Several of the books I’ve read most recently have reminded me of something that I already knew– namely that I really enjoy stories with an interesting, creative setting. You know. In case my preoccupation with science fiction and fantasy hadn’t already given it away. I also can’t remember if I’ve written about this in the blog already or not, so please bear with me if it starts sounding like I’m just rewriting an earlier post.
Anyway! Consider this another entry in my continuing quest to figure out why certain stories grab me and refuse to let go. Because I’m pretty sure this is part of it.
To some extent, I suspect this is why most fans of sci-fi and fantasy enjoy it the way we do. There’s a reason those of us who grew up with it spent so many hours daydreaming of ways to get ourselves to Narnia. And also why we have discussions about which Hogwarts House we would belong to, and why those “who would you be in X fictional world” quizzes are so popular.
I imagine it also helps that when something is well-known, the fact that we can talk about them (giddily) with other like-minded fans only feeds our enjoyment. But then there’s the stories that are not as widely known, or with a less rabid fanbase, that– for me– result in the same level of borderline-obsessive focus.
Like, for instance, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. The books are definitely fun, particularly the earlier ones, and though I know he’s written more in the same setting beyond the ones that focus around the titular character, I haven’t gotten to them yet. Unlike some of the other stories I’ll mention in this post, Weber does enjoy a pretty decent following. Probably because there’s a lot of us who think that “female Horatio Hornblower in space” is a whole lot of fun. That being said, the books, fun as they are, also aren’t the masterpieces that, say, The Lord of the Rings or Red Rising are. The stories and the characters are fun, but there’s a reason this little gem makes so many of Mr. Weber’s fans laughing.
Then you’ve got stories like Andrea K. Höst‘s brilliant Touchstone series, which I just reread and got a forcible reminder of why I should really look up more of her work. The writing is lovely, and while I know some people don’t particularly like the journal format that the books use, I think it works very well for the nerdy, comforting story she’s telling.
And for all these two series are very different, I found that they have something in common. They captured my imagination. Completely. It’s stuck. Not going anywhere. In Weber’s case, it means that I will happily read for hours on end about the technological advances of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s missiles, and how it changes the way their massive space battles play out. In Touchstone, it means I will read everything about Cassandra Devlin and the Setari and the spaces that I can get my hands on.
And in both cases, that is in large part thanks to the worldbuilding. These authors succeeded in creating worlds so compelling that I am happy to visit them again and again and that I think about them randomly even when I’m not reading their stories. J.S. Morin does a bit of the same, especially with the way magic works in his various Black Ocean series. Fringe does it in the way it creates a world so similar to our own, just with weird science causing all manner of mayhem.
Perhaps all of this is just outing me as an escapist, though even that’s hardly as damning a truth as some people make it out to be. But whatever way you want to slice it, the fact remains that some authors do a remarkably good job at creating strange, new worlds, and it’s a particular pleasure of mine to go exploring them for a while.
It is easy– so easy– for us writers to get bogged down in plot holes. Those funny, niggling realizations that something about our carefully crafted stories doesn’t quite make perfect sense. That our characters could have found a better way of doing things that would have greatly simplified everything and kept them out of a great deal of trouble. And to some extent, all that is good. If we find the holes we can plug them and make our stories tighter and more streamlined. Better. And that’s what most of us are trying to do, right?
And yet. What happens when filling those plot holes ends up burying our plot itself? Some plot holes absolutely need to be filled in, of course, and I don’t mean to argue against that. But sometimes when you do it, the choice is between making it all make sense logically and letting it keep that weird spark of magic that attracted you to your idea in the first place. And I think when it comes down to it, it’s better to keep the magic.
Or maybe I just need to get better at filling in my ok holes.
Just a quick check-in this week! After a stretch of time with the writing just coming slow and difficult, things are starting to move along a little more easily again, which is so nice.
Part of it, I think, was just the fact that I was changing gears to start the next story/chapter. I’m enjoying the very episodic nature of this particular project, but it definitely comes with some of its own special difficulties. Like finding a good way to work the pacing.
I also think it was working a lot better than I thought it was, because when I opened up a new document and essentially retyped the 1400 words or so I already had just to get back into the flow, it wasn’t half as bogged down as I thought it was. So yay!
