Fantasy: A road trip buddy story, with Elves.
Fantasy: A road trip buddy story, with Elves.
I didn’t create Aura Lockhaven just to tell a cool story. Well, if you’ve read my website, you know why I created her and how she now has absolutely nothing to do with that original premise whatsoever. That is a good thing. However, when A Path of Stones solidified into something tangible, I did sit down to think about my underlying philosophies for that book and the rest of the series. So, for those of you who are interested, here is why Aura is like she is and what I hope to accomplish with at least her first three books.
With A Path of Stones, The Fires of Tallen Hall, and Scarlet Cloak, I’m answering my own personal goals as well as the complaints of the fantasy reading community at large. I hope.
1. I wanted to write the story I wanted to read.
The typical high fantasy is a neverending chain of interconnected books. Examples include Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth, and Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. Personally, I prefer a series of standalone novels in the tradition of the James Bond books or the Dresden Files. So, that’s what I’m doing with Aura’s story. The first three books are one story. From there, they are standalone, unless I need to split a story. Book Four, The Enchantress of Hartshorn, will focus on one week in Aura’s life as she struggles with, and comes to terms with, being the new official enchantress of her town. Elements of the previous books will be referenced, such as why some people are obsessed with her mother’s maiden name. That’s expected, and works without forcing the issue. But it won’t be directly tied to the first three books. Book Five will be similar but with a clearly defined villain, while Book Six will be a Lovecraftian ghost story centered around Elisabeth Lovejoy. The Hound of the Baskervilles with swords and spells. Don’t ask about the rest of the series. Aura hasn’t told me yet.
I also wanted to maintain the foundation that the hero or heroine is good and stands for something. I grew up in the 1970s, when movies were dominated by protagonists who were losers or despicable (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, etc.). That changed with Star Wars in 1977. That was the first movie, outside the James Bond films and Disney, where the protagonists were good, stood for something worth standing for, and won. I want to continue that tradition in a world that has devolved into the anti-hero or worse, protagonists who are no different from the antagonists. Moral ambiguity is real in our world, but I see fantasy as a modern mythology — it entertains while it educates, encourages, and edifies.
Aura Lockhaven does the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do. She is motivated by compassion, and fights from a defensive posture. That does mean she gets her pretty butt kicked more often than she kicks. Good has boundaries it will not cross, while evil will do whatever is necessary to win. That adds to the conflict, would you not agree? Aura will lose from time to time. It’s inevitable. But that’s life.
2. I wanted a female protagonist.
Women are more interesting than men. If I give a sword, wand, or gun to a man, I know what he will do with it. If I give the same weapons to a woman, I don’t know what she will do until she does it. That is because we have 400 years worth of fiction with competent male protagonists, dating back to Cervantes and Shakespeare. We extend that much more if we consider the tales of the Norse, Greeks, and those from Asia and Africa. The first competent woman protagonist in American fiction was Scarlet O’Hara, while the second was Wonder Woman. Both appeared in my mother’s lifetime. Most appeared since I was born in 1963. I want to add to that list. It needs to grow.
Now, it is a fair question to ask how can I know what a woman will think and do? After all, I am a man. Stripped of the cultural conditioning, men and women aren’t all that much different. The basic difference I see is men think like a sword while women think like a shield. Together, they get the job done. Aura’s nation is one that still believes in men and women standing together against a common enemy (although the state religion is changing that). Besides, I’m married. Half of Aura’s personality is based on mine. The other half is based on my wife’s. Aura is essentially half English, half Welsh. My wife is half German, half Irish. So, I just ask my clearly better half, “What would you do in this situation?” and go with her answer.
3. I wanted to create a role model.
This is a dicey prospect. Deliberately creating a role model comes with a sizeable amount of hubris that can only be avoided with great determination. I want Aura to be a model for doing the right thing, letting one’s heart lead, and getting back up when knocked down.
