CSFF Blog Tour – The Ale Boy’s Feast by Jeffrey Overstreet, Part 1 The Dark World


Jeffrey Overstreet - photo by Matt Sumi

“A darkly complex world populated by a rich and diverse cast of characters, in which glimpses of haunting beauty shine through.” So said R. J. Anderson, author of Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter and Wayfarer in her endorsement of Jeffrey Overstreet‘s The Ale Boy’s Feast.

As I read this final edition of the Auralia Thread series, I am struck by how apropos that simple description is. Today I want to think a little bit about what created the darkness of this world.

Going back to the beginning of the series, I see darkness in the political structure. Rulers are autocratic, and punishments are merciless. Consequently there is a great divide between the privileged and the “criminal element,” poor people who are left to fend for themselves without the protection of government services.

In conjunction with this divide is rampant prejudice, within particular houses, or feudal realms, based on economic and social standing, and between the various houses of the land known as The Expanse.

In addition, there is darkness in this world’s history. One of the houses has fallen to ruin because its people have succumbed to a madness that turns them into dreaded beastmen. The effect on the remaining houses is decidedly negative. They shore up their defenses against raids and have less and less to do with outsiders.

A third element that creates the dark tone of these books is the various dangers that encroach. There are dangers from outside the “civilized” communities, but there are also traitorous dangers from within. Each seems to grow as the series progresses.

Another source of darkness is the false religion, and the seers who teach it, that holds sway over one of the houses. Those following the seers are powerful but unprincipled. They pose a threat to every good character in the story.

Along with this aspect is the unknown of the “childish superstitions” that most adults deny — the existence of the Keeper and the reality of the Northchildren. Belief and disbelief create division and suspicion. At times, the most rational of people can’t tell if they are dreaming or experiencing something from a realm beyond.

Finally, the bleak landscape creates darkness. Even if Deathweed weren’t devouring all living things and turning The Expanse into a wilderness, places like The Eastern Heatlands and the Forbidding Wall still produce an atmosphere of gloom and foreboding.

Quite a dark world, indeed. But then there are those “glimpses of haunting beauty.”

I’ll take a look at that aspect next time.

For your enjoyment, spend some time with others discussing this fourth of four, the White Strand in the Auralia Thread.

Check marks are direct links to tour-related articles.

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NOTE: Tour participants, the Amazon link you received for our featured book is broken. You may use this one, or another of your choosing.

Refreshing Fiction Continued


As most writers know, there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer or their love conquers and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers—cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable differences (until they are reconciled – 😉 ).

Perhaps one character is a faery and the other a human, in a wheelchair. Those are obstacles! Who would even see the romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter.

But what if the couple is already married—a union of convenience or position—and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

But now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. An interesting character, quirky, engaged to someone else, perhaps single longer than most, with a family who values family and marriage above all else.

Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters) and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a surprising smash hit.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle.

Another tack is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty and you have Shrek. Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history look like?

What would a romance between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter ten years after the Twin Towers attack look like?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”—the ideas that present themselves when we writers first start contemplating a story.

Published in: on June 3, 2010 at 11:02 am  Comments Off on Refreshing Fiction Continued  
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Fantasy Friday – World Building


I’ve been thinking about world building a bit more as I’ve worked on the pre-writing for my next book, the one after The Lore of Efrathah. I don’t know a lot about it yet, but I’m already getting the idea that it will have different world building components than the largely rural journey-quest epic I’m finishing.

Thinking about world building has also made me wonder what a non-fantasy writer has to do regarding world building. A fantasy world is something a writer builds from the ground up.

True, some fantasies take place in this world but have fantasy components. That kind of jigsaw-puzzle world building might be harder than the ground-up kind. I don’t know.

I suppose the contemporary world building has to do with selecting places and visiting them to get facts right. Historical world building might be hardest of all because it is ground up but must be true. Lots of research required!

I’ve done some research for my world building, but for the most part, because I’ve been privileged to travel a lot, I relied on what I knew about different places.

The hard part was that I didn’t know what I was doing when I started. So I hadn’t thought through what I should do to create some language elements. I had no intention of actually making up a new language—just writing a few words here and there.

