Michael. Writer, editor, consultant.
Before I answer, let me say what a great honor it is to be interviewed by—uhm—hamsters. I can’t say I ever imagined this glorious day would come.
As to your question: Is there such a thing as a petty hamster? I wouldn’t have thought that so grand and magnificent a creature as a hamster might have lesser cousins?
But a petty hedge-king, that’s a king over a very small territory, a mere tribe of some 3000 souls. The “hedge” of such a kingdom might be the shrubberies we know today, or stone walls, or even a hedge of spears.
The word “hedge” is used in the sense of a form of protection (“a hedge against a loss”) and also in the Samuel Johnson sense of “something mean, vile, of the lowest class.” So a hedge king is a king of the lowest class, responsible for the protection of his people. Ancient Ireland (the inspiration for my stories) had several ranks of king, from the 150 or so merely tribal kings up to the High King of All Ireland himself, so to avoid confusion, I use “hedge king” to denote the lowest rank of those kings. Rather a lot like a Scottish Laird or an English Baron, only before the days when the kings of Scotland and England could claim any real authority over such lesser lords and they could still put on grand airs and call themselves “kings.”
I think location is at least as important to a hamster as it is to a writer. A Syrian Hamster in the arctic wouldn’t last very long, I expect. Hamsters spend most of their time during the day in underground locations to avoid being caught by predators. So a hamster in an above-ground location at high noon is at much more risk than a hamster abroad at twilight. So it seems location should be very important to a hamster.
In the same way, location is important to a writer.
Location can help develop a character’s backstory, for one thing. A character raised in New York City or Edinburgh has a very different set of environmental influences on his character development than one raised in remote monastery of the Himalayas, for example. Different religious influences, different linguistic influences, different historical influences, and so, different characters.
Location in a story can also be important because it can be used to establish the “character” of the story in terms of tone, suspense, and the opportunities for conflict and action. My own stories are set in a small kingdom surrounded by potential enemies who provide lots of opportunities for storytelling, and who limit in a way what kinds of stories I can tell, as well as the way I tell those stories. A peaceful suburban subdivision would provide a much different set of storytelling opportunities, and require a much different kind of a story-telling style.
Another reason why location is important is because it can be used to drive the story forward toward its conclusion. The use of the light, darkness, weather, and climate in a location can determine the tone of the story at different points and help to reinforce the emotions that the writer seeks to elicit from the reader in those story moments. When the hero is facing his most desperate moment in the story, a dark and stormy night on a desolate, rocky, wave-swept isle can be just the right location to reinforce the dark night of the soul that the hero (and by extension, the reader) is experiencing.
So location is important to a writer because it influences the behavior of the story, just as location can influence the behavior of hamsters.
I would have to say both. For one thing, you can never separate the character from the setting in which he was raised. Even if you physically pick him up and plop him in another setting, he will—at least initially—behave as if he were still in his original setting. This is why the “stranger in a strange land” archetype is such a popular one in literature.
However, the setting of the story might be very different than the setting from which the characters originate, or it might be the very same setting. Which to choose depends on what kind of story one wants to tell. In my recent book, the main character and the antagonist are both native to the setting of the first act of the story, while the romantic interest is a stranger in their land. In the second and third acts of the story, all of the characters travel to yet another setting that is similar to their own, but more hostile to them because they’re strangers in it.
By varying the setting like that, I was able to heighten the tension for all of the characters involved, and limit the resources available to them in resolving their conflict.
In comparison, the main character of my second book was a complete stranger from a far distant country, with a different language and a different culture. Placing him into a setting with which the other characters were already familiar allowed me to highlight elements of the setting to which the other characters were blind. This allowed me to bring a sense of wonder to that story that might not otherwise have existed if the main character were a native to that setting.
I would have to say harder, although I enjoy the challenge. My fantasy world is very “low fantasy,” in the sense that it’s grounded very much in the historical realities of our own world. That being said though, we moderns are still a long way removed from the medieval agricultural society in which my stories are set. In some ways, describing “Earth” from such a far distant past is as difficult as describing Mars today. One has to set up the context for occupations like “harrower” for a modern audience. He’s the fellow who follows along behind the sower of seeds and closes the furrows in the soil where the seeds have fallen, so that birds—and hamsters—don’t steal them. As well, one has to know that such an occupation ever existed in the first place. So a lot of research goes into the “everyday life” part of my fantasy world.
On top of that, the fantasy part requires at least as much research (how have other fantasy storytellers handled magic and dragons,
for example) and then some imagination (what new element can I add to that wider genre discussion about magic and dragons?) as well as a fair bit of logic (if magic can do anything with the wave of a wand, why do we need harrowers?).
By comparison, a more contemporary story in a non-fantasy setting doesn’t need to explain who the plumber is, what the sink is, or why the crack of the plumber’s bum is showing. That’s just the way our real world is.
I definitely mapped out my medieval setting, and not just the Celtic part of it either. Because I wanted a deep sense of realism in my story, I mapped out a whole continent. But that scale of mapping is not necessarily very detailed. The smallest-scale map I had when I started writing the stories was about 1/3rd mile per 1/4 inch, and covers about 300 square miles, showing all the villages, settlements, rivers, streams, roads, and trails in the hedge-kingdom of Droma.
But as I’m writing the stories, I often find myself mapping out much smaller areas (a battlefield, a village) in greater detail. I’m a very visual person, and these maps help me to visualize the setting in greater detail.
“Oh, look, that part of the hill is really more like a cliff. Guess the hero’s army can’t go charging up that way. But what if the hero and a small band of warriors scaled that cliff? Would the villain at the top be expecting that? Especially if the hero had the rest of his army mounting a diversion on the other side of the hill, where the going is less steep?”
