24 January 2016

How to Write About Dragons Part Deux

Yes, it's a big deal. The bigger the better. If you are going to write an Epic Fantasy with Dragons, you need to know a fair amount about dragons! 

In my previous blog post I discussed the nature of the beast and addressed the flying issue. I tried to compare the flying capability of dragons with the flying capability of birds, bats, and dinosaurs (pterodactyl, et al.). The mechanics seemed to hold true but there remained in my pouch of doubt that such a heavy body borne by the typical literary dragon could fly solely from flapping the less-than-ideal sized wings.

Then, as if my epic fantasy magic, a reader offered an excellent explanation!

Because the second aspect of dragonology concerns their fire-"breathing" ability, it makes sense that dragons have a biological/chemical furnace within their bodies which manufactures whatever it is they create fire from. In short, gas. Lots and lots of gas. Like your besotted uncle after Thanksgiving dinner. My guess is that the making of fire requires gases which are flammable - ouch! - swirling around within the belly (or lungs?) of the beast. Imagine perpetual heartburn. No wonder they have such nasty dispositions!

That revelation leaves us with a short list of wonderful gases: hydrogen, the stuff of star fire. Buoyant yet flammable. The perfect gas. So, the presence of hydrogen in the belly of the beast contributes to the dragon's ability to stay aloft and maneuver about using smaller than ideal wings. Thanks to author David Cantrell for the "flam[e]buoyant" suggestion. Author Connie J. Jasperson reports similarly: "Gordon R. Dickson used the scientific hydrogen concept for his dragons--when a dragon used up his fire, he could no longer lift off."

Killing two dragons with one iron bolt! (if you will...)

Dragons do not actually breathe fire; they expel it. In every film I've seen and every book I've read involving dragons, the primary feature of exhaling a stream of fire is what they are best known for, causing much mayhem. It is the primary reason dragons are feared. There are also the kinder, gentler dragons who play nice with pretty maidens or princesses, of course. I'm not going to have any of those in this epic fantasy! Dragons are fundamentally evil and will be depicted as evil because they do not have any union or staff of attorneys to file lawsuits against me for defamation of character! 

But back to the fire. The exhalation is whence comes the fire, possibly in two forms: 1) the long stream of flame like the flame-throwers of World War II, and 2) the "great balls of fire" coughed up and blown forward. The latter is more my own thinking, just to be different - because I must be different, while remaining somehow the same, enough of the same that readers are not seriously put-off by my way of writing about dragons.

Let's run through that process and make some rules: 

1) The dragon breathes in ordinary air like people do, and then exhales ordinary air like people do. 

2) Some of that air is somehow broken up into its base components and the hydrogen is held somewhere inside the dragon, say the belly, for later use. 

3) When enough hydrogen is collected, the dragon may elect to expel the excess or to deliberately project the gas, igniting it once it leaves the mouth of the dragon. (Wouldn't want it to ignite while still inside the dragon, right?)

4) Thus, dragons at times will not have enough hydrogen to be able to make fire. (Or to be able to lift-off...?)

5) There is probably something in the saliva of the dragon, a chemical we have little direct knowledge of, which when mixed with the hydrogen serves to ignite it. (I know I'm playing fast and loose with high school chemistry here, but it's my story....)

I think that will do nicely. 

Now, one final aspect of dragonology to figure out: How did dragons come to be? 

Epic fantasy author Connie J. Jasperson commented on my previous post thus:

"Anne McCaffrey's dragons began as small creatures that were bioengineered to their larger size. The way she kept them aloft was though a combination of wingspan and belief--what a dragon thought it could do, it COULD do. 

Natural appearance in the world or manufactured through some experiment gone wrong? The fact that dragons have been so widely held in ancient mythology presupposes a real basis for their presence. But I tend to be a realist, even in fantasy writing. I like things to have origins and existence within scientific plausibility. We do have dinosaurs, but where are the dragon fossils? Even if ancient societies called whatever they happened to see as dragons, where did they get the idea for depicting them in the variety of ways we see them in art today? 

