Z is for Zlatorog

Zero animals today exist that have solid gold anything, and that’s a shame. I mean, how cool would it be if you could raise a sheep with a literal golden fleece? Intellectually I know this would do nothing to actually end things like poverty and world hunger, but think of how cool it would be to have a field full of gold sheep?

But it goes without saying that you’ve got to be careful what animals and their parts you bling. Fleece and sheep are relative harmless. You wouldn’t want to be hunting the lion with the golden mane, or the elephant with the golden bazooka, and especially not the zlatorog with the golden horns.

The zlatorog is an animal from Slovenian folklore that pretty much looks like a mountain goat with huge golden horns and a sick sense of humor. It has apparently been taking lessons from the roadrunner on how to deal with poachers, as this flighty creature lures potential hunters to their deaths over the edges of cliffs. Yikes. The good news is that it never died in the legends. It was wounded once, and its blood became the first carnations, so if you’ve got a taste for gold and aren’t afraid of a horrible splattery death over the side of a cliff, you could always give this one a shot. Personally, I’m going to wait for science to give me golden guinea pigs.

encyclopedia magical creatures

Y is for Yemeni Vieled Chameleon

You don’t know what a Yemeni veiled chameleon is? That’s ok, we’ll learn together. According to the Smithsonian Handbooks guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, the Yemeni veiled chameleon is a small, extremely laterally compressed species of chameleon native to the humid southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

Fascinating.

The truth is, I love reptiles. I love all the weird exotic pets you can think of: lizards, snakes, tarantulas, giant bugs, squawking parrots, all of them. Lizards especially have turned out to be my ideal pet due to their relatively relaxed nature, being noiseless and more or less odorless, and most of the time completely open to hanging out with a human, so long as that human is 1) warm, 2) not moving and 3) watching something interesting on TV. Before I moved to Japan I had a pair of bearded dragons which were about the most loving pets I’ve ever had, dogs included.

See, the thing about furry pets is that they’re very demanding. Dogs need constant attention or they go mental. Cats will suffocate you if you forget their seventh meal of the day, and rodents reconcile their existential crises by making as much goddamn noise as possible with four teeth and a metal cage.

But lizards are remarkably chill. They’ll tolerate human interaction but they don’t need it. Forget to feed your lizard? You’ll get a reproachful glare, but they’re not going to raise the dead over it. Want some time to sleep in on the weekends? No problem, they’re all for sleeping seventeen hours a day. And the best part of all is that they’re always the right temperature. If it’s a hot day, nothing feels better than a cold lizard belly on your chest. And in the winter? Coming home to a heat lamp warmed reptile is just the thing for those chilly fingers.

So, now that I’ve told you my ideal pet, how’s about you tell me yours?

reptiles and amphibians

X is for Xenon

Xenon has the atomic number 54 on the periodic table of elements, which is something I didn’t know seconds before writing this sentence. I wouldn’t feel so badly about this lack of knowledge in chemistry in general (chemistry kept me from pursuing any sort of medical degree) except that I have a student who has memorize the entire table, plus every element’s atomic number AND knows how to spell them all correctly. This student is five years old. Oh, and English is his second language. Feels like we should all be studying a little more, doesn’t it?

The thing is, though, we’re all hardwired to be good at different things. This isn’t to suggest that the line is drawn between genders because it isn’t, but as individuals we each have a different learning strength, a different exploitative passion, a different path our brains are coded to take. Like most things, it’s a little bit nature and a little bit nurture, but very few people excel at everything. My kindergarten chemistry savant can name any element given only its atomic weight, but ask him to draw a picture of his family and he’ll flip the page over and write complex mathematics equations instead. (Ok, that last bit was an exaggeration, but only a small one. He’ll actually draw molecular compounds instead.)

