Very Different Takes on Fairy Folklore

Very Different Takes on Fairy Folklore Red cap

Beware the red cap!

Maybe it’s all the commercials with not-so-bright Christmas elves (sometimes annoyingly so), but lately, I’ve had faeries on the brain. And, being me, that makes me think of how they’re used in books and how different authors have very different takes on fairy folklore.

Have you ever listed all the books you’ve read that used old fairy folklore as inspiration? Well, don’t start unless you have a lot of time on your hands. It’s kind of amazing, actually. So many authors have made the old stories their own, and so many of those  takes have become commonly used that it’s hard to recognize the inspiration anymore (like elves, for instance).

Of course, that’s one of the best parts of using fairy folklore as inspiration for writing. To quote myself (which feels a little weird, TBH – not being a narcissist):

“…there is simply so much fodder that 5 authors could use the same faeries as inspiration and get 5 very different worlds, characters, and stories out of it. Make that 5,000 authors…”

Well, I’m not listing 5,000 (I don’t have that kind of time), but here are 10 very different takes on fairy folklore.

10 versions of fairy folklore

Let’s start with the obvious.

 1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

While faeries as trouble-makers is well documented in the old Celtic and English tales (especially Robin Goodfellow), Shakespeare’s take humanizes the faeries and their court. They have petty squabbles (like the human court), honor human events, have pity on unrequited love, and make mistakes.

They’re not impossibly powerful beings with no souls who thrive on human suffering or are immune to the plights of their human victims (as they’re portrayed in many older works). Of course, they’re still fairly petty and impetuous, but that’s human, too.

2. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Speaking of petty, impetuous faeries, Tinker Bell is perhaps one of the most famous fairies today thanks to the Disney version of Peter Pan. To me, Tinker Bell is a perfect example of the trend to make faeries slightly more capricious than the average human. They feel enough emotion for us to empathize with them, but they’re a bit flighty and easily angered.

Her Disney incarnation may also be the reason the image of fairies as being tiny, winged beings is so popular today.

3. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Speaking of popular images, let’s talk about elves, shall we?

The elves of early fantasy stories, including Tolkien’s, are widely accepted as coming from old Norse folklore. Tolkien made some adjustments to fit his storyline and world, emphasizing the knowledge that would come with longevity (we hope). His elves feel emotion, but they put higher stock in logic than the highly emotional Tink.

The popularity of his stories has made the long-lived, sometimes-too-obscurely knowledgeable elf a role in every “traditional” fantasy novel since. To the point where few could name the origin – or did you already know they came from Norse mythology? (I didn’t…)

4. Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

The fun thing about this Discworld book is that it combines traditional impressions of scary faeries (renamed, like Jenny Greenteeth) with a completely untraditional type of fae called a Nac Mac Feegle (If you haven’t read this, and you like silliness at all in fantasy, I highly recommend it!). The traditional faeries steal people, live forever, are very dangerous, and like illusions (the usual).

The Nac Mac Feegles drink, curse, fight, and get intimidated by books, lawyers, and witchy 9 year olds (srsly, read it).

If you’re familiar with stereotypes of Scottish Highlanders (see Braveheart), then you’ll realize that Pratchett more or less took that stereotype and applied it to the old idea of the brownies. By combining two very different things, he made something new and wildly entertaining.

5. Ile-Rien books by Martha Wells

In the Ile-Rien books like Element of Fire and The Wizard Hunters, Martha Wells combines elements of alchemy, magic, faeries, and technology. She uses many of the traditional fae ideas like the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, redcaps, elf-shot, and glamour, but the uniqueness of her world and the way the fae interact with it refreshes them, as well.

The elf-shot is a specific kind of attack that the fae are impervious to (rather than simply an elf’s arrow). Glamour is an innate magical ability that fae can use but that doesn’t work against other fae – or humans who’ve been given a gift to see through it. Red caps are dangerous but not very bright, and even faerie circles get a new lot on life.

By leaving aspects of the original folklore, Wells gives a feeling of realism and history to the books, but by interweaving them with specific differences, it’s more than enough to hold the reader’s interest and feel different from the traditional stories.

6. The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

MacDonald’s interpretation of goblins suits the modern approach to children stories: scary but not too scary. While the original goblins were much more dangerous and impervious to human tricks (if not human gold and jewels), the weaknesses of MacDonald’s goblins make them much more manageable – even comical.

Here’s a hint: if you ever encounter goblins from this book, sing, get into the sun, and stomp on their feet. Not your typical grotesque and murderously greedy goblins, right?

7. Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

So we’ve confirmed that goblins have long been portrayed as grotesque little creatures that are greedy for gold and jewels – but bankers? I’d say that’s an interestingly modern twist on an old character.