Speaking as someone who rarely (if ever) writes without a soundtrack, there’s an undeniable connection between story and music. And I know I’m not alone– my sister and I regularly exchange writing music recommendations, and various other fellow writers and I have frequently discussed the best tracks to use for inspiration for a given scene.
Of course, it’s not just writing. Any form of storytelling seems able to reap some benefit from a good soundtrack. Exhibit A: movies. When done particularly well, the scene will stand on its own, but add in the perfect music to your thriller and what was only mildly nerve-wracking becomes wildly unsettling. And that’s not even mentioning what effect you can have by removing music at the right time, too.
Or how about video games? Sure, most of our favorite video game soundtracks are written specifically to be more or less ignored as you try to make your character look like they know what they’re doing, but the good ones are adding to the experience while they do just that. And how are you supposed to stay perfectly unaffected when the first epic chords of a boss battle track start playing?
Writing and music both aim to interact with our feelings. Our thoughts, too, of course, particularly in the case of writing. And while it’s a relatively recent thing that most anyone reading this post has easy access to both music on demand and writing materials, there’s a reason not so far removed from all this for why we still have ballads kicking around from hundreds of years ago.
Alright, friends. The time has come. I’m going to argue today in defense of why Tom Bombadil fulfills an important role in the saga of The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies), and how the hobbits’ encounter with him is more than a quirky side quest. Naturally, all the rest of this post is going to be full of various spoilers for the trilogy, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want it spoiled, you should avoid the rest of this one. Otherwise, read on!
So. Tom Bombadil. At a glance, it’s easy to see why he is a figure met with such confusion and so much shrugging. He’s a strange character who speaks in “nonsense” and weird rhymes, and he appears completely unconcerned by the fact that the rest of Middle Earth is in dire peril despite the fact that he seems to have strange powers that could help in the fight against Sauron. In fact, there’s a reason he almost feels more like a cameo than anything else.
And while I grant that he exists in the narrative for the reasons mentioned in the article above (tldr: Tolkien wrote him in when he still imagined LotR as an episodic children’s story much like The Hobbit, and Bombadil was a character who was well known by his own children), I would also argue that the finished narrative we all know and love benefits from his inclusion.
First, the fact that he was there to rescue the hobbits (twice!) is a way to show us readers how dangerous things are beyond the Shire while still having a way for our heroes to survive and continue their journey in one piece. Second– and I recognize that some might view this as an argument against his inclusion– having a character exist beyond Sauron’s influence the way Bombadil does makes a statement on the nature of evil itself without changing how important it is for the quest to succeed for the sake of Middle Earth. And finally, he is the first of three major encounters throughout the saga where an unfamiliar entity is found in the woods and proves to be a friend.
If you’ve read the books, you probably remember that the hobbits meet him almost immediately after leaving the Shire when they decide to go through the Old Forest instead of following the road in an attempt to avoid the Black Riders. The trouble with this, of course, is that they end up running into Old Man Willow who does his level best to end their journey right then and there, and would have succeeded if Tom Bombadil hadn’t come along at just the right moment to save them. From a storytelling perspective, this does two things: one, much like Bilbo and the Dwarves’ encounter with the trolls in the second chapter of The Hobbit, it shows the reader that the adventure has well and truly begun and the characters will need to be on their toes from here on out; and two, it shows that the characters are not alone. They might not have Gandalf with them, but there are people out there who can and will help them when trouble inevitably comes knocking.
It’s also a way to ease us into what will be an epic tale that takes the characters into great peril and darkness. The adventure might have started and the dangers might be entirely real, but we are still quite close to the Shire. And while we, like the hobbits, might have no idea that the Rangers are the ones responsible for keeping that delightful country safe, we do know that the Shire is a uniquely good location in Middle Earth. Doesn’t it make sense that even a half awake forest so near its borders would have a benevolent force like Tom Bombadil in it?
Putting that aside, let us come to the fact that the Ring seems to have no effect on Bombadil, and what that in itself means for the story. I can understand the argument that Tom’s apparent immunity to the powers of the Ring hurts the stakes of the story. After all, if anyone exists beyond the reach of this great evil, doesn’t that lessen the danger? The answer to that, of course, is that it doesn’t. Not for those who do have to contend with it, which is why Frodo’s quest is so important. But having Sauron and the Ring’s reach be something less that absolute is an important statement of Tolkien’s worldview: evil might be great and possessed of overwhelming power, but even at its worst its reach is not complete. Evil is not the greatest power in creation.
