19 February 2017

How I wrote about Dragons

In every boy's life (and girls' lives, too, I suppose) there comes a time for writing about dragons. Whether this comes as the afterglow of some dire encounter or merely reading about such encounters in selected books of the age, he/she will find the need to reconcile the beast with the myth and come to some balance in understanding. This happened to me, although it was not until later in life...in fact, not until last year.

Having been a scientist-wannabe for the longest time,
I simply could not find it within myself to give dragons a pass as mythological creatures. When I was challenged by my author "frenemies" to write an epic fantasy and further challenged to include dragons, I decided right from the start that the dragons would be fully biological. In other words, they would not speak in British accent, they would not horde gold, they would care not a whit for virgins, they would not be cute, cuddly pets. They would look and behave as any animal does, including the more unsavory aspects of being a beast.


So I set out on a quest to find information about what we now know about dragons in their many forms.
First some official definitions:
 
drag·on
       ˈdraɡən/
       noun
1a 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.

2another term for flying dragonAlso: Komodo dragon, a large monitor lizard of Indonesia.
 
There you have it: a reptilian creature that may project fire and may have the capability of flight. 

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 from your local scribe perusing the archives, or to enumerate endlessly on dragons, but, rather, to explain my rationale for how I depicted dragons in my forthcoming novel EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS.

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 wyvern to the Asian flying serpents. It seemed more plausible to me that the phenomena was based on technology rather than biology. For my novel, 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 knew I must accept them as real, flesh-and-blood beings. Thus, I studied the physiology of dragons. Most importantly are two fundamental features: 
 
1) the ability to fly, and 
2) their "fire-breathing" aspect.

The ability to fly is a simple matter of aerodynamics. How does a huge 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 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 ft., 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 hummingbirds, do not seem very satisfying in literature.

So let's agree that an aerial beast whose body is approximately the size of a Nile crocodile (the largest currently existing reptile on Earth) but having 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 membrane 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? I would call this beast a "mountain-master"! (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 for a fantasy tale - 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 even the 10-ft. tall Na'vi could ride them. To my eyes, that makes the dragons' wingspan 20 to 30 ft, bodies weighing 500 to 700 lbs - a good-sized Bengal tiger but stretched out longer and thinner. 

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. Ah hah! Then the gas would also serve as the source of fire, ignited by some fluid from glands in the throat! 
When you've been a bad city and the gods send a dragon to punish you....
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, reptiles of 500 lbs each, their wings stretching 100 ft, across! That would be a truly frightening scene to humans! Hence the need for "gamekeepers" to cull the herds...in my fantasy story.

Temperament? Well, they do have that nasty fire-breathing capability. Better to be friends with them. In European dragon lore, they are harbingers of doom and gloom, something to be feared. In Chinese culture, they are revered as symbols of good fortune, fertility, and a happy new year. I chose to walk a fine line between these two extremes. One society in the novel dreads and fears dragons while another society accepts them as welcome pets at best or pesky nuisances at worst. 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. 

So I chose to treat dragons as ordinary creatures inhabiting a world more-or-less 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 five. Just dragons being dragons. So children need to be warned and protected from dragons circling the neighborhood. One might even decide to employ a specialist in dragon control, a "gamekeeper", making the skies safer. 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 problem.

And so I have! The opening scene of EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS depicts our protagonist in his element: set in the Valley of Death, shooting down dragons from the back of his mount....

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(C) Copyright 2010-2017 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.

12 February 2017

The Valentine Dude Strikes Again!

Most people cannot handle a truly epic "epic fantasy" all at once so I'll interrupt the run-up to the launch of EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS with this holiday smirk....


As we approach the day of reckoning, the most dreaded day of the year for many of us, perhaps it's of some comfort to realize that it's all based on someone being executed. Yes, long ago Mr. Valentine was killed for daring to marry couples in secret against the wishes of the government. Romans, you know. So strict. Strange how what goes around comes around. At any rate, he paid for his crimes. And there is nothing more romantic than that, right? Dying for love, for the cause of love. So, well, there's that. Otherwise, it sucks.

Chocolate, flowers, tokens of affection, greeting cards, love notes.... Most of this slush funding comes as crass commercial putsch, of course. Marketing 101. It's all just a crummy money mill. Invent a season and sell stuff for the season - or else you will be labeled a rube, called insensitive, shown the door as the truly despicable person you are! It's foolproof inasmuch as only fools fall for it. And there are so many fools among us. Especially this week. I fall for it every year. But not this year! Oh, noooooo.

So this love thing.... What is it? Science tells us it's nothing more than a firing of neurons. It's a biochemical reaction to a certain stimulus. See a pretty face, feel happy. A pretty face is determined based on genetic programming and environmental quirks. Also cultural sensitivity training, perhaps. We know what we like; we have been taught what we like. For men, it's easy: there are ass men, boob men, and so on. For women...well, I've read they like broad shoulders and a non-physical attribute called confidence. Perhaps also some cash in the bank. I've heard that. Magazines can be wrong, I've also heard. Or it's all fake news. 