Rowling also gives her own take on many other creatures from mythology and folklore. Like centaurs who are ruled by astrology and talk in riddles, a cerberus (A.K.A. Fluffy), and, of course, house elves.

Like Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegles, the house elf idea traces back to brownies, but again, Rowling gives them some new characteristics. The original brownies would leave a house if mistreated or if the food they were given was called payment for their work. They didn’t take orders, and they only worked at night and unseen. Rowling’s house elves, on the other hand, served a person or family, took orders (to the point of being unable to do certain magic without permission), and could have clothing without being freed.

Those differences not only make them new and interesting characters but also lead to interesting plot conflicts (like freeing Dobby, Winky’s drunkenness, and Hermione’s liberation movement).

8. The Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey

The entire Five Hundred Kingdoms series is about new versions of old fairy tales and folklore. In fact, the kingdoms are ruled by a magical power called the Tradition that tries to forces characters into established roles (a creative idea that makes myriad opportunities for conflict). So a seventh son or a young girl with a stepmother and two stepsisters might have to struggle to get out of a predictable pattern.

But what’s that got to do with faeries? Well, other than the typical fairy tale types (like witches, fairy godmothers, etc.), there are brownies who work for the fairy godmother. They do all the domestic magic like their predecessors, but they’re rather vocal and full-fledged characters rather than shadowy beings that only come work at night.

As the characters travel or the book changes, they also encounter faeries from many different cultures such as Russian rusalkas and bannik as well as the more traditional fantasy elves. The overtness of the world’s use of fairy tales is extremely interesting from a writing perspective since it uses the fairytales as stereotypes established by the Tradition and then explores how more realistic characters react to being stuck in those roles. I’ve never read any approach that’s quite like it (although I’m always ready to learn…).

9. Elemental Masters series by Mercedes Lackey

Even though Lackey’s Elemental Masters series uses many of the same types of fae and folklore, the tone and world is vastly different. This series is set in historic England (usually) but the historic aspects are overlaid with a magical world where humans can control specific elements – and the creatures attached to that element.

Here, different beings from folklore are assignment elemental affiliations (like red caps and Robin Goodfellow), but we most often see ones that were always considered more one element than another. Gnomes are from the earth, salamanders are from fire, undines are from water, and Sylphs are from air.

These stories are also loosely based off the framework from old fairytales, but the modern settings, stronger female leads, and addition of elemental magic make them vastly different form the originals.

10. Elves on the Road series by Mercedes Lackey

Last but not least, we have elves racing cars in the U.S. of A. The main fae link is the Seelie and Unseelie Courts and how they have survived and adapted to modern times. Parts of the old stories like sensitivity to cold iron and underhill remain, but they have evolved rather like old traditions evolve in a new setting.

Other areas’ folklore and elemental creatures occasionally pop up here, as well; however, with storylines more like a modern mystery/crime story, there’s a very different flavor than her stories based deliberately off of fairytales.

In other words, it’s by the same author, but the take on fairy folklore is different.

That’s really why I threw in the last 3 – not to push 1 author, but to emphasize how 1 author can use the same inspiration in many different ways (in fact, that author has several other series that could be thrown in, as well.). I easily could’ve done 2 more authors instead – or 20 more authors. Or 200. There are that many variations on faeries (not even counting the spelling!).

Like I said before, folklore is so rich with opportunity that any author could pick up the same old tale and turn it into a different novel. It’s Changeling versus Tinker Bell. Seriously, use life as inspiration, and the opportunities are endless – you just have to look for them.

How Crimes Change over Time

how crimes change birth control pills illegal

Speaking of how crimes change, what was banned in 1873 and remained illegal in many states until 1965?

If you read “Crime, Punishment, & Worldbuilding,” then you already know my thoughts on how useful it is to think about legal systems when it comes to realistic worldbuilding. I also briefly mentioned that crimes change over time, but in your story, that really only matters in one of three cases: 1. the story is set in a period of unrest (A.K.A. social change), 2. the book series encompasses centuries, or 3. no one remembered to change the stupid law in the official books.

How Crimes Change over Time

What was illegal 100 years ago and what is illegal now in the U.S. has some overlap, but it’s not all the same. There are also plenty of laws that make no sense today – just Google “weird U.S. laws,” and you’ll find plenty of articles on that (for example, “The United States of Crazy Laws“) that include things like whether or not you can let a donkey sleep in the bathtub or knit during fishing season (You think I’m joking.).

As a more serious example, consider the year 1872. At that time, Susan B. Anthony was arrested because she voted. The next year at her trial, the judge

  • refused to let her take the stand
  • declared her guilty of voting illegally before the jury could vote
  • fined her $100

All for voting.

