Summer, Intellectuals, Imbeciles

Summer is here early, and I don’t say that because of the weather, which is, at this particular place and time, overcast, rainy, and certainly no warmer than 60. I say it because the school year is over and done, and I’m settling into summer routines. My job takes less time than the classes, with attendant tests and papers, I’ve been occupying myself with since January, so now I’m turning to other things. Writing queries, a short story or two, an epic hermit crab essay. This blog.

I also have a summer reading list, which consists solely of books that possess these two qualities: (1) I choose them; (2) I don’t have to write papers about them. The first of these books is Imbeciles, which is not what it sounds like.

The book title is taken from a declaration made by Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes regarding the case Buck v. Bell: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” With the ruling of Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld the forced sterilization of the socially unfit – those deemed criminal, insane, or “feeble-minded”. This is eugenic sterilization, the elimination of undesirable genes through sterilizing undesirable people, and it is now largely forgotten. A hundred years ago, however, it was being mandated in American law.

I am about one third of the way through Imbeciles. I’ve just finished reading about an expert witness called in to support the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, the young woman at the center of Buck v. Bell. This expert never met, let alone examined, Carrie, or her mother and daughter – the first and third of the supposed three generations of imbeciles. He did, however, request comprehensive data regarding her genealogy, blood relatives, and their literacy, social status, mental test records, and physical and mental development.

What strikes me is that, before testifying that a young woman should be sterilized by the government, he wanted to see her family records, but he never wanted to see her. He was interested only in data, facts and figures about people without faces. It occurs to me that it is through this divorce between data and people that intellectuals get themselves into trouble.

And their victims.

Appendix of Names

During the earliest development of The Valley of Decision, I established this pattern of naming: of Gaelic origin, unusual enough that the names would not be common in our own world, but not too unusual. I avoided names like Ruairidh because it just looks too foreign. Who would care to guess how to pronounce it? So I ended with names like Torradan and Artek and Belenus – different, but easy enough.

I made various exceptions to this pattern – none without rhyme or reason, except perhaps naming the capital city of Alamir Ataroth. The rhyme and reason of the other exceptions will become clear.

This appendix is not a dramatis personae, listing the characters of the drama, but a compilation of the origins and meanings of many names in the book. Because of this, and how I began the naming process, there are some notable omissions. Neither Caél nor Keiran, the book’s heroes, appear in this appendix; absent with them are other lesser (but still important!) characters – among them all three lieutenants of the Hosts.

The reason for their absence is this: As part of my preliminary research, I made lists of Gaelic names that struck me as fitting the story. With the exception of the Fays (Fays are always an exception), the earliest-existing characters were named from this list without regard for the name’s meaning. Keiran, Caél, Torradan, Artek, Lachann: the cream of those lists.

Other patterns emerged. A majority of the Fays share names with Celtic deities, and several place-names are just two words with the space between them deleted: the Coldlands, the Wildheath, the Northwood. A few names, such as My’ra, have neither a particular origin nor a particular meaning, but the longer I worked on the story the more I rejected these. Even minor characters like Emain and Labras have names of Gaelic origin, and so of a certain flavor.


Appendix of Names
to
The Valley of Decision


Achadh: A Gaelic place-name meaning ‘field’

Ailill: ‘Elf’; the name of several Irish High Kings

Alaunos: The Celtic god of healing

Ataroth: An obscure Canaanite city conquered by Joshua and Israel

Brandr: A Norse name, meaning sword; Brandr was, after all, an earl of the northern Coldlands

Belenus: ‘Bright, shining one;’ the Celtic god of the sun

Dochraitay: A slightly more phonetic rendering of dochraite, a Gaelic word meaning ‘friendless, oppressed’

Droheda:: A slight alteration of Drogheda, an Irish city cruelly subdued by the English under Oliver Cromwell

Glahs (Forest): Glahs is Gaelic for ‘green’

Hrolfr: Norse, meaning sword

Jarmith: An alteration of the Gaelic name Jarmin, which means German – a foreigner in Ireland, as Jarmith was among the Dochraitay

