Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Religion in my stories (and an excerpt!)

You know how polite social discussion should always avoid politics or religion? Well, we're kind of blowing that up on SFF Seven this week. We are talking about the R word. Religion. Specifically, we're talking about religion's place in story and how -- or if -- we use religion to drive story arcs.

And to that I answer, yes. Even if we don't call it religion, every good character has a moral code. One of my favorite examples of that is the character Amos in The Expanse (book series and tv show). He comes right out and says early on that there are three types of people: those you follow, those you protect, and those you kill. And then the rest of the series is how he sorts folks into those pails and what it takes to move someone from one pail to another. He never mentions gods or faith or anything like that, but his sorting system is a religion, and he's so consistent in applying it that it makes for fascinating character interactions and interior growth.

In my cyberpunk romance series that begins with Wanted and Wired, the setting is mid-21st-century, so it's close enough that the characters all have recognizable religious affiliations. Most are secularists, but a few -- notably Kellen, the animal lover and all-around good guy -- have vestigial Christianity clinging to them. This presents as his easy ability to have faith, both in people and in phenomena, and it puts him at odds with his true love Angela, who is evangelically secular and maybe even a little hostile to all religion. I tried to play with that push and pull and come out with a "see, we can all get along without anybody having to lose their individual essence" conclusion. Not sure if I succeeded, but that was definitely in my mind when I was writing.

Religion is a little trickier in the world I'm writing right now, because it's set in the far future when humanity is an interstellar civilization. Their religions, therefore, should be less recognizable, and I don't want to just set up easy analogs for the current major religions and go from there. Instead I've tried to develop religions that would, I think, make sense to these highly technological people. To do that, I've looked at historical rise and fall of religions and discovered that we tend to develop religion as a response to phenomena that we know a little bit about, are impressed by or fear, and hope will not harm us. So my starfaring folk of the future literally worship the stars and the vast, mysterious space between. I think it makes for some fun dynamics with my characters:

Just before fitting the tube to his mouth, Ash caught her gaze and smiled. Not an intimidating smile at all and quite friendly even. Also loaded with memories, all of which hit her at once. How very unfair. Memories should not make one want to weep.

“Stars’ breath to you, Hestia,” he said.

The words were an aphorism based on the fanciful notion that benevolent stars literally breathed travelers across the void on drifts of grace and interstellar radiation. That wasn’t how faster-than-light travel worked. Honestly, no human knew precisely how it worked. Only the vast computer System, which controlled travel and most everything else, really knew. Without the System, people would be unable to travel between planets, no less between stars. But people didn’t like to be reminded of their required subservience to machines, and also the species was as a whole given to poetics, so they made up these stories about stars breathing and such. People being people, she guessed, reached for comfort where they could.

Still. No one had wished her stars’ breath at the outset of a voyage in … well, a long time. She was startled by how un-alone it made her feel, but this time in a good way. Too good, drat him.

“Same to you,” she managed before the lid of her berth hissed shut.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Religion of Character Development

Does religion change/determine the course of a story?

Uh, for the characters? Sure. Assuming religion is defined as devotion to a fixed set of beliefs, then all my stories deal with religion. It could be argued that character development is the discovery, testing, and confirmation or change in said beliefs. Whether there are greater entities involved in those belief systems and whether there are formalized mass followings varies. 

In my Fire Born series, there are five gods who are actively and visibly involved in the lives of their creations. How those gods are worshipped forms the structures of the five different societies. Naturally, the protagonist comes along to shake those beliefs to their core, sometimes shattering them and sometimes reshaping them as her own beliefs and values are tested and changed.

In my Immortal Spy series, gods, fates, angels, and dragons are the ruling class. Jokes abound about pillars of real-world mass religions. 

Now, if you're wondering if my personal beliefs prevent or permit me to write characters, plots, and settings in certain ways, I would say they permit me and never prevent me. As an author, if you can't or won't examine systems of belief through the eye of fiction, then you might need to rethink what kind of stories you're telling. Are your characters being challenged? Are they on a journey? Stuff's bound to happen that makes them question who they are, how they're doing things, why they're doing them--regardless of whether the protag realizes or admits it--it should be obvious to the reader. That's character development. That is the religion of storytelling.

Monday, March 29, 2021

That Old Time Religion

For a touch of irony, here's the cover of my next book, entitled THE GODLESS. It's out in September. The premise? For the Sa'ba Taalor the gods are everything. They hear the gods in their hearts at all times. But what happens when for the first time in their entire lives, the gods go silent? 