Compare that to today when women vote regularly. That’s a dramatic change for a culture to make in about 144 years, especially considering it’s only been 96 years since women got the right to vote here (not even a century).

While this is a pretty dramatic example of how social norms and what is considered a crime can change, it’s important to remember that the change didn’t happen quickly, and that the length of time between the two situations would’ve included varying degrees of both attitudes.

Setting a Book When the Definition of Crime Is Changing

If you set your book during the period when the definition of a crime is changing, it may not be the happiest book, but, on the bright side, there’ll be plenty of conflict to choose from. After all, whenever there’s a movement for change, there’s generally a movement against change.

Research previous (and existing) movements for social change, and you’ll have plenty of fodder. Progress tends to be very slow at first. Then, there’s a sort of tug-o-war where the balance shifts from one side to the other, and some factions may change their support as time goes one.

Now that I think of it, it’s like the study of war: each side winning different battles, employing different strategies, making use of different technology, and trying to convince others to join or at least stay neutral. Who appears to be winning and how close the conflict is to being resolved depends entirely on when you set the story (A story set at the beginning of WWII would give a very different impression than one set at the very end.).

To be realistic, avoid making social changes quick, clean, or bloodless. The struggle and even the ugliness of it is what makes us believe.

Setting Books Before & After the Crime Changed

When a book series covers an extended period of time (say, centuries), the world has to change. One way to give the new time period a different feeling from the previous books is to include social changes like new laws. You could change who is considered a citizen, what types of behaviors are taboo, or even the amount of regulation (For example, there didn’t use to be speed limits, driver’s licenses, illegal substances, or legal drinking ages…).

Be warned, however: unless the books are a millennium or more apart, there should be hints of change.

In the book that comes first (in the chronology of the world), drop some hints of social unrest. More or less, depending on how close the story is to the actual period of change. For the book that comes after the laws have changed, you can slip in some characters who long for “the good old days,” a movement that’s trying to change it back or living true to the old laws in a separate society, or simply some old books/ads/propaganda.

Really, the options are endless, and you need look no farther than real life to get inspiration.

A Crime in Name Only

So what about when they forgot to ever undo the law? When is that useful? Well, other than the comedic-style unexpected twist, a “crime in name only” is most likely to turn up if

  • There’s a regime change – especially one that puts a scrupulous rule-follower in charge (permanently or temporarily).
  • The society agrees. If everyone thinks the law is silly or dumb, then, there may be little motivation to change it at first (it’s so obvious), and later, the next point might apply.
  • They forgot it’s there. Unless the town/country has a plethora of studious lawyers, this is surprisingly easy. If it doesn’t come up in court, why teach it?
  • Two words: recovered records. This is more common with post-apocalyptic cultures or people who had to flee some danger quickly. Then, some intrepid explorer discovers the old records, revealing the ancient law.

And so on, and so forth. You get the idea. Clearly, it takes the right series of circumstances not only to reveal the law but also to make it relevant to the situation as well as enforced by whatever group is in power.

While there can easily be a good amount of comedy with this kind of technicality, it really depends on how seriously you treat it. If you emphasize the main character’s frustration and rage at being restrained/confined/stopped/whatever by such a ridiculous and antiquated law, then it may hit close enough to home to feel rather realistic (and not funny at all).

Well, there you go. How crimes change over time, and 3 main ways that can apply to your worldbuilding. What laws will your characters break – or make?

When Realism Attempts Backfire

wrong level of realism

Like robots, if something’s close to real but off, it’s more disturbing than imagery that doesn’t try to be that close (like animation).

We want our stories to feel real. We try to research enough to get the big details right, and sometimes, we try go further. We try to salt the entire story with traditions and jargon and research that makes it seem even more real. And there’s nothing wrong with that – except when we’re writing about something we know nothing about. When we try to write about a skill set, place, or culture that we know very little about, detailed realism attempts backfire. Big time.

Writing about Skill Sets You Know Nothing About

Take hacking for example. It’s pretty common to have an elite hacker as a character in a mystery or action story. Someone with the skill set to break through stuff with high levels of security (like banks or governments). It’s a seriously popular trope for authors and screenwriters to use. But how much does the average writer really know about hacking?

Not a lot.

As a matter of fact, I’d hazard to guess that the majority of authors don’t know any more about hacking than they’ve learned from your basic action film. Which is seriously not a lot. And it’s probably not that realistic. Eddie Izzard’s computer encore puts it better than I could:

“Breaking into the Pentagon computer… Double-click on ‘Yes.’ Oh, password protected. 20 billion possible chances… uh, ‘Jeff.'”

Yeah. That’s about the impression most of us have of elite hacking.