Kobuld: This elder blacksmith of the Trow was named after the Kobold, a race in German folklore who were said to live in mines and be expert metalworkers

Morrigan: The Celtic goddess of, among other things, war

Muireach: A diminutive form of the Gaelic name Muireadhach, meaning ‘lord, master’; this is the least majestic name owned by a Fay

The Northmen: An old name for the Vikings, on whom the Men of the Coldlands were loosely based

Nuadha: ‘Protector’; the Celtic god of the sea

Sgrios: Gaelic word meaning ‘ruin’

Tullach: A Gaelic place-name meaning ‘little hill’

Volund: Of Norse origin; in legend, the name of a great smith

Sundry

As usual when I have trouble alighting on a topic, I’m going to talk about myself today.

This past April I finished the raw draft of The Shameful Years, which I’ve (nearly) re-titled The Time Door. This manuscript has been different, and in some ways more difficult than what I’ve done before. I didn’t quite understand, when I began, what challenges I was setting myself with the premise. I was pleased with the manuscript when I finished it, but as every writer knows, that’s not the gold test.

The Time Door is sci-fi, and the first book of the Eternities series – of which my novella Cards is, to date, the only published work. I have planned Eternities as a series of free-standing novels, each book a complete story and each a significant episode in an imagined history beginning in the middle of the twenty-first century and continuing into the twenty-second.

Such a history holds innumerable stories in potential, and I hope to be mining them for years to come. But not any more this year. I decided, on completion of The Time Door, that I liked it and wanted to write something different, ideally with dragons. After exploring various ideas for a new project, I am now writing about …

A painting emperor. And his half-wild brother. And space pirates.

In this manuscript, I’m taking the characters of the Sons of Tryas series and giving them a much broader drama on a much larger stage. Since spring, I’ve been dividing my writing time between that and editing my raw draft to a polished draft.

Finally on the writing front, a young reader recently gave me this picture. He drew it after reading The Valley of Decision; I recognize the characters, the scene, the quotations. It is incredibly cool to see a moment of my book brought to life by another person. So, with appreciation for the gift that it is, I present the meeting of Keiran, Captain of the Hosts, with Kobuld the elder blacksmith of the Trow, as drawn by Christian.


Express Review: Power Elements of Story Structure

Regular readers of this blog – and I appreciate you both, by the way – are no doubt saying to yourselves, “What is an ‘express review’? There has never been an ‘express review’ here before!” And you are absolutely right.

An express review, briefly put, is not a real review at all, but would like to be one when it grows up. It is – and this is the defining quality – too short. I never wrote short reviews until I joined Goodreads, and it is that, and not a shortened attention span due to excessive video games, that has led to this abbreviated review.

So here is my express review of Becky Miller’s Power Elements of Story Structure, which luckily is longer than its own introduction.

But not by much.


In this brief instruction book, Becky Miller examines the ‘bare bones’ of a story – beginnings, middles, and endings, and the basic elements of tension, plot, backstory, and foreshadowing. She carefully defines and explains each of these, and then advises authors how to create them.

This book is spiced with excerpts from contemporary novels and (what is more fun) fairy tales, used for illustration of various points. Becky also weaves in quotations from a plethora of authors, all interesting enough to make the bibliography she provides at the end noteworthy.

A few writing exercises are included. I didn’t do them, actually, but they did make me stop and think. In fact, I paused, throughout the book, to consider it and (I admit it) to evaluate both my most recent manuscript and my newest effort.

Power Elements of Story Structure is written with great clarity and lucidity, cutting a clean line between the lowest common denominator and esoteric heights. Most helpful to new writers, but interesting to any writer who enjoys the study of his craft. I finished wanting to read the next book, Power Elements of Character Development.

And the story of the monkey and the crocodile.


The End.

And that, readers, is an express review. But the question remains – what happened to the monkey? I hope he didn’t get eaten, but fairy tales are vicious like that, sometimes.

New Release: Power Elements Of Character Development


Power Elements of Character Development
(book two of The Power Elements of Fiction series)

Rebecca Luella Miller


Power Elements Of Character Development, second in the series Power Elements Of Fiction, offers practical instruction for fiction writers about how to create engaging characters. This manual covers such topics as the character arc, a character’s inner as well as outer goals, qualities that make a character compelling, how character development fits with plot, how setting affects character development, character flaws, character voice, well-developed minor characters, realistic antagonists, and more.

