Feraydun and His Three Sons (Shahnameh Reading Project 3)

Join Tessa Gratton and I as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

SYNOPSIS: Feraydun’s three sons earn their names and marry the three daughters of the king of the Yemen.

3 daughters wedding

An illustrated page showing a king presiding over the wedding of his three daughters.

TG:  This story is very simple and straight-forward, and a story-type I’m very familiar with, and yet it surprised my by how technically well it’s told, and how self-sustaining it is.

I read the line that the princes could hold their own against elephants before they were named and assumed that was a delightful bit of hyperbole meaning they were big and strong even when babies. THEN the note that the princesses of the King of Yemen were “three unnamed daughters” came and I paused to think for a while about naming conventions. Clearly the daughters are marriageable age, so what does this mean? They have no names of their own? Why not? Are they only named in relation to their eventual husbands? How does this work? I remembered the line about the princes and decided maybe it was a detail I was never going to get the answer to, something I don’t understand because of a lack of exposure. Or it was a use of basic fairy-tale convention.


The three unnamed princes and three unnamed princesses coming together and only then earning their names from Feraydun – the most powerful character currently in the world, with the farr of God and magic of angels. This story is not about Feraydun dividing his land or fighting between the sons, it’s about how they got their names and, of course, foreshadowing.

I went back and read through the whole story again to see how the hints about the theme were dropped in so casually and gracefully that I – a very practiced reader – noticed them, but not how they were part of the internal scaffolding.

I continue to be impressed by the role and treatment of women. The princesses weren’t unnamed because they were women, and they are valued by their father for themselves and how they make him feel. Not political or monetary worth. He’s only concerned with enraging Feraydun, not gaining alliance with him through the means of his daughters. All the women so far, though ruled and sometimes even controlled entirely by the men, aren’t chattel. They have power in their own right as advisors, sorceresses, mothers.

KE: I agree. I also entered this section with preconceptions and then they were all exploded. I suppose this is the “good dad” episode although naturally there may be more good dads later but I was specifically enamored of how the story deals with the king of Yemen and his love for his daughters. He doesn’t reject Feraydun’s request out of hatred for the other king. He isn’t evil or conniving, even though he does connive a bit. I was so impressed that he simply really loves his daughters. As people. As good company. What a concept. Also, so far the two kings also identified as Arab have not done well against the Persians, although obviously the king of Yemen isn’t in the same category as Zahhak. His deceit is, one might argue, for a good cause (at least by our standards).

Like you, I read the clues as to what the episode was about without really registering them until the naming happens and then the light went on and I realized I had been played by a master.

It also interested me that Feraydun finds a way to praise each quality of his sons even if, as with Salm, we might in another circumstance expect him to be condemned as a coward. Yet it IS also possible to see his behavior from a different angle, as the king does.

I did feel there were echoes of the ancient Indo-European folktale pattern of the three sons and the youngest son having a special destiny. I don’t know if this will turn out to be the case but given that the next section is the story of the youngest son, I guess we are about to find out.

Next week (February 5): The Story of Iraj
Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak

Enthusiasm Thursday: Isabel Yap & Rose Lemberg (short fiction)

Isabel Yap’s The Oiran’s Song (Uncanny Magazine) tells a story about a war-torn world that is truly grim and dark. As I have said elsewhere, so often the narratives that claim to focus on the griminess and grittiness of war as an act of edginess focus on the people who are inflicting the pain while the victims figure as nameless grist for the mill. Yap’s story reverses that trope, telling the story of a youth who has been sold into service in an army unit during what is apparently a civil war. Note how the details of the politics do not matter for the people who are being used, abused, and churned up by those fighting. We never get any sense that there is a point to the war, or even an end in sight. I find this kind of story heartbreaking and difficult to read, but for me it reaches deeper into the tragedy of war because it centers the existence of those lives used up and destroyed.

This is a hard read, and Yap frames it with beautiful, emotional language that never blinks as it tells its truths:

Winter will always remind you of three things: the smoke rising from the fire that burned your home; the cold floor you slept on as a pageboy in the teahouse; and the peculiar shade of your brother’s skin, the way his bruises grayed like melted snow. This color does not make sense in your mouth: spoken, tasted. But you see it every time you close your eyes. His body being folded like a paper fan, broken apart like ceramic. The few nights you could lean next to him, he smelled like wine and another person’s sweat.

When you were twelve, at the onset of war, the teahouse sold you to some passing soldiers. You bundled up your clothes and stopped by Kaoru’s room. He held you, and you exhaled into his chest, where bruises were patterned delicately: stains of the floating world. You didn’t know it then, but the pleasure quarters were starting to crumble. “Goodbye, niisan,” you said.

Your brother did not tell you to be happy, which would have been cruel. Instead he said, “Live well, Akira.” His eyes, when they rested on your face, were loving, sad, and afraid.



