From the Highways and Byways of Tad´s Brain A fantasy masterclass from Tad (12 July 2016 Newsletter)


There’s an old quote often attributed (incorrectly) to Otto von Bismarck: “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

We’re about to find out if that’s true for epic fantasy as well.

I’m only half-joking. If you don’t want to see the way I stumble through my creative process live and close-up, I’d suggest you find something else more attractive to look at, like photos of car crash victims or Donald Trump’s hair.

One thing you have to know about me as a writer, especially a writer of long books, is that over the decades I have developed a great trust in my own inner processes and my subconscious. This leads (I like to believe) from what at first often seems random to a certain emergent complexity — a “truth” to the inventing that I might not find otherwise. In this newsletter, I’ll give you an example from the intersection of MS&T and The Witchwood Crown.

One of the most interesting things about Witchwood Crown and the new books — with revisiting something I spent so much time on (and shed so many brain cells over) — is that I not only have to create all this new complicated background/history/worldbuilding, but it has to synch up with the stuff I’ve already published.

There’s a million words of MS&T and a long short story in LEGENDS that have been around for years, and I have to connect to them without contradicting them. In fact, I have to do more than not contradict: all the new worldbuilding has to feel like a proper continuation of the old worldbuilding. Often times that requires a certain amount of parkour-of-the-imagination, not just leaping over obstacles, but actually changing those seeming obstructions into something new and useful.

Case in point: The Sithi/Norn calendar.

So a few weeks ago I’m working my way through the 1st novel of the new trilogy, The Witchwood Crown, in final rewrite. One of the many things that happens during my final rewrites is that I crystallize a lot of the smaller details, or sort out confusions and inconsistencies and commit to a final version of troublesome bits of the history/plot/etc.In this case, I decided I needed more references to calendars for the “immortals”, especially since in this book I’m actually spending a lot of time with the Hikeda’ya — aka, the Norns. One of the things that we learn in the new books is that the name of the Norns and Sithi when they were still one people was “Keida’ya” — “Witchwood Children”, because of the importance of that tree and its products to their civilization going all the way back to their old home, the Lost Garden.

There’s already some built-in complexity because of their old calendar from the Garden and their way of counting years — a Keida’ya Great Year is a bit more than sixty years in length (and why that’s true is another story for another newsletter) but they’ve been living in Osten Ard, which is more or less like our world, for thousands of years, so they have to have developed some kind of calendar that matches our world.  The most obvious markers for such things are the stars, the sun, and the moon.  The stars feed into the Great Year idea and others, so I concentrated on moons as the source of the calendar, as they are (roughly) with most real-world societies.

I started to come up with some suitable Keida’ya months off the top of my head — Moon Names, in effect, that would be the basis of the calendar for both Sithi and Norns, since they were closely connected for thousands of years before they split.
My first list of moons/month names went like this:

The Mother — December 21 — January 21
– The Father — January/February
– The Child — February/March
– The White Flower — March/April
– The Mist — April/May
– The Mirror/ — May/June
– The Stone Book — June/July
– The Water — July/August
– The Queen/The Arrow — August/September
– The House — September/October
– The Beast — October/November
– The Tree — November/December

Now, don’t study this REAL closely, because it quickly proved useless. Why? Because I realized that I already had the beginning of what could be a symbolic lunar calendar back in Stone of Farewell, when Aditu the Sitha leads Simon “from winter into summer” — from the rest of the world, in the grip of the Storm King’s winter, into Jao é-Tinukai’i, a place where the Sithi hold sway, which is at least temporarily immune to the Storm King’s magic. When I thought about all these evocative characters that Aditu mentions as she takes Simon from one season into another, it suddenly made sense that she should be invoking the names of things or powers or spirits or gods or whatever pertaining to different times of the year — in other words, her journey through seasons should be in part evoked in the names of the moons from different parts of the year.

So the NOW me (as opposed to the one who originally wrote Stone of Farewell decades ago) said, “Okay, THAT should be the basis of my calendar, and those names should represent moons/months.”

Most obvious problem was, there were only eight names mentioned by Aditu in such a way as to fill that bill, and any moon calendar needs twelve. I decided I would add some new names to those in SOF, fleshing the list out to twelve, and thereby have my calendar of month names/attributes/patron spirits.

(NOTE: At this point, evenI don’t know for certain whether the Sithi/Norn cosmology includes actual gods, some kind of nature spirits, cosmological agencies, or perhaps even the idealized avatars of historical early ancestors. And we’re not going to solve that here. I’ll jsut call them “patron spirits” for now.)