This guide provides helpful reminders to the seasoned author, tips to help the intermediate writer raise the level of his storytelling, and instruction for the beginner. The occasional writing exercises offer writers an opportunity to apply what they are learning to their own works in progress.

Finally, Power Elements Of Character Development includes a list of resources for authors who wish to dig deeper in any given topic.

In total, this manual is a succinct blueprint for fiction writers to create characters that intrigue, entice, and compel readers to follow their story.


Available on Amazon


About the Author

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Rebecca LuElla Miller has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in the 2006 Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. She currently blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

Her editing credits include non-fiction and fiction alike, most notably four titles in the Dragons in Our Midst and Oracle of Fire series by Bryan Davis. You can learn more about her editing services and read her weekly writing tips at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.


Until Tuesday, May 19, Power Elements of Story Structure – the first book of the The Power Elements of Fiction series – is free on Amazon.

CSFF Blog Tour: Personal Predilections

As a rule, it is easy, when one dislikes a book, to see why. Obvious, even. So it was an interesting experience to get about three-quarters through Storm Siren and try to figure out why I was just waiting for the book to change. True, the section I had been reading was less than action-packed, but I have never needed action to be interested in a book. Those chapters of Storm Siren explored the characters and their world, all in beautifully written prose, and I felt I should have enjoyed it more than I did.

What dimmed my enjoyment, I finally decided, was the romance and angst, dosed out too generously for my tastes. I never doubted the novel’s craftsmanship, even when the content made me restless for something more. This left me thinking of something I realized some time ago: There is a difference between a good book and a book I liked.

We who judge books – as reviewers or simply as readers – need the discernment, and perhaps the humility, to distinguish between honest judgment and our personal predilections. We all have our natural tastes, and it’s human to mistake our innate liking for an inherent superiority. But in fiction, as in everything, there are higher standards than our own tastes.

To know how well a book succeeds, we have to understand what it was meant to be. Once I read a historical novel about Jane Austen that was, at times, rather too slow, but I found it hard to fault the author. A novel like with that, with any fidelity to history, can involve only so much excitement. If the author had decided to write a novel in which Jane Austen was an undercover French spy during the Napoleonic Wars, and her works were actually written by Francis Bacon – well, that would have been more exciting. I might have even liked it more. But it would not have been a historical novel.

I take it for granted that many books have succeeded admirably in becoming the sort of thing I don’t like. I avoid those genres where I expect to find them. Even in the sort of books I enjoy, elements I dislike inevitably surface, and sometimes I criticize. But as time goes on, I realize more and more how subjective these things can be, and how vital the difference between subjective and objective criticism is.

A lack of logic in the plot, a lack of believability in the dialogue, a lack of motivation in the characters – these are objective criticisms, and come far nearer to the question of whether a book is good or bad. It’s only subjective to say that a book had too much romance; all that really means is that it had more romance than I liked. There is no objective measurement of how much is too much.

I don’t mean to discourage subjective criticism. It can be very interesting, and it’s especially useful in reviews; it helps people to determine if the book in question is something they would like. But it should be recognized for what it is, and given its proper weight. A book’s quality is not measured by how much it appeals to us personally.

The Northmen

I am bringing down hobgoblins from the mountains, Men from the Coldlands. The Valley of Decision


The Men of the Coldlands were barbarians. That is the first thing to understand. They wore animal skins, sang of their war gods, and knew nothing of letters or runes. They forged bronze rather than iron into weapons, and decorated their chiefs’ tents with colored cloth and animal skulls.

And they were light-haired and light-eyed and fair-skinned, true children of the cold North.

The Men of the Coldlands are loosely based on the pre-Christian Scandinavians. The Roman Empire had conquered the British Isles, bringing civilization by the edge of the sword; many centuries later, long after the Roman Empire had turned to ashes, Winston Churchill declared, “We owe London to Rome.” In time, Christianity followed Rome, and it, too, taught and civilized.