Rose Lemberg’s Grandmother-Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) is a coming of age story set in her Birdverse secondary world, about a young person finding out who and what they are and what course their life may take by way of a quest. I’m not going to synopsize the plot except to say that the core of the story, for me, is the concept of making decisions in life in terms of our relationships to others and how we understand our self.

In the Birdverse universe, relationships and language and magic intertwine so tightly they can’t be fully pulled apart because none of them exist in isolation from each other. Language and linguistics underpins the Birdverse. If you enjoy asides on and playing with etymology and language change, if you love fascinating cultural explorations and inventive customs and traditions that feel lived in, this is the story for you. This world feels “real” in the sense that I can imagine myself wandering into it, and it comes alive in striking and evocative writing.

One day grandmother-nai-Tammah spoke to me, as if to continue a conversation we had never begun. “Beyond the city,” she said, “in the heart of the desert, the sandhills crest and fall, shifted about by the hand of the wind. Sometimes the wind blows so mighty it cuts through the layers of sand, through the years, revealing bones of perished animals too winsome to exist. People of the Surun’ treasure these, and so do the Maiva’at. The best of their weavers know how to listen to the bones. In plain threads of spidersilk they then embroider these beasts, fantastical and forgotten, onto carpets dyed with weld and madder.”

I nodded, not feeling the need for speech.

“Each tribe has its own designs, shapes formal and solemn to embody the memories of the bones. Each tribe has its own materials—spidersilk and wool, sisal and reeds and thin leather cords. Yet only among the snake-Surun’ is there a tradition of weaving from air.”

She said nothing more, expecting perhaps a question.

Later, Gitit-nai-Lur would ask me why I had not asked, her eyes bright with secrets and dreams of the desert. “A cloth of winds! A whole tradition of it, not just a single fragment but a whole carpet, carpets! Oh, such a treasure to bring back from a trading venture, to unroll before the ruler of the city!”


Image to Idea, A Practical Example to Illustrate the Argument, Episode 1 (Worldbuilding Wednesday 4)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

This is a long arc discussion of world building, spread over multiple installments throughout 2016 (if all goes as planned). I’m not trying to write 3 pithy posts that encapsulate everything in 1000 words each (although those can be valuable as well). So expect me to take my time as I mosey through my thoughts and my experiences, and trundle in a few guest posts besides so you can get a different perspective on specific topics.

I’ve been thinking for a while of writing a standalone fantasy novel (STOP LAUGHING), one not set in any of my other worlds. I’ve been far too busy working on major projects to have time much less the mental energy and space to start building a new world (except for the space opera I’m working on, on the sly). But a few months ago I got the most basic flickering of an idea, and it occurred to me I could use this image as a practical example to work through.

Therefore, periodically during this series I will drop in a practical example, drawing from the original image and slowly expanding it as an example that will perhaps give some insight into how I work through developing an image-idea into a story-ready narrative foundation.

Here’s the image:

The scene I see in my head is an isolated prison, small but massive, sited on a crag with a single window overlooking a cliff face. A woman of about 40 sits in the most heavily fortified and guarded cell. She is relaxed, thinking intently. Footsteps sound, and she tenses. Chains and bars are shifted, the door opens, and a uniformed man of about her age appears. He is a stranger to her, although she notices that he is handsome. She makes a sardonic comment whose hostility is only mildly veiled. He does not react visibly but informs her with utterly correct and borderline insulting politeness that he is there to escort her to . . . .

Look how many world building elements are already present:

1) Crag and cliff suggest a detail about the physical geography.

2) The prison is isolated, not in the middle of a city or near by or adjacent to a population center.

3) A culture that uses prisons as a means of separating out certain people from the main population. Not every culture uses this form of confinement and separation as punishment or control.

This is a perfect example of how a writer can default to familiar sociocultural systems and not think about why they have included them. As an American writer, it would be easy for me to use a version of how I imagine the US prison system, only set in a fantasy world, and that’s fine, if it is what you specifically want to do. But as an alternative, I might stop here to reconsider what might otherwise become generic details and background.

What does this prison represent? Is it an institutionalized prison system, which presupposes a hierarchy, a bureaucracy, law courts, and officials who work to enforce a legal system that may be just or unjust? Is it the private dungeon of a powerful eminence who can imprison people without fear of repercussion, and if so, what gives this eminence the ability to lock away their enemies? Is it a rebel holdout hiding from the authorities, with a key player from the authority’s camp under their control, for now? Are there gods and monsters? Could it be the local version of a mental institution? Is the person inside being sequestered for their own safety? In what other ways might this scene be explained? Grabbing for the first thing that comes to mind can often limit the setting.

4) The prisoner is deemed dangerous or valuable or a pariah (or some other option). In what manner she is deemed dangerous or valuable or a pariah I don’t yet know.  But think how many angles this question offers.

