviewer: It does sound exciting. Do you intend to go on all these strange adventures you have had so far, or do some of them just happen?
Ssalia: I would like to say they are all planned, but in truth, it's more like they are calling out to me, and I also to get into a lot of odd situations without meaning to. And, um, I get curious sometimes... (giggles) I had no idea what I was getting into with my latest one, though!
Interviewer: The journeys you have been on sound rather perilous, especially for someone your age. Do you worry a lot about these dangers when you undertake them?
Ssalia: Well, I like to think I'm fairly brave when it comes to such things, though I do worry sometimes. Actually, I am probably very lucky to be alive today! If it had not been for... a certain few people, I'm fairly certain at least one of my trips would not have ended well for me. I'm currently not sure if I am going to undertake anything of that scale again!
Interviewer: I am sure you have a lot to thank your friends for.
Ssalia: (nods) In fact, I'm not sure how to thank them enough. They have done a lot for me; even some... not so good friends I found during my journey have done more than I could thank them for.
Interviewer: Sounds like some good friendships were forged during that adventure. Anything else you wish to tell our readers?
Ssalia: I'd like to, if I may. Don't let what other people say get you down! Believe in yourself. Goals aren't always as far as you may think if you just reach out for them.
Interviewer: Alright, thank you for the interview, Ssalia!
Ssalia: (drops a curtsey) My pleasure! It's been fun.

If you liked or disliked this spotlight, feel free to leave a comment! (If you don't care about it and are just succumbing to a compulsive urge to haphazardly comment on arbitrary blog posts, feel free to do that as well.)

Monday, 22 April 2013

Illustrations of Pelsatia?

For quite a while now, potential illustrations in my books, and in Fantasy books in general, are something I have been agonising about. Some books have them, others do not; it's mainly those for younger audiences that do, at least in great amounts. As it's also mainly the latter that are inspiring my own works of literature, should my own books set in Pelsatia not have illustrations as well? The truth is, it has been tempting, and done right, illustrations can look really neat; the other truth is that they can insert something into the reader's head that messes with their own imagination, which can be especially drastic if the illustrations were done by the book's author and could thus be seen as "canonical". The way I draw my characters is by no means intended as the canonical and definite way they must look (which actually wouldn't make much sense, as my drawings are way too cartoony), but it may still influence the way people think of the characters, which is unfortunate. But should I take this risk and add illustrations, potentially adding something neat to the books, or should I play it safe and avoid illustrations wherever possible or limit them to my online art galleries? Would more people be interested in a (young adult) Fantasy book that boasts illustrations than one without? At the moment, I really don't know and feedback will be very welcome.

Some of my current illustrations (mostly of dragon characters from Ssalia and the Dragons of Avienot) can be found on my deviantART account. If I draw any for books, they would be more detailled than those, most likely without colour and in full-page format.

Friday, 19 April 2013

5 Considerations to Make a Culture Come Alive

In my last post, I talked about avoiding the "Planet of Hats" effect in Fantasy species by creating distinct cultures with traits based on their location, history and influences rather than simply the dominant species. But what are some aspects that can be used to make a culture distinct? What are some considerations to make when creating a fictional culture? Some are obvious, others are all too frequently ignored; all can add an interesting and unique note to the culture in question. Below are a few ideas (to be regarded as examples, not a comprehensive list) that have occurred to me while planning out Pelsatia's cultures and peoples and which may help authors who are trying to add some spice to a fictional culture in their setting without simply copying one of Earth's civilisations.

  1. Language: This seems like an obvious one, but is still often ignored as a cultural aspect and replaced with one language spoken by the whole species. Languages are probably one of the most diverse aspects of culture; consider not only Earth's languages, but also dialects, and you will see that a great potential for diversity exists even within the same culture. If you are looking to create new languages for a setting, such potential should not be ignored.

    Consider the culture's history, location and influences here. Languages can assimilate one another over time, so the languages of cultures that have coexisted in the same region for a long time are often similar or at least influenced by one another in some manner (think loanwords). Conversely, when groups of individuals even from the same culture are separated in some way, their languages can grow apart, especially with limited communication between such groups. Also consider the importance of specific other cultures in the target culture's history; it is likely that an influential other culture's language has had a particularly large influence on that of the culture in question. Consider formalities as well; a peasant is likely to speak in a different manner than a ruler. What kind of language is considered formal, what is colloquial, and to what degree? There may be polite forms to be used in certain situation, and there may be contractions and dialectal variations used in informal, everyday communication especially by the lower castes.

    A lot can factor into the development of languages; as with other aspects, taking a look at Earth's history can yield a lot of inspiration.

  2. Architecture: Another obvious one, but often generalised for an entire species, if any individuality exists at all. Consider the conditions that the culture needs to face, what materials they have available and whether their building style might have been influenced by that of a neighbouring culture. Don't forget that architecture can be an art in addition to being practical! Infrastructure also plays a role; the ancient Romans were famous for their road building and water supply networks. Not every culture needs a completely unique style of architecture, but there is a lot of potential for creativity here.

