Things we don’t talk about in Fantasy books, and how to do it right.

Cover art thanks to Pixabay. Thank you, Pixabay.

When I was a kid, I read just about every book that Beverly Cleary ever wrote. Especially the Ramona books. Ramona was my girl. I would love a story about Ramona as an adult. 

One story that stuck with me was Ramona and her little kindergarten class hearing a story about a man working a steam shovel for a whole day to beat a machine. And Ramona, being her own little no filter self, asks the question everyone wants to know.

How does he go to the bathroom if he’s in the steam shovel all day?

Hey, yeah, how did he go to the bathroom? How did Cleopatra go to the bathroom when she was rolled up in a rug and sent to Marc Anthony?

I cannot be the only weirdo who thinks of these things. But while we’re on the subject, how do women in some of these fantasy stories handle their periods? Gross? Maybe. But I’m kind of curious. I looked up how ancient women handled such delicate matters because I was super curious. And I’ll tell you I’ve never been happier to be a woman in the 21st century.

Now, I don’t think we need to know this in every book. I can kind of guess how most characters handle that sort of thing because there are only three or four options available for the modern woman. But we’re talking about fantasy books. I kind of want to know what Madam Pomfrey had for Hermione and Ginny when their monthlies started. I’m betting, enchanted diva cup that cleans itself. (And if your sensibilities are offended by me talking about this, I will remind you that Rowling wrote a scene where a pervy ghost was watching Harry take a bath. Sit with that for a while.)

What about the people in Mystborn? It’s an ancient society, are women using twisted up rags like olden times? Do women with magic have some cool metal bending way to deal with that? 

Okay, I don’t want to put every author on the spot. Not everyone has to talk about a girl’s period, or how the contents of a privy are handled. But maybe we should?

Hear me out.

First off, the period issue. Most people are just straight-up grossed out by periods. But it’s something that the vast majority of women deal with every month for most of our lives. But it’s like this huge secret? Because someone might know that I’m an average cis woman? Maybe this is me speaking from a place of privilege, or maybe we should be able to have a common bodily function without being afraid someone’s going to find out about it. Maybe we should make this a comfortable discussion so that girls can talk about it with trusted adults without losing their minds? Or hey, wild thought, maybe we shouldn’t make girls ashamed of something their bodies naturally do and have to do for our species to continue.

And as for other private matters, like going to the bathroom, our societies are greatly impacted by that. Indoor plumbing was a huge game-changer for cities. People weren’t getting sick and dying so much since we no longer let our waste run into the street and our drinking water. It’s gross, but it’s kind of a big deal. And knowing sort of where a society is in their plumbing evolution is an indication of where they are medically. Which can matter in a fantasy novel.

Now, this is something I thought of not at all while I was writing Woven. I have had several pregnancies and never thought to drop any truth bombs about how Lenore, Grace or Sultana handle their bleeding time. I probably will passingly mention it in future books, now that I’ve thought of it. 

When I do, it will be tasteful. Like in Tamora Pierce’s Becca Cooper series. She handled that well, with just a quick note about emptying chamber pots in gutters and having her character pick up something for her monthlies.

What she didn’t do, and what I (God willing) will not do is handle a delicate matter in a less than delicate way. 

I’m talking of course about the master of brute force writing, George R. Martin. While I have questions sometimes about bodily functions, I don’t need to know too many details. I didn’t need to know that a certain character pissed, shat and threw up on himself while trapped in an empty barrel. And I won’t share with you some other vulgar details that I never needed to know about other characters in that series.

Listen, we’re mostly adults here. At least, we’re capable of handling things like grown-ups, and not eleven-year old’s giggling about fart jokes. We don’t need to get red in the face because someone’s ‘aunt Flo’ is visiting.


God Bless the Fantasy Fans

I speak about fantasy fans from two points of view. On the one hand, I write fantasy, and some of the Annie Wilkes level stories frighten me. But I’m also a fantasy fan, and if I ever get to meet Tamora Pierce I might embarrass myself.

So when I say that fantasy fans are the best fans, I’m totally biased. But I can live with that. Though I will also note that a lot of the things I want to talk about today could also apply to science fiction fans. I write, read and watch that too, though.

Fantasy fans are voracious.

Fantasy series are long. The books are big and there are usually a lot of them. Most fantasy fans know that it’s going to be a year or more between books.

We don’t care. And no matter how many books get written it will never ever be enough. If an author creates a world we love, there can never be enough. I still want to read about the Shire, Tortall, Hogwarts, all of them. Please, keep them coming.

We will nit pick you to death.

Do you know how many kinds of different swords there are? I don’t have a specific number, but I’ll tell you if you’re kind of sword doesn’t fit the world around it. For instance, if your world setting is sort of Middle Eastern and your MC is slashing about with a broadsword, I’m going to call you on it.

I will also notice if you mess up your own rules, which is why it’s important to keep track of what you’re doing. I will believe any rules that you make so long as you do.

And we will be picky about it.

We are kind of crazy.

I am not going to lie to you, fantasy fans are a little nuts. We love fantasy. We play games like D&D and White Wolf. We read as much as we can, and play fantasy video games. Some of us take things a bit too far, I’ll admit.

Look, for some of us, your stories are what we’ve got to be happy about. Maybe we don’t make friends easily, or we just live really stressful lives. My life has never been an easy one, and I accept this. But fantasy books have made me smile on days I wouldn’t have thought it possible.

So sometimes we go a little nuts at cons, or send way too much fan art. (Disclaimer: this does not give a reader the right to stalk you. You call the cops about that nonsense.)

