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Conlangs into Culture: A naming of names

Okay, so now you have your list of words in an invented language.

Now what?

How do you actually go about naming stuff?

Continue reading “Conlangs into Culture: A naming of names”

Turning Conlangs into Culture: Worldbuilding through constructed languages

This past weekend I gave a presentation at InConJunction in Indianapolis, and one of the attendees requested that I make it available online later on. So let’s give it a go!

First of all:

What is a Conlang?

Conlang is short for “Constructed Language”, meaning any kind of artificially and intentionally created language. You’re probably familiar with them, considering that fiction is absolutely rife with them.

Continue reading “Turning Conlangs into Culture: Worldbuilding through constructed languages”

On Gargoyles

We’ve been seeing a lot of gargoyles recently, haven’t we?

The beasts in I, Frankenstein, the heroes (mostly) in the 90s animated series, the living stone Constable Downspout from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. But this is actually a relatively new monster: an often-winged demonic-looking creature that is strongly associated  with rock and tends to perch high on rooftops like a sedimentary Batman.

I think it’s especially noteworthy that all three of these works take place in city centers, and if they’re not outright urban fantasy, they’re close enough to it to wave hello.

That might be part of the reason behind the rise of gargoyles-as-monsters in the modern day– for the first time in history, we have a whole lot of buildings very close to one another that are extremely tall, (thanks to the invention of the modern elevator that made taller buildings practical).

The modern take on monstrous gargoyles dates back to the 1930s, with movies like Maker of Gargoyles and The Horn of Vapula (both from 1932).

Before then, European gargoyles were architectural details, meant to act as decorative rain spouts to keep water from damaging the mortar and masonry of the building (statues that weren’t water spouts were known as grotesques). They were often a chance for stonemasons to get creative, and so they’d often look like animals, people (often ridiculously exaggerated to make fun of them) or inside jokes.

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One of the gargoyles in Paisley Abbey is made to look like a xenomorph from Alien

One story about the “origin” of gargoyles is of the dragon La Gargouille that attacked the town of Rouen in 600 AD. It was defeated by a travelling priest, but when the creature’s head and neck didn’t burn to ash with the rest of the body, the locals nailed it to the church as a warning to other evil creatures. Other origin stories speak of Celts who harnessed the powers of animals they had hunted by hanging them on the outer walls of their towns to “attract luck and repel evil”.

Repelling evil is the common thread across much of the gargoyle folklore: all their grotesqueness is meant to frighten away evil, and protect the people inside (or, sometimes, to frighten the people inside into behaving themselves).

So what about writing gargoyles as monsters? Really, that’s up to you. You can draw from the stories that have been written in the last ninety years, or you can give your own spin on our old architectural guardians. But as you write, here’s some ideas to play with:

  • What do they look like? Are they animalistic, draconic, humanoid, demonic?
  • Are they natural creatures, or are they constructs brought to life by some kind of magic or technology?
  • What is their relationship to stone? Are they made of stone, do they turn into it, do they simply resemble it, do they eat it?
  • Are they protectors and guardians? Are they the remains of defeated enemies used as a warning to others?
  • Why do they stay on the tops of buildings– do they fly, are they fast climbers, are they trapped there against their will? Did they get put up there so they’d fall to their deaths if they suddenly woke up?
  • What do they eat? Pigeons? People? Rocks?
  • If you’re dealing with modern fantasy, how would they be affected by things like light pollution, noise pollution, smog, acid rain, and other issues that would be a lot more prevalent in the 21st century than in the 6th century?

There’s a lot to think about, and a lot of room to play. So have at it, and have fun!

Fun with concept art

A lot of writers I’ve spoken to at conventions swear by the little extras at their table– I already have pins and little polymer dragons, but they particularly talk about the power of concept art and maps.

Which resulted in the following conversation:

Me: “Hey, do we have room in the budget for concept art?”

Partner: “For which book?”

Me: “I was thinking a map and some characters for the one I’m working on now… but maybe start with Urban Dragon? Arkay, Rosa, maybe Meph?”

Partner: “…If you add Terry to that list, by god I will make room in the budget.”

Sometimes it slips my mind just how much he loves Terry.

For those who don’t remember, Terry is the groundskeeper of the Hoarde’s secret base– a multidimensional amorphous conglomeration of eyes, teeth, bones, and miscellaneous viscera, who accumulated all those various bits and pieces from the trespassers they’ve devoured over the years.

They’re also an insatiable gossip and an utter drama queen.