So I'm going to go with something once existed, then disappeared for a long time, then reappeared as either 1) they snuck away to distant lands and now have returned, or 2) they were re-engineered, perhaps on a lark, or out of pure cussedness by scientists who vowed to get revenge on government authorities who cut their funding, perhaps. 

Nevertheless, the dragons depicted in my EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS are - or have become - a nuisance, and someone has to keep them in check, hence the introduction of one of my stable of protagonists: the royal gatekeeping (a.k.a. "dragonslayer").

Let the fire-breathing commence!

I have recently been captured online by virtual elves and forced to scribe at Ye Olde Edgewise Words Inn as a demi-semi-regular contributor. As my first contribution, I shall offer the opening scene of my current Work-In-Progress, EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS. Yes, that is the real title, because it is what it is. Thanks for your indulgence!

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

17 January 2016

How to Write About Dragons

For 2016 I have accepted the challenge of my writing colleagues to write an epic fantasy so as to better align my library of literary classics with theirs. I discussed the nature of "epic fantasy" in the previous blog post. An additional stipulation, however, is that my story must include dragons. Thus, I began the story with a scene involving dragons.

Those who know me and my writing must also know I cannot do anything literary in a straight-forward manner. I must put my own twist or spin or darkly sophisticated patina over the proceedings. The same must be true of my EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS! 

So what exactly are dragons? Furthermore, if they do not exist (at least presently), why would anyone write about them in stories? But first some official definitions:

  1. 1.
    a mythical monster like a giant reptile. In European tradition the dragon is typically fire-breathing and tends to symbolize chaos or evil, whereas in East Asia it is usually a beneficent symbol of fertility, associated with water and the heavens.
  2. 2.
    another term for flying dragon. Also: Komodo dragon, a large monitor lizard of Indonesia.

Also: 3. to drag something on or onto something else; a dragger of stuff.

There you have it: a reptilian creature that may project fire and may have the capability of flying. [Italics above are mine.]

We all know what a dragon is, I suspect, for they have been depicted in popular imagination for most of human existence, according to history books. Whether the work of literature calls the creature dragon or some other name, they are major players in many well-known stories, from the deadly serious of the Bible to the playful in children's animation. Here is a handy list of dragons in literature and a list of famous dragons you may have encountered via film and television. 

My purpose here is not so much to offer you a complete dragonology, information which you can easily find on the Internet or to enumerate endlessly on dragons, but to explain my rationale for how I will depict dragons in my project.

From a childhood filled with theories of aliens and alternate histories, I came to understand that the dragons ancient people may have seen were possibly alien spacecraft zipping around the sky--from the Native American thunderbird to the European dragon to the Asian flying serpents. It seemed more plausible to me that the phenomena was based on technology rather than biology. For my current project, however, it would be all-too-easy and perhaps in the realm of cheating to simply have "my" dragons be flying saucers.

So, as well-described as dragons have been in literature, I know I too must accept them in my project as real, flesh-and-blood beings. Thus, I have studied the physiology of dragons. Most importantly are two fundamental features:

the ability to fly, and 
2) the "fire-breathing" aspect.

The ability to fly is a simple matter of aerodynamics. How does a huge, heavy Boeing 747 lift into the air? Engine power. And the curve of its stationary wings. What kind of engine power can a reptile of, say, 50 ft or more bring to lift-off? Only the beating of bat-like wings can provide its lift and thrust mechanisms. Observation of bats show them to drop from a perch down into the air and soar on the buoyancy of their outstretched wings. The wings can support the small bodies they have. I once read an article, perhaps in a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia I was always perusing as a child, that the maximum size of a bird is limited to how big its wingspan could be. The California condor is the largest bird on Earth today, with a wingspan of 8 to 10 ft, almost as long as the family car. Condors do not flap their wings so much as glide on them. The body weight supported by these wings is still only 15 to 30 lbs.