And finally, Tom Bombadil’s existence is the first example of help unlooked for appearing in the woods. Because while forests, particularly old forests, might not be safe in any way, neither are they beholden to Sauron. This is something that occurs again and again throughout the entire trilogy, starting with Bombadil and happening again when Merry and Pippin are found by Treebeard after escaping the Uruk-Hai. Given what they do to Isengard after being roused there’s no doubt that the Ents are incredibly dangerous– to their enemies. To the hobbits and those working against Sauron they are strong allies. And the pattern continues when Frodo, Sam, and Gollum meet Faramir in Ithilien, and even to a lesser extent when the Rohirrim are helped by Ghan-buri-Ghan and his people to reach Gondor in time. And with the exception of Faramir, the rest of these encounters, like Bombadil himself, are more or less contained to their smaller corner of the grander story. Yet, like Bombadil, they add to the story as a whole.
So, there you have it. My arguments for why Tom Bombadil is a worthy inclusion in the epic trilogy, and not just a strange leftover that somehow remained. Given the different pacing necessary in a film adaptation, I understand and agree with his exclusion from Peter Jackson’s movies. Movies are an entirely different medium with different pacing requirements. But in the novels? He is a perfect fit.
This one’s from the second story in the collection. Specifically, it’s my first attempt at an opening. It didn’t quite work the way I wanted it to, but it was fun to write and I think it had some amusing parts, so I’m sharing it here! Enjoy!
The four hundred credits Hildy paid into our account for the single day of work were enough to pay our rent and buy food for the next week— and not much else. Certainly not enough to start paying off the debts I’d left behind in Sol, and when we paid Doc Amil for stitching Tanner’s leg back together it was painfully obvious we couldn’t wait long to find our next job. Not long enough to Tanner’s leg to finish healing, despite the limits that put on what sort of work we could take.
For example, hiking all over the rougher parts of the Outlands was out of the question. I called that a silver lining. Tanner grumbled and pointed out that it wasn’t my leg with eighteen stitches in it.
“So, what did you find?” I asked, tossing him a bottle of painkillers and a fresh bandage before retreating back to the bathroom to brush my teeth while he doctored his thigh. We were back in our rooms on the third floor of Teddy’s, the large boardinghouse and hotel on the eastern side of Coville. Tanner and the eponymous Teddy had come to some agreement in the year Tanner had spent here on his own, which I suspected was the only reason we could afford the monthly cost for the place. The rooms were both small and comfortably furnished, and connected by a small shared bathroom, giving it the feel of a full suite.
“Lots of jobs we can’t take until I heal up. Three that would have the Rangers on us before we were halfway through. Eight—” he broke off, pausing while I imagined all his attention went to wrapping the bandage around his leg, “—eight that would pay us pennies and drive us out of our minds with boredom. And two that look promising.”
He knocked on the door as I finished brushing my teeth. I opened the door and stepped back to my room to throw my hair into a lazy braid. “Only two?”
A mouthful of toothpaste muffled Tanner’s voice. “Two’s lucky. It told you most of the work’s in the Outlands.”
I made a face. “You did, didn’t you?”
He grunted and spat. “Commpad’s on my bed. The one I like is on the screen.”
Squeezing past him through the bathroom, I snatched the device from where it lay on the pillow and scanned the message displayed on the screen. “Where’s Oriole?”
“Southwest,” said Tanner, appearing over my shoulder. “Technically in the Outlands, but you can get there by vehicle. Hovermule, in this case.”
“And who is…” my eyes tracked back up to the line containing the sender, “Ava Loesan?”
“No idea. Never met her. Teddy said she came by a few days looking for freelancers, though, and he referred her to us.”
“Nice of him,” I said.
“The rent comes on time when I have more work. And he likes me.”
Tanner aimed a slap for the back of my head, but I ducked out of the way, cackling.
“Keep that up and I’ll have him charge full price for your room. Then where will you be?”
I sighed. “Slumming it in some cheap flophouse. Can’t be worse than when I got to the stations.”