Maybe, it’s just me, but I feel like if everything you’ve learned about a skill came from a fiction movie, then you probably shouldn’t try to write extreme realism about that subject. If you want to try, you’re welcome to. Just don’t expect it to be easy. That’s an immerse-yourself-in-the-research type of challenge because you almost have to learn to code before the jargon makes sense to you (in fact, you may actually have to learn to code before the jargon begins to make sense to you).

Personally, the only way I’d be willing to chance that level of realism is if I had an actual hacker (or more than 1) to talk to and check with to make sure that I was being accurate. Talking to a person who knows and can explain it to you is the most efficient research for that level of realism after doing it yourself (IMHO).

Writing about Places You’ve Never Been

That sounds pretty hard to do from the get-go. That is, IF all the nitty gritty details of the place are vital to your plot. If the location plays a very small role in the story, doesn’t need such minute details, or plays more of a passing role (you only need a few vital details but not much more), then it’s not an insurmountable task (actually, it’s pretty normal).

Of course, if the location isn’t that important, then why not move it? (Mostly being a smart aleck)

No, I don’t want to say that you can only write stories set in places you’ve been. That’s like saying that you can only write about things you’ve experienced personally (and you all know how I feel about that – if not, click the link).

My argument is that if you don’t know about a place well enough to know what’s realistic for that place, and you don’t want to research it deeply enough to have 100% (at least 98%) accurate details, then go for believable realism. Go for the level of realism used in most movies and books. Don’t try to make it super realistic.

Or, if the story really demands the extra realism, get off your butt and do the needed research/talk to someone who knows/hire someone to research for you.

Writing about a Culture You Don’t Know Well

Ok, there’s not much point in going into detail with this. You already got the recurring theme of either do the research or don’t go for gritty research. There’s not a lot to add with this topic (or any other area of setting that might require research). Except, oh, yeah, there is one thing:

Doing this one wrong can make people think you’re a bigot.

It’s a delicate balance. If you go for serious realism, and you’re wrong in the wrong way, it can very easily be taken as prejudice. Yes, a lot of things can be taken as prejudice, especially nowadays when we are so politically correct, and people are ready and eager to point out offenses online. Even gritty realism that is accurate can cause an outcry.

But if you don’t bother to do the research, you don’t have it to back you up. “I was too lazy to research” isn’t much of a defense.

Write the Level of Realism You’re Willing to Work for

That’s the final message.

Few people experience more than 1, maybe 2 careers and a handful of places. And even vacationing doesn’t give someone the same depth of knowledge as living somewhere. The same for visiting a job or researching it instead of actually working it.

You can’t know everything, and you don’t have to.

I know some crowds really push realism – let’s face it, not all types of writing get the same amount of respect. But trying to write at a level of realism beyond what you know (by experience, research, or both) isn’t going to impress anyone. Especially not the people who tout realism.

That’s when realism attempts backfire. And when that happens, nobody likes the result. Not even the author (especially not the author).

I’d rather write something people like – something I like. Wouldn’t you?


5 Most Overlooked Resources for Worldbuilding Research

When you’re worldbuilding, you want to make the world you’re creating feel both realistic and new. That means you need elements that feel familiar and elements that are unexpected (especially if your story is fantasy or science fiction). Research is useful for the new aspects and absolutely vital for giving an impression of realism. Besides the library and the internet in general (the automatic first thoughts of research), here are 5 resources for worldbuilding research that too many people overlook.

5 Research Resources for Worldbuilding That Writers Overlook (But Shouldn’t)

5. Fiction Novels

No, I am not suggesting you use fiction novels as your primary resource for worldbuilding research; however, looking at multiple novels of the same genre with the same basic setting can be very good for learning what the most common interpretation of that time period is. You don’t necessarily have to follow it, but it is helpful to understand what the average reader is going to be using as baseline (the actual or believable problem).

4. Art

If you’re looking for clothing, weaponry, furniture, architecture, or social norms, art can be pretty revealing, especially of older periods before abstract art became popularized. You can look it up online or support your local art museums and have an enjoyable outing while you do your research. Win-win, right?

3. Plays

Plays written during the time period you’re researching give clues for dialogue, important social changes (news), clothing, weaponry, and humor. Reading them is definitely handy. If you can go see one, however, you will get a much better impression of the story and flow. You may even find yourself inspired by the creative energy generated by live theatre (I would honestly be surprised if you weren’t.).

2. Reenactors/Hobby Historians

Reenactments are attempts to accurately portray a historic event or location. You’ll most commonly see them at famous battle fields, historic locations (forts, castles, etc.), and history-themed festivals, and the place and time they focus on is dependent on the historic event or location in question (the American Civil War, Colonial America, the Old West, the English Renaissance, etc.).

