"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Biogeography in Fantasy

My summer reading list has included the fourth book of George R.R. Martin's Ice and Fire series, entitled A Feast for Crows.  Certain events in the story had me mulling over the map of Westeros the other day, trying to understand why Dorne has a desert environment. 

The mountain range on the west side of the kingdom of Dorne, combined with the fact that Martin mentions the winds come from the west, gave me part of the answer, as the 'rain shadow effect' (see below) would make those winds dry.  Still, Dorne has quite a bit of coast off the southwest, and it seemed to me the air masses coming from that ocean would have a lot of moisture. 

Then it occured to me -- and here was the key to the puzzle -- that Westeros is actually much larger than I've imagined it to be, extending from a polar latitude near the Wall to what is most likely to about 30N near the region of Dorne.  Roughly equivalent to the north-south expanse of Europe, from the nordic countries to Spain, with a little extra land tacked on in the south.  Some time on "A Wiki of Ice and Fire" corroborated my suspicion, and laid to rest my doubts about the capacity of Dorne to be a dry landscape. 

(My next thought was, "No wonder the royal houses of Westeros have such a hard time keeping it all under one kingdom."  I mean, really.  Why do they even try?)

One of the most challenging and interesting tasks of writing fantasy is "world building".  I was first introduced to this term by DHS, my local writers group that specializes in fantasy, horror and science fiction.  There are many, many aspects to world building, but from my point of view one must always start with the foundation:  the landscapes and biomes in which our characters live. 

It is the landscape that determines the resources available to the human (or non-human) characters in our stories.  The distribution and abundance of those resources, as well as the relative isolation of different regions, can in turn impact the structure and development of the human societies that depend upon them.

The author decides just how meticulous he or she wants (or needs) to be with the biogeographic details of a fantasy world.  But having a landscape that makes 'biogeographical sense' is one of many factors that contributes to the authenticity of a story, and whether or not your readers have conscientious knowledge of the basics of geography and climate, at some level they will sense whether the world 'feels' real or not.

When thinking about the geography and climate of your world, here are some basics to keep in mind:

 1. It's generally easier to start by assuming your world is 'earth-like' in the basics of size, rotation, relative amounts of land surface vs. water surface, distance from the sun, and so forth.  (Of course, if you are a science fiction writer, you'll probably want to throw this point out the window, as the whole premise of your story may involve a world entirely different from earth.  A wonderful example of this is Geoffrey A. Landis' award-winning short story 'The Sultan of the Clouds', set in a level of Venus' atmosphere that has more or less the equivalent of a tropical environment on earth.) 

2. Be aware of the Coriolis effect, which determines large-scale wind patterns on the earth's surface.  Because of the Coriolis effect, prevailing winds will come from different directions depending on where you are on the planet.  In the polar and tropical latitudes, prevailing winds will come from the east (northeast or southeast, depending on which side of the equator you're on).  In temperate latitudes, prevailing winds will come from the west (again, northwest or southwest, depending on which side of the equator). The interaction of landmasses, waterbodies, and wind is an important determinant of local weather patterns, so knowing where the wind is coming from (and whether it has passed over a large water body in the process of getting there) will help determine where the forests, grasslands and deserts can be found on the map of your world.

3. The interaction between the sun's energy and the earth's atmosphere leads to large-scale patterns in the distribution of forests, grasslands, deserts and polar environments, which we refer to collectively as biomes.  For example, at 30N and 30S, one can find a belt of deserts that circle the earth.  (This is the same belt that I now believe Dorne is a part of in Martin's world.)  Boreal forests, on the other hand, dominate from about 50N to 70N.  (And if you've ever wondered why there's more Boreal forest north of the equator than south of it, have a look at a map.  You'll notice our planet has a lot more land between 50N and 70N than it does between 50S and 70S. This consideration adds another level of complexity to world building.  Where are your continents and seas?  The distribution of landmasses can have a huge impact on global and local climate, and therefore the distribution of biomes.)