I hadn’t expected her to be a role model for women, but apparently she is. That is out of my hands, and I am not complaining. Women need good role models. Half our species has been kicked around and confined to the kitchen and neverending pregnancies for 10,000 years. If a woman wants to be a mother and housewife, I will stand with her in total agreement, but it should be her own choice, not thrust upon her by a heartless cultural consensus. Aura is not a voice for Feminism or the career woman, any more than she is a voice for the housewife, much less the Religious Right (Aura is a Pagan). She is a voice for self-determination, for choosing one’s own destiny. I hope that works for both men and women. Interference by others in one’s destiny is a subject I will explore in future books. Let’s just say Aura’s greatest enemies don’t cast spells.
4. I wanted Aura to be real.
Aura is supposed to be a realistic and relatable character, while still filling the role of fantasy protagonist and fantasy woman. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with creating a character you’d love to date. I wanted her to be believable enough that the reader would have no problem seeing her step out of the book and sit down for a cup of tea and a good chat.
Aura is beautiful (although she doesn’t see it), sexy, and sexual, yes. If you want a flat-chested woman, go read Little Orphan Annie, don’t look at me. She does have endowments in the chest, but also the hips, thighs, and stomach. In other words, she eats and drinks too much and it shows. She also has a hump in her nose, which frankly I find attractive. She doesn’t wear much, but she has logical reasons, other than the standard of sword-and-sorcery bare essential outfits. Aura is a nudist, cloth absorbs magical power, and as an enchantress, seduction is one of her assets (it helps with diplomatic negotiations). Aura is also smart, competent, wily, and physically strong. She ain’t no bimbo. Aura may have the body of a 1980’s Playboy Playmate, but she has the mind of a PhD. Tell me what is wrong with that! Why can’t a woman be beautiful, sexy, and sexual, while also being smart, competent, and sometimes, lethal. Why does the smart woman have to be asexual and ugly, while the beautiful one is stupid? I also tried to make her class standing realistic. Aura isn’t a princess, nor is she a farm girl. She’s merchant class. In today’s terms, she’s the bar owner’s daughter who double majored in poetry and chemistry, and who now runs a perfume and jewelry shop.
Her greatest strength is the ability to listen to what other people say, add it all up, and arrive at the truth far ahead of anyone else. Half the time she thinks her way out of a problem, instead of using any magical power. But in the 21st Century, common sense is as rare as a glamour spell, so perhaps it does qualify as magic. Aura doesn’t need a man in her life, although she wants one. Wanting and needing are two different things.
She is also highly flawed. I gave her one of my own flaws — arachnophobia. Those are easy scenes to write! In the opening trilogy, Aura looks for validation from external sources, but so do 90% of us. She suffers from low self-esteem, which causes her to be less powerful than she can be. Between her volatile emotions and trauma-related panic attacks, she can be unreliable, and fall apart at inopportune moments. Sounds like many of us. Yet, she perseveres, and that is the greatest magic of all. Aura Lockhaven isn’t perfect. She’s real. That, ultimately, is our goal as humans — to be real in the face of tremendous flaws and overwhelming pressure from society to conform to its ideals of perfection.
The first two complaints are almost universal within the fantasy reading community. The third is my own.
1. The books are too big!
The average mystery novel is about 75,000 words long. Science fiction may reach 100,000. Have you seen fantasy books? They aren’t books. They’re tomes. You can kill a troll with those things. Most average 300,000 words. George R. R. Martin seems determined to best War and Peace. Not only are those books too big, but to get them to fit within any readable size (i.e. holdable), the font is often nine point. Those of us who are nearsighted hate you, Mr. Martin.
I determined that no Aura novel would exceed 150,000 words. If it does, I’ll split it into two smaller books. Hence, why the opening story is the worst fantasy cliche’ of all — a trilogy. I’d rather split the story into three parts deliberately than have it do so in your hands. Digital? You don’t want to pay the price for a file of 500,000 words. Size equals affordability.
Besides, I make more money, but you spend less, if I write sixteen 150,000 word novels instead of eight 300,000 word gargantuas.