We are loyal

When you’ve got a fantasy fan, you’ve got them until the last The End and beyond. Look at Tolkien’s fans, they’re some of the most die hard fans you’ll find.

We will show up at cons dressed like our favorite characters. We’ll create the best and worst artwork you’ve ever seen, write fan fic that will amaze you and make you shudder. We’ll get into fights over our favorite characters, wear their symbol, and love you all along.

I am proud to be a fantasy writer. I am also very proud to be a fantasy fan. How about you?


Fantasy is in the details

Let’s assume you already agree with me when I say that writing good fantasy relies heavily on world building. I mean, would the Harry Potter series be half so amazing if the world built around the story wasn’t as detailed as it is? I don’t think so, and I don’t think I’m the only one who loved reading about trips to Diagon Alley. Would Mistborn be as interesting without the mist in the night, or the fact that green plants are a myth? No, it would not.


Writing fantasy details takes a lot of work. You want them to lure the readers in, but at the same time you don’t want them to detract from the core story. You also don’t want to spend all of your writing time working on the details. Here’s what I do.


The story comes first


Always. The story comes first before anything else. Yes, I loved Diagon Alley, but I wouldn’t have read seven books about it. Have a complete and awesome story before you start worrying about the details.


In fact, I usually don’t hammer out the details until the third draft. The first draft is all about the story, the second draft becomes about the plot and character arches, and I worry about the details in the third draft. Doing it any other way is like putting perfume on before you shower, it’s going to wash off. What if you spend an hour crafting this great scene where your characters are walking through a bazaar, talking about some crucial plot point, that you later cut? I’ll tell you what happens, you’ve created a darling that you now have to kill.


So as crucial as the details are, don’t worry about them until after the story is solid.


Root your world in realistic details


This aids in the suspension of disbelief, which is important when you’re writing a story about magic and dragons. Your reader is more likely to be accept the fantastic details in your world if you’ve given them a solid, realistic foundation.


There will be parts of your story that are completely unrealistic. Depending on your story food, clothing, weapons and environments may be distinctively different from the real world. For instance, let’s talk about transportation in Harry Potter. (I’m going to use Harry Potter as an example a lot this month. I’m re-reading it in preparation for the new one, so please bear with me.)


The magical world has all sorts of magical transportation. The Knight Bus, broomsticks, the ability to Aperate. It’s all very fantastic and fun. But when they have to get on a subway in London, it’s pretty much a subway in London. When Harry’s running through Paddington station, it’s just Paddington Station. For me, an American who’s only ever been to Canada, Paddington Station is a fantastical place. But to the people who live there, it’s just a place you go to get on a train. Even the Hogwarts Express, after you run through the brick wall to get there, is a train, and it acts like other trains.


When it’s done right, you don’t even notice it. But when it’s done wrong, it’s as jarring as a sour note in a familiar song. I don’t have a literary reference for this one, so I’ll point to movies instead. Here’s one that gets me. When someone gets hit on the head hard enough to knock them out, they’re not just waking up after that with a headache!  That causes some damage, you’re not shaking that off unless you’re Wolverine.


Use fantastic details to draw readers into your world.


This is the fun part. It’ spending a week moving furniture around and now you get to decorate the house. It’s baking gingerbread and now you get to ice it.


Here are some tips, that will draw your readers fully into your magical world.

  • Make them believable. For instance, the magical set up in Mistborn. It’s all based on metals, and there are very steadfast rules.
  • Make them desirable. Like the meals served in the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Look, I don’t know how the school cafeteria was like for you, but it was some nasty, spiceless food for me.
  • Make your readers feel like they’ve experienced this fantastic thing. Like dragon riding. That’s something that, unless you’re a Blue Angel you can’t really fathom that.


Geography, Maps and Weather, and How They Effect Your Story

It was a dark and stormy night. The sun was shining in the sky and the birds were singing. The mountains loomed in the distance.

If you start reading a book with any of this information, you probably have some idea what kind of story it’s going to be. Your geography and weather have a huge impact on your story.

Or at least, it should. Here’s a handy list of ways to work weather and geography to your advantage.

Set The Mood

A story told about a dark night,in which the rain is hitting the windows like so many stones, so hard that your antagonist believes that it might shatter, sets the reader up for certain expectations. It is probably not a happy tale.

But then, it might be. Maybe the fury of the storm matches her passion for her lover. Or maybe she must go into that storm to visit her dying mother. Either way, the rain helped to set the mood. It would have been a different scene if the sun had been shinning.

Abundance, or lack, of food

Depending on your story, how much food is available might be a huge plot point. Maybe your character has been left alone, with nothing but a gun. In the forest, with the right kind of character, that might be just fine. In the mountains, maybe less so. In the desert that poor sucker is screwed.

Or maybe your setting your story in a small fishing town. The fish are migrating away because the waters are getting colder. Maybe there are no good farming lands, and this country has to trade heavily with other countries.


If you are writing about a war zone, you need to know the lay of the land. More importantly, your character does, or at least someone in charge does. It is vital for battle strategy to know where the high ground, low ground and nearest water supply is.

Plot twists

Plot bunnies abound! If you are stuck in your plot, send a big rain storm that washes up some evidence of wrongdoing. Need more action, tornado. More tension, let’s have a flood.

And finally, maps. You need two.

Yes, two. One is for you, to give you an idea of where your important places are, what they’re geography is,and how long it will take for your characters to get from point a to b.

If you write fantasy, you need a nice map too. For the inside cover. If you’re going the traditional route, the publisher might do this for you. If you’re self publishing, do not skip this step. Fantasy readers have come to expect this. Don’t disappoint them, most of them have replica swords.

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