Reenactors are the people who dress up in the historic costumes and, generally, do everything they can to make the reenactment historically accurate. That includes cooking with cast iron on a camp fire, chasing each other with flint-lock rifles, spinning wool, making soap, and more. They have already done tons of research into the everyday lives of their characters, and they did it for fun.

Their enthusiasm for their topic makes them willing, even eager to share it. Believe me, if you ask a reenactor about his/her area of expertise, you will get all the information you need!

1. First-Hand Accounts


Technically, these fall under library research, but I thought they were worth a subheading under first-hand accounts simply because they may not come up in a search for books about a certain time period – because the subject isn’t that period, it’s a person who just happened to live in that period. They may not even be in the same section of the library as the other books about that time (unless they’re first-hand accounts of a war or something).

So if you run into a block, try looking up books about people who lived in the time you’re researching. It may take a bit more effort to pick the information you need out of the story of the person’s life, but you also generally find information you didn’t know to look for.

People Who Lived It

Last, but most definitely not least, people who lived it are my number 1 research resource for worldbuilding that I think writers too frequently overlook. And, yes, I know it’s not possible for all time periods. When it is, however, do not let it slip by, or you will regret it.

For example, I’m working on a YA fantasy novel called Wind Town, which is set on a farm in rural America in the mid 1900s. When I was a few chapters in, I ran into some stumbling blocks in my research. I could find general information about what farming and language was like, but I wasn’t finding the specific details I needed for the story.

That’s when I had an epiphany: my grandparents grew up on a farm in the U.S. in almost exactly the same time period as the story was taking place.By talking to them, I was able to get first-hand accounts of living conditions, language, and more. They were (and continue to be) the absolutely best resource I could want for that story.

Well, those are my 5 most overlooked resources for worldbuilding research. Did any of them surprise you? Are there any I overlooked?

Crime, Punishment, & Worldbuilding

George Takei Oh My Crime Punishment Worldbuilding

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

Unless you’re a lawyer, judge, career criminal, or bdsm enthusiast, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about crime and punishment. And why would you? It’s not something you study in school. It’s more like how we learn social cues – things you pick up over time through stories from family and friends, television and movies, and life experience (although you might try to avoid the last one). Since crime and punishment are integral parts of society’s rules, however, they’re also a key part of worldbuilding – as well as an often-overlooked opportunity.

What is a crime?

I’m not being a smart-aleck (this time). This is a serious question because the answer changes with the culture. Laws are different in different countries and different regions. And all those laws can change over time as the beliefs of the culture change. To really flesh-out your worldbuilding, you’re going to have to answer this question at least to some extent (not to the legalese minutia extent – Heaven forbid!).

Just to show you how the definition of a crime can change and how it can affect the worldbuilding, here are some examples of crimes from stories:

To my knowledge, none of those “crimes” are illegal in the U.S. In fact, laws against them wouldn’t make sense at all in the U.S., and trying to get most of them passed would meet strong opposition. In the context of the stories, however, they make perfect sense.

In addition to the usual worldbuilding ideas, here are some thoughts on how crime and punishment can play a role.

Using Crime & Punishment for Worldbuilding

Emotional Appeal: Make a Culture Likable

For the most part, we like what we know or understand. That goes for laws, too. To make a culture automatically likable, familiar, or even comforting, you can…

  1. Define major crimes the same. Murder, for example.
  2. Scatter in similar minor crimes. Traffic tickets and sound complaints can add humor and give the reader something to empathize with.
  3. Show improvements in laws. I don’t mean crime-less cultures because that’s hard to believe, but there are always unpopular laws and/or punishments. “Fixing” those in your made-up culture wins you automatic points with the people who’re against them (and loses you points with the other side. Just sayin’).
Emotional Unappeal: Make It Dislikable

It works the same in the other direction only this time you can either

  1. Imitate laws your culture finds offensive. Like some of Nazi Germany’s laws, for example.
  2. Reverse your own laws.

So… basically reverse everything under “Make It Likable.” Anything that goes against what your culture considers right will make most people feel instant disgust, anger, or at least dislike. And whether that emotion is directed towards the government or the country as a whole is dependent on whether the majority of the people in the country are shown to approve (or not).

Establish Cultural Values

This can be mixed with either of the emotional appeals. You can make a made-up culture feel a bit familiar by using some similar laws and then use other laws to show the differences in how the culture treats things like…

  • Gender roles: Is it legal for men and women to vote? Who can own property? How easy/hard is it to change genders? Are there more gender options than the traditional 2? (At least 1 sci fi book I can think of has used hemaphroditic and asexual people in a culture.)
  • Race: Are there different races? How are they defined (legally)? (Biology, country, skin color, scale color, birthplace, magic ability, etc.) Are legal rights different for different races?
  • Businesses: Do businesses have legal rights of their own? What kind of regulations are in place.
  • Arts: Are any of the arts illegal? Are they regulated? Are licenses required?