Here's  hint: Things get weird. 

 I've said it many times. I am NOT a religious man. Never much cared for it myself.  Faith I have, but I don't follow any particular religion. There' a difference. 

But I acknowledge that religion is a huge part of the world, and it's just as big in my fiction. A belief system in gods has been a formative part of our world for centuries. Why would we think it would be otherwise elsewhere?

I mean, you could probably make that a part of a major storyline but it would be a damned big vacuum to fill. Faith, religion, politics, power...they go hand in hand in a great deal of western society. Ever hear of the Inquisition? How about Buddism? They've definitely had their points of impact across the world. 

How you choose to use religion (and faith) is entirely up to you, but I think it's fair to say that my SEVEN FORGES novels wouldn't work at all if the gods did not interfere on a literally daily basis. There are seven gods of war, and they drive and shape their followers to be living weapons in their names. Their people, the Sa'ba Taalor, are feared by everyone because they are literally all fanatics, ready to die for their gods or kill for them without hesitation. That is hardly the only example of my writing where religion is key but it's the most direct example. 

Religion is, by necessity, a power. Religions that do not get a powerful backing do not last, but in the process of becoming a power, the administration of said religion is very likely to get their hand dirty, to say the least. n the name of God the Catholic Church has caused and ended wars,  brought ruination to entire cultures, forced millions to follow their beliefs with swords and fire and bribery and blackmail. In order to hide their secrets they have lied, broken laws, twisted the facts to suit their needs and very likely committed murder on a few occasions if the accusations are to be believed. And that, friends and neighbors, is me being non-judgemental. Look at the history of the church and it's all there in black and white. 

Whether or not you believe the accusations, it certainly does make an interesting plot point in almost any story involving a Catholic priest, a nun or the occasional zealot, to say nothing of tales of exorcism. 

Yes, religion has its place in fiction, just as it does in the world at large. We would not be who we are if not for the faith of the many and the beliefs of the masses. Our world history could not have been shaped the way it has been without a belief in the Almighty...or at least a willingness to exploit that belief. 

Your mileage may vary. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Choose Your Own Religion

Here's a tease of the cover of THE SORCERESS QUEEN AND THE PIRATE ROGUE, out April 19, 2021. This is Book #2 in Heirs of Magic, Book #1 being THE GOLDEN GRYPHON AND THE BEAR PRINCE, with a prequel novella, THE LONG NIGHT OF THE CRYSTALLINE MOON, in the UNDER A WINTER SKY anthology. The cover isn't quite final, so some elements here may change, but it's getting close! Look for a full reveal soon. :-)

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is "That Old Tyme RELIGION: Does Religion Change the Course of a Story?"

My answer? It depends!

I'm a big of a mixed bag, religion-wise. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family who were pretty much all lapsed, to the point that my stepdad was a former Catholic priest and my mother flunked theology in (her all-girls, Catholic) college because she stormed out of class after arguing with the nun. Extended family included an ex-Carmelite nun and a lifelong Catholic priest. On the other side we have Missouri Synod Lutherans, which my father left behind to convert to Catholicism, a wedding surprise for my mother, who had hoped to escape by marrying a non-Catholic. There's some kind of inverted Gifts of the Magi shiz going on there.

So, while I grew up well versed in liturgical debates, I mostly considered myself Catholic in the same way I'm Irish - by weight of ancestry. In (my co-ed, liberal arts) college, I majored in Comparative Religious Studies, along with my primary major of Biology. My honors thesis compared Meister Eckhardt's (an excommunicated Catholic priest and scholar) sermon On Detachment with Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching

For a long time I described myself as spiritual, but not religious - which didn't seem to explain anything to anyone. Now I just say I'm a practicing Taoist. Since almost no one knows exactly what that means (including, arguably, other Taoists), that at least gives me space. 

All of this is by way of saying that, in my books, religion crops up a surprising amount. Or maybe it's not surprising. I find spirituality and the religions that grow from spiritual study fascinating. One of the terrific aspects of creating alternate fantasy worlds is that I can make up my own pantheon of deities - and I can use the worship of those gods and goddesses to explore and comment on religions of our world. The religions I've created have ranged from distant gods (Forgotten Empires) to a trio of goddesses who interfere with fate to the point of taking avatars (The Twelve Kingdoms and the Uncharted Realms). 