Even so, it's a walking stimulus.  Advertising is based on walking stimuli; Valentine advertising is based on sex-related stimuli. The problem is that such stimuli exists year-round, so what's the big deal with the focus being on one particular day of the year? Because, dear lovers of love, if you do not demonstrate said love to said lover on or near this special day of love, then you are identified as a dolt at best and an ex-lover at worse. There is no middle ground, only a pit of ruin, an abyss of regret. And that pit is not filled with chocolates - not even half-bitten chocolates.

Yet never fear! We have the means to solve your problem. Just like the commercials now on radio and television and with increasing annoyance the Internet (every ^&@#$%^&* web page!) there is a message that you (me? yes, you!) have a problem. You did not know you had it but you do. And it will zap everything that makes you the you that you think you are right out of you! You do not want that problem, do you? Obviously not. Well, as luck has it, we can cure you of the problem you did not know you had.
So for a certain amount of money we can give you something which will solve that problem. Drug companies seem to do this, too, and clearly have mastered the art. You go along with your simple, unadorned life thinking it's just a matter of getting older, not having a quality sleep, suffering a poor diet, not having enough friends, or at least not enough cool, hip, advertising-worthy friends (but who can ever have enough of those?), and then...BAM!!! It hits you. No, it's not your fault, so don't worry. Besides, we have a solution. 

Buy this! Plenty to choose from. Eat this! Drink that! Take this! Wear this! Drive that! Look this way! Pay me! Pay us! Pay all of us! Or else you are not the person you want to be. Or else you can never be the kind of person you think you are! Give us money and we will roll back time, give you a make-over, prep you for your big re-debut, help you sweep the lover of your dreams off his/her feet! We will make you a god/goddess! 

Give us your money. It's that easy. Oh, for shame. Got no money? Well, then you don't count. Never counted, in fact. And who would want you in his/her life anyway? That is, without all the money to buy all the solutions you need to fix all the problems you obviously have in order to fit into this perfect, virtual society we have constructed and dutifully maintain for the glory of all who worship the almighty Valentine and his many minions of Münchausen mania! Only then will you become worthy of membership in the Valentine Club. 

Just click off the obstinate media and return to your humble, quiet existence. Perhaps cuddle up with a wonderful, understanding book boyfriend/girlfriend. Many do. It's not that weird. Three-hundred pages or so will definitely last longer than an awkward round of that sexercise thing you used to do - well, that was before that Valentine thorn stuck in your side and started to hurt. Here's to that box of chocolates you eat all by yourself!


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(C) Copyright 2010-2017 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.

05 February 2017

How I was coaxed into writing an "epic fantasy" with dragons


It seems the year is twice as long as usual. Perhaps because I have spent so much of it engaged in one lofty goal: to write an epic fantasy which happens to involve dragons.

Like many of us, I was pushed and prodded into choosing a set of goals for the upcoming year, the ones we call often call "resolutions" - the ones we drop like hot yams by the second month. And here it is: the second month. In 2016, I was well underway with this new project. In 2017, I am approaching the launch date, so I shall recap how this amazing drama came to be.

For me, nothing can be so straightforward or simple: I resolved to meet the challenge put to me by my 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 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 have always kinda accepted that fact as an on-going source of irritation.

Honestly, 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 as a teenager) 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 to me 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 dared to 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 tend to read has little to do with what I tend to 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, not consistently (besides, sometimes the plot turned in ways I didn't like). Thus I endeavored to create my own stories. Along that line, I often found myself reading a science-fiction or fantasy book and think to myself: Hey! I could write something like this! And maybe it would be better - "better" meant, of course, closer to the story as I would tell it.

And so I accepted their challenge: to compose a so-called "Epic Fantasy" and have dragons in it. Given the task, I was led to consider what an epic fantasy truly is. Furthermore, I knew I must also consider the nature of 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 in the constant interference by 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 action, 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 (see previous blog post): 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 that were set on that "invented" world. The difference between science-fiction and fantasy then is that I went full science nerd and made sure that I completely understood all of the astronomical, geological, and anthropological properties of that world; that is, of the 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, or how the geography affects the weather patterns, and so on. I would have laid out the story on a landscape as it suited the story, regardless of any scientific mumbo-jumbo.

I've also been told that "fantasy" must necessarily include 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 no one 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 ordinary folks. I saw 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 what it really is: 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 must rely.) 


So there you have it!  Not so challenging, eh?  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 a problem, big or small, and ultimately win the day. Or not. Isn't it the same in every genre? Only the landscape and the problems change for the particular genre. I still gravitated toward the big, eternal questions of humanity and tried to encapsulate them into small everyday disruptions of the 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. 


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(C) Copyright 2010-2017 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.