So while I try not to feel bad when I’m struggling to find a stimulating learning environment for one student who should be handed a high school science textbook while the rest of my students are struggling with lower case letters, a part of me still feels like I should crack open the Elements Vault, just for a little review.

elements vault

W is for Writing

W-11e finally made it to the big one: writing! As I struggle through this insanely risky venture in the art of letters, naturally the bulk of my non-fiction collection is about writing itself. Writing and Thinking go hand in hand. These days, if I’m not actually putting words on a page, I’m thinking about those words, or those ideas, actively pulling in little bits of inspiration and storing them in the apothecary chest in my brain until maybe one day they’ll be useful. But when I get down to it, to physically sitting in my seat, opening a fresh Word document to put all those ideas down into something more or less resembling a story, there comes a huge moment of Conflict & Suspense. On the one hand, I really want to get this idea out, because it’s OMG the greatest idea ever and will revolutionize the genre, I’m poised and ready and I want to go, go, GO! On the other hand, the ideas that float nebulously in my brain resist condensing into something more decipherable to other, alien heads. In theory, a book is just a series of words artfully arranged in such a way that the reader goes, “oo” and ‘ah’ and in general has a good experience. In practice, however, Plot & Structure get mixed up in these fantastic ideas and create just a jumbled mess that even I can’t understand. And I wrote the damn thing.

It’s a bit like trying to weave a rug. You know basically what a rug looks like, and you know what sort of pattern you want in your rug, and the colors you want use. Except all your yarn is tangled into knots that you have to unwind before you can even start weaving. Oh, and somebody turned out all the lights. Good luck.

Fortunately, The Story Solution to this mess is within arms reach, and it’s so ridiculously obvious that many people overlook it. It comes in two parts: practice, and trial and error. Art has no magic formula, as much as some people would like to sell you one. Art evolves every day, and what works or has worked in the past, won’t do you any good in the future. And yes, there are no more original ideas. There are only 20 Master Plots (depending on who you talk to) and we can only work within the limited structure of what is, in fact, a story. It’s adding our own Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint that makes our own individual stories unique, and some stories sink or swim by their Description & Setting alone.

What we really need is to start a Dialogue. To get together and discuss our Strategies of Fantasy until, as a genre, as small pockets of writing collectives and as individual writers, we each have our own Fantasy Reference guide.

V is for Violence

Very rarely in history do we look back and say, “this is a time and place in which we weren’t trying to kill each other.” The sad reality is that humanity has always been in an arms race against itself. One could argue that this springs from a sort of base, survivalist nature in the primitive reptile portion of our brains but really, we’ve grown up as a species; we should know better by now. But A History of Weapons easily shows us that though we have grown and evolved and achieved great feats as a species, as far as solving conflicts, we’ve really only learned how to make bigger, sharper knives and things that go BOOM on a city eliminating scale. This is a bit like solving the problem of excrement in the drinking water by building elaborate, golden port-a-potties on floating barges in the reservoir. That is to say, it doesn’t, and it’s so ridiculous a notion that why would you even think it?

Humanity’s love affair with Arms & Armor seems to run counter with the basic instincts for survival. I mean, if you invent the technology for a nice boomstick that keeps your neighbor out of your garden, that thought process has to involve the assumption that your neighbor is never going to come to the same boomstick epiphany that you did, or at least, won’t collaborate with other neighbors justifiably scared of what the man with the boomstick and the crazy eyes might do next, to mount a pitchfork attack on your house. Never bring a boomstick to an angry pitchfork mobbing, is what I’m saying.

But that brings me to the subject of Castles which were invented for the sole purpose of 1) protecting your garden and boomstick interests, and 2) discouraging these sorts of armed pitchfork uprisings. The problem with castles though, is that humans have a seemingly limitless imagination for ways to kill each other. Sure the castle walls held back the pitchfork riots, but then humans invented atom bombs and napalm and, well, you don’t see too many occupied castles these days, do you?

U is for Unicorn

Unfortunately, most of my books on this subject are in Canada, due to being either too old or too delicate to ship over with the bulk of my reading collection. Alex sent them to me lovingly many years ago as treasures from her childhood and I’ve been hesitant to put them in any sort of danger because of their dual sentimental value.

The Unicorn is undoubtedly one of the key figures in western mythology, though many countries have some sort of four-legged, hoofed, one-horned creature that can be more or less called a unicorn, depending on how you stretch your definition. I was never much enamored by them in my youth (unless you count My Little Ponies; I liked them before they were cool again, damnit!) as I much preferred dragons, but when Alex and I got a chance to see La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn) in Osaka, during one of the only two times they have ever left France, I jumped at the occasion. The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum was how few people were actually there. Granted the Art & Science museum was kind of out of the way, and the building itself was small, but these tapestries are ridiculously famous around the world. The second thing I noticed was the incredible scale of the tapestries, five in total. They are toweringly huge, truly meant to cover a large wall, floor to ceiling. The amount of time that went into the creation of each of them must have been staggering and indeed, touring the tapestries you can see how the artist’s skill evolved between each project. It was a lovely, insightful venture, and definitely one of the best museum trips we’ve ever taken together.

