The tales of an unapologetic nerd
This brand new addition to the Mapweaver family will take place in the winter months leading right up to the start of the first book. It is a cozy little prequel, set in the days before Fox discovers his magic or Lai discovers her past. Fans of the series have often longed to sit back at The Five Sides Inn and Tavern, and simply enjoy a drink or a song by the fire. Now, that is exactly what I have planned for you. Immerse yourself in the warmth and community of Thicca Valley storytelling, and spend Deep Winter with our heroes in the simpler times, before the weight of the world was on their young shoulders.
Official release date is yet to be announced but, in the meantime, please enjoy this first chapter of Deep Winter Tales From The Five Sides.
Chapter One: When The Stories Began
The snows were falling in Thicca Valley. Whispers of a bone-deep chill were creeping into every cabin, slipping beneath the doors and forcing their way through the smallest cracks around the window frames. Wind howled its way through the mountain roads and echoed in the mines like the ghosts of long-dead wolves, filling the air with a bite of ice and foreboding that only Deep Winter could conjure. It shook every pane of glass and battered at every wall, begging to be let inside. Demanding it. Trees and rooftops alike creaked under the weight of the snow, and moaned in harmony with every fresh blizzard that raged through the Highborn Mountains. The sun had disappeared completely, hidden behind a thick blanket of snow clouds, making the days often just as deathly cold as the night. A cold that seeped its way beneath fur cloaks and thick leathers, and infected the dreams of the valley folk.
But in The Five Sides Inn and Tavern, the darkness and the chill were kept actively at bay by the beating heart of community pulsing within its many rooms. It was light and cheerful inside, with hot and blazing fires set in both the massive fire pit in the center of the common room, and the smaller fireplaces set into the stone along one wall or else burning merrily in the kitchen. Even the lanterns hanging overhead and the candles adorning many of the tables did their best to add to the flickering warmth and comfort.
What the fire could not warm, the food and drink could. There was piping hot stew, laden with potatoes and rabbit, poured into tankards like ale and gulped down with an eager joy. There was fresh bread right from the kitchens, brought out steaming on massive wooden boards, butter and jams melting on its crust as easily as ice on a summer’s day. There were hot ciders, spiced and tingling, and sipping broth that tasted of vegetables and the last remnants of the summer harvest. And where the hot drinks could not reach, the flowing wine and fresh ale warmed the souls of the Thiccans, loosening their tongues and bodies and encouraging all manner of dance and song.
Forric Foxglove – called Fox by everyone who knew him – watched it all happen like a ripple in a lake, from the moment the first miners came in before sundown until well into the night when the tavern was filled with music and comradery. He slipped in and out of the crowds with Lai, delivering plates of hot lamb and warm goat milk. Scooping up empty flagons of ale and refilling them before the patrons even noticed they were missing. Dodging in and out of half-drunken singers clambering up on the tables, and barely avoiding getting swept up in a fast-paced country jig that broke out just before midnight. Fox didn’t need to participate in such things himself – watching them was more than enough. And traversing the crowded and chaotic inn without spilling a drop? That was a dance in and of itself, and far more complicated than anything the Thiccans could manage.
Finally, he and his best friend Lai collapsed on opposite benches at an empty table in the corner, their jobs done for a moment as every patron was fed and every cup full to the brim. The two grinned at each other, exhausted but exhilarated.
“Nothing like Deep Winter, is there?” said Lai breathlessly, tucking behind her ear a strand of thick, black curls that had come loose from her braids. “When you could die if you stay outside too long, but we celebrate all night at the tavern.”
“Maybe,” said Fox, “we all just treat every night here like it could be our last.”
Lai raised her own mug of hot cider in a mock toast, and Fox clanged his tankard against hers. “Cheers to danger and Deep Winter, then,” she said, and the pair drank.
Not for the first time, Fox wondered if other fourteen-year-olds were quite so casual about their chances of surviving any one season. Then again, he often wondered if other nations were so aware of their own mortality as Sovesta was, isolated and frozen in the northernmost reaches of the Central Kingdoms. Here, the winter cold dominated the year, and harvest times were sacred. Farmers and miners alike pushed themselves to the brink of exhaustion every day during the working months, taking advantage of springtime thaw and summer sun. But when the brutality of winter finally struck, there was often nothing left to do but wait. Wait for the sun to emerge and melt the ice. Wait for the calves to be born, or the ground to be soft enough to plough once more. Wait for the mountain roads to be safe, and the yearly trading caravan that took all their waresmen and merchants south every winter to return.