Is her status and that of the uniformed soldier essentially egalitarian, except he works for the authorities and she was imprisoned because she was working against them? Is the society one in which women have legal inferiority, and she is not considered dangerous in and of herself but is being held as a hostage to enforce the compliance of a man who is related to her? Yet she hasn’t been placed under genteel house arrest as would be the case in a world in which women can be more easily subdued by social means or are perceived as not capable of being powerful or valuable enough to need locking up under heavy guard in isolation, whether because of their own power or the power of the people who may want them back.

Possibly her gender has nothing to do with her being locked up or the circumstances of how she has been locked up. Perhaps her religion or ethnicity or class is the key, or a monstrous crime she has committed, or her work as a rebel against the authorities, or her position as an architect of the authority that the oppressed are rebelling against.

5) A man in uniform suggests a bureaucratic social structure. I don’t generally think of scrappy rebels as wearing elaborate uniforms, but maybe they do. I am 100% certain he does not work AT the prison but is an outside person come to the prison with the express purpose of moving her to somewhere else or because her help is needed in solving some problem. So his uniform has already started pushing my head to see this place as representative of a fairly rigid top-down centralized government of some sort that runs this prison, and has imprisoned her for unspecified reasons. But I might change my mind later as I get more information.

6) She reacts to the uniform, not to the man. Therefore there is a bad history there between her and the people who wear those uniforms.

7) She is in solitary confinement. Character-wise, being alone does not bother her, and also suggests at the very least that she finds solitude preferable to being in proximity with the other people and/or guards in this prison.

8) Sardonic comments and politely-veiled hostility between the two characters suggests the potential for sparks to fly. The default here is a heterosexual romance, and I feel I may be headed that way.

9) Will I ever get tired of the trope of men in uniform (or at the very least great clothes)? Evidently not.

10) Thinking about who she is and why she might be in prison and why she might distrust the uniformed man (beyond the obvious reason that he represents her jailers), and why he might display immediate (therefore predetermined) hostility to her, makes me think about what she has been doing during the months or years she has been stuck in the cell. So I tease out a few more details, to try and get my bearings.

The cell is furnished with a simple wood bed, a covered chamber pot, a stand with a wash basin and pitcher, and a small table with a single chair. She is relaxed, thinking intently, and has positioned the table so the angle of light from the air vents in the wall illuminates the tabletop, her hands, ink and quill pen, and a pile of paper, some blank, some tightly filled with a painstakingly precise handwriting and various diagrams.

It is right about here that I realize I want to create a variation on the Prometheus story. I don’t know how or when or why, but that’s the seed of it: The woman being held in prison has done something the Authorities really did not want her to do that involved giving knowledge or skills to people the Authorities never wanted to have that knowledge but can’t take back. Now an outside circumstance has forced the Authorities’ hand: They need her help.

This gives me a conflict. In fact, it is a nested conflict, in which an earlier conflict drives the current conflict. But it also throws up in the air all kinds of questions about the setting. Those will have to be for the next episode of “From Image to Idea,” coming later, whenever I feel it fits in the series.


Next week: Either a guest post from Aliette de Bodard as a companion piece to Inductive vs Deductive (because she works in the opposite manner to me and I think it is always useful to get another angle)


The Map As Theory (if Aliette’s post isn’t ready)

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive or Deductive


The first printed ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) have come in, and I have one to give away.



A photo of the bound advance reader copy of Poisoned Blade, with a cover mostly blue with gold/yellow highlights and a stylized arrowhead-blade across the center. Cover says: Poisoned Blade, A Court of Fives novel, by Kate Elliott


Poisoned Blade is the sequel to Court of Fives.

Here is a brief excerpt:

The setting sun spills gold across the sea. Boats bobbing atop the quiet waters fade into twilight and flicker like spark-bugs as sailors hang lamps from their prows. The main avenues of the city flare lamp by lamp into life as the queen’s royal lamplighters kindle the night-lanterns.

On Rest Day Eve all the theaters run evening performances. It’s the most crowded night of the week, but with the bulk of the king’s army marched east, fewer people than normal pass under the West Gate of the Lantern District. We have plenty of room to walk along the district’s streets hung with colorful banners advertising the plays on offer this month. Just as I had hoped, there is enough time for us to shop along a lane of clothing stalls, where I buy an inexpensive ankle-length linen dress in the sleeveless, straight cut that has always been the fashion in Efea.

“Why do you keep looking back?” Mis asks as we stand at a food stall stuffing ourselves on a Patron delicacy of fresh pancakes wrapped around a paste of chopped almonds, dates, and cinnamon.