Etc. Anything really. And part of all of them will be answering the question of how much are the rules enforced by law and how much are they enforced by social norms. As a rule, laws usually reflect ideas that are most important to the society (or to whoever’s ruling it/making the laws).

Punishments are also very revealing of cultural values. If a culture is strongly against violence, then the punishments for severe crimes have to be peaceful. If a culture completely hates the mistreatment of women, then any crime in that category should have a really extreme sentence. The same if a culture despises lying. Or toenail polish.

It doesn’t have to make sense in our world – only in the story. Focus on the purpose of the laws:

  • To protect individuals, the society, the culture, etc.
  • To benefit a specific person/interest group: This could be fair or unfair, depending on how the laws were slanted beforehand and who’s in power.
  • To harm a specific person/interest group

Who makes the laws is important to all of that, too, but that’s a different problem.

Anyway, that’s enough to at least put a bug in your ear on the subject. As usual, I’m hoping my blabbering gives you a brilliant idea that leads to a wonderful story for me to read (I do like reading!). I’d also love to hear about any examples you can add – know any stories where the definition of crime has a big influence on the worldbuilding?

Fantasy & Sci Fi Terms: Terms for Magic & Technology

There’s a great technique in writing, especially in Fantasy or Science Fiction, where you use an existing word as a word for magic or technology. That’s a really great way to give your story character and make your world stand apart from others. The only problem arises when you forget and also use the word the way you normally would:

  1. Seeing the vampires approach, Lyr shifted and was on them instantly in a flash of fur and claws.
  2. As the silence turned grim and threatening, Lyr shifted uneasily in his chair.

The first one would be an example of the author’s new meaning where “shift” becomes the word that shows the man transforming between man and beast. But once that’s established as the meaning of the word, using it normally (like in the 2nd example) becomes less clear. Is he shifting back and forth between beast and man forms? That’s very possible, and I have seen stories where the next sentence made it clear that, yes, that’s what the author meant.

On the other hand, if that’s not what the author meant (say the people watching Lyr on a hidden camera aren’t supposed to know that he can become a beast), then, any confusion caused by using “shift” normally here could make the reader think there are continuity problems.

In that situation, the best way to avoid confusion is to only use the word for its new meaning. Throwing in a synonym for the second situation can go a long way to making the story clearer to your reader.

That’s most likely to be a problem with verbs because they tend to be a single word and look no different from the common use. When it comes to names of things, on the other hand, you can generally circumvent the issue altogether by using multiple words or a phrase.

Take the words, “source” and “true.” They’re both normal, commonly used words. When Robert Jordan put them together and capitalized them, however, they became the core of magic in his worldbuilding. The “True Source” means something else than “true source.”

There are two very good tricks we can learn from that example:

  1. Capitalization helps. If you’re changing a word or words to have a new and very specific meaning, capitalizing the words will help the reader know when you’re using the normal meaning and when you mean the new, special thing you invented.
  2. Combine words that don’t usually go together. If you want a phrase for using magic to walk on air, “walk lightly” isn’t the best choice because it’s not that uncommon otherwise. And the more common a phrase you pick, the more likely you’ll want to capitalize it. Or, again, avoid it in nonmagical situations.

When it comes down to it, most of us have enough to watch for without adding in words to stop using. So if you can make the term for your magic or technology more uncommon, you’ll save yourself time and trouble in the long run. And it won’t hurt as far as making your world more unique, either.

Actual Realism v. Believable Realism: How to Fake It

Making writing seem real means the story has to match personal experiences and what we’ve heard about, but that covers a lot of ground. Especially since no one will have experienced everything first-hand. That means that the main part you have to match is the impression of the subject that society gives us.

That’s why you can fake it.

For most jobs and places, stories rely on stereotypes. Societal impressions of what the job is like. The most memorable, well-known aspects of a place. Famous examples of a person’s behavior. That’s the sort of thing you can find out with a little bit of research or even from your own experiences with books and movies. And if you use those rough impressions, most people who are used to them will be perfectly happy to accept those ideas as true. Or, if they heckle a little, it won’t be any more than they do to every other story that uses those ideas. (It’s kind of like writing science fiction if you’re not a scientist.)

Take writing a character who is a cop. If all you know about cops is the impressions you’ve gotten from the news and other books/movies/tv shows, then don’t expect to write a book that cops are going to read for its gritty realism. That’s not gonna happen unless you’re willing to research for a couple of years (or have worked as a cop). But, if you want it to feel real to everyone else (people whose experience with cops more-or-less matches your own), then you just need to use the stereotype that everyone else is using. And thanks to the last decade or so of cop shows, you have a bit more variety to choose from.