So, this was my first attempt at combining the SOF incantation with some new patron spirits, keeping up the alternative of animal names and attribute names (because I believe that treating stuff I’ve already done with the consistency of historical truth makes everything fit together better and seem more believable):

canon (already in SoF)
– Serpent – February
– Wind-Child – March
– Tortoise – April
– Cloud-Song — May
– Otter(Lantern Bearer) — June
– Stone-Listener — July
– Lynx — August
– Sky-Singer – September

non-canon (not mentioned in SoF)
– Raven – October
– Fire-Maiden – November
– Wolf – December
– Ice-Mother – January

Ah, but as I said before, one thing about doing things The Tad Way is that you have to treat your own published ideas as though they are history. You don’t change them after the fact, you EXPLAIN them when you come up with seeming contradictions. And very soon after I made this list and was all happy and pleased with myself — I even went back to the Witchwood Crown manuscript and put these moon names in various places where I’d left a blank space waiting for a date-name, especially in the Norn sections — I had a horrible recollection.

(Horrible because it would mean more work. Thank God it came to me before the book was finalized!)

Anyway, what I remembered was that when Simon, Binabik, and Miriamele entered into the deserted Sithi city of Da’ai Chikiza by river (and the city will almost certainly feature in the new books) they passed under a succession of bridges, called “Gates”, that had something to do with moon cycles. So I went back to The Dragonbone Chair and looked it up and damned if Binabik didn’t specifically say “These gates represent cycles of the moon”. So immediately my most recent moon calendar turned out to be wrong, because TDC mentions several “gate” names, and none of them correspond with Aditu’s incantation.

So there I was. I either had to say Binabik was mistaken (which goes clear against my principles, unless it’s in a minor, minor mistake that can be easily explained) or I had to throw out everything that didn’t match, which would mean that the new Da’ai Chikiza stuff would wipe out my (still unpublished) second version based on Aditu’s incantation. Which would be a shame, because I really liked the connection, and it brought a little quasi-historical light to a magical section of the old books.

OR — and here’s the really sausage-y stuff, so those of delicate sensibilities might want to look away — I could trust ALL my processes and find a way to make both things true.

Thinking about it, I decided that what seemed quite realistic to me was that each patron spirit (or god or ancestor, or legendary hero/heroine, or whatever) might have both attribute names and animal names — that both could be ways to describe them, but neither would be the patron spirits’ actual NAMES. So then the problem was to make the two lists match up somehow.

So I took the stuff that was already in print from Aditu’s incantation in SoF, ditched the new stuff, and was left with this list:

– Serpent – February
– Wind-Child – March
– Tortoise – April
– Cloud-Song — May
– Otter (Lantern Bearer) — June
– Stone-Listener — July
– Lynx — August
– Sky-Singer – September

Then I took the “gates” mentioned by Binabik in TDC and had THIS list:

- Crane
– Dove
– Hare
– Fox
– Rooster
– Nightingale

The first problem is obvious: That makes fourteen name/attribute combinations all together, which is two months more than I needed for a world like ours. So I remembered the idea that the animal names and attribute names could both refer to the same set of twelve beings, and realized that I could make everything work together with a little luck. That is, since I had extra animal names, all I had to do was put aside the animal names from Aditu’s song for a moment, then match some of the animal names from the gates at Da’ai Chikiza to pre-existing attribute names from Aditu, and boil the whole thing down to twelve total. Without going through every choice and why, since this is pretty long already, I wound up with a third list of rough correspondences:

– Serpent – February
– Wind-Child – March (Hare)
– Dove – April (Grieving Sister)
– Cloud-Song — May (Nightingale)
– Otter (Lantern Bearer) — June
– Stone-Listener — July (Fox)
– Lynx — August
– Sky-Singer – September (Crane)
– Tortoise – October
– Fire-Knight – November (Rooster)
– Wolf – December – (Moon-Herald)
– Ice-Mother – January (Raven)

The reasons I paired many of these are obscure, but not all: the connection of hares to March is already known, and of March to wind, likewise. Foxes often hunt small, burrowing animals by standing very still staring intently downward and listening carefully. That seemed a good reason to pair Fox with the attribute “Stone-Listener”. And anybody who has ever heard a crane can imagine why I’d pick “Sky-Singer” for those — they are loud, loud, loud.

And the new choses needed to blend stylistically with the old ones, so I thought a lot about them in ways I don’t have the space or inclination to explain just now. But I hope this gives you an idea of the process. I cannot promise, by the way, that I won’t have some other last-moment freakout and have to change something, but I don’t think that will happen.

So that’s basically the process I used to connect three books together — TDC, SoF, and TWC — while strengthening a bit of Sithi/Norn cultural information. Remember, though, these month-names are based on two Sithi pantheons (or whatever you want to call it) so the Norn version may have changed slightly since the Parting of the two groups, or emphasize different attributes or names. You’ll have to wait until the book comes out to find that out, I’m afraid, since I’m not certain myself yet.

(Most of my worldbuilding happens this way, which is one reason I’m always tired and I sometimes stare at people for a long time without hearing what they’re saying to me.)

And that’s how sausages, legislation, and epic fantasy worldbuilding are made: ugly and messy behind the scenes, but we manufacturers hope that the final product will be palatable.

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