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.


Tolkien Already Did That

Fantasy is the oldest recorded genre. We, as fantasy writers, are part of a great brother/sisterhood that dates back to the first ever recorded story, Beowulf. Centuries of Fantasy writers stand behind us.

This means that everything’s been done already, mostly by Tolkien.

This is terrible! How are we ever to say anything original when we know there’s nothing original to say?

Actually, it’s really rather freeing. If we understand that everything has already been written about, then we can move past that. There’s nothing we can do about it, anyway.

Here’s what we can control.

Here’s how we get past the legacy of our genre, that is both a blessing and a curse.

Different Points of View

We don’t always need to hear the tale told from the point of view of the hero. Or the hero’s bestest buddy, either. What about the hero’s lover, parent, child, puppy, enemy. Why don’t we tell the story from the point of view of the villain?

Different Country

I learned this from Writing Excuses, and it has resonated with me. Most fantasy is written in a medieval European setting. We don’t talk a lot about anything outside of England and France. I based my countries, so far, on Italy, Russia, Japan and The Middle East in  general. I’d love to see more fantasy based on Ireland, Africa and India.

Your magic structure

This is what really grabs me in a fantasy story. What can your magic do?

While I like an all around magic, where just anything is in the realm of possible, I also think it’s a little lazy. But I’ll go nuts for something like Mistborn, where magic is controlled by different metals. Or Avatar, The Last Airbender, which uses martial arts to great effect.

But wait!

Just when we would say that it’s all been done, a new subgenre comes at us like a superhero. Steampunk! The dawn of the industrial revolution blended with magic! Honestly, I am just falling in love with this, and I think everyone else should be, too.

If all else fails you, your voice won’t

I am a firm believer in a writer’s voice. It can’t be copied, it can’t be taught, it can only be achieved by writing until it comes out. Your voice, your word choice, tone and what you focus on, is what makes your writing unlike any other writer’s work since the dawn of time.

Here’s the best news; you don’t have to learn anything. You just have to write honestly.


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.


Writing Fantasy Characters We Aren’t Sick Of Seeing

Everything I write starts with a character. There are other schools of thought, sure. Lots of writers start with a situation and work from there, and that’s fine and all. But I start with characters, and this is my blog, so that’s where we’re starting.

The stories in a fantasy characters are not, generally, people you could toss into any other sort of story. In fact, you can turn a story into a fantasy story just by including some sorts of characters. The mage, the Elf, the Troll, the Dwarf, the Dragon. You just don’t find trolls in murder mysteries, sadly. These characters are steeped in myth, and tradition. You just can’t have a fantasy book without at least a few.

Which is why so much bad fantasy is shitty reproductions of stories we all read already!

Sorry, but it’s true. The unsure of himself human, the mage apprentice who is just learning his power, the smith dwarf. I am sick to death of it! If I read about one more elf archer I’m going to shot someone with an arrow myself. And I can do it, having studied archery while researching Woven.

Here’s what I do, to create characters for my fantasy novels that are actual characters, and not examples of the archetype.

It all starts with realistic societies.

This is important with any world building, but even more so with a topic that has been viewed too often. Let’s take elves, for example. Every damned time I see an elf, they are serene, calm people. They’re at one with themselves, and their surroundings. They make homes in forests, and are steeped in generations of wisdom and amazing sleek that they only ever use for selfless things.

Are there no seamstresses? No political dissenters? No lazy screw ups still living with their parents? Are there not jerks, or elves with hot tempers? What about elves that like to get drunk and dance on bars?

There might be, there might not be. It all depends on what sort of society they have. What’s socially acceptable, what sort of habits do they have? What sort of habits are frowned upon but still exist? What kind of everyday people are in a random village in your story?

Consider the person your character would be, if she wasn’t what she is.

What if your dwarf wasn’t a dwarf? What if she was an alien? What if she was a human? Would she still be who she is? More importantly, would this character be interesting at freaking all if she wasn’t a dwarf? If the answer is no, then you need to rewrite that character.

There are weirdos in every breed, and other things I learned from Harry Potter.

I am not the only writer who praises Dobby as a really well written character. He’s part of a species that is, all by itself, pretty boring. An elf that cleans people’s houses. Okay, it’s a nifty touch, but not that interesting. But Dobby is nothing like the rest of his kind. He wants freedom, at least as far as he can understand the word. He loves socks, he’s fearless and he’s a full blown person. You could make him a human being, take away the distinctive house elf language, and he would still be an interesting character. Dobby’s not the only example, from the series, either. Hell, literal snakes in the book were their own people.

If you cannot create your own mythical being, dig deep into mythology for something not played out.

I learned all about basilisks, griffins, and they mythical wolves who will devour the Earth at the end of time. Fernier is his name, and he has some awesome stories.

There are some great mythical creatures and stories out there. If you don’t want to create your own fantasy creatures or mythologies, don’t fear. Dig deep into any mythology and you’ll find something no one’s ever heard of.

Good stories start with real characters, no matter the genre. Have fun.


Writing Prompt Saturday- Fantasy food world.

Remember how I like food? It’s kind of my thing, well one of my things.

It’s not just me, though. Food tells you so much about a person, a culture, a life style.

So for this week’s writing prompt, I want you to spend ten minutes free writing about the most popular food in your book. Is it a modern dish like pizza, or something you make up? How about a world like Firefly where fresh fruit is a delicacy that only the well off can afford?

Take ten minutes to write on that.

Next, consider how your main character feels about that food.

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