  3. Music: Some form of music exists in virtually all of Earth's cultures, but is frequently ignored in fictional ones. If the culture possesses instruments, think about what kind of instruments they may have access to (available materials can also influence this). Consider what kind of music can be made with these instruments and what role it plays within the culture's society. Is music carefully composed or spontaneous, and is the general sound and emotion valued more than memorable melodies? Is making music a group activity where many people get involved? Do people commonly sing, and if they do, what may they sing about? Different castes may have different music; perhaps certain instruments are only available to wealthy individuals and used for playing carefully crafted music, while common people prefer to sing and dance in a less strict manner?

  4. Food: As proven by Earth's cultures, a culture's cuisine can be one of its most distinct and varied aspects, with diversity existing even within the same culture! Keep in mind what kind of food is readily available in the respective region and/or what can possibly be imported. The majority of available ingredients will likely be used in some way, but be aware that the rarer and/or exotic kinds are prone to be more expensive or otherwise problematic to obtain and will not find as much use in common people's food. Consider what kinds of flavours may be preferred, what the people are particularly skilled at preparing, whether there is anything that they will not eat for ethical or similar reasons and their general relationship to food. Is eating sometimes a community activity? Under what conditions, and what kinds of food are eaten? What importance does the visual presentation have? What manners and traditions related to preparing and eating food are valued?

    Don't forget that this is one of the few aspects that can be influenced greatly by the primary species that the culture is made up of; be aware of what the creatures in question are able to chew and digest without ill effects (and would thus even consider "food" to begin with) and whether there are any special needs in their diet.

  5. Holidays: Important dates and celebrations are ubiquitous in all cultures, yet creators of Fantasy worlds like to forget about them. Think about not only the culture's history, but also its view of the world. What has happened in their past that they are proud of or would like to remember? What do they believe, what do they value? What natural phenomena affect their society? These are all good reasons for holidays and festivities to be established. Also consider what may be done on those days and how people get involved; perhaps different castes celebrate differently, or maybe in celebrating, everyone is equal for one day. Mayhap different local traditions exist.

These are by far not all the ways that an individual note can be added to a culture or civilisation (others include more obvious and commonly utilised aspects such as politics, ethical considerations and general entertainment, which I will not examine in detail), but can go a long way in making them believable and truly come alive to make the world they exist in so much more fun to visit and explore, for readers and writers alike.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

A Call Against Hats

Fictional civilised species have long been a staple of many worlds and universes. Whether it's the "classics" like orcs and dwarfs or something more inventive, the potential for creativity in presenting their very own cultures, viewpoints and physical oddities is practically infinite. Fictional cultures can simultaneously evoke both familiarity and alienness and make for a very interesting experience as readers get to know them, see the world from their perspective and discover almost "real" civilisations that interact and brave the world's challenges in their own, unique way. Sadly, not many works utilise such potential to its fullest; more often than not, an entire fictional species ends up monocultural and possibly speaking the same language, even if it spans an entire planet (TV Tropes calls this a Planet of Hats, hence the title). Even when not taken to its hive-mind extremes, this is not only very silly and immersion-breaking when one thinks about it (cultural uniformity over vast areas is particularly unlikely in Fantasy settings with limited to no methods of globalisation), but also limits the diversity of the world in question unless a ridiculously large number of civilised species is created. Why not follow humanity's example and grant fictional civilisations some cultural and linguistic diversity (and individuals some individuality)?

Even in the most generic Fantasy world, not every dwarf needs to be a miner or blacksmith obsessed with beards and beer, and not every group of dwarfs needs to value such things by tradition. For this example, consider the traits that make a dwarf identifiable as a member of their species; they are likely one of the shortest civilised species in the respective universe, may be relatively squat and may have a tendency to grow long beards. They may also have other common or ever-present traits (unrelated to their culture). Is a dwarf with these features still a dwarf if it leads a rural farming life in warmer climates and speaks an eloquent tongue rich in vowel phonemes? Of course it is, as species does not define viewpoint, culture or traditions, especially for a species with advanced enough mental capabilities to form what we consider civilisation. When creating a fictional civilisation, consider its location, what its history might be, what influences and problems it may deal or have dealt with, what aspects of other cultures it may have absorbed. When creating a character, consider where and how they grew up, who or what may have influenced them and how they as an individual feel about things, not what species they belong to.

Even with a common origin, cultures and languages can and do drift apart and gain a unique identity, and while sympathy and familiarity may exist between members of the same species, "species" and "culture" are by no means the same (nor are "species" and "personality"), as real life has been demonstrating in great detail since long before recorded history and continues to demonstrate even in this age of globalisation. But only when even a civilisation of orcs or trolls can find a cultural and linguistical identity of its own and bring forth free-thinking individuals will fiction have conquered the Planet of Hats.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Adventures in Pelsatian Pronunciation