“Oh, but it can. The stations don’t have rats.”
“Shows how much you know. The nastiest rats I’ve ever seen were on the big station around Luna.”
“The only rats you’ve ever seen,” said Tanner.
I continued unperturbed. “This long,” I said, holding out my hands a foot apart for reference.
“With or without the tail?”
“Big, sharp teeth… a taste for human flesh.” I paused, grinning. “So, kinda like your sheep.”
Tanner aimed another strike for the back of my head, but I was already out of reach. He settled for a dirty look instead.
“Then in the interests of staying in lodgings that don’t have a large rodent problem, I’ll tell her we’ll take the job.”
“Sounds good to me. Wait— you said there were two possibilities. What was the other one?”
Tanner shrugged. “Some guard job down at the Landing Fields. Usually means you’re working for some offworld snob who thinks it’s the Wild West out here. They’ll pay alright, just not enough to offset having to talk to them.”
“Oh,” I said. “That kind. The Oriole job it is, then.”
Something a little different– this was my entry for the NYC Midnight 250-word Microfiction contest. I ended up receiving an Honorable Mention in my category (the piece had to be drama, show people eating seafood, and contain the word “rest”), which wasn’t enough to advance me to the next round, but was a solid showing regardless. Here it is in its entirety!
Kathryn’s fork pierced the salmon and clicked against the plate, but she didn’t bring the food to her mouth. It would have no taste, and the fish was too good to waste on an unappreciative palate. The woman sitting opposite her had no such trouble; she was already chewing a piece of shrimp and pasta. But Afton had never been able to resist seafood.
It had been so many years. More than it should have been. Enough that writing the email and sending it to an address she hoped was current was almost too much. Yet she had done it. And a week later she’d gotten the reply: three impersonal lines. But she agreed to meet.
And now they sat together in heavy silence. No words exchanged since the mandatory greetings. Kathryn said more to the waiter than to Afton. Afton barely met her eyes. Instead they hid beneath the quiet restaurant hum.
The quiet, restless voice in the back of her mind whispered that this was a mistake. A sleeping dog she should have let lie. A can of worms she shouldn’t have opened. A burned bridge that wasn’t worth rebuilding. All the excuses that let the years pile up. All the excuses that rang hollow now more than ever.
She forced herself to take the bite. She chewed it. She swallowed it. She took a sip of water, just to buy another moment.
Another deleted scene from the Tanner and Miranda story I’m working on at the moment. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it, but it didn’t fit with the pacing for the story.
As much as I wanted to complain about it, it was impossible to deny that the Outlands were beautiful. Harsh and unforgiving if given the chance, but truly stunning. In the simplest terms, the whole area is a tangled network of canyons running between steep red cliffs and narrow mesas. Fortunately for us, most of the canyon floors were flattish and relatively simple to traverse. Unfortunately, there were some that weren’t, and those were the ones that seemed most likely to take us towards the drone’s last coordinates. Of course, if it were that easy, no one would pay us.
It started out well enough. Part of that was the fact that the first stretch was downhill, not so steep that a missed step would send me rolling to my death, though plenty steep enough for me end up windmilling my arms several times, to Tanner’s audible amusement. Something about me spending too much time on space stations with boring, flat floors and no way to practice my dexterity. Lies, all of it, not that the truth did me any good.
I didn’t get into any real trouble until it evened out for a bit and lulled me into false sense of security. One second I was stepping forward, trusting the tread of my boots to keep me from slipping. The next, the rock I’d assumed would hold my weight didn’t, and the whole world spun. I careened past Tanner. Only a miracle kept me from cracking my head open on the way down. And despite what it felt like, the tumbling and spinning didn’t last long either. I skidded to a stop in a sort of awkward crouch and tried to convinced my heart to slow to a couple hundred beats a second.
A scrambling sound from the direction I’d just come suggested that Tanner was following as quickly as he could, probably for better teasing opportunities. And to make sure I was still functional. But mostly for the teasing. That was my fault. If I’d let myself fall flat on my face, I might have gotten some sympathy. Though I suppose I’m grateful my thick duster and boots kept me from anything worse than ugly bruises and wounded pride.
I squinted upward and towards my brother’s voice. I’d meant to glare, but the sun was brighter than I expected. “Don’t say it.”