But not in Scandinavia – at least not for centuries yet. The Viking Age began when the Vikings attacked the Holy Island, off the coast of England, from which missionaries had gone into Europe. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that “the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.” At Charlemagne’s court, the scholar Alcuin lamented, “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God.”

Heathen and wretched are minor insults compared to the judgment given by the Muslim scholar Masudi in the tenth century. After describing “the people of the northern quadrant”, with their “excessively white” coloring, he wrote: “The farther they are to the north the more stupid, gross and brutish they are.” Those in the “sixth climate .. are reckoned among the beasts.” (source: Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe)

In L.P. Hartley’s immortally wise words: “The past is a foreign country.”

When I wrote The Valley of Decision, this notion of the pale barbarians from the north guided my characterization of the Men from the Coldlands. I called them the Northmen, an old name for the Vikings, and gave the three chiefs Norse names: Volund (in legend, the name of a great smith), Brandr (meaning sword), and Hrolfr (meaning wolf).

Volund was the leader, and he called Brandr and Hrolfr his earls – a detail inspired, I admit, by the Viking earls of Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. These names were also a kind of inside joke: Hrolfr was the earl who draped himself in the pelt and fangs of a wolf, and when Volund passes the iron sword to Brandr … yes, that was a deliberate pun.

The Northmen had little presence in The Valley of Decision, being the coming stormclouds of the story: growing nearer, darkening the landscape, but not yet here. When I finally made their acquaintance at the end of the book, I wished they had arrived sooner. There was no space left in the story to do justice to the pale barbarians and their collision with the more sophisticated – but still so fallibly human – southern people.

But such unexplored side-paths are what sequels are for.

A Little Thing

When I was writing one of the earliest scenes of The Valley of Decision, I came – while hastening to the main point, which was the introduction of Keiran, the Captain of the Hosts – to a bit moment where an officer clears the way for the army’s highest commanders: “Way for the …”

For the what? My first thought was lords of the army; I added to the notebook masters of the army. In the end I chose the latter title. True, both words mean essentially the same thing, but master seemed the less-used. Better, it seemed more visceral; in America, at least, our strongest cultural memory of addressing men as “Master” is of the slave-holding South.

So they – the five highest officers of the military, my principal heroes among them – were masters. I soon extended this principle of address to their society as a whole. I knew the Dochraitay, ruled for as long as they could remember by Belenus, would be a strongly hierarchical society, well inculcated with the idea of mastery. People could be owned. Didn’t Belenus own them?

When you read The Valley of Decision, you can learn a great deal about the characters’ relationships, and their estimation of each other, by what titles they use. Master was not a mere honorific in Dochraitay mouths, but a recognition of the speaker’s inferiority and a pledge of submission. Hence Keiran addressed the Fays, but only the Fays, as master. All the soldiers, even the three lieutenants of the army, called him master in turn. The lesser soldiers called the lieutenants master, and in their own turn assumed their absolute superiority over the Alamiri captive, and so the hierarchy went …

Caél, as the Captain’s right hand, was second in command of the army. It’s telling of his closeness to Keiran that he alone of all the Dochraitay never called him master. It’s telling of his subordinate rank that he frequently addressed Keiran as Captain. By contrast, Keiran never addressed Caél by his own title, though he might refer to him by it when speaking with others.

When dealing with foreign rulers – such as the leaders of Alamir, and even the King of the Others – the Dochraitay used the honorific lord, as their way of paying respect while subtly declaring their own freedom. The Sovereign and the King of the Others were lords because the Dochraitay did not have to obey them.

Even the fact that the Dochraitay incessantly call Jarmith Alamiri or the Alamiri tells its own tale. That was the most salient fact about him. When they referred to him as our Alamiri, it was wholly without sentiment: They meant only “our Alamiri, to keep and to do with as we like”.

My decision, in the beginning, to use masters of the army instead of lords was a little thing; I did not foresee then that I was sounding a note to be sounded again and again, throughout the book. But of such little things stories are made.