2. The quest is always about saving the world.
Frodo set a bad precedent. This complaint is so true. From Richard Rahl to Jon Snow, the hero’s quest is always some colossal undertaking. I wholeheartedly agree. Saving the world is important, but most of us just try to save ourselves. A small, localized heroine needs a small, localized quest, and the Scarlet Enchantress of Hartshorn is about as localized as you can get. So, Aura’s quest in her first three books is to gain the power to help more people, and to discover the truth about herself. Her quest is intimate. For the remainder of most of the series, her quest will be to help whoever needs help, even if that someone is herself. That’s a bit more in keeping with the private detective novel, but I like it. Eventually, Aura may undertake to save her country, but it will be from the position of counselor to the monarch, not the warrior. In other words, Gandalf, not Frodo or Aragorn.
3. The hero undertakes the quest way too fast.
This is my personal complaint. Frodo set the precedent, but no one listened. He didn’t undertake the quest to destroy the One Ring until two-thirds of the way through the first book. On the other hand, Richard Cypher (later Rahl) seized on being the mythical Seeker in three paragraphs (Wizard’s First Rule). That is way too fast for my tastes. Aura doesn’t decide to meet the Order of Enchanters until chapter ten of A Path of Stones, and doesn’t accept the position of the Dyrgana (the explorer) until almost the end, and does both with great reluctance and much soul-searching. That’s the way I think it should be. One does not rock her own boat without much consideration and thought.
Not that you will readily see any of these philosophies as you read the Chronicles of Aura Lockhaven. I hope I’m a good enough writer to keep them hidden from all but my own eyes. But now, you know.
Whenever Freedom of Speech and Censorship is discussed, someone always brings up child pornography. As in, “Are you saying that child pornography is all right?” It’s a bogeyman. The obsession some people have with it makes them sound as if they are the pedophiles. Methinks thou protesteth too much. It’s interesting that they never mention snuff, which is far worse as someone actually dies.
So, I am going to discuss child pornography.
I am going to do so in a way that any reasonable person can understand and comprehend. That is a relative concept, of course, because reason and common sense in the United States is as rare as an ivory-billed woodpecker or eastern mountain lion; i.e., extinct.
To my way of thinking, child pornography is a photograph or motion picture in which someone is having sexual relations with another person, and that other person is age 16 or younger. The act can range from nudity, to touching, to actual intercourse. The ages of 17 and 18 are murky as young people that age have been having sex together as long as there have been barns and means of conveyance. But the laws in America generally says age of consent is 18, so we’ll go with it.
Someone under the age of 18 (and especially under 14) cannot grant consent for the act. He or she doesn’t know how. He or she has no idea what is happening. He or she is not prepared emotionally, much less physically, for the consequences. Because it is a photograph or film, a real person is being harmed in a real way, usually irreversibly so. That isn’t just a crime in the eyes of the law. It’s a crime against humanity and about as inhumane as one can get. It is an absolute violation of the most innocent and vulnerable of all. It’s a crime in most statutes of the United States, and it usually brings the FBI in on the scene, and I wholeheartedly agree.
So, no. That is not protected by the Freedom of Speech, nor should it be.
Neither is snuff. A film of someone being hanged or crucified is not covered by the Freedom of Speech. A professional filmmaker knows how to stage and edit a movie to make it look like someone has been hanged or crucified, but I’m talking about a movie where someone is actually murdered. Those do exist.
Again, child pornography is a photograph or film in which a real minor is engaged in a real sexual act of any type, with the subsequent real harm inflicted, which is a universally granted byproduct.
Now, how about drawings, paintings, and 3D renders.
To quote Neil Gaiman, “No. You don’t get that one.”
Those are “lines on paper,” brushstrokes on canvas, pixels on a monitor. It doesn’t matter how disgusting that may be, those are not real children. That is not child pornography. It is simply tasteless. There are no laws against bad taste. If there were, reality TV would be illegal.
If you condemn a drawing of Kakashi having sex with a 16-year-old Sakura, then you also must condemn quite a few Renaissance paintings of naked cherubs flying around Aphrodite. Yes, you do! Those are painting of naked babies. You must also condemn Michelangelo’s David. Yes, you do! That is a statue of a naked teenaged boy. You must condemn all depictions of Andromeda. Yes, you do! Those show a teenaged girl in bondage, and sometimes she’s nude. This is a case of what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If you condemn one, you must condemn all, or you are a hypocrite.