Our next model might be prehistoric flying reptiles, most recently featured to great effect in the latest Jurassic Park film. According to PlanetDinosaur.com, these creatures were prominent in the Triassic period and died out before the Jurassic. Their wingspan varied from 2.5 to 3.5 feet, hardly monsters. However, there were a couple of them that could qualify as dragon-like: the Pteranodon's wingspan was 23 ft and the Quetzalcoatlus measured up to 43 ft. Their long wings were, like the condor's, more for gliding than flapping. They still supported rather small bodies. I can accept a fairly large creature with appropriately large wings, large enough to raise it off the ground, certainly. The practical side of me wants to limit their size to what is known to be aerodynamically plausible. However, pesky little dragons, somewhat akin to hornets, do not seem very satisfying in literature. 

So let's agree that a being whose body is approximately the size of a Nile crocodile (the largest currently existing reptile on Earth) but with wings can exist on the world I create. The gravity and atmosphere make it so. Such a creature would be 16 to 20 ft in length, its weight 500 to 1700 lbs, making it a very decent size for a monster. Now add wings. Because feathery wings are seldom seen in literature involving dragons, we must go with the bat-like wings with which they are typically depicted. How large must the wings be to lift a "Nile crocodile"? 

Now we come to "simple math"--the subject which doomed me to be a writer rather than a scientist. If a condor weighing 30 lbs is lifted by wings measuring 10 ft, then a body weighing 300 lbs should have wings measuring 100 ft, and so on: 600 lbs = 200 ft, 900 lbs = 300 ft. Seriously? Wingspan the length of a football field? (Scientists: check my math!)

All right, it's just a story. I can do anything I want. However, I like to keep it real, as real as possible--until I write myself into a corner, that is. If we look at dragon artwork we see that the wings depicted are not nearly as large as we would think they should be to lift such a heavy creature. Let's play with that. I liked the appearance of the dragons in the film Avatar: biologically plausible and of a size such that a human or the 10-ft tall Na'vi could ride them. To my eyes, that makes the dragons' wingspan 20 to 30 ft, carrying bodies weighing 500 to 700 lbs--a good sized Bengal tiger but stretched out longer and thinner. I can live with that model.

I sense, dear reader, that you may be saying to yourself about now: "He is really thinking too much!" To that, I must agree. This is because I must get things right, meaning biologically accurate, or at the very least plausible. Maybe there are environmental factors which aid the beast in flying. Who knows? One theory I've read is that the gaseous nature of their bellies helps keep them afloat in the air. I can live with that idea, as well. 

When you've been a bad city and the gods send a dragon to punish you....

Explicating the fire-breathing capability of dragons, I suspect, is going to take another blog post, so let me continue by addressing their lifestyle and temperament.

Dragons have been depicted in literature mostly as solitary creatures. We encounter them in caves, mountain tops, or attacking sinful humans. Just the one--as though one is enough for each realm on a map. In Avatar they live in family clans, it seems. That follows the model of bats and other flying animals. Some birds live in small nests in widespread communities yet other kinds of birds fly in large flocks that blacken the sky. Imagine a flock similarly darkening the sky yet they were dragons--that is, they were reptiles of 500 lbs each, their wings stretching 100 ft across! That would be truly frightening to humans! I'll take that possibility for an epic fantasy!

Temperament? Well, they do have that nasty fire-breathing capability. Better to be friends with them. In European dragon lore, they were harbingers of gloom and doom, something to be feared. In Chinese culture, they are revered as symbols of good fortune, fertility, and a happy new year. I want to stay between these two extremes. If we consider dragons as the animals they are, separate from all moral associations, we might treat them as we would any animal we encounter regularly. Take birds, for example. They alight on the fence around your backyard, spot your automobile, cry out in the early morning hours, are prey for cats, and sometimes color the whole sky with their flock's density. Imagine dragons doing all that, as well. 

