Fantasy Maps

Salvete readers and happy Easter!

I’ve been in a very visual space this week. Along with my publisher, I’ve been looking at concepts for the cover of my upcoming novel, Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home. It should be finalised very shortly and I can’t wait to share it. All I can really tell you for now is that the cover will be red and gold, Gryffindor colours! Just as exciting, The Way Home will feature nine internal illustrations as well as an incredible map. I’ll share more on the internal illustrations as we get closer to release– here’s a teaser if you can’t wait! But for today’s blog post let’s focus on the map and the thinking that went into it.

I love maps in books. Done properly, they can evoke a sense of space and place, making the story that much more real to readers. It’s great fun to follow your heroes’ journey on the map, and sometimes it can enrich the experience of the author’s world. A map can convey a sense of politics far more effectively than mounds of exposition. The most effective maps, I think, are those which are created to be in-world, because they become a form of world-building. A good map draws you into the story before you’ve even read a word.

However, I’ve also read many fantasy novels where the map actually detracted from the experience of the story. I think if your reader can’t make sense of the story without the map, something has gone terribly wrong. And there are times when the map is included seemingly out of a sense of obligation. They’ve become a staple of fantasy. If you’ve got a map for the sake of having a map, it becomes grating. There are times also when they are nothing but a gigantic spoiler. If every place your characters visit is included on the map, it destroys a sense of discovery. Even worse, if they feel like something out of our world, maps can yank the reader out of the story before you’ve even started. Maps rendered on a computer are too painstakingly accurate for a medieval fantasy, for example. And having a scale in modern miles or kilometres is equally problematic– leaving aside the fact these measures might not exist in your world, the last thing you want is to take away a sense of wonder by having everything precisely quantified. The key is to create the map in a very deliberate way, keeping in mind that it’s a form of story-telling too.

It was very important for me that the Ashes of Olympus trilogy have a map, for a number of reasons. It’s an historical fantasy which uses ancient Greek place names, eg Sikilia for Sicily and Hesperia for Italy. It helps readers connect more if have that visual link between past and present. And to evoke the sense of the past, I wanted it in an antiquarian style, with ships and sea monsters in the water. I did make a couple of concessions to anachronism in drawing up the brief. It wasn’t entirely possible to have the map come from within the universe because the majority of my readers probably don’t read Greek. And I thought it would be confusing to present the slightly jumbled geography we find in Homer and Virgil. Artist Linc Morse rose to the occasion with an exquisitely crafted design. Check it out below!

Map of Middle Sea

 

I particularly love the little Scylla! Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home will be available in July 2018. Sign up to my free monthly newsletter for news and previews, as well as an exclusive prologue chapter to the Ashes of Olympus series!

Until next time,

Valete

 

 

Free short story: The Electric Touch

Salvete, readers!

I have been hard at work for a few weeks on a short story, a prequel to Ashes of Olympus, my historical fantasy novel which comes out in July. I finished the draft this very morning and will send it to my publisher soon. Working on the short story got me looking through my old files in which I dabbled with the genre, and I was startled to discover a YA science fiction story I had completely forgotten. I thought I would share it here. If you enjoy the work, please consider signing up to my newsletter. 

THE ELECTRIC TOUCH

You never forget your first love.

She was called Maya—naming your children after American provinces was fashionable, once upon a time. She had freckles on her nose, wore a beret sometimes, and would whistle a tune as we walked hand-in-hand. I suppose it’s Maya’s eyes I remember most. They would glow like St. Elmo’s fire when she smiled. They were meant to do that, of course. She’d designed them herself.

In my day, they still called people like Maya cyborgs. Such a cold, clinical name for something so beautiful! And people like me? My parents took me to a psychiatrist, and ze diagnosed me as a bionsexual. It’s strange to think the word doesn’t carry a stigma any more, but it had them worried. They weren’t the only ones. Somehow it was everyone’s business that the organic-looking kid wanted to be with the ‘borg. To most people, me and Maya were just a dirty pair of sparkers.

Maya didn’t care; her parents were OK with it. Mine weren’t.

Dad almost had a fit when I first brought Maya to our place for afternoon tea. He stormed out, gnashing his teeth. Tata, who was so much gentler, ran after him. That night, after Maya had gone home, I tried to talk about it with them.

‘Dad, it’s no different from when you met Tata—G’pa didn’t like that, either. But you showed him—you’re married now and everything!’

But that didn’t help. Dad didn’t much like talking about his father.

‘The Church forbids it, I tell you! The Imperatrix Sacra will never, ever forgive you!’ he said.

As I sobbed into my pillow, Tata stroked my hair.

‘Why is Dad so angry?’ I asked.

‘That girl has corrupted her flesh into the likeness of a man-made object,’ said Tata.

‘But Tata, I love her.’

‘I know you think you love her. And I’m sure she’s a very nice girl, underneath all the tech. But her very soul is corrupted, my honey. Your daddy’s right to be upset.’

‘But… I don’t see how someone like Maya—’

‘It’s complicated. You’ll understand when you’re older. Anyway, there’s still plenty of time for love. You’re barely seventeen after all. Don’t be so quick to decide. After all, this could just be a phase. A lot of kids go through a curious stage. You’ll grow out of this someday, you’ll see.’