And that was when the stories began.
“Do you have anything planned for tonight?” asked Fox, his cider now finished and warming his throat and belly comfortably.
Lai was still sipping her drink, and smirked over the rim of her cup. “Oh I dunno ... seems a bit unfair to the rest of the storytellers, don’t you think? Might take a pass tonight, and let the others have a go.”
“Oh don’t feign modesty now,” said a gangly, wild-haired young man as he brushed past her and squeezed onto the bench beside Fox. Her cousin Picck grinned at Lai, and elbowed Fox playfully as he teased, “You couldn’t stay away from the chance to be the center of attention any more than Fox here would choose to be.”
Lai snorted into her cider, choking back a laugh as Fox chuckled.
“He’s not wrong,” said Fox, and Picck ruffled his hair affectionately.
It was true: just as much as Fox enjoyed bathing in the atmosphere as only an audience member, Lai loved telling her own stories. Or re-telling those that had been played out a hundred times before. Growing up in the tavern, Lai had heard them all. She knew every song before it was finished being written, and caught tales from travelers just passing through town, even if no one else had a chance to meet them. Her father, Borric Blackroot, owned the Five Sides Inn and Tavern, and had always encouraged Lai to participate in the day-to-day of the business. And during Deep Winter, that business was stories.
Now, Lai stretched out her legs along the bench and pressed her back against the stone tavern wall, shivering for a moment before settling in with her warm cider once more. “The crowd seems particularly lively tonight,” she said, gazing out on the joyous patrons. Their laughter filled the air, mingling with the pipe smoke and fire pit haze, and the thick scent of meat and mead. “Not the right sort of evening for a love story.”
“Maybe the Wolves of Thunder?” Picck suggested. “Or one of the old hero tales!”
Fox perked up at this, tearing his own gaze away from the blizzard outside that was trying to batter down the windows. “Tell that one about Halvric the Hunter! It’s always been one of Father’s favorites.”
Lai smiled at him, and Fox knew she understood at once. They’d been best friends for so long that, sometimes, Fox didn’t need to say it: she knew Fox was worried about the caravan.
The caravan. He all at once longed to be out there, on the road with Father and the other waresmen, and also feared that it wouldn’t return. Any number of things could go wrong ... monsters lurking in the dark, avalanches waiting to bury them alive, bandits on the highway, war breaking out amongst the other kingdoms ... there was no end to Fox’s worry. And while he usually managed to keep himself occupied, practicing his own skills with the fur trade to impress Father when he returned each spring, his anxieties sometimes still ran away with him. And so, on nights like tonight, he clung to the hope of a good story. A story worthy enough to pull him out of his own worries and distract him.
A story good enough to distract all of them. Every wife, worried her own husband would not return. Every child worried about their father, or elderly parent worried about their son. The valley community as a whole wondering if, this year, perhaps the caravan would fail. If the trades did not go well, bringing home the goods and coin needed to survive another year, what then?
“Halvric the Hunter,” Lai echoed thoughtfully. “Yes, I think that’s a perfect tale to tell tonight.” She threw back the rest of her cider, slammed her tankard down on the table with a hearty whoop of joy, and clambered up to stand on her bench. “Picck, ring me in!” she said, and her cousin leapt to his own feet at once. He grabbed her empty and abandoned cider mug and began to clang it incessantly against the overhead beam that was within easiest reach of his long arms.
“Hear ye, hear ye!” Picck shouted, the clamor of metal on wood echoing through the tavern and shaking the nearest lanterns where they hung, the noise and leaping shadows sending a stillness rippling through the room. “Gather your drinks and find your seats! For a mighty tale we tell this night!”
