Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Crunch time

I knew it would happen. I knew it from the moment I started. Odyssey of a Slave is a trilogy that re-tells the story of Homer's epic, The Odyssey. Problem: Officially, it spans ten years, seven of which are spent on the island of Calypso the nymph, during which nothing happens. Or rather, during which he spends his days pining for his wife Penelope back on Ithaca, and his nights doing his best to forget her with the help of Calypso. (The nymph, not the music. Presumably.)

My story, though, is about Alexi, Odysseus's slave. I'm pretty sure Homer would have mentioned if there had been a slave hanging around on Calypso's island. Besides, it'd be boring. And three's a crowd anyway. So Alexi has to spend some time doing something else. What else? Well, he's felt guilty about his sister, who saved him from the Greeks, ever since she was captured in Troy, and although he's discovered a few things about her (no, I won't say what, in case you haven't read the second book yet), so in the third book, he will spend a lot of his time looking for her, and having some pretty amazing adventures as he does so.

What sort of adventures? Well, I'll say only that he encounters some of the other characters from the Trojan war, or their sons, and has some really butt-kicking adventures. In the process, he learns an important truth about the Trojan War (or the Greek War, as the Trojans called it) that we would be smart to understand today.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Where do you get those names from?

I visit a lot of schools in Southern Ontario to talk about my books, being an author, etc. It's great fun, and I get a chance to get a lot of feedback from kids about my book and ideas for the next one. The girl named Ameera, for example, who appears in the first chapter of Cursed by the Sea God, takes her name from a girl in a school in Brampton that I visited a year ago. Someone asked where I get the names in my books, and I told them, truthfully, that quite a few are from astronomy - the Trojan points of Jupiter. (More on that in a moment.) At this point, another girl put up her hand and shyly suggested that if I needed a name, I could use her own name, Ameera. It happens that at that point I did need a name for the girl in the first chapter, and Ameera, while not identifiably Greek, was a very pretty and feminine name, so I went with it. I hope she's pleased with the result.

Ameera is the exception. Most of my character names are minor characters from the Iliad, Odyssey, or other stories surrounding the Trojan war. I try to avoid using major characters, because it's a bit confusing if someone else named, say, Achilles or Helen shows up. But there are plenty of minor characters, and it turns out astronomers have done a great job of collecting their names from mythology over the years.

Why astronomers? Sit down, my child, and I'll tell you. There's an amazing thing that happens with planets in orbit. They have these gravitational backwaters, or eddies, where orbiting junk collects and gets swept along with them. They're known as Lagrangian Points. It's a bit like the spot just behind giant trucks on the highway, where if you're small enough and light enough, you can be sucked along behind the truck without using any gas yourself. Except that with Lagrangian points it's a gravity thing.

Jupiter has two big Lagrangian points, at sixty degrees ahead of its orbit and sixty degrees behind. Over the last few billion years, these points have swept up a bunch of asteroids, which hang around in these spots in a perfectly stable orbit. Sixty degrees ahead of Jupiter (that is, about two years ahead in its orbit) lie a bunch of asteroids known as the Greek Camp. Sixty degrees behind (where Jupiter was about two years earlier) are a bunch of asteroids known as the Trojan Camp. Astronomers being what they are, they've named many of them. The ones in the Greek camp are named after characters from the Greek side of the Trojan war; those in the Trojan camp, after characters from the Trojan side. Actually there are a couple of turncoats - Hector, a Trojan, is actually an asteroid in the Greek camp, while Patroclus, a Greek, is in with the Trojans. Anyway, since someone has gone to all the effort of collecting Greek and Trojan names, this is where I harvest a lot of character names from. Now you know.

On that topic, I made a mistake calling Alexi's sister Melantha. Melantho, with an O, is one of Odysseus's maids, and a mildly important character in the last few scenes of the Odyssey. I changed it to Melantha for Alexi's sister, because -o names always sound masculine to western ears, and -a names feminine. Unfortunately it's still too similar to Melantho, so I can't call the maid by that name in the final scenes, which I will be writing in the next few weeks. Bummer! But it's not hard to solve. There's no reason Alexi would know the names of the servants, so I'll just write her part in without calling her by name. It's a bit more cumbersome to refer to "the sullen-looking maid" instead of "Melantho" but it'll have to do.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

When your characters surprise you

Of all the cool things about writing, one of the coolest has to be when one of your own characters surprise you. I don't know how many times I've watched Alexi, Kassander or Pharos say or do something I wasn't expecting at all. What's really disturbing is how often what they did was much better than what I'd been planning. Freaky! Not Ury, though. I have to work hard on him. I think of the worst of the bullies I knew in high school and imagine what they'd do.
A Russian author - Dostoyevsky, perhaps? - said "My characters are automatons." Meaning, I suppose, that they did what he said, not that they were emotionless cutouts, although perhaps that's true too. I'm sure there are plenty of authors who would mock an author whose characters got away from him and went off for the occasional night on the town, and perhaps they're right. It's pretty silly to imagine characters having an independent existence from the author who writes them. But that's the way it seems, sometimes.
What's really going on? Either I'm channelling some long-dead author (a good one, let's hope) or these thoughts are bubbling up from my subconscious and escaping out my fingers without, so far as I can tell, checking in with my brain. Meh. I'll take either, as long as it works.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The character of characters

One of the things that separates great authors from mediocre ones is their characters. For a great author, every single person in the book has their own individual character, which the author can paint for us in a line or two of dialogue, or a quick description of the way they dress. Even the man who punches a hole in our hero's train ticket will have his or her own unique personality.