T is for Tea

To be fair, I switched the topic of today’s A to Z Challenge post from what I had originally planned it to be, but only because today, coincidentally, two books on tea ceremony arrived at my door, not unexpectedly, I should add. When I get the idea for a story, the first thing I’m likely to do is hop on Amazon and buy a bunch of books about whatever it is I’m planning to write about. For research purposes. Yes. Really, any excuse to buy more books is fine with me. I am finding, though, that my collection of non-fiction books about Japan and Japanese culture is growing rather large. I can’t help but wonder if this will continue when we move back to Canada, or if it will peter out with distance.

In any case, last weekend Alex and I were invited out to attend a tea ceremony at Kitano Tenmangu and while sitting in seiza and trying desperately to focus on the ritual and ignore the burning pain in my legs, a spark of an idea came to me. The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a lot like many of the martial arts I’ve practiced. There’s a strong concentration on virtues like beauty, respect and attention to detail. The intricate way every motion is carried out adds the same sort of spiritual flair I’m used to in budo. Alex and I took a single class in tea ceremony years back when we first moved here, but though the class was very affordable, it was sadly too far away from where we lived to make it a regular thing, so sadly, we don’t have many Stories from a Tearoom Window to share with you. Not yet, anyway. Give me a few months and I might have something decently slashed and edited enough to be allowed into the public eye.

R is for Revolution

Really, what better way to mess up a character’s day than to throw a violent war into his or her already complicated life? Some of my favorite fantasy books have featured some sort of grand conflict rolling around in the background that the protagonist has to dodge or, failing that, desperately try to stay alive within. Fortunately for writers, history is full of conflicts both international and domestical to pick events from for little bits of evil inspiration. Events such as The French Revolution or The English Civil Wars are full of people, battles and occurrences that are almost too grand for reality. They practically beg to be translated into fiction. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that History’s Most Insane Rulers who have given rise to the revolutions of the past, tend to also open the doors to History’s Worst Dictators. Revolution is a powerful, hopeful concept, but it doesn’t always turn out the way the revolutionaries want.

P is for Pirate

Perhaps only vampires are more romanticized in literature than pirates, but it must be a rather close race. For those who crave the dangerous bad boy types in their books (and in their hearts) heaven forbid if anyone ever writes about a vampire pirate. We may never put those books down again. It’s probably already been done, come to think of it. Probably for the best. My vampire loving days are well behind me and it’s probably best that they stay there.

I don’t hold out much hope that The Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates will be that much of a romantic tale. For one thing, even though the work is attributed to self proclaimed pirate Captain Charles Johnson, there’s no record of such a person ever existing, and by and large the literary world tends to attribute this book to Daniel Defoe. That being the case, this is probably less a tale of swashbuckling lust on the high seas and more an account of the day to day, scurvy riddled life of sailors who happen to make most of their income from making off with whatever is on board the nearest underprotected ship. After reading Robinson Crusoe I don’t hold much hope for any of Defoe’s writing to be anything other than a sleep aid.

Robberies and murders

 

O is for Ottoman Warfare

Obviously this is a rather specific choice for the letter ‘O’ but I only have one book on the Ottoman Empire (so far) even though it plays a large role in much of my writing. Every fantasy writer I think has a go-to civilization, country or people when in need of a bit of cultural inspiration. As much as we all like to think of ourselves as special, creative snowflakes, the truth is that ideas don’t pop out of nowhere. They have to be seeded, and from the seed they must be cultivated, added to, given nutrients from outside the writer’s head as much as from inside. Living in Japan gives me a great deal of inspiration, but beyond that, I pull a lot from the Turkish as well, from clothing to language to whole sections of history.

The only historical fiction I ever wrote was set within the Ottoman Empire, specifically in the last days that it held Athens. I knew nothing about this time period, the history or the people, and Ottoman Warfare in particular was a bit of a blank (thanks Wikipedia). Wasn’t it my lucky day, then, when I happened to find this book? It remains one of my favorite little research treasures for all sorts of fiction writing, long and short.

Do you have a favorite place to pick from when researching? Let me know!

ottoman warfare