Wild cheers erupted as tavern patrons young and old scrambled to find a comfortable place to listen. The air was filled with the scraping of many chairs and table legs, and a slight scuffle broke out in the back corner as two young boys fought over prime spots by the fire. As the shuffling and shifting slowly began to subside, the banging of Picck’s tankard slowed to a more rhythmic beat. More tankards took up the pounding, a great thump, thump, thump of anticipation making the whole of The Five Sides vibrate. Even the winds outside seemed to fall into step with the makeshift music, hammering at the walls and windows in time with the table and tankard drums.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Picck, putting on an air of great showmanship as Lai took several deep, preparatory breaths. “Tonight’s tale is one of hope and action! A story of valiant glory, and honor, and triumph over great evil!”
The excitement in the room swelled like a bubble, threatening to burst at any moment. Fox could feel it, like a warmth even the brightest bonfire could not provide. Every eye was turned their way, gazing expectantly at Lai and Picck, even as Fox tried to make himself as invisible as possible, pressing himself further into the corner where his bench met two stone walls. But he could see everyone, watching them eagerly. Even the stairs that led up to the rented rooms were filled with patrons, sitting with their drinks and waiting. The long bar along the back wall was crowded with children, sitting cross-legged and trying to see over the heads of the taller adults. Tables were re-purposed as chairs, and flecks of drink filled the air like snow with every beat of mug against wood.
“Tonight,” Picck said once more, milking the moment far more than Fox thought was entirely necessary, “we follow the heroic tale of Halvric the Hunter! The man whose arrow saved the world!”
The tavern erupted once more in chaos and cheers, the rhythm of the tankards breaking apart into applause and supportive banging at random, until Lai leapt onto the table top like a performer taking the stage, and quiet began to fall. The innkeeper’s daughter glanced sidelong at Fox, and winked as a knowing smirk crept across her pale face. Then, with a final deep breath and an unspoken promise of adventure that made the very candles shudder with anticipation, Lai began her tale.
The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Never have I fallen so completely in love with a book from the moment the dedication began. When I started thumbing through the opening pages, I found a charming and delightful list of the best places to read. Immediately I knew: this is not just for readers. This is for readers like me.
Jenny Colgan's The Bookshop on the Corner is a love letter to all of us who love books, but perhaps a little more to those of us who had forgotten how to lose ourselves in them. It follows the journey of Nina Redmond, a librarian who has just the right knack for pairing up readers with the book they absolutely need. It was as if Chocolat had a literary twist and, for me, this book WAS what I needed. It was as if Nina herself had placed it in my hands and said, "Lose yourself. You have my permission, and you deserve to relax."
I have not found the time to read for pure enjoyment in almost a decade. Life simply got in the way, and I slipped out of the habit of falling asleep with a dragon-filled fantasy, or sinking into a bubble bath with a cozy romance. It wasn't until I started reading this gem that I realized how much I had missed it. And, on more than one occasion, that revelation drove me to tears. Nina's view of the world through page-colored glasses so reminded me of myself when I was younger, and every description of Scottish countryside or Midsummer sunset made me ache to feel that bookish thrill again like I used to. I found myself staying awake until 4 AM reading, something I haven't done since college. Everything about this book was, for me, a glorious and nostalgic reminder of what it is to love books. And that broke my heart.
It is a painful thing to realize you've lost something you love, and you didn't even notice it fading away. Every time I was hit by just how charming and delightful this book was (those moments often driving me to giggle out loud and risk waking the roommates, or squirm with joyous anticipation at the promise of blossoming romance within its pages) I was reminded just how much I love losing myself in a good book. I found myself, for the first time in countless years, returning to it simply for myself, and not because I felt like I had to.
And so, fellow bookworms who may have lost touch with the joy of reading, I gift you with this recommendation. Any flaws it may have had vanished into the haze of bookish joy. Because, at the end of the day, any book that keeps you going back, and brings you the escape you need is, in my opinion, perfect.
View all my reviews
In October 2005, my mother was part of the launch of something incredible: Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. She spent ten years, up until her death in 2015, as managing editor. And in my entire life, I had never seen her so excited about a work project.
She had always loved her job, despite the fact that she dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom. In fact it was, in part, her passion for reading and her constant work with the written word that put me on my path toward an author career of my own. When IGMS took off, I was at the beginning of that path myself, discovering the first ideas that would eventually become The Mapweaver Chronicles. But at that moment, all I wanted in the world was to get a short story of my own accepted into IGMS.
