Thursday, September 27, 2012

Title Reveal: Enoch's Device

My writing odyssey with my first novel is finally nearing its end! Last July, I explained why I decided to independently publish the novel, and how I intended to do it the right way. After numerous rounds of self-editing to tighten the story and polish my writing, I hired a professional editor who was wonderful to work with and his edits really improved narrative. I’m having the book proofread one more time, and I plan on working with a professional cover designer to produce great cover art.

With all this in the works, my hope is to release the novel by the end of the year. And I’m ready to reveal the title: Enoch’s Device.  Here’s a draft blurb after this image of a medieval illumination that helped inspire the novel:

Imagine hidden warnings in an illumination like this!

Nearly a thousand years after the birth of Christ, when all Europe fears that the world will soon end, an Irish monk, Brother Ciarán, discovers an ominous warning hidden in the illuminations of a religious tome. The cryptic prophecy speaks of Enoch’s device, an angelic weapon with the power to prevent the coming apocalypse. Pursued by Frankish soldiers and supernatural forces, Ciarán and his freethinking mentor, Brother Dónall, rescue the lady Alais from a heretic-hunting bishop. Together, they race across Europe to locate the device, which has left clues of its passage through history. But time is running out, and if they don’t find it soon, all that they love could perish at the End of Days. 
Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark and magical past.
The novel is obviously historical fantasy and will be the first of a three book series. And yes, buried in the text is a reference to “fresh-scraped vellum.” Wish me luck.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Wayward Herald

Like the news-bearing heralds of old, Fresh-scraped Vellum is becoming a bit more newsy, albeit in a potentially wayward fashion. So every Monday for the foreseeable future, the Wayward Herald will report on news and items of interest to readers and writers of historical and fantasy fiction. For his inaugural post, here are some interesting tidings from around the web and the world of books:

In one of coolest stories of the week, George R.R. Martin has confirmed that his character Ser Patrick of King’s Mountain from A Dance With Dragons was named after fantasy blogger Patrick of Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. You know you have an influential blog when George R.R. Martin names a character after you! Read the interview with Mr. Martin at Pat’s blog here.

The new trailer for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit was released last week. The Wayward Herald first saw it on Middle-Earth News, but you can see it here too.

    Graeme Flory of Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review posted a great review of John Gardner’s Grendel, the story of Beowulf told from a different point-of-view. Read it here.
    As of today, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is the #1 bestselling fantasy title on Amazon. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (reviewed here) comes in at #3 on Amazon’s list of historical fantasy fiction, while Brent Weeks’ The Blinding Knife holds the #1 spot in that subgenre.
The Wayward Herald will return with more tidings next week!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Obliterating the Fine Line Between History and Fantasy

I have written several posts on the fine line between history and fantasy, noting how subtle that line can be. For works set back in the Middle Ages or earlier, for example, what is “true” history gets a bit murky, so the line between history and fantasy can become quite blurred. The same is true for fiction in a historical setting with subtle supernatural or magical elements. Jo Graham’s Black Ships and Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles are two great examples. But once in a while, a novel comes along that absolutely obliterates the line between history and fantasy. Such is the case with Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Love the cover art!

I bought this book after seeing the trailer for the movie adaptation, amid murmurs from the audience of “seriously?” and “is this a joke?” Obviously these folks weren’t familiar with Mr. Grahame-Smith’s book, but it’s clear they found the premise absurd. I’m sure the author realized that, but thanks to his considerable talents, he’s crafted a fun and very good read. Yet before I could appreciate this, I had to realize something: this book is not just historical fantasy – rather, it is seriously altered history.

Spoiler alert beyond this point. You see, other than the fact that this Abe Lincoln is a secret vampire hunter when he’s not serving in Congress or as president, the central premise is that slavery and the Civil War was all driven by vampires. They viewed slaves as a convenient food source, so they needed the Confederacy to defeat the Union, hoping to someday enslave the whole human race. So this doesn’t just cross a fine line between history and fantasy, it abolishes that line by transforming one of the most significant events in U.S. history into a secret war between Southern vampires and vampire hunters, like good 'ole Abe.

I can see how audiences might find this a little strange ...

Once I was able to accept the book’s premise, I found Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to be a very good read. Seth Grahame-Smith does a wonderful job with Lincoln as a character, chronicling his life from boyhood to the presidency, and mixing real history with his version of altered history so expertly, I often found myself going back to the encyclopedia to figure out which parts were “real” and which were not. Obviously, I don’t mean the vampire elements, but, for example, the Abe in this book is friends with Edgar Allen Poe. I thought that was cool, but wondered if it was real (it’s not; indeed, one blogger on Abraham Lincoln has a post devoted to which parts of the book reflect real history, and which parts don’t). The author tracks real history fairly well, but then alters it in both subtle and extreme ways by tying slavery and the Civil War to the designs of Southern vampires. The end result is a well-written, entertaining yarn that’s part vampire novel, part history lesson, and I would recommend it to anyone willing to take suspension of disbelief a step further than the norm.