That’s not going to make the details of cop work the highlight of your story. If you’re faking it, the details of being a cop are more likely to fall into the background so that the plot and characters can take center stage. Actually, that’s a good clue for when it’s safe to fake it. If the place or person aren’t the main focus of the story, then they only have to be realistic enough that they don’t distract (or detract) from the rest.

Here’s a little story to illustrate my point:

A man born and raised in the U.S. gets a job at the local Renaissance festival as a musician. He’s not very good at accents, but to sound more historic and European, he tacks on a “I’ve lost my lucky charms!” dialect and starts talking to people. People who come to the festival rave over his accent and ask how long he’s been in the country and where in Ireland he was from (*snicker*). At the very same festival, there was another gentleman who was not from the U.S. and had a genuine European accent. The people who came to the festival would tell him that his accent was awful.

Stage dialects are the perfect example of how faking realism can work! They are pared down, simplified versions of the real accent because most often the real accent is hard for people who aren’t used to it to understand (no matter what accent it is). Instead of trying to duplicate it, the actors try to suggest it, and that’s enough for the audience to know that the character is from Ireland or Russia or France or Brooklyn (wherever). In fact, we hear these stage dialects so much in movies and television that until we experience the real dialect first hand, we tend to think the stage dialect is the real one.

And that’s the funny thing about realism. It doesn’t have to actually be realistic – the reader only has to think that it is. That’s why if you aren’t an expert on a subject, and it’s not going to be the focus of your story, there’s a good chance you can fake it and still have believable realism. Believable enough for most people, anyway.

Researching the Tudor Period? Check out Ruth Goodman

If you’re writing a story set in the Tudor period, you might check out books, articles, and youtube videos by Ruth Goodman. I first came across her work in the article, “Getting Clean, the Tudor Way,” where she discusses daily cleansing habits of people during that time as well as modern experiments to see how well those habits worked (apparently people didn’t necessarily stink as badly as rumor would have it!).

Since it was an interesting and well-written article with a unique perspective, I looked her up and found out that she has consulted with museums, attractions, movies, and the BBC (check out her wikipedia article to read more). That makes her seem like a pretty reliable resource.

It also turns out that the article is an excerpt of her book, How to Be a Tudor: a Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, which I assume focuses on what her website calls her specialty – the nitty gritty aspects of daily life. As a writer, I consider the everyday details of life one of the most important aspects of worldbuilding and often the hardest information to find without poring through tons of books and picking out a little bits here and there. So a book that focuses on that is pretty intriguing, and if that excerpt is any indication, her books should be readable and interesting rather than dry and boring (an unfortunate tendency of too many history resources).

Has anyone read her book or seen some of her other work? What did you think? Or do you have other resources on the period that you recommend?

When It Comes to Accuracy & Inaccuracy, Watch out for Hardcore Fans

It’s really fascinating to listen to a couple of hardcore fans talk – especially if they’re not major fans of the same topics. For example, imagine a serious WWII history buff and a hardcore Tolkien fan having a conversation about movies and their accuracy or lack thereof. In the course of the exchange, both The Two Towers and The King’s Speech come up (dun dun dunnnn).

Let’s assume the history buff read The Two Towers a couple of decades ago, so he knows the movie isn’t exactly like it – but who cares? He loves the fight scenes and the graphics! At this, the hardcore Tolkien fan turns purple and explodes to explain exactly how inaccurate the movie of The Two Towers was and how it completely distorted the vision of the original book.

Then, the tables turn as The King’s Speech is brought to the table. The Tolkien fan had European history in high school, so he has a vague idea that Churchill’s opinions and actions were technically inaccurate. But, really, the movie isn’t really about the history. It’s about the story. Now, it’s the history buff’s turn to turn purple and rant about the historical inaccuracies in The King’s Speech (There are more rabid sites on that, but apparently they cannot be bothered to use paragraphs.).

As far as inaccuracies go, of course, they’re both right. Neither movie is accurate to the original book or the actual history (respectively). What’s particularly interesting to me from a writer’s point of view is the difference in how much they care.

It seems that, for the most part, people care about inaccuracies only if they care about the original. So if you’re writing historical fiction set in the Italian Renaissance, how much people care about the accuracy is likely to vary by how much they care about the history. A history major with a PhD in the Italian Renaissance is going to care about details that you’ve never even heard of. Certain types of re-enactors will be just as bad while others are liable to point out small oversights but mostly be offended only by major mistakes.

The average person on the street will only notice (or care about) glaring errors like the use of electric cars and cell phones. Or having it take place in Germany. Which obviously doesn’t make sense – and that’s the only reason they care. They don’t care about the time period. They don’t know enough about it to recognize most mistakes – as long as the story matches their vague impression of the period, they’re fine. All they care about is the story being entertaining and making sense within itself (see “Writing Requires Research“). That means that it’s the hardcore fans that you need to worry about most.