It took me many years of trial and error to realize: I am not good at short stories. I write novels, and occasionally articles or blog posts. But short stories continue to elude me, no matter how hard I try. Eventually, I stopped submitting. No amount of knowing the editor would get me special treatment, which I have always appreciated about my family, and I could tell that I wasn't meant to have a place in the online magazine.
I left behind the dream of being a part of Mom's legacy, and it broke my heart when, only a few years after she passed, the magazine was discontinued. But then, something incredible happened: I was approached about voicing an audio piece for the final issue. It may not have been what I originally set out to achieve, but I still got to be a part of the IGMS legacy, if only for a moment. A part of Mom's legacy.
Now that all issues have been made available to the public, I invite you to enjoy: "Long Hair" by Stefan Slater. Narrated by yours truly.
Thank you, Mom. Thank you for teaching me what a work ethic is, and encouraging my love of both reading and writing. Thank you for all the hours I got to sit with you and pore over art choices for upcoming issues. Thank you for being the kind of woman who loved to read, and raising me to be one as well. I'm sorry I never got to officially work with you on an IGMS issue. But you helped start it, and I got to help finish it. And that makes me feel closer to you than ever.
Happy Mother's Day. I miss you every moment.
Friends, what a rough year it has been. And hey, it's only ... *checks calendar* ... APRIL.
Most of you are probably stuck at home right about now, enjoying the panic and anxiety of Covid-induced quarantine. And for those of you that aren't, all those in essential lines of work, I would like to THANK YOU for all you do. Genuinely, from the bottom of my heart.
Now, whether you are safe in isolation or out in the field, I thought a little sneak peek of my next book would be just the thing to take your mind off all the world's troubles for awhile. If you're a member of my mailing list, CONGRATS! You got to see this chapter EARLY! And if not, hey! What a time to sign up!
Either way, I'm thrilled to have you here. I've been spending my time here at home working hard on finishing Kingmaker (The Mapweaver Chronicles: Scroll IV) in time for a Summer release! So please, take a load off. Sit for awhile, and enjoy this first chapter for free.
Chapter One: Portside Whispers
The songs in port were different these days. An unnatural, discomfiting quiet had fallen over every seaside town in the Known World, filling the corners of those places that played host to sailors and pirates alike. The familiar air of jubilant celebration and reckless abandon that usually accompanied shore leave was gone, replaced by a shadow of uncertainty and fear. There were no drunken songs ringing out from packed taverns, or inebriated laughter of eager men with pretty women on their arms filling the streets. No proud captains threw lavish parties on board their docked vessels, as was once a popular custom after a successful adventure. Now, every ship sat empty and abandoned in their slips each night. And the only sound out of doors was the whistling wind, flitting through the graveyard of still masts and creaking lumber.
Something had changed. Something in the very nature of the sea that had every ship spooked, no matter where they sailed, and no matter where they docked. From veteran sailors to stowaway cabin boys, everyone who called the sea “home” could feel the shift in the winds. And so, each night, where revelry had once filled city streets and portside nightmarkets, silence fell. Every pub and tavern was full, but eerily still. Captains sat with their back to the walls nightly, and yet still they glanced over their shoulders as if waiting for something they couldn’t quite put their finger on. Drinks were ordered in whispered voices, food consumed quickly and quietly. Even nightly gambling games of dice and cards were suspended as every patron simply waited.
And then, the stories began. It was common for men of the sea to tell stories of their adventures. Even those on opposite sides of the law acknowledged a certain truce in most seaside taverns. The King’s Navy would often tip their hats to the pirates as they spun yarns of narrow escapes and stolen treasure. And the pirates, in their turn, would cheer on the reports of another ship being brought to justice, if only for the night. All knew the promise of enmity would return once they were out to sea again. But the companionship of those who made their lives at sea was, in a way, unbreakable. Each side would acknowledge a common enemy in the weather, and a common ally in the fairer tides, if only for the length of a drink or two.
But not these days, and not for quite some time. Tonight’s tales, like every other night for months now, were not about shipboard conquests or facing down storms. The sailors only spoke of the change.