In the Beginning …

This (nearly) past year saw the publication of my second novel The Valley of Decision – the culmination of a long process that began six years ago. At that time, I had finished the manuscript that became The Last Heir and I needed a new project. I had never written fantasy, had never planned or even particularly wanted to write fantasy. But there were three influences coming together to lead me there.

First, there was Steven Curtis Chapman’s song “Burn the Ships”, in which he re-told the tale of how Cortes, well, burned his ships. (I should note here I’m listing the influences in reverse order of importance.) What captivated me in this song was the sense of radical commitment, the blazing will to never go back, even if only death lay ahead. This roosted in my imagination for a long while, before coming home in Keiran, the chief character of The Valley of Decision. (The burning of the ships also directly inspired Keiran’s destruction of Dokrait.)

Second, I was in those days repeatedly reading G. K. Chesterton’s poem The Song of the Wheels, whose phrases and lines recurred in my mind like a song. I eventually memorized it, and that was pure efficiency, as I no longer needed to go fishing up the written form. The Song of the Wheels is the song of “the little things” – “only men”, “a gasp is all their breath” – and how they broke free of King Dives and his hives “full of thunder, where the lightning leaps and kills”. I think I understand the poem better now, but I fully felt it even then, the oppression of the weak and the freedom they gained when they finally grew bold enough to choose.

My final inspiration was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I had already read the books years before, but a new thought struck me regarding the story: Why were the Men enslaved to Sauron and Sauraman always enemies – usually to be defeated, occasionally to be pitied, but still only enemies? Why couldn’t they ever be heroes? I thought a rebellion of the slaves against their Dark Lord would have been tremendous. In my imagination, I could see some sort of captain of the slaves making a direct assault on the Dark Lord. While quoting Chesterton’s Song of the Wheels.

With this scene playing in my head, I began to consider writing the story of the slave rebellion against the dark lord. I took up the work of all writers, even writers who tell stories about imaginary people in non-existent worlds: research. I began exploring European folklore, and I grew intrigued by what I found.

The neat divisions of our modern culture – beautiful fairies, benevolent elves, mean goblins, grumpy dwarves – are wholly upended in the old stories. I was impressed, too, by how alien and sinister Faerie was to mankind in old-fashioned fairytales. Tolkien, I came to see, had rather glorified the Elves; certainly, in the old world where the tales of Faerie were first told, no right-thinking mortal was ever off his guard around faeries of any description.

These realizations came to impact deeply The Valley of Decision, which existed then as only the germ of an idea. I hope, in the weeks and months ahead, to explore how. With this post, I open a new series – “Through the Valley (of Decision)”.

Help Wanted, Again

Help Wanted
Up-and-Coming Hero Seeks Wise Old Mentor

Qualifications: Applicants must have broad experience and knowledge, particularly of the Evil that threatens all our lives. Persistence, commitment, and keen perception skills required.

Applicants must be wise, learned in arcane yet extremely relevant knowledge, and have a store of aphorisms – or else be able to come up with apt aphorism-like remarks on the spot. Preference given to those who know something vital about me that I do not yet know myself; also to those who can predict the future.

All applicants are required to have outstanding teaching skills, including outside the traditional classroom environment. Sinister yet compelling warnings, ambush tests, and on-the-job training all desired. Teaching methods that involve physical pain and mortal danger to the student are also acceptable. I am, after all, an up-and-coming hero.

Applicants must be willing and able to guide me onto the path of my True Destiny, even if I initially resist.

Applicants must be older than I am.

All applicants must understand that they will eventually have to absent themselves so that I may experience horrible dangers with no way out, and so come into my own and be truly heroic. Death, though the normal method of leaving, is not required. Any way that upholds the applicant’s status as Mentor, and my status as Hero, is permissible.

Benefits: Being a Wise Mentor.

To Apply: No application necessary. Interviews, furthermore, will not be held, because any Wise Mentor who would submit to being interviewed by an up-and-coming hero is obviously in need of mentoring himself. If interested in the position, simply find me and try to claim it. Preference goes to those who initiate the meeting by rescuing me from certain death, who reveal various dark secrets, or who carry or bestow an item of obvious mythical quality, such as a light-sword, a wizard’s staff, or any kind of magic jewelry.