But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

I wanted to be what my parents wanted me to be. It would have saved me a lot of mobbing on the cybernet. Great G’ma would just tut and tell me not to worry about ‘trolls,’ whatever that meant. But it’s hard not to worry when shimmering holographic avatars mob you as soon as you log into school.

‘Hey, lover-borg,’ they’d hoot as my avatar entered the library-space. Sometimes they’d scrawl the words ‘sparker slut’ on Maya’s Socialspace Wall when the administrative mainframe wasn’t looking. No-one was ever as brave as Maya.

To this day, I still don’t understand why they were so afraid of us: for some people like Dad and Tata, it was a religious thing. That, I could get, sort of. But the other kids? Maybe they were just repeating what their parents told them. Maybe they were just weirded out because a bionsexual connects to the conscience and not to the body. I dunno, I got my contracep on my eleventh birthday like everybody else: Dad and Tata said to go nuts. And I could have, I suppose. But I just sort of… forgot.

I wished I could like organics, wanted to be like everyone else. I didn’t have anything against organics and I still don’t. It’s not like I hate people or anything. Or at least, I hope not. When I was little, some of my best friends were organics. By the time I was a teenager, there was a kind of distance there, but I still cared for them. It was weird. I could love an organic like they were my own family but not in any other way. Even then, I could not deny the allure of the synthetic. I could not resist the electric touch of Maya’s hand stroking my face, or the way the sunlight would catch in the golden wire of her hair.

I decided I didn’t care what Dad or the Imperatrix Sacra said after we had interfaced for the first time. We made sure we had the house to ourselves. It was important that we were connected face-to-face. It wasn’t safe to interface over the cyberweb. You never knew what pervs were watching and recording: this way, our brainwaves were our own. We were careful, we were cautious. We used a firewall. At school they had warned us of spontaneous virus transfer.

She brushed her fingertips against my temples: a slight tingling. I stared deep into her eyes and our breathing synchronised. The world fell away in ripples of colour and light, and we let go of all but each other.

I could feel anxiety emanating from her like ink-drops in water. In her eyes I saw mine widen in surprise. I don’t know why, but I hadn’t realised this was her first time too. Breathe. Just breathe. The tendrils receded. Reach. Touch. Never moving, we caressed in the twilight. Slowly, hesitantly, our very selves merged. This was communication beyond words, beyond skin on skin. We walked together in a dream, flew together over the Advanced Nations and joined the stars. Our consciences crackled and then roared as euphoric fusion. I lost myself in her, and she in me.

And then the greatest shock of all: to see myself as she saw me. Not with her eyes, but with her heart. How could I be so lovable?

At last we withdrew back into ourselves. Maya wiped my eyes. The decoupling was gentle, but it almost seemed the connection was lost before I knew it. Holding her against me, I understood. I had Maya, and she had me.

The rest was up to God.

 

© Julian Barr, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Julian Barr and jbarrauthor.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Murder in the Mail

Salvete, readers!

Guess what? An interactive fiction project I wrote for a while ago has launched on Kickstarter! Check it out here.

When Felicity Banks, the editor of the project, approached me to work on it, I knew I had to take part. I had read and enjoyed her novel Heart of Brass, as well as her previous interactive fiction projects. I appreciate Felicity’s deep characterisation and attention to detail in constructing settings. When I read her work, I’m in the company of interesting characters, all with their own voices and personalities. More than that, though, her books are great fun, with a keen sense of adventure.

Murder in the Mail is an innovative way to tell a story. Basically, the story goes that a teenage girl is murdered at her own birthday party. One of her artist friends is the killer. Sounds like a typical Agatha Christie style murder mystery, right? The awesome part is the way the story is told. You get to play the role in the story as characters post things to you. Over the course of 8 weeks, subscribers receive letters, postcards and artworks in the mail from the characters, all of which contain clues to unlock the identity of Naomi’s killer. Each character’s letters are written by a different author, ensuring that the character voices remain distinct. And each character’s artwork is created by a different artist. It’s a great showcase of Australian talent.

My character? Oh, I write as Naomi, the girl who is murdered. I had a choice of parts, but I leapt at this one because I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and write in a voice totally different from anything I’ve tried before. I can’t say I’ve ever taken on the persona of a teenage girl. I had to dig deep to write for Naomi. It is one of the most emotionally raw things I’ve ever written. Here’s a portrait of Naomi by artist Shauna O’Meara. It was specifically commissioned for the project.

26232292_10154948394531640_8063289142380728624_o

It contains several clues and Easter Eggs which become apparent as you read through the story. And, um, if you look closely at the bookcase, you may spot a copy of my upcoming novel, Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home.

If you’d like to subscribe, the best way to do it is via the Kickstarter. The crowd-funding campaign will end in 26 days. If you pledge to the project, you will be supporting the work of numerous Australian artists and writers. Any amount is gratefully appreciated!

Until next time,

Valete

Writing lessons from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Salvete, readers!