4. Local mountain ranges are associated with 'rain shadows', a phenomenon which causes the windward side of the range to be relatively wet, while the other side of the range tends to be dry.  In the rain shadow effect, as air masses hit mountain ranges, they rise and become cooler.  The evaporated water they carry condenses and falls as precipitation.  By the time the air mass crosses the mountain range, it has lost a lot of its moisture, resulting in dry climates on the other side.  Variation in the topography of your mountain range can add a lot of complexity to this effect.  Low passes, for example, can allow channels of moister air to reach the far side of the range.  Very high mountains can result in local air circulation patterns that lead to unusually wet slopes.  And within a mountain range, of course, there can be an interesting mix of relatively wet and dry slopes and valleys.

That's probably enough for one post.  There are many excellent on-line resources that can tell you more about how latitutude, wind patterns, land masses and water bodies interact to determine the distribution of biomes on our planet, so you can put these principles into practice when developing your fantasy world.

Next week, we'll have a look at the map of Moisehen, and talk about how these and other phenomena affect the climate and ecosystems of Eolyn's world. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Rocky Mountain High

I'm in Colorado this week visiting friends and family, and technically on vacation (again), so today's post will be short.  I have a special treat for you, nonetheless.  Friend and fellow author Jeanne M. Bannon hosted me for an interview on her blog BeyondWords this past week.  If you'd like to read the interview, which includes questions about what inspired EOLYN, as well as the process of querying and publishing, please click HERE

In other news, Who Else! Books at the Broadway Book Mall in Denver, CO, hosted a signing for EOLYN on Saturday.  We had a small but very enthusiastic audience, with a lively discussion about the novel and the craft of writing fantasy in general.  A limited number of signed copies of EOLYN are still available at Who Else! Books, so if you are in the Denver area stop by the store soon if you'd like to purchase one.

I don't think I've announced this on the blog yet, but even if I have it's worth a reminder:  I've started posting audio-recordings of excerpts from the novel on a new YouTube Channel for EOLYN.  Chapters 1 and 2, as well as the Origin of Magic and a scene from the battle sequence are now available for your listening.  I'll be posting more in coming weeks.  Enjoy!

EOLYN is now available in Kindle format and should be coming out in Nook format any day now. Amazon also offers the hardcover print edition, while Barnes & Noble offer both hardcover and paperback editions.  The novel may also be at your local library; check EOLYN in libraries on this blog to find out, or run your own search on http://worldcat.org. 

That wraps up the updates for this week.  Thank you for stopping by, and I promise to be back to my usual posts, with some interesting discussions of the craft of writing fantasy, next weekend.  Enjoy your summer!

Many thanks to Jennifer Weise for providing this week's photo from the booksigning at Who Else! Books in Denver.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What People Are Saying About EOLYN

Hadley Rille Books editor Eric T. Reynolds once said to me, "Authors like to know they're being read." 

It's true.  When I first started writing EOLYN, my core motivation was simply the need to write; but as I began to share the manuscript with an ever-wider circle of readers and critics, the need to be read became increasingly important.  Now, with EOLYN in print, every time I hear it is being read -- and enjoyed -- it adds a spark of brightness to my day. 

Since its release this past May, EOLYN has garnered several reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, all of which have been positive.  That's not to say readers haven't had an occasional minor complaint, but for the most part people are enjoying the adventure.  Some feedback from Amazon readers:

"...a book to first savor at great length, and then revisit over and over again. Ms. Gastreich's characters become as real to the reader as the next-door neighbor, and much more beloved."

"...a great story that will take you on an emotional journey with romance and thrilling action."

"When it's summer within the story, you'll feel the heat....When it's winter, you'll feel the chill down to your bones. Ms. Gastreich's uncanny talent for truly creating a world her readers can become part of is a rare gift, and one she shares abundantly in Eolyn."