Really, most of the Urban Dragon series can be boiled down to “mix one part sinister and one part silly, and add a bit of gore for good measure”.

I kept getting reminded of that trying to explain my characters to the artist. Arkay and Rosa are easy enough– I’ve described them to cover artists enough times that I’ve got that part down.

I spent a whole lot of time describing Meph’s physical features like he’s some kind of action hero, and then I tried to sum up his vibe: “he takes himself way too seriously, which usually results in him being either very flustered or very confused, especially when he’s around Arkay.”

I can’t wait to see how the art turns out, but I’m really most excited to see what this artist does with Terry.

My beloved eldritch abomination is either going to be a whole lot of fun for them, or else they’re going to be an absolute nightmare.

Character Creation: Face Blindness

Since I started doing author panels at conventions, I’ve gotten one question thrown at me a few times: “How do you come up with characters?”

And inevitably, my process is just a little bit different from the other authors at those panels, because mine plays a lot into my face blindness.

For those unaware, face blindness (or prosopagnosia) is a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. If I see you at a convention and I introduce myself to you twice, that’s why: I remember having talked to you, but I can’t keep in my mind what you actually look like. Like a lot of people with the disorder, I tend to compensate with other details– if you’re wearing a particular costume, for example, or if you’ve got a visible tattoo.

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Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

I once had a pair of coworkers who would often be on shifts with me together. They were both blonde, both in their early twenties, and both fairly petite and thin. In my first few weeks on the job, I could be looking at one and standing next to the other, and I would have absolutely no idea which one I was talking to unless I looked at the nametag; sometimes I would continue a conversation I’d started with one coworker but speak to the other one, not realizing that these were two different people. After several weeks of working there, I got to know them well enough that I learned to recognize them– and at that point, I realized that aside from their hair and body type, they really looked nothing alike. In the first few weeks, I also had a bad habit of giving sales pitches to my coworkers as they were walking back from the bathroom, because I couldn’t recognize that they were the same people that had been hanging out with me a few minutes before. It was only when they visibly recognized me that I was able to say “wait, they know me? Oh, that’s actually my manager”.

That tends to come across in my writing.

“Believe it or not, age/race/hair/eyes really didn’t make a person much easier to identify. I was more interested in details that made him stand out: a hyena-like walk that was somehow both a sulk and a swagger; a penchant for bad spray tans and expensive hair gel; a tendency to wear designer clothes and colognes, usually with no regard to whether they actually suited him.” — Urban Dragon Book 3: Dance with the Devil

When I create a character, I tend to start with the role they have in the story, and from there I default to the way I would remember them if I were to meet them: what impression would they leave behind?

With Arkay, even before she was a dragon I knew she was overly energetic, mischievous, and overprotective, that she liked to pick fights, and that she was physically so small that people always underestimated her (which she found hilarious). The over-protectiveness developed into a dragon’s territorial nature; the fact that she was an Asiatic dragon informed her ethnicity, etc.

With Rosario, the first things I knew were that she was homeless because she found Arkay under a bridge, and that she was incredibly brave and kind– because you kind of have to be, to nurse a forty-foot dragon back to health. Details like her sexuality, her body type, and her ethnicity are all informed by the research I did based around those two details. Her gender was actually the last thing I chose for her.

Raimo was meant to be an overly friendly viking; the Contessa is an anachronistic embodiment of Medici wealth, power, and style, where stilettos are both the shoes she wears and the weapon she prefers.

Details like race and gender are often among the last details I choose for my characters, unless they’re intrinsically tied to some detail in that character. With both Arkay and Raimo, I couldn’t picture either of them as anything but Japanese and Scandanavian, respectively, because that was already built into those foundational details of the character.

That’s not to say they’re not incredibly important– the race and gender do so very much to inform a person’s experiences as they move through life and is a defining part of who they are, and they can radically alter the kind of tropes that play out with those characters– but they’re not the first places my mind goes when I’m creating those characters.

But if you’re ever wondering why I describe my characters the way I do– or, rather, why I don’t describe my characters with the kind of details other authors might– that’s why.

A matter of scale

Originally, the Urban Dragon books were commissioned by Cliffhanger Press, and that meant I needed to write them according to a very particular set of instructions.

Among those instructions was a wordcount: each of the nine stories had to fall between 18,000 and 25,000 words, and so I got very good at marking exactly how long each act of each story was going to be. Even after I got the rights and I was able to tweak it without restriction, it was difficult to stretch out a 24,000 word story into anything much larger than that. Continue reading “A matter of scale”