“Another island went missing,” one pirate said, staring into his glass with a haunted look. “Up and disappeared, in the middle of the night.”
Behind him, the naval captain nursing his own drink leaned over in his chair to join the conversation. “Are you certain?” the captain asked, but his tone said he already knew the answer.
“Our heading was true,” the pirate confirmed. “It was an island we knew, and knew well.”
“A hidden treasure cache?”
Both men drank, and had not so much as lowered their tankards again when another man spoke up. This one a grizzled, older sailor from a crew seated across the room.
“There was another one turned up in the middle of nowhere last week,” he said, and his fellows nodded in agreement. “Nothing big, mind, but definitely there. Trees and all. Only, it weren’t there when we passed by the same scrap of ocean a fortnight before. And it weren’t on any of the maps!”
There were grunts of acknowledgment all throughout the room. Everyone had seen something like that in the past weeks or months. And none of it could be readily explained. Not that they hadn’t tried. Pirates and sailors both were, by nature, a superstitious people. Anything from a foul wind to a torn sail could be blamed on some harbinger of bad luck. Scapegoats were often chosen among the crew, or sacrifices made to the gods. For nearly a year, the men and women who lived and died by the sea had tried everything they knew: crewmen had been cast off or abandoned at port in hopes of appeasing some island deity. Cleansing rituals had been performed on almost every ship that sailed, and desperate prayers were made to Farran, the god of all pirates.
If only any of it had made a difference. The winds continued to blow sour and strange. Prayers went unanswered, and seemingly no amount of sacrifices could turn the tides back in their favor.
Where once the air in port had been filled with shanties, pipe music, and the playful shriek of fiddle strings, the only songs sung now were heavy and dark. They were funeral dirges, or laments and apologies to lovers far away. They were ocean hymns, pleading to Farran, begging that he might shatter whatever illusion had been cast over the seas. Even now, the low hum of A Dead Man’s Tune fell over the tavern like a fog as the barkeep sang quietly to himself.
I could have been a miner
And kept these bones at home
To wake up by my lady love
And never dream to roam
But I became a sailor
And took to open seas
Now comes the day death sails my way
To bend me to my knees
“Anyone else encounter the cold yet?” asked one pirate. The answering shudder that filled the room was instantaneous, and made the very candles shake in their holders.
“We had ice,” said another. “Thick, unmelting ice, clinging to our hull for days.”
“It happened to us when we lost our island,” the first pirate spoke up once more, finally finishing his drink. “A freezing mist filled the air, and the very seas beneath us froze solid. By the time we could sail again, it was gone. Disappeared into the chill.”
“Some demon of ice and snow is out there,” growled one of his companions. “Something throwing off the natural order of things. Something the gods themselves can’t save us from.”
“Let’s not be rash,” said the doctor, standing and holding out his hand placatingly. “None of us have been hurt, have we? Whatever it is, it doesn’t want us.”
“That island was filled with supplies, as well as gold!” said the first pirate, standing as well and staring down the doctor. “Without those waypoints, people could starve. And besides that, how long do you think until the cold gets too deep, and burns away our skin?” He took another step forward, glaring at the other man. “Have you ever been trapped at sea in the dead of winter? Nothing but grey and fog everywhere you turn? When you’re lucky if you only lose a finger to frostbite, and not something more important?”
“I’d imagine if you had a proper medic on board, that wouldn’t be as much of a concern,” sneered the doctor. “Pity you sail under your own flag, pirate. I suppose that’s the risk you pay, living on the wrong side of the King’s law.”
In an instant, a dozen pirates were on their feet. “Living under a tyrant’s thumb, you mean?” growled the first pirate, holding off his companions with a wave of his hand. “Unlike you, we don’t need the crown’s blood to keep our coffers full.”
“No, you just spill its blood instead,” said the doctor. “Couldn’t be content with making an honest wage under a generous king, you had to be free.” A smug smile spread across the doctor’s face as he whispered, “And where has that freedom gotten you, you scurvy-ridden waste of a sailor?”
There had been tension in the air for almost a year. A year of waiting for something else to go wrong, waiting for something bigger than an island to disappear. The threat of some unknown curse hung over every pirate and naval officer like a cloud, and put each one of them on edge. Now, like a persistent wave finally collapsing a poorly-made breakwater, the emotions crested and shattered.