"Gastreich's Eolyn focuses on the emotional, political, and physical conflicts between powerful and three-dimensional characters."

"The ending is superb, both the climactic battle and its aftermath leaving no easy answers or trite successes: it's a real-world ending..."

"I cannot wait for her next book."

In addition to the Amazon reviews (which you can view in their entirety on Amazon's page for  EOLYN), it seems not a day has passed without someone somewhere mentioning a reader's enjoyment of this novel.  Word has come to me about friends of friends, nieces, nephews, cousins, grandchildren, adults and young alike, some connected to me, others not, but all finding a moment of escape and adventure in the pages of EOLYN.  Here are some comments you won't find on Amazon, as they have arrived through other channels:
"One of my birthday gifts to myself was to stay up until 1AM the night before so I could finish EOLYN."
"At first I didn't think I would be interested in the subject matter, however, the vivid descriptions made her characters come alive and the countryside so real, one could almost smell the forest."
"It was really surprising in the directions it took.  I enjoyed it a lot!  At first I thought it was a young adult novel, but it quickly changed into a much more politically charged book.  And I liked the ending a great deal..."
"I just finished your magical book Eolyn and now am ready for the second one. Hurry!"

All this to say, if you haven't yet indulged in the adventure of reading EOLYN, now is the time to do it.

The novel can be ordered online from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and is available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions (with the release of the Nook edition soon to come).  If you're feeling tight on your book budget (and don't have a Kindle or a Nook), look for EOLYN in libraries.  As of this writing, twenty-eight public library systems in eighteen states carry the novel.  For all you expats in my adopted country of Costa Rica, EOLYN is also available at the Mark Twain Library at the Centro Cultural Norteamericano Costarricenses. 

Check it out -- literally or figuratively.  You will not regret it.

FRIENDS AND FANS OF EOLYN IN DENVER:  I'm going to visit you next weekend!  Stop by Who Else! Books, 200S Broadway, Denver, Colorado, 80209, on Saturday, July 23, to talk about the novel in particular, and fantasy in general.  Books will be available for purchase and signing.  The fun starts at 3pm.  Hope to see you there!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Artists and Revolutionaries

It was with great sadness that I learned of the tragic and violent death of Facundo Cabral this weekend. A visionary and a man of peace, the musician was gunned down by professional assassins on his way to the airport in Guatemala. 

Why?  No one is quite sure.  Some believe the target of the assassination was not Cabral but the publicist who managed his visit to Guatemala.  But there are others who suspect he was killed for the ideals expressed in his songs, folk music that has inspired generations of Latin Americans to demand justice and peace from often oppressive governments.  Whatever the motivation behind his death -- indeed, if there was a clear motivation at all -- this is a sobering moment for all of us.  Men and women of peace continue to die in this world, and they continue to die violent and senseless deaths.

Word came to me of Cabral's death on Saturday night, while I was attending the Campbell Conference, hosted by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  The loss of Facundo Cabral reminded me of the recent deaths of musician Mercedes Sosa and poet Mario Benedetti -- both perished of natural causes, but their loss was nonetheless deeply felt. 

It is my perception, after residing for ten years in Costa Rica, that artists and poets occupy a somewhat different place in Latin American society than they do in the United States.  In the U.S., we look to our artists for entertainment and escape.  In Latin America, artists are often the revolutionaries, the voice of protest, the leaders in the demand for change.  Instead of trying to distract their public from social reality, they make social reality -- and particularly social justice -- the focus of their work.  (As an interesting and perhaps extreme example, the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia was assassinated in the 1950s by the Nicaraguan poet Rigoberto Lopez Perez.) 

All of this was running through my head Sunday morning, when I sat down with authors and teachers of science fiction for the last round table discussion of the Campbell Conference.  It was an informal discussion that began with comments by Sturgeon Award winner Geoffrey Landis and Campbell Award winner Ian McDonald sharing some of what inspired their award-winning stories.  (Landis received the Sturgeon this year for his short story 'The Sultan of the Clouds', published in the September 2010 issue of Asimov, and McDonald received the Campbell for his novel The Dervish House from Prometheus Books.) 