Now for a brief cautionary note: Although I enjoyed this novel, at times I wondered if obliterating the line between history and fantasy comes with a price. Some events in history are so important that we run the risk of diminishing them in the name of fiction. For example, if a story suggested that Martin Luther King made his stand not only to bring equality to African Americans, but also because those who opposed his cause were werewolves, it could cheapen Dr. King's tremendous work. Likewise, Lincoln's emancipation of America's slaves was one of the most noble acts in U.S. history. Slavery was one of the ultimate evils, but to suggest Lincoln was the Great Emancipator not only because slavery is wrong, but also because slavery fed the cause of Southern vampires, threatens to diminish the greatness of the real Lincoln’s achievements. That said, this is a work of fantasy and anyone who reads the title goes into it knowing it’s fantasy, so it’s hard to be critical of the novel. After all, works of fantasy are read for enjoyment, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter certainly fits that bill.

Monday, September 17, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #30 ... and the End of the Beginnings?

This is my thirtieth post on beginnings, and I think it’s time for a change. Does this mean I’ll never again talk about what makes a great beginning to a novel? Probably not. But it is the end of this series, and likely the beginning of something new every Monday. So, for my final “beginning,” I’ve chosen the opening passage of Bernard Cornwell’s epic novel Excalibur:

Women, how they do haunt this tale. 
When I began writing Arthur’s story I thought it would be a tale of men; a chronicle of swords and spears, of battles won and frontiers made, of ruined treaties and broken kings, for is that not how history itself is told? When we recite the genealogy of our kings we do not name their mothers and grandmothers, but say Mordred ap Mordred ap Uther ap Kustennin al Kynnar and so on all the way back to the great Beli Mawr who is the father of us all. History is a story told by men and of men’s making, but in this tale of Arthur, like the glimmer of salmon in peat-dark water, the women do shine. 
Men do make history, and I cannot deny that it was men who brought Britain low. There were hundreds of us, and all of us were armed in leather and iron, and hung with shield and sword and spear, and we thought Britain lay at our command for we were warriors, but it took both a man and a woman to bring Britain low, and of the two it was the woman who did the greater damage. She made one curse and an army died, and this is her tale now for she was Arthur’s enemy.
– Bernard Cornwell, Excalibur

I am obviously a huge Cornwell fan and admire his beginnings because they hit all the targets. But this is your last chance to agree or disagree. So let me know – does the opening of Excalibur have the making of a great beginning?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Element of an Epic #5: Grand Events

In the final installment in my series on the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic, I’m focusing on Grand Events – those major conflicts that makes a great epic so breathtaking. Grand events are critical because they are a primary vehicle through which the author shows how huge the stakes are in the story. They also help make the story big and bold and larger than life – a necessary ingredient for a tale to feel epic.

These grand events are never random or thrown into a story solely for a big bang effect. Rather, they are essential pieces of the plot. Ansen Dibell, in his book on Plot, describes such events as set-pieces. Here’s his definition: “A set-piece is a big scene the reader can see coming and can look forward to awhile, either in fear or in hope, before it’s reached.”

The attack on King's Landing was one hell of a set-piece!

A perfect example of such a set-piece is the assault on King’s Landing in George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings. The reader knew this event was coming since the novel’s prologue and numerous chapters built up to it. And when it exploded on the page, it was spectacular. It more than lived up to the hype with the wildfire, Tyrion’s bravery, and the twist at the end. Not to mention that the fates of so many other characters, including Joffrey, Cersei, Sansa, and Stannis Baratheon, depended on the outcome of this event. It gave A Clash of Kings a sense of grandeur, one of the things that makes it so epic. (HBO also did a wonderful job with this in Season 2 of Game of Thrones!)

Other great epics abound with examples of grand events. Here are just a few:
  • The Battle of Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King – This is an epic fantasy battle at is best!
  • The attack of the “wolves” on Calla Bryn Sturgis in Wolves of the Calla – Stephen King’s entire novel builds up to this event, and when it happens, it’s glorious.
  • The murder of Thomas Becket in The Pillars of the Earth – As the final representation of violence in the Middle Ages, this set piece was the perfect ending for the novel. The reader could feel the tension building for a long time before it happened.
  • The showdown in Las Vegas in The Stand – What could be more epic? This was the stand – the book’s namesake. And it doesn’t end the way you’d expect.
  • The attack on the rebel base on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back – From the momen that probe droid appeared, you knew this one was coming.  And it turned out to be one of the most epic battles in the Star Wars trilogy.
The Empire Strikes Back was filled with grand events!