Everyone reached for their blades. Shouted insults were hurled across the room like
harpoons, each side blaming the other for the cursed seas and the unexplained cold. Every ounce of fear bubbled to the surface, and within moments it was clear: these men meant to tear each other apart.
There was a loud bang, as the barkeep finished his work and slammed a now-clean tankard onto the counter top. All eyes turned to him, but he didn’t speak. He didn’t need to; the message was clear. Everyone slowly sat again in silence, still glaring daggers at each other but not raising their voices, or their swords, again. They returned to their drinks, honoring once more the unspoken truce between sailor and pirate.
After all, it was safer to remain here in the tavern than risk heading out to sea again. Not yet. Not while they could still milk every drop of relief from shore leave. And not until departure was absolutely, unquestionably necessary.
From her seat at a small table in the corner of the room, where she had watched the entire evening unfold, Captain Talathiel Vanduin smiled into her drink. It had been the same in every town she and her crew had visited of late. The same fears whispered among the patrons. The same stink of terror in the air. These pirates needed a miracle, a shimmer of something to hope for again. And Tala was here to offer it to them.
“It’s not only islands that are appearing and disappearing,” she said casually. Her voice was low and quiet, but heads turned her way almost at once.
“And what would you know about it, siren?” growled one of the men. “You waterborn don’t have the same relationship with the ocean we mortals do. What’s it to you if there’s strange happenings in the deep?”
Tala did not bother to stand. Every eye in the room was already trained on her. Those who might not have noticed before that one of the Daughters of Ralith sat amongst them were certainly aware of it now. She could feel people sweeping their eyes across her dark teal hair in its complicated twists and braids, its many jeweled accents catching the candlelight like stars. Tala could tell who was unnerved by the deep purple scales that ran along her nose and cheekbones, and who found themselves honored to be in the presence of one of the legendary huntresses.
She took an extra long time with the next sip of her drink, before she finally answered
lazily, “Ralith may have chosen us as her children, but you lot chose the sea as your home. The saltwater and brine runs just as much in your blood as it does in ours, we know that.” She let her words sink in, placating many of the sailors as she took another drink. Then, with a self-satisfied smirk, she purred, “I’ve come to offer you the plunder of a lifetime. To share in a hunt so grand, even the Daughters of Ralith couldn’t claim it on their own.”
“And I suppose it’s on some vanished island, is it?” asked one of the naval officers.
“Not an island,” Tala corrected him. “A fortress. About to appear, and be ours for the taking.”
For a moment, sailors and pirates turned and glanced at each other in confusion. A whisper spread through the common room as drinking companions and neighbors checked each other’s stories. Finally, one of them piped up, “But we’ve heard of no fortresses gone missing.”
“And yet that gentleman,” said Tala, nodding at one of the older sailors who had spoken up earlier that evening, “mentioned coming across an island that simply appeared out of the middle of nowhere. It was not on any map, it had not disappeared. It simply ... was.”
“So then,” said the naval officer, “what kind of fortress becomes real out of nothing?”
“The kind that hides from your world,” said Tala. “The kind that exists, only not where you would easily find it. But in this realm and those beyond, you know it as Cinderstone.”
In every port, the reaction was the same. Half the room burst into laughter at the mention of what they thought was just a myth. The other half defended her, claiming the prison fortress was real, even if none of them had ever found it themselves. And then, just as someone had done in every town, the question was finally asked. This time, by the barkeep.
“And if such a place as Cinderstone did exist, how would you happen to know where it was?”
Now, finally, Tala stood. “Because I’ve seen it for myself. Hunted within its walls.” She fished a small stack of parchment from one of her inner pockets as she spoke. “There’s a bounty to be found there that would make kings weep. Not only coin and jewels, but magic itself. Trinkets of such power and curiosity that they could make simple pirate captains and crews into legends by their own right.”
There was a stirring in the room now, not only from the privateers and scoundrels among them, but from many of the King’s navy. A few of them looked briefly eager and excited, but were quickly silenced by their commanding officers. After all, no proper sailor would chase something as trivial as buried treasure. And yet ...