Fortunately my mouth is too full of the sweet, hot filling to reply, because I have spotted two men wearing the Garon Palace badge depicting a horned and winged fire dog. Although they don’t seem to be paying attention to us, I am sure they are following. We are easy to spot: Commoner girls wearing long sleeveless jackets that mark us as members of a palace household. We also wear the fire dog badge to indicate our affiliation.

A group of Patron men I’ve never seen before approach, and we four stiffen, wondering if they mean to offer an affront.

The eldest steps forward as the others whisper at his back. He has the muscular arms of a laborer but wears his hair long and bound up atop his head in the style of old Saro. He even speaks Saroese with the accent of old Saro, not the way Patron folk who have grown up here in Efea speak it. “Are you that one called Spider, who won the first trial at the Royal Fives Court in the victory games?”

I swallow. “I am.”

He nods at his companions, and they give me the kiss-off gesture familiar to every person who runs or watches the Fives. Here on the street it can be a mortal insult, or a sign of respect.

“Well run, Adversary,” he says. “You’re one to watch with those spins and flairs. We’ll be cheering for you.”

He pays for all our pancakes, and they go off without asking a thing in return.


In February I am going to be starting an occasional series in which I, or guest bloggers (both writers and readers, and writers as readers) talk about working with tropes in fiction, and also about reading kinks (things you always love when they show up in a book) from a variety of viewpoints. In tribute to this forthcoming discussion:

TO ENTER FOR THE ARC of Poisoned Blade:

Make a comment, below, about a reading kink you love — that is, a trope or type of character or a plot thing or whatever that if it shows up in a book kind of hits all your buttons (in a good way). So for example I might write: “Arrogant dudes who fall in love and have to get humble to get the love interest, a la Mr. Darcy” or “the outsider who is kind of bullied or ignored and who ends up finding she has special powers and a super destiny,” because those are both tried and true (and often cliched) tropes that are reading kinks for me.

Remember: No reading kink is shameful. It just is.



Contest open for 8 days (closes Monday February 1st at 10 pm Hawaii Time, which is Tuesday in the rest of the world).


I’m not entering (obviously) but to get things started I’m going to write in a few weeks about one of my favorite tropes (and reading kinks) which I have explored in various ramifications over and over in my fiction, and that is: The Forced Marriage. I have no idea why I love this trope. I just do.

Good luck!


The Demon-King Zahhak (The Shahnameh Reading Project 2)

Join Tessa Gratton and I as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: The Demon-King Zahhak (pages 9 – 27)

Synopsis: The rise of Zahhak at the hand of demons, his unjust and evil rule, and final fall when Feraydun is prophesized to overthrow him, and proceeds to do so.


Zahhak enthroned. Note the snakes growing from his shoulders. Original image at: http://www.online-literature.com/forums/entry.php?6447-Sultan-Muhammad-Bihzad-the-Shanameh-and-Classical-Persian-Book-Illumination-pt-2&goto=next

TG: While the introduction to the early kings was fun and interesting, this longer chapter about the rise and fall of the Demon-King Zahhak gave me pretty much everything I want: demons causing havoc for no apparent reason other than they feel like having some fun, wild prophesies, creepy demonic magic, ladies with names actually affecting the narrative, and oh yeah, the rainbow cow I never knew was missing from my life.

I’m pleasantly surprised how little we had to wait for the ladies to appear, and that the first turn out to be sorceresses and trusted counselors to the king (even if he’s a demon-king), instead of only being defined by their relationships to men (which, of course is how they’re initially introduced to us: sisters, mothers). Shahrnavas and Arnavaz are clearly very important to Zahhak, too, since he really only becomes infuriated enough to make terrible mistakes and be captured when he hears and then witnesses himself that they switched sides to Feraydun.  Arnavaz in particular is powerful, even (especially) within the constraints of her role.

On a more narrative note, the epic poem I’m most familiar with is Beowulf, and I’ve done a lot of reading in related Norse epic poetry and stories. One of the pieces of evidence that Beowulf was based on old oral stories that everybody knew instead of being an invention of a single poet(s) is the frequent introduction of quasi-historical characters without background explanation. It was assumed that the listener would be familiar with the famous mythological characters and heros and legends. I’m getting that same feel in the first part of The Demon-King Zahhak. The triggering event of this section is when Eblis appears to Zahhak in disguise. I have no idea who Eblis is initially, but Ferdowsi probably expected his audience to know the name  (just as later he expects us to know what Ahriman means). Especially because later Ferdowsi in a parenthetical explains that the River Arvand is also the Tigris, so clearly there were some things he DID feel the need to explain, the names he assumed everyone knew stand out even more. This sort of immersion makes me very aware of the poem as a living, breathing story, not just ancient history.

My favorite tidbit was the aside about the creation of the Kurdish people. I’ll think of that every time I read about them in the news.

KE: Yes, this section is fantastic. Besides the exciting action and the cool women, it contained all the little touches that make me fall in love with a writer.