All of these events played huge roles in their story’s plots. And all of them held consequences for characters beyond those directly involved. These weren’t one character’s mere internal struggles, but huge external events that had a lasting effect on the story world. This is why Grand Events are the last of the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic!

Monday, September 10, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #29

For this week’s “beginning,” I chose the first three paragraphs of one of my favorite openings, the beginning of Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt (here's my review). Here it is after this image of the book’s cover.

On a winter’s day in 1413, just before Christmas, Nicholas Hook decided to commit murder. 
It was a cold day. There had been a hard frost overnight and the midday sun had failed to melt the white from the grass. There was no wind so the whole world was pale, frozen and still when Hook saw Tom Perrill in the sunken lane that led from the high woods to the mill pastures. 
Nick Hook, nineteen years old, moved like a ghost. He was a forester and even on a day when the slightest footfall could sound like cracking ice he moved silently. Now he went upwind of the sunken lane where Perrill had one of Lord Slayton’s draft horses harnessed to the felled trunk of an elm. Perrill was dragging the tree to the mill so he could make new blades for the water wheel. He was alone and that was unusual because Tom Perrill rarely went far from home without his brother or some other companion, and Hook had never seen Tom Perrill this far from the village without his bow slung on his shoulder.
– Bernard Cornwell, Agincourt

Not only is this a fantastic opening passage, but it begins with a great first line. In those fourteen words there is immediate conflict. By the end of the third paragraph, we have an interesting character and even more tension: Perrill is alone and Nick Hook has decided to kill him. The writing also sets the tone for the story to come. All in all, this is one of my favorites. But let me know what you think – does the opening of Agincourt have the making of a great beginning?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Element of an Epic #4: Heroic Figures

Every story needs a protagonist, and often he or she possesses qualities that could be described as “heroic.” A great epic, however, needs a hero in the truest sense of the word. Just look at three of the first four definitions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to see what I mean:
Definition of HERO
  • a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability 
  • an illustrious warrior 
  • one who shows great courage
The reason epics need protagonists of this caliber is the huge stakes that are inevitably involved. After all, in a great epic, the fates of whole kingdoms or even whole worlds are often at stake, and it takes a true hero to save the day. Sticking with Merriam-Webster’s definitions, here are some examples from some of the greatest historical and fantasy epics.

Good thing Garion has good genes!

Mythological or Legendary Figures Often of Divine Descent
While The Iliad, The Odyssey and many of the epic poems have heroes of legendary stature (often involving daddy issues with some guy named Zeus), many more recent epics follow in the footsteps of these classics. In David Eddings’ Belgariad series, Garion, the protagonist, discovers that he is descended from immortal wizards and destined to fight the evil god Torak. In The Matrix trilogy, Neo is the “The One,” wielding superhuman powers once he fully realizes who he is. And then there’s Luke Skywalker. He’s the son of a legendary figure – Anakin Skywalker, who’s the product of many midichlorians and a miraculous birth – and he wields great (Jedi) powers, becoming the equal of his father by the end of the first Star Wars trilogy.

Arthur was quite the illustrious warrior!
Illustrious Warriors
This would describe Arthur in Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, as well as many other Arthurian epics. It would also describe the gunslinger, Roland Deschain, the protagonist of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Roland is proof that a great antihero can carry a great epic. I’d also throw Ned Stark of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones into this category, although some of Ned’s luster has faded with age. Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan from Guy Gavriel Kay’s epic The Lions of Al-Rassan are good fits too.

Frodo lacked special powers, but had lots of courage!
The Greatly Courageous
This category fits the “everyman” type hero often embodied by the Messiah archetype. These heroes lack superhuman abilities or a warrior’s prowess, but they have the courage to oppose even the most overwhelming evils. Think Prior Philip from The Pillars of the Earth, Larry Underwood in The Stand, and, of course, Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings. Even Harry Potter seems to fit this category better than the others, despite his wizardly abilities. After all, in Harry’s world nearly everyone is a wizard, but it’s Harry’s courage that carries the day.

Without these heroes, I cannot imagine that any of these stories would be the great epics that they have become, which is why a true hero is one of the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Happy Labor Day!

Fresh-scraped Vellum is taking a break for Labor Day! But remember to check back on Thursday for my next post on The Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic!

The Official Dog of Fresh-scraped Vellum enjoys a day off!