Freedom of Speech must protect the distasteful, disgusting, and depraved (Sakura-Kakashi), or it won’t protect what needs to be protected (David, and Andromeda). As long as no real person is harmed, it is protected. That is why hate speech is a gray area – the listener may actually suffer harm. If someone is actually harmed, it is no longer a Freedom of Speech issue, but a felony crime. Harm at least equates to assault and battery, if not a far more serious crime. How can representations of people in oil paint on canvas be guilty of any crime, much less raping each other?
That is totally different. Sakura is not actually having sex with Kakashi, as neither are real people. So, no felony has been committed. It’s the same with a vore picture. That is not a real woman being swallowed by a real snake, and she is not really going to be dissolved slowly in darkness and searing agony. It is fiction, so no felony has been committed. No reasonable person would assume that Jim Caviezel was really crucified and murdered in The Passion of the Christ, so no reasonable person should assume that a Sakura-Kakashi ship drawing, a Renaissance painting of nude Andromeda chained to a rock, or any other work of certifiable or verifiable fiction or art actually depicts real children or teens in a real sexual situation. If you do assume that, then you don’t need a lesson in art and censorship, you need a psychiatrist.
Once the process of censorship is started for that drawing of Kakashi and Sakura, it has begun for all art of any erotic nature. Censorship is like kudzu. Once it is established, it never stops. It just keeps growing. It will consume fetish art: crucifixion, bondage, and non-cons. It will consume erotica. It will consume fine art nudes. This is already happening in America, where the Religious Right, Fascist-leaning Mens’ Rights Activitsts, and leftist Social Justice Warriors want all women to be totally covered and devoid of any sexuality. Censorship will eventually reach the point of banning anything that remotely disturbs a small group, and that is a war waged in our libraries for at least the past century.
The answer to this is quite simple. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it. I don’t, so I don’t. If you don’t like it, don’t make it. I don’t, so I don’t. I seldom include a child in a render, unless it’s a group scene (a group without at least one child looks peculiar), or I want to depict a character protecting the most vulnerable of all. I also don’t depict hanging, crucifixion, or vore. I don’t like them.
The Freedom of Speech guarantees my right to write or render what I wish. It also guarantees my right to NOT write or render what I do not wish. That is not a case of obeying a law, or cowtowing to community consensus. That is my personal choice. If someone else wants to do something else, that is between him, his conscience, and the FBI. Not my problem.
Practice, practice makes perfect, perfect is a fault, and faultlines change. — REM, “I Believe”
The concept of practice is problematic for me. I’m classically trained on the piano and violin (although I’ve forgotten most of it). When I was studying, my parents kept harping “Practice, practice, practice. Practice makes perfect.” I didn’t want to be perfect. Once you’re perfect, there’s no where to go. So, my playing became rote memorization, and mind-numbing repetition, totally devoid of any passion. It sounded good, but my heart wasn’t in it.
I can’t take that into writing and art.
The great jazz masters taught me something, especially Sonny Rollins. Mr. Rollins never practiced. He played! Every time he played a song, he played it better than the last time, even if the last time was ten minutes ago. When asked why it sounded different, he replied, “I already played it that way. Why should I play it the same way again?”
That I can do! I can write this story better than I wrote the last one. I can make this render better than the last one. That’s how I can grow, develop, and continue to push myself, without ever hitting that stale and stagnant point of heartless repetition.
“I absolutely understand somebody going: you should not be able to depict images of violence towards women. But they’re lines on paper, and they’re covered by the First Amendment. That’s the deal here, because if it doesn’t cover that, then it doesn’t cover the stuff that you need to save. I needed to become a First Amendment absolutist, and I still find it uncomfortable being a First Amendment absolutist. I was not put on this earth to be an absolutist of anything. I’m somebody whose natural response to an awful lot of stuff is to say: yes, I see your point of view, or at least try and find common ground. But when it comes to the First Amendment, there is no common ground.