In only one series so far have I included absolutely no hint of religion or deities: Bonds of Magic. Those of you who've read DARK WIZARD should feel free to write an essay on why that is. I can promise you that it's a deliberate choice. 

In fact, I'd argue that religion always affects the course of a story. Even in its absence, there is a consequence on the world and how the characters live in it.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Brainstorming Shift

 I usually write my posts on Thursday evenings after the day job. Yesterday, however, the evening was spent getting the first round of Covid shots for the DH and for me. 

No problem, I told myself. I'll write it in the morning. 

We can all plainly see that did not happen. I have symptoms - relatively mild, but symptoms nevertheless. As a morning, it's also been a cluster that resulted in the horrible death of a member of my yard community (a black racer snake who likes to hunt around the foundation of the house). Buried him/her in the garden in a sunny spot. Going to miss seeing 'my' snake.

Brainstorming is generally a solo activity unless I have access to another writer who is as character-driven as I am. I like brainstorming for others. I like having others brainstorm for or with me. But it's not generally something I seek out unless I get stuck. Since brainstorming is about shifting how you think about a story, I find it useful when I'm staring at the same sentence for days on end. I don't always or even often take the suggestions giving in brainstorming sessions, but picking up ideas isn't the point. For me, the point is leveraging other people's ideas to pry my thinking out of the rut it fell into. That, for me, is the job of brainstorming with other people.

The rest of the brainstorming happens solo. Need to be able to hear those little internal voices and give them some space.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

My brain is a lonely storm

So, brainstorming. Aside from being a weird word -- seriously, say it out loud and try to visualize the thing you're saying... see what I mean? -- the concept is also, for me, a little fraught. 

I love talking about other people's stories, sometimes helping them get to the next step, and then watching them sail off to implement all the great ideas they came up with just by talking it out. And sure, I've tried to replicate that sort of thing for my own writing. I've attended brainstorming sessions with local writers' groups, and even some smaller, less formal sessions with my own critique partners. But in the end, we all sit down at a table or something and they look at me and say something like, "So, what's your idea?" or "What do you need help with?" and instantly, I don't even know how this happens, but my idea becomes garbage. Like, I'm so embarrassed by it, by the weird stuff my brain thinks up, and I know it's boring and there's no saving the story, so I mumble something dismissive and try to move the conversation on to the next topic, usually someone else's story. More solid ground.

Let me be clear: my failures with getting brainstorming help are entirely my own. The support structure around me is lovely and encouraging. I just... I think maybe brainstorming with others requires a level of confidence that I haven't achieved yet? Something like that. 

Until I get there, all storms take place inside my own little brain. I would of course love to hear your take on a better way to bottle this particular lightning.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Braaaains! Erm, Brainstorming


What is my brainstorming process? Do I solicit opinions? Do I drag trusted coconspirators through the twists and webs of my weird? 

Mostly, no. 

I will bounce the idea of which project(s) to pursue off a friend or two, but when it comes to the stories themselves, that's not a group-think thing. It's not because I think I'm some sort of fantasy genius; it's more that my author-voice is rooted in how I conceive and farm the story. I need to be able to roll around and bury myself in my imaginary dirt without permission or supervision, or feeling like I'm intruding on someone else's turf. Even though I'm a skeletal plotter, I return often to the landfill of my imagination for the details of the story. 

For me, story ideas usually start with a protagonist, two or three supporting characters, a couple of climactic moments, and an emotional challenge. From there it's figuring out magic systems, the presence of creatures, and the environment. Then comes the tricky bit, the plot. 

Now, I do love to participate in brainstorming other people's ideas or just brainstorming with friends for shits and giggles. Makes me a fine hypocrite, I suppose, but what's not to love about a lengthy game of What If? It's a great way to learn more about my friends. And, who knows, I might even track a little dirt home.  

Monday, March 22, 2021

Group or no Group?

 so the quetion this week is do you write alone or do you brainstorm?

I write alone with the sole exception of when I don't. Most times I find I prefer it that way, but there are occasions when I get feedback from a very select group. this has only to do with the fact that, for me,  the writing process is a matter of personal taste. 

When I collaborate, which I often do, is the exception to that rule, of course. 

But mostly it's just me. 

Of course, to prove me a liar, I'm working on collaborative projects with two different people right now. 

Your mileage may vary.