I suppose one could talk endlessly about what inspires a story, particularly a novel, where the influences can be numerous, diverse and complex.  Every so often on this blog, I've come back to the topic of what inspired Eolyn, and while listening to Landis and McDonald, I remembered one of the important books that influenced my own novel: the non-fiction work by Giocanda Belli, The Country Beneath My Skin. 

This might come as a surprise to a lot of people.  After all, how could Belli's memoir of her experiences as a Nicaraguan revolutionary in the 1970s and 80s have anything to do with the story of a young maga living in a medieval society?  But there are certain aspects of the human experience that are timeless, and Belli's story gave me many ideas to work with. 

For example, it was through her testimony that I realized the central importance of poets and artists to the revolution in Nicaragua. As a result, in Eolyn's world the revolutionaries are also musicians and artists.  I also learned a lot from Belli's memoir about the logistics of organizing major social change in an environment where any voice of protest is quickly silenced by imprisonment, torture and death.  Perhaps most importantly, I found food for thought in Belli's experiences as a woman seeking equality while engaged in a military movement that -- for all its revolutionary nature -- was still immersed in a patriarchal society and mindset. 

I wish I could say revolutions can have happy endings, and that people who advocate for peace often die peaceful deaths.  But history keeps testing my optimism, among the latest examples being the fate of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua, and this past weekend the terrible murder of Facundo Cabral. I suppose this awareness also influenced the writing of Eolyn, which -- while it does not have an unhappy ending -- certainly has an ending where many of the gains are counterbalanced by important losses.

I'll have to stop there, so as not to spoil the story.

Thank you, Facundo Cabral, Mercedes Sosa, Mario Benedetti, Giocanda Belli, artists and revolutionaries of Latin America, for inspiring by your example.  May your work and your message live on in our hearts and imaginations.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

EOLYN Abroad

Technically, I'm on vacation right now, so this will be a short post.  But I wanted to mention EOLYN has made her first official foray into Latin America.  Fans of EOLYN living in Costa Rica may now check out the novel at the Biblioteca Mark Twain, the largest collection of English language books in the country.  The library is located at the Centro Cultural Norteamericano Costarricenses.  I've donated many books to this library over the years, but this is the first time I've donated a novel of my own making.  That was a lot of fun.  I hope it finds many happy readers here.

I also brought down several copies, hardcover and paperback, that had been requested by friends and family, plus a few extras just in case -- which have come in handy after all.  Though the story is set firmly in a temperate environment, many of the scenes in the early chapters were inspired by the forests of Costa Rica, most especially the highlands of Talamanca, which in this part of the tropics support forests dominated by oak.  Costa Rica is one of the top sources of visits to this blog, running neck-and-neck for third place with Canada (behind the United States and the United Kingdom).  So I think EOLYN will find a good home here, and with any luck will be picked up by some of the local bookstores that cater to English language speakers and expats. 

Of course, someday I hope EOLYN will also be translated to Spanish.  There's been talk about that in the virtual halls of Hadley Rille Books, so it's not outside of the realm of possibilities.

In other news, I'll be at the Campbell Conference this weekend, hosted by the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  I've heard a lot of wonderful things about this conference, dedicated to science fiction but welcoming of the genres of fantasy and horror.  Many well-known authors will be there, and I am very much looking forward to having the opportunity to interact with them.  If you are in the area, there will be a group booksigning event at the Jayhawk Ink Bookstore in the Kansas Union, on Saturday from 12:45pm to 1:45pm.  The event is free and open to the public.

Okay.  Back to vacationing.  I'll check in early next week with news about the Campbell Conference and more on upcoming events.  Until then, Pura Vida!