And so on like that. By visualizing the setting, I can find limits and opportunities for the story-telling.
In a way, I have already set my books in the Greater New York City area. I grew up in a very rural community on the far northwestern fringe of the New York area, and that location has influenced my writing immensely already, with its slower pace of life, its farmlands, and its large swathes of wilderness to explore.
But yes, I’ve considered stories set in a more urban contemporary setting. I have a work-in-progress that I turn back to now and again called “Last New Jersey Exit” that is set in New Jersey and New York City during our own modern period. Of course, that’s a very different kind of a story than those I’m currently publishing. No wild-eyed warriors charging over the hills with spears and chariots (more’s the pity, really).
I think some writers sometimes make the mistake of plopping very contemporary attitudes down in a location that can’t support them. For example, in my medieval setting, literacy isn’t common, and the number zero hasn’t been introduced yet, so one has to imagine a middle-class adult merchant who has maybe a modern six or seven year old’s education, trying to do basic arithmetic without using a base-10 math system or the number zero. I’ve seen other writers in similar settings who make it seem like the modern developed-country literacy rate of 90%+ would be common in such a setting, and it just isn’t so.
One also has to be careful about cultural artifacts. We have this idea that Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table were running about the English countryside in full suits of plate mail armor. In fact, the stories from which those images derive were written during the later medieval period, whereas Arthur himself would have existed (if at all) during the late Antiquity period, centuries before such suits of armor were invented. So one has to do one’s research and be careful about the kinds of technology that are available in the time and place of one’s setting. One can’t bring a gun to a knife fight if gunpowder hasn’t been invented yet.
Another common mistake writers make with location is that they tell us about it (“look, a cherry tree”) rather than showing it to us (“the drooping branches of the pink-coated cherry blossom swayed in the wind”), and fail to engage all of the senses (“I saw a kitchen,” versus “the kitchen smelled of cold chicken broth, rotting bones, wilting lettuce, and the desperate sweat of many generations of misfortunate cooks”).
While people are generally very visual creatures, smell (as one example) is particularly acute and strongly associated with memory. And a raunchy, lustful scene will seem very flat without the touch of silk, leather, and latex that might be present in that location.
I highly recommend spending time in the sort of locations in which one expects to set a story. Take the time to notice the feel of the air at different times of day and year, and how people move and behave in that setting.
New Yorkers on the streets of the city move very differently in June than in January, and they move very differently on the streets of Los Angeles than native Angelenos do—LA natives actually wait for traffic lights to change before they cross the street, even if there’s no traffic; New Yorkers don’t.
Notice the smells and the sounds. Taste all the foods, and even things that aren’t food. Learn to describe the feel of things: smooth, rough, bumpy, and so on.
If one has the opportunity, travel broadly, to settings quite different from familiar ones, and try to know them as intimately as possible. Get a sense for the scope of the world we live in, and the scope of the world in one’s story, and appreciate how setting and location influence attitudes and behaviors.
Takes notes of all of this, and keep those notes handy and dip into them liberally while writing. This will lend a deeper sense of realism to one’s stories, which will draw readers in and have them believing in the world of the story as deeply as they believe in their own world (which is really just a different kind of story, after all).
The Romance of Eowain is a novel that questions the nature of love. The two primary characters have been maneuvered into an arranged marriage for political reasons, and this arrangement has been sanctified by their religious order for its own mysterious reasons, but the two characters are very concerned that “love” (whatever that is) should be a part of their decision to marry. This is especially important to the female character, who has the right to refuse the arranged marriage, but also wants to do right by her family and her kingdom.
So the two characters struggle to understand what love is and whether they can find it in each other. They are opposed by the rival cousin of the hero, who wants both the bride and the kingdom for himself, and questions about loyalty, trust, pride, honor, respect, and family obligations are all raised.
It’s also an adventure story, so the characters find themselves carried from one harrowing threat to the next in their quest for an answer to the question: “Can two people in an arranged marriage find love?”
I’ve just started working on the fourth book in the series, I already have a draft written for the fifth book in the series that needs rewriting, and I have material for another half-dozen books beyond that. So a resounding yes, the Matter of Manred Saga will definitely continue.
Beyond that, I also write creative advice that I publish on my Adventures in Indie Publishing blog at mdellert.com. I’m also developing a soon-to-be-released novel-writing course. And of course, I’m always dabbling with other stories—both in this setting and beyond—as the mood strikes me. I try to stretch the limits of my craft to bring my readers the best stories I know how to write, and readers can keep up with news and information about my projects through my Adventures in Indie Publishing newsletter.
“I would not sell myself so cheap as to be nothing more than a pawn in such a fickle game. If peace and goodwill are to come of our marriage, then peace and goodwill must go into it first. And so I tell you true, and may the Gods and the Ancestors punish me if I prevaricate: I do not yet know my own heart and mind in this matter.” – Lady Eithne of Dolgallu
The Hedge King’s family has feuded with hers for a generation. Marriage between their two clans would bring peace.
But the Lady Eithne of Dolgallu has a right to refuse his marriage suit, and withholds her decision from him like a badge of honor.
Meanwhile, his cousin Tnúthgal jealously covets his throne, a renewed threat of banditry endangers his people, and rival heroes emerge to challenge his reign.
And what interest do the mysterious priests of the Order of the Drymyn have in Eowain’s wedding plans?
Can young King Eowain hold his kingdom together?
Can he convince the Lady Eithne to be his bride?
Can two people in an arranged marriage find love?
Find out in this exciting, new, full-length adventure novel, The Romance of Eowain!
The Romance of Eowain is the third installment in The Matter of Manred, a new cycle of medieval romances, action adventures, heroic fantasies, mysterious priests and their dark and forgetful gods, brought to you from the fantasy fiction workshop of Michael E. Dellert.
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