How great is Ferdowsi’s sly aside “I heard a wise man say that, no matter how much of a savage lion a man might be, he does not shed his father’s blood, and if there is some untold secret here, it is the mother who can answer an inquirer’s question.”

Note how this is not phrased in a way that is apparently critical of the woman. It made me smile. When he introduces the sisters, they are (as you say) not what I expected, not passive but rather active within the constraints of their position. Also, both sisters as well as Feraydun’s mother, Faranak, have names, rather than being described purely via their relationships to the hero as in “wife” “mother” etc.

I do know the name Eblis, which makes me agree with your point about a larger oral cultural tradition from which Ferdowsi is drawing/collating to create his epic (as Davis discusses in his introduction). I appreciate Eblis as an antagonist. Something there is in my psyche that cannot help but adore the detail of the demon kissing the king’s shoulders, here and here, and then two snakes growing there. Who eat nothing but human brains. This is narrative catnip.

And, yes, how this ties into the origin of the Kurds is amazing, and also equally incredible to me (especially in light of current events in the Middle East) that the Kurds have maintained ethnic autonomy for so many years in a turbulent region that Fedowsi feels obliged to mention an origin story for them.


On that note, Tessa found this cool map.


Next week (January 29): The Story of Feraydun and His Three Sons

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings

Enthusiasm Thursday: Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

There is so much to love about Tricia Sullivan’s strange, convoluted, humane, and playful imagination as it emerges in her fiction. One of the chief things I read her for is the sense I get that I have dropped into a work of fiction I could not ever hope to write. At times I read for comfort and familiarity, while at other times I want to open a door into a vision that shakes me and enthralls me and twists my mind into strange angles.




I am not even going to attempt to describe the plot. Instead I’ll quote the Gollancz copy:

A woman with wings that exist in another dimension. A man trapped in his own body by a killer. A briefcase that is a door to hell. A conspiracy that reaches beyond our world.


Occupy Me starts fast, with an almost urban fantasy vibe, and skews faster into something completely weird and wonderful and often very very funny. Sullivan uses a complex narrative structure through time, tense, and point-of-view switches to both propel the narrative forward and keep creating a recursive reflection back as you-the-reader begins to see how it all links up.

Every character, even the minor ones, are sharply delineated. Besides Pearl, I particularly loved the vet Alison who adapts to a strange situation with aplomb and grace. The descriptions of place are rich with vivid sensory detail. I was often struck by the beauty and luminosity of the prose. Sometimes the wild physics made sense to me with my limited physics background; sometimes I felt completely out of my depth; but it didn’t matter because the prose always carried me forward and the story is always grounded in Pearl’s quest as well as the perfectly human needs and motivations of the other characters.

I’m not a reviewer and honestly I don’t feel competent to write about this work in a way that will bring across its full splendour. If you like science fiction that is weird and wonderful and often very very funny, Occupy Me will fit the bill.

Here’s an excerpt from a post Sullivan wrote about the genesis of the ideas:

What I stole and who from

I was really afraid to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time. It’s not like I wanted to write space opera. I wanted to write stories that have their roots in some of the strangeness of modern physics.

Highly recommended.


I wanted to add a link to this recent review which goes into the science, the ontology, and the cosmology in a way I can’t and that really digs into how much Sullivan is doing in the novel.

Available from Gollancz Books

Inductive or Deductive (Worldbuilding Wednesday 3)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

Long ago on Twitter I asked people what world building questions they would like me to answer. Several of the questions seemed to me to fall into a set that was about my approach to world-building.

How early in the story do you need to know the world? Before you start, or as you get to pieces you need? (Colleen W)

I am curious about the level of detail to start out with vs. what is filled in later? (Stephen M)

Your fave method top>down vs. bottom>up. How detailed is enough? (Sunny K)

Is world building an inductive or deductive process? (Paul W)

In many ways I am not an orderly world builder. I like to rely on a combination of instinct (allowing the subconscious to churn), research (deliberate exploration), and synchronicity (the space where the two intersect).

As I said last week in The Flowering of an Image (WBW2), the world and the story develop together. To briefly recap: My stories have their genesis in an almost filmic image of a character embedded in a setting.

The initial image/scene already feeds me information about the world. King’s Dragon appeared to me as a landscape with a feel of early medieval Europe. By the evidence of the type of window and the carriage, Cold Magic wanted to be set in an equivalent of the 18th or 19th century. At this stage it is also important to remember that these earliest and basic images may also be loaded with the most standard options or fallbacks, with common backdrops and familiar aspects because that is typically where our minds go first: To what we’ve seen and read most often.

It’s important for me to find a balance between that spark of an image that will guide me into the story versus grabbing for the first and thus possibly most generic ideas. I embrace the inspiration while I also work to not let my creativity settle into a familiar place. I must leave myself space to interrogate my choices in a conscious way.