Tala smiled wickedly at all of them as she dropped the parchment squares on her table. “Not everyone can travel across the worlds, like we sirens can. Lucky for you lot, I know where Cinderstone will appear. Anyone prepared to storm its walls with us is entitled to anything they find. Be it rations to resupply your ships, treasure to weigh down your pockets, or something a bit more ... interesting.”
She could feel it now ... that hum of eagerness. The only thing that could puncture the pirates’ fear: the promise of a conquest that was simply too big to pass up. As an excitable chattering began to ripple through the room, Tala finished the rest of her drink and started to make her way to the bar to order one more for the road. As she shouldered past a group of particularly keen young pirates, one of them grabbed her by the elbow.
“Say we wanted to come pillage this Cinderstone Fortress,” he said, eyes wide with the mere thought of such an adventure. “How would we know how to find it?”
“Simple,” said Tala, cocking her head back toward the parchment stack laying harmlessly at her abandoned seat. “All you’d need is a good map.”
There was a mad dash for those nearest to run and claim their maps first, and Tala let them fight over the scraps of parchment as she calmly paid for her last tankard, slipping a few extra coins to the barkeep in a preemptive apology for the broken furniture. Sure enough, no less than three chairs were shattered as a small brawl broke out between sailors trying to snatch up their own maps, and pirates saying the naval officers didn’t deserve them. It wasn’t until Tala was about to slip out into the night again that the tavern finally settled again, and one of the pirates called out to her.
“But my crew were just here, two weeks back!” he said, looking at his own map. “Weren’t nothing there but open sea and a handful of scattered isles.”
“There will be,” promised Tala.
“When? How do we know when to get there?”
The whole room was silent as they waited for Tala’s answer, and she smirked coyly once more. “Listen,” she said. “Just listen. You’ll know.” And with that, she left the pirates and sailors to scrutinize the strange maps in their hands, all with their glowing fox-headed compass rose in the bottom corner. In the coming days or weeks, she knew they would revel in the realization that the maps shifted as they did. They did not only paint where Cinderstone would be, but just how to get there from wherever their ship was at the moment. Even their ink-etched waters would shift to reflect the tides.
The pirates would also discover, she was certain, that these maps did more than simply mark a faraway location. Sometimes, when the wind was just right, whoever was nearest their scrap of parchment might be lucky enough to hear something in the distance. Or smell something unfamiliar. It might take some time, but Tala knew the clever ones among them would quickly learn: these maps could whisper stories of the world to you.
Tala quickly made her way back through the abandoned twists and turns of this latest portside town, with its empty streets and shuttered windows, and headed straight for the docks. There was only one ship that was not entirely dark and empty, and it crawled with her own pirate crew. Wordlessly, Tala gestured to the women to begin casting off as soon as she strode up the gangplank of the Hunt. They nodded and set to work at once, the whole deck springing to life as elegantly and seamlessly as the gears in a clock. As Tala slipped easily through them, stepping over ropes and dodging around moving cargo crates with practiced grace, she could feel the water beneath their hull beginning to churn in answer; the sea was as eager for them to return as The Daughters of Ralith were to be sailing again. After all, there were a dozen more villages just like this one. And Tala had many, many maps to deliver.
The songs had changed again. Slowly, new stories began filtering in through the gloom and fear: stories about the treasures that awaited them at Cinderstone. The portside taverns all across the Known World suddenly found themselves playing host to strange bards from out of town, all singing of adventure and gold. They sat by the fires in seaside pubs, strumming their lutes and crooning out promises of plunder ripe for the taking. Some of the troubadours didn’t even bother sitting inside. Instead, they waited at the docks, catching pirates and sailors right as they disembarked. Sometimes earning a coin for their tales, but just as often being entirely ignored.
But their songs stuck. And soon every deck of every pirate ship was filled with tales of maps that came to life, and the beautiful sirens who had gifted them. They sang new sea shanties about scores of marauders banding together to claim a legendary prize. The tavern stories about disappearing islands and frozen seas were now told alongside whispers of a king’s ransom, just waiting to be seized by any brave enough to try.