I recently finished the first draft of The Black Unicorn, a middle-grade fantasy. The first draft will be up on Wattpad until the end of March, 2018. At this point, I’ll take it down and give it a good polish before I start submitting to publishers. In the meantime, I thought I’d let you in on a little secret. Though the story is heavily influenced by medieval and classical traditions, I actually went a lot further back for inspiration—all the way to ancient Sumer. In this blog post, I share how studying The Epic of Gilgamesh helped me to develop as a fantasy writer.

For a fantastic overview of the ancient poem and its relevance for modern readers, check out Louise Pryke’s excellent essay on The Conversation.

The Black Unicorn is the fifth book I’ve written, but only the second since completing Book 1 of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, which is scheduled for publication in July. Writing a middle grade novel was simultaneously easier and more difficult. On the one hand, I feel a lot more confident in my craft and I think I have a stronger grasp on structure, dialogue, and world-building. I’m a lot more conscious about how and when to use different techniques. On the other hand, this was my first attempt at a heroic fantasy for middle grade readers, and that brought its own challenges. When you write middle grade fiction, you have only the most primal elements of story-telling in your tool kit. You don’t have the space to gloss any shortcomings of substance with style. I decided to embrace the primal elements of story-telling in The Black Unicorn by going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh for inspiration regarding the themes.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first recorded story in human history, so I figured it was a good blueprint for an archetypal narrative. The themes of the epic are as relevant today as they were millennia ago—relationships between humanity and the divine, the nature of mortality, the tension between nature and civilisation, and above all friendship. These themes pervade all my stories, but in The Black Unicorn I wanted to explore them through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. I see no reason the heroic archetype of the youthful warrior can’t be made to fit a female character, and honestly, I think we need more heroines in the world. At the heart of my story, as in Gilgamesh, is a relationship between two characters who start out as rivals and through a series of shared trials become friends. Though it takes place against a backdrop with a massive scope, that’s the essence of the novel.

Brevity is another virtue of Gilgamesh. The poem comprises only about 60 pages in the Penguin translation. But in that space our heroes travel across the world and learn lessons about life and death. Likewise, middle grade books are short. The Black Unicorn is only about 40,000 words. There’s no time for navel-gazing. The characters develop through actions and reactions to changes in their situation. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for character development of course. Heck, I would argue that growth and development are integral to any narrative focused on children. It just means there is very little time for introspection or excessive narration. The characters show us who they are and who they are becoming through their decisions. Dynamism is the key.

The Epic of Gilgamesh also embodies one of the core principles of world-building: show, don’t tell. If you read it, you’re plonked into another universe. Though it’s easy to sympathise with the characters, there is no point denying that the poem is the product of an alien world. It’s a dark, frightening place where existence is precarious and world-ending catastrophes are always just around the corner. But the text never stops to explain how its world works. The narrator takes it as a given that readers can pick up the story and run with it. Four thousand years ago, the reader needed no more explanation of the mechanics of sacrifice than we do on how to send a text message. For modern readers, though, the trick is to immerse yourself in the world and drink it in. And once you get the hang of the internal logic, the story makes perfect sense. This is an excellent principle, I think, for writing fantasy, particularly in a middle-grade novel where there is little room to pause for info-dump.

There’s a lot more I could say, and I’d love to revisit the question of what story-tellers can learn from the classics. But for now, my kids are tugging on my sleeve demanding I take them to the library.

Until next time,

Valete

Newsletter adventures

Salvete, readers!

Wow, it has been a little while since I last posted, hasn’t it? I’ve hit 2018 running, as ever. Guess what, though? I’ve got something exciting to share… I set up a free monthly newsletter for followers!

I’m really excited about this. The newsletter will be a great way to keep in touch and share cool free stuff with like-minded people. I can interact with readers in a more meaningful way via correspondence than social media. And I’ll be honest, the recent changes to the Facebook algorithm gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start a mailing list. There’s never any guarantee with Facebook that your posts will ever find your followers. Unless you pay a small fortune, of course. Likewise, interactions on Twitter are fun but fleeting. The good old-fashioned mailing list remains the most reliable and cost-effective way to get messages out to readers.

Right now, if you subscribe, you will get an exclusive prologue chapter for the Ashes of Olympus series, my upcoming historical fantasy based on Virgil’s Aeneid. This chapter won’t be included in the book. It’s an exclusive free gift to followers. You’ll also get a special glimpse at the blurb for the first Ashes of Olympus book! Huzzah! Over the coming months, I’ll give subscribers the first look at the development of the book. You’ll get the sneak peek at the cover and read the first extract before they’re released to the wilds of the internet. Over the next few months, I’m going to share with my subscribers the early sketches for some illustrations I’ve commissioned for the book, so you’ll also receive original artwork based on Virgil’s Aeneid. In the long term, I am going to update the newsletter about once a month with my writerly updates. It’ll be a hoot!

What you won’t get is spam. I might send out an announcement about releases of my books. But I won’t clog up your inbox with advertising. Nor will I give anybody your email address. That would be an awful thing to do, quite simply.

I hope you’ll join me in this wild ride up to launch day!

Here is the sign-up page!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. Don’t worry! I’ll still keep up the blog. Regular posts resume now.