At this point I will usually write an initial version of the scene and, perhaps, its followup section. I won’t think too much about where and why, just feel out where my mind wants to go with the character(s) and setting. This first and rawest draft will never be published anywhere and never seen by anyone except me. I may also write bits and pieces of other scenes. I might write notes or sketches of what could happen next or what some major plot points or end points are.

As I do this I am continually making decisions about details, which to include and which to discard and which to think harder about. We all do this when we write fiction no matter where it is set and even (or especially) if we aren’t consciously aware that is what we are doing, which is why I agree with Tom Pollock’s statement that “all fiction is worldbuilding.” A story set in modern London is world built in much the same way a secondary world set in the imaginary Republic of Hesjan is. The made-up aspect is the fictional story element; how it interacts with the setting and what the writer chooses to show to the reader is part of the world building process. If I don’t examine the details I may end up (but don’t always) perpetuating stereotypes and engaging in lazy narrative choices.

In other words I am defining world building NOT in the sense of coming up with maps and made-up cultures and history of a non-existing “secondary world” but in the sense of how the artist describes the setting and how the characters function within it. To give an example: The current USA tv show Hawaii 5-0 is set in Hawaii, in the present day. No world-building, right? Only the show has world building stamped all over it in every choice the producers and directors and writers (most or all of whom are, I believe, from outside Hawaii) make every week. They have created a “fictional Hawaii” to promote to a primarily Mainland USA (and international) audience that relies in part on stereotypes about Hawaii because the real culture of Hawaii veers away from people’s expectations and/or may confuse viewers.

Details begin to create a barebones framework that the world will ultimately be built on because the details tell you a great deal about the social and physical landscape.

For instance, if I introduce a character as a girl who is selling fruit in the marketplace, that means she lives in a culture where girls and women can sell goods in the market. If the scene shows that it is both common and accepted for them to do so, that tells you something (for example) about Mai’s oasis home town in Spirit Gate.

In the opening to Court of Fives a mother and her four daughters are taking their leisure at dusk in an outdoor courtyard. One of the girls is reading by the light of an oil lamp. Poetry exists, as well as secret love notes. Consider how the details start creating the world: It’s warm enough they can comfortably sit outdoors in the evening, so it’s likely either summer or a sub-tropical or tropical climate, but the way they are using the courtyard as an extension of the house made it feel this is a place where it is warm year round. The oil lamp gives a clue about the level of technology. The girls are literate and educated. Most of these details were not ones I “decided on” before I wrote the scene but rather came to me embedded in the action.

Part of my process becomes untangling how these earliest details fit into and help define the world.

Small details that accrete as I write and which are woven into a larger whole are one aspect of how I build up a world. I’ll come back to the issue of details later in this series.

But there comes a point where I have to stop writing snippets and step back to consider the big picture, the overarching geographical and cultural and historical elements.

I need to build a basic scaffolding to give me a basic sense of place or, if you will, an understanding of the foundation that roots the story. From this point forward the big picture and the details develop in tandem with the unfolding plot and the characterization.

Once the foundation (or scaffolding) has enough heft, I can start actually writing the book instead of noodling. Even when writing the first and subsequent drafts I still do not know everything about the world, and in fact I will never know everything about the world (nor do I need to). At intervals the plot will stall out because of a cultural or geographical or historical aspect I’ve not yet worked out, a piece of information I didn’t know I needed to know until that moment. Or I’ll discover or have a creative flash of something really cool or momentous that will turn out to be of crucial importance in the narrative.

I have come to understand my personal process well enough to leave space for these moments of synchronicity as I move forward. Rather than rigidly shoving things into place, I try to leave room for the unexpected to jump in and my subconscious to play. Often if I’m pondering a world or plot detail I will stumble across exactly the thing I need, sometimes in the strangest places, in the last place I would think to be looking, and sometimes exactly where I had hoped to find an answer.

Here is the basic outline that is kind of what I do:

1. basic idea which features a basic character in a proto setting

2. start noodling

3. need more context so do some overt building & research

4. start actually writing, and continue world-building as I go through drafts

Next week: A Practical Example
Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image

The First Kings (The Shahnameh Reading Project 1)

Join Tessa Gratton and I as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: The First Kings (pages 1 – 8)

Summary: “Here is our introduction to the establishment of civilization through a succession of glorious kings who ruled over people, animals, and the earth itself. They tamed the demons, discovered fire, invented irrigation, divided kinds of animals and kinds of human work all while honoring God.”

Sassanid king art

KE: A few things struck me immediately on reading this first section:

The story does not start with the creation of the world but rather with the creation of sovereignty, the “first man to be king, and to establish the ceremonies associated with the crown and throne.” I don’t know what traditions Ferdowsi is drawing on but given that this was written in the 10th century C.E. I thought the description of the piece by piece evolution of culture was fascinating. For one thing, the order makes sense. First people wear skins; then fire is discovered, and step by step more accoutrements of civilization are invented (by the kings).