“You shouldn’t do that. It hurts.”
I growled. “I know.”
“Any real damage?”
I shook my head. “Nothing I can’t walk off. Tell me it’ll even out soon?”
Tanner laughed, and I shot him another scowl.
“This is the easy part.”
At least he had the good grace—or the common sense—to look a little sheepish. And to reach down and offer me a hand up.
“It should get flatter, though. More rocky, but you won’t roll as far if you fall.”
In reality, it wasn’t even that bad, though I didn’t mind being pleasantly surprised on that count. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t difficult, but the flash of adrenaline I’d gotten when the whole world spun out around me was enough to flush most of the remaining lag from my veins.
Not that it was easy, per se. By the time we were another hour into the trek, every bruise from my fall had decided it was too easy for me to ignore the ache and throb, and I felt it with every step. Sure, the damage was minor, especially when compared to what I’d dealt with in the past. It still hurt. And Tanner was setting a brutal pace. If we hadn’t been in relative shade beneath the canyon walls I wouldn’t have made it. Not that I was about to tell him that. I could push through just fine and save myself the trouble of admitting how much I’d been spoiled by my years on the Stations.
Unless he already knew and was waiting to see how long it took me to give in. In which case it was a toss up for which of us would win. Battles of stubbornness in the Griff family never had a foregone conclusion. They were always funny, though.
This time, I got lucky. Tanner got hungry (meaning ravenous) before I gave in and asked him to slow down. Just before. If he’d held out another couple of minutes, I’d have admitted defeat. Instead, I got to use the precious seconds he spent digging a ration bar out of his pack to catch up and tramp along next to him, red-faced and panting and pretending he hadn’t almost gotten me.
He grinned at me through a mouthful of food. “Almost had you. Good thing I didn’t over-commit and pass out. You’d have had to drag me back home.”
I grinned back. “I’d have left you. You jerk.” My breath came out in little wheezes. “We’ll regret this tomorrow.”
“We’ll be fine. You recover fast and I’m used to it.”
“I used to recover fast. Eight years ago. I’m out of practice.” Then again, the slower pace had already worked wonders.
In fact, for the time being, our greatest delay was going to be caused by the fact that we needed to find somewhere to refill our water. We were still in the shade, so it was cooler than it would have been anywhere else, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t hot and dusty. And between that and our impromptu race, we had emptied our canteens steadily through the morning. I might have been worried, but Tanner said he knew a place. A spot, really, since the little spring of cold, sweet water was nothing any human could take credit for.
Technically, it was out of our way. Not by much, only a half hour detour or so, but enough that it was an even more natural point to stop and take a break and eat something more than the trail bar Tanner had. Once we got there, I told Tanner this was enough to make it all worth it. The spring was beautiful. I think I’d know that even if I hadn’t spent so much of the last decade on something as thoroughly artificial as a space station.
This would be something I learned about this planet. It looked like as much of a desert as anything on Earth, like the places they filmed for all those old Westerns, all dry dust and red dirt, harsh and inhospitable. But huge stretches of this planet were like that. And, as near as the scientists could tell, they had been that way for centuries. Or possibly millennia. Maybe it was harsh, but it was not so harsh as you might think by looking at it. Water was never that far away, not if you could reach the underground rivers.
The spring trickled out of the red rock and fed a pool cut into the stone below. I had never seen such clear water. I had never seen much naturally pooled water. But even if I had, this would have surpassed it all. It was almost circular, three or four meters across, and hip deep at the center. And there was green. Plants clung to all the rocks beneath the surface of the water, and things like bushes grew all around it. It was incredible.
And I must have been staring.
“Bet you’re glad I made you hike out here now.”
“Hush.” But I smiled. “Maybe.” It was just a shame I already had some idea of how much I was going to be hurting the next day. And the next three days after that.
As much as we would have liked to, we spent less than an hour there. Just long enough to eat our rations (dehydrated meals are nasty, but they feed you) and rehydrate ourselves. It was peaceful. So peaceful, and in a way that it couldn’t ever been on a space station. It was peaceful even though there was a strange moment when we were both convinced something was watching us. I couldn’t say why. I might have heard something, or it might have just been the prickling feeling on the back of my neck. We looked around. My hand reached for my gun. But we didn’t see anything. And the feeling went away.