So what happens if you develop a serious fan base?

Say that people start buying your book series in droves, and you develop a sort of cult following. People who are hard-core fans of your work. How do you think they’re going to feel about continuity errors in your next novel? If you’re having trouble picturing it, go to a Q&A at a con with a really famous guest speaker. Or Google something like “Star Trek continuity errors.” People keep track of those things, and they like to call the author on them.

Remember: the more they care about the original, the more they care about accuracy. Talk about pressure! Anyone else moderately terrified at the thought?

How to Break Promises without Breaking Promises

Promises are made to be broken. Hmm. Nope. Scratch that. Promises are made to be broken well or not at all. Either you have to keep the promises you make to your readers, or you have to break them in a way that doesn’t really break them.

Let’s just say that breaking them is the exception, not the rule.

But if you want to break one of your main promises (like that the rules of the world will be followed), then there should be a reasonable (*cough* foreshadowed *cough*) explanation for why the rule wasn’t really broken. The four main options are 1. character ignorance, 2. a change in the situation/experience, 3. an exception that requires extreme effort (which usually also involves the first option), and 4. the unreliable narrator.

 1. Character Ignorance

The character in question is the main character or any character whose point-of-view you write from. The gist of character ignorance is that the rule was always broken because the original understanding was wrong (a mistaken assumption, missing information, a lie, a secret, etc.) – that character simply didn’t know that until now.

For instance, if the broken rule is that Tracy doesn’t like chocolate, and here she is eating chocolate, then maybe the main character misunderstood, and Tracy just doesn’t like milk chocolate (but loves dark chocolate). Or maybe Tracy lied earlier when she said she didn’t like chocolate because she didn’t want to accept the melty chocolate from your weird coworker’s pocket. Or because of embarrassment, Tracy was simply trying to hide her chocolate addiction (Shh! It’s a secret! …well, it was.).

In other words, there’s a specific reason that the main character’s impression of that rule was faulty, and the reader learns that at the same time as that character.

 2. A Change in Situation/Experience

As Badger said in Firefly, “Crime and politics, little girl. Situation is always… fluid.” Characters react differently in different situations. If a character is faced with the same choice in a different situation, the character’s answer can change without making the reader feel cheated. A standard trope of this is the scientist who refuses to create the doomsday whatever. Then, the villain kidnaps the spouse/child, and the answer reverses. Different situation + different answer = no broken rule.

The other part that can change is the character. Characters have learning curves, too. When they experience something new, they learn from it. Or they might react to it emotionally. The resulting changes can change their reactions. For example, if a naive character agreed to something that ended poorly at the beginning of the book and is offered another “wonderful opportunity” later on, a different reaction is very believable. The big rule of this particular technique, however, is that the reader needs to see that change. Then, rule isn’t broken because the rule changed, and the reader knows that.

 3. The Exception That Requires Extreme Effort

I say that the exception requires extreme effort because if it’s easy, it’s not an exception. It’s a variation on the rule. It’s a little like the U.S. Congress’ ability to overturn a Presidential Veto. The rule’s been in place for forever, so it’s not like someone’s making it up just to make a plot point work. On the other hand, a 2/3 majority of the House and Senate isn’t all that easy. It’s possible, but it’s not going to be your go-to answer for everything.

Granted, in many stories (fantasy, especially), the exception is a closely held secret by the elders/higher ups/secret society/lost lore, so the characters have to first learn about it and then go through the hoops to get it. But watch out for making it too forced, especially when the rules were well-established through several books or films already (“Oh, yes, if a pig comes by Castle Dracula on a Tuesday, playing a banjo… kind of crowbarred plot move…” — Eddie Izzard).

This is also a gimmick you should really only use once per book, possibly once per series.

 4. The Unreliable Narrator

The final excuse is, “The narrator lied.” Well, maybe, the narrator believed it at the time. Maybe, the narrator is a chronic liar, and the whole narrative was a lie. Both are possible; however, the breadcrumbs that validate the narrator’s unreliable nature have to be there when the reader looks back, or this is cheating (and it’s gonna make ’em mad). It’s hard work to do this well. So unless you really want to write an unreliable narrator, it’s easier to keep the promises you make rather than hide a bunch of false promises in the story.

Actually, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed that all these exceptions require at least the same amount of work as keeping your promises. If not more. That means that they’re not easy cheats to get out of hard work. Nope. What they are is useful techniques if you want to set up a false promise and mislead the reader. It won’t save you any effort, but it can let you break your promises without breaking your promises.