But that soon morphed to include a few lines of poetry and song, greetings, blessings, and on and on. Of course, there needs to be some rhyme or reason to it all, so there needed to be a little basic grammar. But some of the words didn’t fit the rules. Oh, well, that’s more like real language, I decided. Lots of exceptions to the rules in English, so why not in the language of the Hidden Races?

Organizational structure was another thing I hadn’t anticipated. Who was in charge? What power does the advisory council have? What are the military rankings?

And how many people are we talking about? Is this a well-populated land or sparsely so?

How about commerce? What kinds of businesses exist in the cities? Are the people literate and if so, how important are books? Theater? Entertainment?

Questions, questions, questions—all needing answers if the world is to feel real.

Not that the author needs to inform the reader of all the answers. But if the world is to work consistently, the author needs to make it run by a cohesive set of rules. In so doing, the reader may never think about “world building.”

Except for maps. I love maps. I make maps for everything in my world because I need to see the logistics in order to make sure my characters are where I’ve said they are.

My inclination is to include every map I’ve ever made in my book. Won’t readers want to see these maps too? Well, maybe not. I’ve read some notes in which readers say they are turned off by maps (and glossaries).

The only maps I’m turned off by are the ones that aren’t complete. Something happens in the story and I turn to the map to see where this place is in relation to the others, and it isn’t there! Horrors! That’s a map that detracts from the book if ever one does as far as I’m concerned.

How about you? Do maps help world building do you think, or hurt it?

Published in: on May 14, 2010 at 5:41 pm  Comments (7)  
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Piquing Curiosity


Yesterday I mentioned some things that cause confusion—conflicting facts, improper motivation, a lack of adequate details to ground a scene, and a lack of foreshadowing. In trying to avoid confusion, however, I’m opening myself up to another novel killer—a boring story.

Well, maybe not a boring story but a story told in a boring way. I suggest a story can turn boring for several reasons.

First, the characters are flat (synonymous with cardboard, two-dimensional, stereotypical). A character who is not well-rounded is predictable, lifeless, a mere placeholder. There is no surprise, no wonder, no passion in such an individual.

The point here is to avoid oversimplifying characters in order to avoid confusion. Instead, a character, like a real life individual, should unfold in increments. Readers are not going to expect a detailed character sketch when the protagonist first shows up on the page. Rather, there will be a process of getting to know him through his actions, words, and thoughts. In fact, that process should continue all book long. Part of what will keep readers engaged is this getting to know the characters on an ever deeper level.

A second thing that makes the telling of a story boring, in my opinion, is a predictable plot. Again, it would be easy to fall into this writing pattern in an effort to avoid confusion. Even a “standard” premise, such as a romance, where the reader knows going in that boy and girl will meet and marry (or fall in love—I just liked the alliteration of meet and marry 😉 ), the story can be interesting, even exciting, because the how unfolds in an unexpected way.

The real plot question I think an author should prompt in his reader’s mind is, How will the protagonist overcome? And the secondary question might be, Or will he? Overcoming, I think, is at the heart of plot. Yes, the character must want something and must want it desperately. This something must matter. But it is in the overcoming of the obstacles that stand in the way of the character obtaining his desire that has readers sliding to the edge of their seats and turning pages as fast as they can.

But if the obstacles are ho-hum, nothing new, seen that one coming a mile away, or if they make the character look foolish because he didn’t see them coming a mile away when the reader did, the plot will fail to pique curiosity. Who is curious about what he is sure will happen?

A third area that can spark curiosity in the reader is the story world. What’s it like in this place, whether it’s the world of a research scientist working in a name university, a missionary starting an orphanage in Indonesia, an astronaut landing on Mars, or a hobbit traveling in Middle Earth. Again, readers won’t want to know all about this place up front. Just as the author must introduce the characters gradually, so must the story world unfold gradually.

Steve Almond gave a good way to determine what needs to be revealed when. I quoted it yesterday, but I think it bears repeating:

[Readers] don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

Makes sense to me. 😀

Published in: on June 18, 2008 at 10:03 am  Comments (2)  
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