After encountering some creative approaches at pronouncing names from my book, including its very title, it has occurred to me that, spelt in an unmodified Latin alphabet, pronunciations can be extremely vague. What can be done about that? Should every Fantasy work have a pronunciation guide appended to it? If the author values that everything be pronounced the way they intended, possibly. One of my early ideas for Ssalia and the Dragons of Avienot was to do just that — unfortunately, I ended up omitting it from the final book (I would like to pretend I had a good reason to do so, but I believe I simply forgot to write it), which I am starting to regret as I'm a big fan of linguistics and pronouncing things properly. So what's a poor author to do? Create a second edition with notes attached? Possibly, but because I am cheap like that, I'm just going to be using my blog instead. Using IPA approximations, here's how to pronounce some of the more problematic names from the book, for all the poor souls who have ever wondered how on earth to say these out loud:
  • Avienot: ˈaː-vje-nɔt
  • Kalan: ˈka-laːn
  • Khârod: ˈkχaː-ʀɔd
  • Ssalia: ˈsal-jaː
  • Tia’regon: ˈtja-ʁe-gɔn
  • Varog’niev: va-ˈʁɔg-ni-jɛv
  • Vellisia: vɛl-ˈliː-zi-jaː
  • Viola: ˈvjɔ-la
And now, go and impress your friends by pronouncing fun stuff correctly, like the title of the book. More pronunciations may be covered in a future post if there is need or interest (peradventure even both!).

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Future of Pelsatia and What's to Come

I have been asked this by a few of the equally few people to actually have read my debut novel (Ssalia and the Dragons of Avienot), so I decided to make a statement here. Am I going to write more books set in my "Pelsatia" universe? Definitely. Are they going to feature Ssalia, the protagonist of my first book? Most likely not. So what is to come?

Well, more books (when I stop being lazy and actually finish them), but not necessarily with a direct (or even indirect) connection to what I've written so far. I like universes that have room for multiple books, but I also like stand-alone stories. I am not a supporter of making readers purchase an entire series of books to be able to understand what is going on in the latest one (regardless of how that would help my finances). So what to do instead? Use what is there to weave new tales, no doubt. There is a lot more to Pelsatia than is seen in Dragons of Avienot, lingering among a mess of various notes and documents (and the even greater mess that is my head) and waiting to be used. I don't trust that I can ever show it all in books, at least not the kind I am primarily aiming for. The two I am sporadically working on don't show any notable amount of it. So what's next when a Fantasy world is too big for its own books?

Encyclopædiæ? Dictionaries? Travel guides? Cookbooks?* I am not excluding any of those, and it may very well be that some of the trivia and unimportant side stories find their way onto this blog (or perhaps into drawings?). I do have plans to get things out there, even if not in the form of Fantasy adventure novels. Whatever its future, my hopes are that the setting is going to live on for a while to come.

(*Ever wondered about those "over a hundred traditional Avienotian dishes containing crag beetles"?)

Friday, 12 April 2013

Humans in Fantasy

Out of the "standard", recurring species in Fantasy, humans are probably the most common. No matter whether it's a distant planet, an alternate Earth or some magical world without a clearly defined nature or location, most Fantasy universes feature humans. The usual reason provided is that the reader is meant to identify with them, but is there truth in that? Do readers require a human character to identify with? For millennia, stories have featured characters that may behave in familiar manners, yet clearly are not human (think Aesop's fables); in more recent times, this has become especially noticable in children's or otherwise family friendly fiction/media. Are characters like Donald Duck, Paddington Bear or the Muppets impossible to identify with because they are not human? Most would disagree, and that is where, in my opinion, the reasoning falls flat.

Why is it, then, that so many Fantasy universes include humans? Are writers too lazy to invent a new species? In some cases, possibly. But humans also tend to stand in for the average "Joe Bloggs" species that is juxtaposed with the more peculiar creatures, as they as a species/culture usually have few to no traits one would consider special or notable. But do fantastical creatures necessarily require something "normal" to be compared to within the same world in order to be perceived as fantastical? Readers are already familiar with humans; do they need an in-story reminder to compare these characters or creatures to what they know in real life? A lot of potential exists in non-human species and characters (and their viewpoints) that a lot of Fantasy sadly does not fully touch upon, even when some of the most commonly recognised great ancestors and paradigms of modern (epic) Fantasy J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion lead with a shining example in their (strong, though not exclusive) focus on Eä's "Hobbits", elves and other non-humans.

One of my major reasons for creating my Pelsatia world was to establish an extensive Fantasy world that does not rely on humans, and the absence of the latter is probably one of the things I like most about the universe I have created, as it emphasises the fantastical and non-mundane. In my opinion, more writers of Fantasy should dare to truly leave reality behind and shift the focus to a species not found in our everyday lives, encouraging imagination in the way a lot of children's media already does but too many works for older audiences do not have the courage to embrace.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

So This Indie Writer Got One of Those Blog Thingamabobs

Hallo there. Tammy Spahn here, an indie Fantasy writer/artist/composer/oddball you have likely never heard of, and this is my blog. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Because all the cool kids have one, or so I have heard.

Of course, its mere existence already raises an important question: what will my humble self be blogging about? My Fantasy writing endeavours? That webcomic that I used to actually update between blue moons? The macroscopic morphology of mushrooms? Something else entirely? So far, I think I can safely say that the answer is... yes.

And that is that.