Friday, April 11, 2014

Guest Post: Write What You Know? by Freya Robertson

One of the first things we’re told as writers is to “write about what you know”. (Interestingly, just hours after I’d written this post, I found this article on which summarises a pair of essays on this subject over at the New York Times Book Review. We come to some similar conclusions, which gives me hope that maybe I’m not as much of an idiot as I tend to think I am.) 

Anyway. As a writer of fantasy or science fiction, writing about what you know poses a bit of a problem. How on earth can we write about dragons or what it would be like to live on Mars when we’ve obviously never experienced these things? (Probably). And who would want to read a story about a secretary who does cross-stitch in her spare time? :-) 

Perhaps the better way to phrase the advice would be to “know about what you write”. Writers should be encouraged to plunder their imaginations the way children rifle through dressing up boxes, searching deep and making sure they check in all the corners for anything that may be hiding there. But the key is to make these strange and fanciful ideas believable, and that means relating the fantastic to the everyday things we do know about. 

I have a degree in history and archaeology, and although I didn’t want to write straight historical fiction, it felt natural to set the fantasy I was writing in the periods I felt most comfortable with, namely the high medieval period of Europe. I love reading about monasticism, the Templar knights, battles, armour and weaponry, so writing a story featuring elements similar to these also made sense.

Because part of a being a historian is studying how and why things change over time—how societies emerge and develop, how civilizations rise and fall—it was important for me to bring this into my stories. There’s a section in C S Lewis’s Prince Caspian in which the four children who have previously visited Narnia return only to find it is 1300 years later, and the table on which Aslan the Lion was sacrificed now lies under a mound filled with “ancient” writings that are actually younger than them! This perfectly illustrated the passage of time that I wanted in my novels. I also loved this piece in The Fellowship of the Ring (Chapter 7: In the House of Tom Bombadil) where Tom is describing the landscape to the Hobbits: 

They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, and fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight. 

I love the way Tolkien summarizes the passing of time in this one paragraph—you can see the civilizations rising and falling before your eyes like a movie on fast-forward. The way these two writers handled time was a big influence on Heartwood (Book 1 of The Elemental Wars), and an even bigger one on its sequel, Sunstone. 

There are three separate stories in Sunstone set in three different time periods; one just 22 years after Heartwood, one five hundred years later, and one a thousand years after that. The stories are told concurrently, though, and they interweave throughout, meeting up occasionally, including at the end in the “Apex”, an event that connects and concludes all three timelines. The characters in the novel are all “alive” at the same time, but I hope the story gives a sense of the way time ebbs and flows, and how societies rise, peak and fall, only for the next one to begin to rise again. Everything is a cycle, and the theme of birth, death and rebirth is also very strong in Sunstone. 

If you enjoy epic fantasy, grand tales about adventure across time and space, nature religions, battles and a touch of romance, then Sunstone may be for you :-)

Author bio:
Freya is a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, as well as a dedicated gamer. She has a deep and abiding fascination for the history and archaeology of the middle ages and spent many hours as a teenager writing out notecards detailing the battles of the Wars of the Roses, or moping around museums looking at ancient skeletons, bits of rusted iron and broken pots.

She has published over twenty romance novels under other pseudonyms and won prizes in fifteen short story and poetry competitions.

Freya lives in the glorious country of New Zealand Aotearoa, where the countryside was made to inspire fantasy writers and filmmakers, and where they brew the best coffee in the world.