So I shall treat the dragons as ordinary creatures inhabiting a world ruled by humans. The dragons live out their daily lives keeping to themselves but necessarily search for food every so often, food which may perhaps include humans, especially small humans under, say, age 5. Just dragons being dragons. So children need to be warned and protected from the dragons circling the neighborhood. One might even decide to employ a specialist in dragon control, making the skies safer for sky-gazing and cloud-naming. And then there is the most disagreeable aspect of having dragons flying around the neighborhood all the time: the droppings! That alone should be enough to compel you to pay someone to take care of the pests. 

And that is the first scene: Korlan, the gamekeeper employed by the prince to keep the flock* in check, has an unpleasant encounter with them.... 

Next time I shall address the burning question: dragons' fire-breathing capability!

*I understand that a group of dragons is called a "clan" because they are thought by the ancients to be intelligent and family-oriented, thus garnering the humanesque moniker. In keeping with the way I will depict dragons, I shall use "flock".

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

10 January 2016

How I got stuck writing an epic fantasy with dragons

And so it begins, not with a bang but with a whimper. 

Yes, I'm sneaking into the new year, the one we will call 2016. (To my credit, I have already written a check with 2016 correctly included.) And like other such openings, many of us are goaded into choosing a set of goals for the coming year, the ones we call "resolutions"--the ones we drop like hot yams by the second month.

Not me, of course: I shall press on to the end of the year, fully and impressively engaged!

For me, however, nothing can be so straightforward or simple: I resolve to meet the challenge put to me by fellow authors: to write an "epic fantasy" (often called "high fantasy" or "heroic fantasy" or pejoratively "sword and sorcery")! And to further challenge me, they insist it must include dragons. Why this challenge? Why this stipulation? Pure cussedness, I suspect. (I have written a vampire novel which successfully explained the desperate condition in medical terms, after all, thus metaphorically cutting the wind behind their blood-sucking sails. So it must be pay-back time.)

You see, it was recently discussed among those in my circle of authors that "they" have as their "signature genre" the Epic Fantasy. Yes, I've always kinda accepted that fact as an on-going source of irritation--not the sort of irritation which leads to a rabid scratching all over one's body until hardly any skin cells remain but as a nagging truth constantly drilling into one's brain, a truth one wishes were not quite so true.... 

In all honesty, I have nothing against the epic fantasy genre. In fact, I grew up reading the Amber Chronicles of Roger Zelazny (the first two volumes were life-changing for me) and the novels of Michael Moorcock, beginning with The Eternal Champion (another life-altering read) and continuing through the Corum books. I began but did not finish the Elric series. I read several other sci-fi and fantasy authors, as well, but skipped Tolkien. That omission was purely because my mother said, when I was about 12, that a story I had written was "like" The Hobbit. From then on, I staunchly refused to read Tolkien just so I'd be able to say I did not get my idea from his book! (I still have not read, nor seen the film version, of it.) I even read the William Morris tome The Well at the World's End, dense enough for two paperback volumes! Because of these stories, I dabbled at writing my own fantastic tales and planned others, but I always eventually ran into serious roadblocks: What happens next?

Everyone has favorites: favorite authors, favorite genre, favorite story locations, favorite "book boyfriends" or "book girlfriends", favorite styles, favorite book lengths, favorite cover artists. I do, too. However, what I read has little to do with what I write. Beginning back in the mists of time, I wrote the stories I wanted to read. This situation likely developed because I could not find the kind of story I wanted to read and thus I endeavored to create my own. Along that line, I often found myself reading a science-fiction or fantasy book and think to myself: I could write something like this and maybe it would be better. "Better" meant closer to the story as I would tell it.

That was the start of what has become the start of this new year.