I'm not there yet. But I'm working on it. Especially in a trilogy set in ancient times,  this turns out to be hard, because the things that are automatic clues to character 3000 years ago probably mean nothing to us, and vice versa. Consider:

  • "Hey, man, like, don't oppress me, y'know? Like, just get along, groove with the rhythm of the universe. Come down off that square you're riding, man, like, seriously."
  • (On cell phone in restaurant, loudly): "You're killing me, man. No, you listen. I'm trying to do you a favour and you can't get your *** together. Come up with five big ones by 4pm today. I know a half a dozen guys who'd kill to get in on this IPO. So hit me with the cash or you'll spend your the rest of your pathetic life wishing you had."
These are pretty easy to recognize as a hippy (laid back, non-materialistic, peacenik, share the wealth) and a Wall street financier (pushy, driven, acquisitive, money=status). But what would an equivalent be from the bronze age? For that matter, if I described someone from that era  with bulging arm muscles, calloused hands, an a reddened, sooty face and a leather apron, how many people would recognize that as a blacksmith today, and what personal characteristics might we associate with that profession? Chances are anyone from 1200 BC would pick it up in a second, but it means nothing to us.

So what's an author to do? Fall back on the universal constants whose behaviour is probably the same in any era. The person who leans into your face and shouts is probably always going to be a bully. Or a drill sergeant. The girl who bats her eyelashes at a boy and asks him to help her move something "because he's so big and strong" is probably a flirt in any era. Unfortunately these are also the rankest of stereotypes, and they tell us nothing about the person's social standing or profession, but at least they're a starting point.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Getting back to reality

Cursed by the Sea God now being out, I can talk about some of the challenges I had while writing it. One of the big ones was connecting Homer's Odyssey with reality. I don't mean the presence of monsters, witches, Hades, etc. Those are simple fantasy, and although we don't see evidence of them in our world, there's nothing inconsistent about finding them in Homer's.

The challenge is the stuff in The Odyssey that isn't consistent with itself. A prime example is at the island of the Laestrygonians, or "ship breakers", as I called them. (I had originally called them "ship eaters", but decided that was too close to Rowling's Death Eaters. Google ship breakers if you're curious what they are in our world.) In The Odyssey, when Odysseus and his ships sail up, the rest of them sail into a small inlet with high cliffs around it but Odysseus, sensing danger, moors his ship outside.

Say what? I can just imagine the court martial scene, with Hugh Jackman as Odysseus and Morgan Freeman as some hypothetical rear-admiral looking into why Odysseus has managed to lose ... well, I won't say exactly what in case you haven't read the book yet. Suffice to say that a bad thing has happened on this island.

"Admiral Odysseus, you yourself moored outside the inlet while letting the rest of your squadron moor inside it. Why?"

"Well, your honour, I thought it might be a trap."

"Gentlemen, I don't think we need to hear any more. Guilty!"

Or to put it another way, Odysseus's own actions here are totally inconsistent with what he would actually do. So I had to find a workaround that would explain why he let them go in. Turned out not to be hard - read the book to see why - but without a small touch like that I (and presumably the reader) would be left with a niggling feeling that this just didn't work.

In fact a lot of the time I spend in writing is making sure that people act consistent with their natures. That and not relying on too many coincidences, an author's favourite plot development tool. Although the biggest coincidence of all is that the person I chose to write about happens to have all this interesting stuff happen to him, I suppose.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cursed by the Sea God - it's out!

The sequel to Torn from Troy, Cursed by the Sea God, is finally out. You should find it in bookstores now, or if you can't, they'll order it for you. It is totally overloaded with adventure. When we were trying to decide what scene to put on the cover, I came up with a list of no fewer than 33 scenes that would make good covers. No exaggeration! I'll claim as much credit as I can, but I'm just following a trail laid down by Homer so I have to give him most of the credit. Although I hope I've spruced it up a bit.

On a related note, I did a signing for Cursed by the Sea Godat the OLA Super Conference two weeks ago. I then came down with the flu, which is why this post is late. One of my daughters, misremembering the name of the conference, insisted on calling it the "Giant Librarian Conference". Way too compelling, that title, but that's the name that's stuck in my mind now and forever. Giant librarians notwithstanding, It's a great conference if you have a chance to go. Lots of book sellers, new releases, authors doing signings, and various library support services that I never knew existed. If I'd thought I would have taken a picture of myself with my Greek helmet on as I signed books. Hmm. Maybe it's just as well I didn't.