Another element is how clearly stated the ethical theme is. Everyone, good or bad, will die. All that lives on after death is your deeds. Basically Ferdowsi sets up the morally good, just kings and their creation of civilization, and then we reach the pinnacle of glory and pride (symbolized by Jamshid commanding the demons to raise him into the heavens and his subsequent question “who would dare say that any man but I was king?” And so, the fall.

It’s refreshing to read an epic in which an expression of justice and morality sit front and center (even with the caveat that a monarchical system is not one I personally would consider the most just and moral).

No women so far, but the young men are, without exception, handsome or splendid.

TG: Yes! It makes sense to frame the narrative with the creation of civilization instead of the world, since this is literally the book of kings and kings require a civilization to rule – mortal men who are indebted to God for the farr that allows them to rule humans, animals, magical creatures, and even the earth itself. I was impressed by how concise the progression of invention was, and like you said, how clearly the theme was laid out.

If you don’t come to it knowing what farr is, by the end of the section you probably have a pretty clear idea that it’s essentially the grace of God – much like the “divine right of kings” in the West – without that ever being spelled out. Last year I read a book called THE PERSIANS by Homa Katouzian and the author emphasized the importance of understanding farr in understanding the pattern of thousands of years of revolution and rebellion in Persia and even Modern Iran – and here this fundamental epic poem is about the exact same thing.

The section even ends on a sort of cliff hanger that only works because of the tension created by the narrative leading us to understand that great kings must have farr to rule strongly and Jashid has lost it so… TURN THE PAGE TO FIND OUT THE DIRE CONSEQUENCES!

As a side note, I appreciated the practical details here and there, like using blue as a color of mourning, and the delightfully self-aware “There was no armor at that time, and the prince dressed for war in leopard skin.” Of course, soon after armor is invented!

I wonder if we should take bets on how long before the first lady is mentioned, and how much longer before there’s a lady who does anything?

KE: The “turn the page to find out” element of Jashid’s story places this classic firmly in the written tradition. Oral storytelling also uses cliffhangers but I think not quite in the same way.

Also, reading that specific detail–“There was no armor at that time, and the prince dressed for war in a leopard skin”–was the point where I knew I would love this. And for exactly the reason you cite, that it is such a self-aware comment. It’s like a glimpse of the poet himself peeking through.

TG: And the origin of the term farr, or at least a more in-depth discussion on Wikipedia. The etymology section alone makes me drool:


Next week: The Demon-King Zahhak

Link-back to the Introductory Post which includes the reading plan and links to each section as we complete it.

Enthusiasm Thursday: Firefly (the tv series)

Over the holidays my sister visited. She doesn’t as a rule read or watch science fiction and fantasy; she watches very little television in general regardless because she doesn’t own a tv. However, she does enjoy watching programs with others (I got her and my mom hooked on Nashville). So rather than watching whatever zombie program my spouse is viewing at the moment, he and I agreed to introduce her to Firefly, which we ended up watching over about five nights.

kaylee parasol

This is the fourth time I’ve watched the entire series straight through. I hadn’t heard of Firefly until after Fox cancelled it.

On the fourth viewing, my overwhelming reaction to Firefly is how much I love the nine main characters and the complex ways in which they interact with each other and with the worlds around them. The opening title sequence with its plaintive title song evokes nostalgia for a show–for my acquaintance with these characters–cut short too soon.

Many ensemble shows take multiple episodes or even a couple of seasons before the actors truly jell with each other. Firefly had an unusually strong blend. I don’t know in what order the episodes were filmed but I do imagine that the pilot double episode, “Serenity,” was filmed first because the way the characters work together feels just a little stagey. By The Train Job the ensemble is smoothing out; by Bushwhacked it feels as if the ensemble has been together for several seasons already. They just feel right together, like it was meant to be.

Of course I have a few criticisms. Every time I watch I don’t understand why we don’t see more Chinese and other Asian faces. Given the setup, they should be everywhere, and definitely Chinese in the highest echelons of society, but mostly they are absent. Simon and River should, by rights, be played by Chinese or Chinese-ancestry actors; however, Sean Maher and Summer Glau are so great in the roles that I don’t regret them being there. And while I love the conceit that everyone uses random words of Mandarin in their speech, as a reflection of the hegemonic power, I can’t speak to how well the language use is actually managed.

This is meant to be a brief piece, not an essay, so I won’t say much more although I might expound in the comments if inspired, because there are so many levels to these characters and their relationships and all of it funneled through with humor melded with the serious. How great is Wash? How complex and mysterious is Shepherd Book? Why is Jayne at his most sympathetic when he begs the captain not to tell the others that he betrayed them? How does the character of Kaylee even work, and yet she does, and also her friendship with Inara is perfect. How awesome is Zoe? Why do I love Inara even though by rights I ought to dislike the trope? Simon is a perfect blend of clueless privileged guy and dead-serious doctor, and River is a work in progress who was still unfolding in so many ways.