“There are people saying to me: well, are you saying people should be allowed to make snuff movies? And I’m going no, they shouldn’t, because that involves murdering somebody, and murder is a crime, and you shouldn’t be murdering anybody. And pedophilia is a monstrous crime because it is hurting kids and that’s real. A child cannot give consent, this is bad. I get this. And then I suddenly find myself having pointless arguments online with people about Japanese manga drawings of couples with babyish faces having sex or whatever. “This is being used by those pedophiles to excite themselves and work themselves up!” And I’m going, No. You can’t do that one. These are not real people. These are drawings. And if you think they’re real then you also have to imprison people for murder every time they kill a fictional character.”
Neil Gaiman, The Story of a Writer, edited by Hayley Campbell, Harper Design (2014), pp 191-192.
“I think there are lots of threats to freedom of speech and I think that the strange cesspit that parts of the internet, can turn into is definitely something that never occurred to any of us before. The fact that upset people can go and shout and the shoutiness and that other people can see… you get some people interpreting freedom of speech as being freedom to harass, freedom to pile on and scream. And I guess it is, but I can absolutely see it being a threat. You know, it takes one angry person pointing people at one thing that upsets them and suddenly the internet is a hornet’s nest and I don’t think that’s good. Mostly I don’t think it’s good because it means people are having to not say what they think and the point of freedom of speech is that you should be able to say what you think, defend what you think, argue with people, disagree with people. All of that stuff is hugely important.
“If you don’t like my work, that’s great and I think you should absolutely write a book saying why you don’t like my work – or write blog articles or write newspaper articles. Freedom of speech is a hugely important thing. And so is the freedom not to be a dick and the freedom not to make an idiot of yourself and the freedom not to be as unpleasant as you possibly can be. And these are all important.”
Neil Gaiman with Frances Myatt, The Guardian, Aug. 29, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/aug/29/neil-gaiman-banned-books-censorship-interview
For various reasons that I won’t go into (they’re too numerous), the second Aura Lockhaven novel is not ready for publication this month. Alas, December, 2017 was my target. Perhaps, next year.
There are major developments, however.
The way I write a story is I create the skeleton with dialogue. Then, I add thin muscle and skin with description and enough narrative to hold it together. After I have a complete form, I go back and flesh it all out and make the language lyrical.
The Fires of Tallen Hall is currently 85,000 words long. It’s only two-thirds complete. And it’s still a skeleton with the barest of muscle and flesh. So, completed, and with the language I want, it will no doubt exceed 200,000 words.
That’s just too long for my tastes.
So, I split Tallen Hall. As much as a trilogy is a cliche’ it seems the best way to make the book affordable and small enough to read. I’d rather split the book myself than have it split itself in your hands. This also gives me the opportunity to build tension leading up to the revelation of the opening story’s villain, the one who manipulated Aura all through A Path of Stones. It also allows me time to build toward the climactic wizards’ duel that now takes place in book three.
The second book will still be called The Fires of Tallen Hall. The third is entitled Scarlet Cloak. Considering that both books are in the same stage of development, I should be able to release them concurrently, holding Scarlet Cloak until sales of Tallen Hall start to dwindle. That would be nice.
So, here’s to June, 2018.
Wish me the best.
Over on DeviantArt, the Superheroine community recently hosted a Tactical Heroine Art Jam Challenge. Most superheroines wear skin-tight outfits designed to maximize movement in battle. But what if they wore body armor? I was tagged to participate, and the taggers wanted to see Aura Lockhaven.
That required some thought. Aura’s traditional red bikini serves a multitude of purposes. First, it’s sexy. Second, she is a nudist, but recognizes social customs. Third, it assists her power of seduction as an enchantress. Finally, it permits rapid movement. As a spellcaster, her best defense in a duel is to keep moving. That way, the opponent’s target keeps shifting. In a battle, her duties include serving as medium-range incendiary artillery, healer of the wounded, and counsel to generals. She darts from place to place.
Given Aura’s needs, the light-weight armor of the archer seemed best, instead of the heavy plate of sword or cavalry.
So, I present to you, Aura Lockhaven, Battle Mage.
My new comic, Valkyria: The Adventures of Katie Ashe, Newbie Superheroine, is now online.
To read the comic, visit my website nboutwell.com
Aura Lockhaven portrait.