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ON STARTING A FANTASY, DOING RESEARCH, AND MAKING TIME PASSBy author David Eddings
(Taken from the Afterword of The Rivan Codex)
As I've mentioned before, when the urge to write an epic fantasy seizes the unwary reader, he will usually rush to his typewriter, and that's his first mistake. If he leaps into the swamp right away, he'll probably produce a chapter or two and then find that he's run out of story, largely because he doesn't know where he's going.
Papa Tolkien once wrote, "I wisely started with a map," I'm not sure how wise my doodle was, but my inadvertent following of the same path also dictated much of our story. People who live on a rocky seacoast usually become sailors (translation: pirates). People who live on large open grasslands usually need horses, and usually get involved with cattle. People who live in natural converging points--river fords, mountain passes, and the like--usually become traders or merchants. Geography is very important in a story.
One of the items ticked off by Horace in his Poetics was that an epic (or a drama) should begin in medias res, (in the middle of the story). Translation: "start with a big bang to grab attention." Fantasists tend to ignore grandfather Horace's advice and take the Bildungsroman approach instead. This German term can be translated as "Building (or growing up) romance." (Note that most European languages don't use the word "novel"; they still call these things "romances.") The "growing up" approach is extremely practical for a fantasist, since all of our inventions have to be explained to our "dumb kid" hero, and this is the easiest approach to exposition.
To counter the "Gee whiz! Look at that!" sort of thing that contaminates fantasy, the fantasist should probably grind his reader's face in grubby realism. Go ride a horse for a day or two so you know what it feels like. Saddle sores show up on both sides of the saddle. Go to an archery range and shoot off a couple hundred arrows. Try it without the arm-guard a few times. The bowstring will act much like a salami-slicer on the inside of your left forearm, and it'll raise blisters on the fingertips of your right hand. Pick up a broadsword, swing it for ten minutes, and your arms will feel as if they're falling off. Those things were built to chop through steel. Theyre very heavy. Go out and take a walk. Start at daybreak and step right along. Mark the spot swhere you are at sunset. Then measure the distance. That's as far as your characters will be able to walk in one day. I used twenty miles, but I've got long legs. Ask a friend not to bathe for a month. Then go sniff him. (Yuk!) When you write dialogue, read it aloud--preferably to someone else. Ask if it sounds like the speech of a real live human being. The spoken word is different from the written word. Try to narrow that distance.
Next, learn how to compress time gracefully. You can't record your hero's every breath. "Several days later it started to snow" is good. It skips time and gives a weather report simultaneously. "The following spring" isn't bad. "Ten years later" is okay if you're not right in the middle of something important. "After several generations" or "About the middle of the next century" skip over big chunks of time.