One of the most interesting things that happened during the re-watch was experiencing the opening scenes of “Our Mrs. Reynolds” with a viewer who didn’t know what was coming. My sister was appalled at Zoe mocking Saffron, and at the general unsympathetic tone of most of the crew’s comments. My spouse and I were, of course, laughing, because we knew the twist and she didn’t, but her outrage forced me to step back from my place of knowledge and look at it with fresh eyes. It’s effectively written, I think. Mal, as always, is a person of contradictions: He is a deeply damaged man who can be harsh and sometimes genuinely mean in a petty way (we see this in his interactions with Inara, because he can process his feelings for her in no other way even as we are meant–I believe–to find his behavior unpleasant and immature). Yet at the same time as I’m appalled by his treatment of Inara, I admire him for his complete loyalty to his crew, which is unshakeable. “Our Mrs. Reynolds” is a rare moment where we see Zoe in a negative light. Is she mocking the girl because she is jealous? Not of Saffron’s potential sexual relation with the captain but of the potential for another person to become as close to the captain as she is? I don’t know. I love Zoe, so it’s unexpectedly jarring to glimpse that side of her, however briefly.

And that’s what I adore about Firefly. I feel I am getting to know people who have the complexities and flaws and strengths that people have. The journey matters because the characters matter to me.

If I had to point to a moment in the pilot that captures me every time, I will always point to the scene on Persephone when engineer Kaylee, sitting with her rainbow colored cheap paper parasol in a grungy folding chair, spots Shepherd Book and tells him in that bright, smiling tone that never sounds false, “You’re coming with us.”

It’s as if she said it to me.

The Flowering of an Image (Worldbuilding Wednesday 2)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.


Why do I work the way I do? How do I world build? Where do I start?

Usually I conceive my stories in the flowering of an image in my head. In this image I imagine a character in a situation that has an inherent emotion or urgency or conflict that engages my passion to explore it further.

Why and how my mind generates these images I do not know.

The seven volume Crown of Stars series grew from an image of a youth walking on a path over a ridge as a storm rushed in from the sea. On the wings of that storm he meets a woman in armor who is a supernatural manifestation. He is dissatisfied with his dreary, ordinary life. The grim warrior woman seems to him to personify the life of adventure he believes he yearns for. But the bargain she offers and which he accepts is not truly a gift nor is it a good bargain for him or indeed for anyone. In the image I saw in my head, the setting and situation made it clear it was to take place in a European-medieval environment. The scene described is the literal genesis point of the series. In the published novel, this scene takes place in the 3rd chapter of the 1st book.

Sometimes the initial image I have doesn’t make it into the book in the exact form I first encountered it in my head. My conception of Cold Magic started with two girls, cousins, seated in a classroom overlooking an entry forecourt. Through the window they see a carriage arrive conveying a man who will change their lives in some unspecified way. When I wrote the novel I kept the academy, the cousins, the man, and them watching his carriage arrive through a window, but changed the venue of the meeting to their home. In the initial image, I knew nothing about the man except that he was arrogant and from the upper ranks of their society, and the only thing I knew about the young women was that they loved each other with unshakeable loyalty. Their dress and the building and carriage revealed the setting to be in some kind of 18th/19th century milieu.

That’s where the STORY starts: With a character and some basic decisions about who and where (both physically and emotionally) the character stands at that moment.

Once I decide to start building a novel or series atop that image/scene, that emotion, that interaction, I start the world building process.

Therefore: The world building process, for me, goes hand in hand with the accumulation of plot, character, and incident that develops into the story. The two processes interact with and feed each other. One doesn’t happen alone.

I don’t build a world and then stick a story in it.

I don’t come up with a plot & characters & construct a world around them.

Listen: it is perfectly okay to create a world in either of those ways. Or in other ways. I know writers who literally “discover the world as they write” and those who can’t start until until they have a notebook full of details. And that’s fine, just as it is fine to prefer as little overt world building as possible, if that’s the story you want to tell.

The reason I emphasize that I am only talking about how I do things is that some writers & writing teachers talk about HOW TO DO THINGS as if there is only one way or as if their way is the “correct” or “best” way.

I have only ONE FIRM RULE of writing:


For me, the elements of character and setting are intertwined such that I could not pull those characters and that plot out of one story and insert them into another, because characters and culture and thus their actions and reactions exist in a specific map.

In other words, if I have done my job right, the characters and the world can’t be pulled apart and re-used separately. They function together. They aren’t discrete elements.


Next week: Inductive or Deductive
Previously: Introduction