“I thought you said there weren’t aliens out here,” I said.
“There aren’t,” said Tanner, but both of us were questioning that a little. Only a little. But enough that neither of us minded getting moving again. And fortunately, the feeling faded quickly. Just not quickly enough for either of us to be anything less than fully alert for at least the next hour.
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to do some text-based roleplaying* again, which has been amazing for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s a return to my roots, as it’s absolutely the hobby that kept/started me writing throughout most of high school/college. For another, it’s phenomenal practice for writing character voice.
I think I’ve bemoaned the difficulty of that particular skill in the past, particularly when I’ve spent too long away from one story or another, and especially when the story in question is written in the first person. With this particular brand of roleplaying, it’s all done in third person, and I have four or five different characters that I write at various points, all of them with their own personalities, quirks, and feelings. Even in third person, they come across in wildly different ways, and getting into the habit of switching back and forth between them all rapidly is a skill in and of itself.
For example, there’s Shovar, the sensible and somewhat laid-back Admiral. To some extent, writing her is the easiest, because she’s more or less who I want to be like, and her values general line up with mine (she’s just way more patient). Then there’s Evva, the 14-year-old daughter of (essentially) a crime lord, who asks way too many questions, has no filter, and is, generally speaking, Trouble. Writing her is just fun. Then there’s her mom and the aforementioned crime lord, Thrinn, who also happens to be one of my oldest characters, as she was the one I was writing most often during high school. She’s gotten even sneakier in her old age.
If nothing else, the character practice has been more helpful than I’d realized or expected. Progress on Tanner and Miranda, while still slow, has been moving faster than before, and I’m more or less happy with what’s appearing on the page. The narrative sounds like Miranda, at least, and I’m happy to call that a win.
* On a little site called The Vulpine Imperium. Started out life as (more or less) a sort of Redwall fansite. Has taken on a life of its own (think PotC meets anachronistic Victorian-esque society, only it’s all anthropomorphic animals) and only recently come back from the dead, to my great surprise and joy.
One of several possible intros for The Shattered and the Infinite, my project from last November. Enjoy!
Complexity Jones must have slept, because the soft green numbers on the bedside clock read 6:12 AM. It had been just after three-thirty the last time she had looked and given up hope of getting any rest, but maybe that had been what did it. Besides, these days two and a half hours was the best she could hope to get. Even so, her body ached. Whether that was because of the physical work she had thrown herself into the day before or just the wages of however many months of lost sleep she couldn’t say. And it didn’t matter. Either way, the result was the same.
On the other side of the bed, Kemp still slept, his breathing slow and even, a comfort in the quiet morning. She’d given up envying him for it. Better that one of them get a little rest than for both of them to exist in this miserable, exhausted haze. And she was used to it. The nightmares had started shortly after the Distortion had first appeared, and she hadn’t slept well since then. Five years, give or take. No wonder the dark circles under her eyes made it look like she’d lost a fist fight. No wonder her body rebelled whenever she had a day off, and she spent twelve hours in dreamless blackout.
But this wasn’t her day off. And there was no reason to try to beg and borrow and steal another useless moment with her eyes shut and her mind spinning and awake when it wouldn’t do her any good. Better to start the process of coaxing her body back to something functional.
She swung her feet to the floor, ignoring the complaints from her back, her neck, her shoulders. They always fussed. The pain always eased with movement. Coffee helped too. It would have helped more if it was the real stuff, but that didn’t exist anymore. Not here.
Her foot brushed against a pile of clothes as she moved through the bedroom. The twinge of guilt and the impulse to clean were quiet these days, a trivial concern at the end of the world. All things considered, it seemed better to use every chance she had to lie in Kemp’s arms and talk about the things they had thought they would have a lifetime explore. Let the apartment be a little messy. It would be the least of her regrets. Nothing compared to what she would feel if the end came and she thought she could have spent more time with anyone she loved.
In the living room, the big picture window looked out over Loborough. It was still dark, still predawn for a few more minutes, but not dark enough that she couldn’t see the scars the Distortion had left on the city. There were so many swaths of barren ground. Voids where there should have been buildings. Empty flats where there should have been parks. A shattering world where it should have been whole.