And so I have accepted the challenge, just to better fit in with my literary relations, to compose a so-called "Epic Fantasy" with dragons in it. Thus, I am led to consider what an epic fantasy truly is. Furthermore, I must also consider the nature of dragons. To begin this project, I have assigned it a working title:


(*with dragons)

To the first order, we understand "epic" to come from the Greeks, the best examples being the Iliad and the Odyssey by the blind poet Homer. It was simply a poetic form: a dramatic tale told in 12 portions (or 24 chapters) which matched the hours of the day. To call it dramatic is a bit of a misnomer for whence comes drama but in the actions and reactions of mortals? And the constant interference of the gods! Nothing more, although that would seem to be enough. Whenever the gods get involved.... Today, however, "epic" means something grand in scale, vast in scope, mind-blowing in computer graphics, heroic in action, and featuring only the best of the best in all facets of production. Even a teenager's Friday night party could be described as "epic" while having none of those traits. 

In the genre called "epic fantasy" we have certain traits: grand in scale, vast in scope, and so on, as expected. Furthermore, in modern iterations such as those of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, not to mention George R.R. Martin, the worlds which hold the setting are out of this world; that is, they exist separate from the world we know as Earth. As such, those new worlds abound in strange beings, eternal conflicts between good and evil, and histories we can only guess at. The chief feature, to my understanding, is the invention of a whole new world upon which to lay our story.

That is nothing new, of course. Science-fiction does that, as well. And I have written a science-fiction trilogy set on a highly-detailed world of my invention (At least, I say I invented it; it could be a case of imparted wisdom from an ancient alien civilization, who knows?). That invention began in childhood and expanded through my youth, then was set aside for more adult amusements. Finally, I crafted the books containing those stories set upon that "invented" world. The difference here between science-fiction and fantasy, between which I must make distinction, is that I went full science nerd and made sure that I completely understood all of the astronomical, geological, and anthropological properties of this world, that is, of this planet I was inventing. If I had been writing fantasy, I need not have dealt with the mass of the planet or where it sits within its solar system, and so on; I would have laid out the story on a landscape as it suited the story regardless of scientific mumbo-jumbo.

I've also been told that "fantasy" must necessarily include examples of the use of magic. To this aspect, I must confess I'm a bit of a *realist. Magic? I subscribe to the notion that magic is simply science which none has yet explained. Even the Star Wars "Force" was described in scientific terms in Episode I--which I believe to be an altogether likely cause of the particular abilities the Jedi use. It appears as magic to the ordinary folks. I see no reason not to follow that model. So let there be magic, and let the folks in my story call it magic, but let us understand that it will actually be certain kinds of science--unless...unless I find I've written myself into a corner. Then, and only then, shall I resort to "magic" in its most esoteric incarnation. 

(*I have written "magical realism" also, which is a genre of realistic and decidedly unmagic stories which nevertheless rely on one key magical element upon which the entire story relies; in one case, for example, it is a story about tiger hunting where the hunter and the cat can read each other's mind.) 

So there you have it! Not so challenging. After all, most stories are the same: one of the dozen or so universal plots unfold and characters who bear uncanny resemblances to the author and/or his/her various relations seek to solve the problem, big or small, and ultimately win the day. Isn't it the same in every genre? Only the landscape and the problems change for the genre. I'm still going to gravitate toward the big, eternal questions of humanity and try to encapsulate them into small everyday disruptions of menial tasks of ordinary people. Let them be caught up in things they know nothing about. Let them find within themselves the strength, the courage, the wisdom to proceed in combating the trials facing them, even at the risk of sacrificing themselves, even for the sordid cause of a reader's entertainment.

But with dragons. 

I shall deal with dragons next time....

In the interim, allow me to thank everyone for the successful launch of my contemporary "memoir" novel ("inspired by a real life") A GIRL CALLED WOLF. After you have enjoyed it, please consider leaving a review on Amazon and Goodreads. Thank you very much and keep on reading! 

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.