It was not only pirates who were drawn in by the songs. Many honest sailors found themselves hanging on every word, eager to learn more. Eager to be a part of a free ship, allowed to chase whatever adventure they liked, rather than sailing the same paths day in and day out, answering to royalty’s whims. And all those sailors with thoughts of piracy in their hearts found it harder every day to ignore its call. Within only a week of the first new songs being sung, half a dozen mutinies had taken place on the high seas as captains in the King’s Navy were deposed by those men and women who wanted nothing more than to sail to Cinderstone.
And then, though no one was quite certain when the change came, those tavern songs began to include fresh lyrics. Dates. Times down to the very day, the very moment Cinderstone would ostensibly appear in the middle of nowhere. Fleets of ships began to depart every port, sailing in earnest for the location on their maps. Soon, a small army found itself in tenuous alliance, moored in and around the series of scrappy islands that were the only land to be seen for days in any direction. Some of them camped out on the shores, building bonfires and continuing to swap tales and rumors with other crews as ships continued to arrive throughout the week. And some merely remained on their own boats, scared of leaving deck in case something should happen early.
Everyone simply waited. Not just pirate ships, but naval vessels who were newly claiming themselves as privateers. There were crews from all walks of life, with all shapes and styles of ship imaginable. There were massive galleons and small, slim clippers. There were garishly-painted figureheads depicting mermaids and gryphons, and others that were golden knights, or simply left their bows blank. Humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes ... they were all accounted for, along with some of those rarer creatures that boasted humanoid intelligence. Fur and scale and wing could be seen dotted amongst the crews here and there, and there was even one ship entirely made of those bards and players who had been spreading their songs for months now. Whether they had their own map, or they had merely followed one of the other ships, none of the pirates knew. But they let them into the community without question, and soon the players had made themselves comfortable amongst the scoundrels and freebooters and raiders.
From her position tonight in the crow’s nest aboard the Hunt, Tala could see it all. She could hear the low chatter vibrating through the hulls of neighboring ships, and the songs that echoed across the water. She could feel the sand grinding beneath the low tide on every nearby island, and knew the ocean was just as eager as its pirates. She quickly counted the ships, calculating in her head how many maps had been delivered. Finally, she pocketed her spyglass and dropped back down from the crow’s nest, swinging and sliding easily through the rigging until she reached solid planks once more.
Tala made her way belowdecks and found the mapweaver’s door. She knocked twice, then entered without waiting for a response. The familiar room – once a navigator’s workshop, and now converted into something much more complicated – greeted her with the scent of fresh ink and thick parchment. As usual, every free space on the walls was covered with drawings and scrawled notes. A massive table filled the center of the room, its entire surface an etched map of the Known World, its roads and nations and mountains burned directly into the wooden surface. Not by pen or flame, she knew, but by a curious and occasionally unfathomable magic. And leaning over it, adding some indiscernible detail to a series of islands in the south, was the seventeen-year-old Cartomancer himself.
“The Shavid have arrived,” she said. “Just in time, too. They’ll want to see tonight’s festivities for themselves.”
Fox looked up from his work and grinned with such a self-satisfied smile that, for a moment, he looked very much like the clever creature for whom he was named. “There will be so many new stories to tell that they won’t know what to do with themselves.” He straightened, stretching his back with a groan of exhaustion and pain. “How long have I been down here this time?”
“Only a few hours,” said Tala. “But you need to eat before we start. Can’t have you running dry before tonight is finished.”
Fox grunted in acknowledgment and let himself sink into a chair, obediently devouring the plate of salted meats and hard bread that had been left for him earlier that afternoon. He closed his eyes as he ate, leaning his head back and shoving food blindly into his mouth without a single care for what it was.
Over the last year, Tala had watched Forric Foxglove grow slightly taller, and let his hair run wild until he had to pull it back so it didn’t fall in his face while he worked. She had watched as he learned entirely new magics and strange facets of his Cartomancy Blessing. In fact, Tala wouldn’t have called it “learning” at all, so much as “inventing.” While some Blessed might have mentors and generations of books and knowledge to aid and educate, Fox’s magic had always been a bit of an anomaly.
The Cartomancers of old – or Mapweavers, as they were often known – had disappeared over three hundred years ago. Hardly any records survived that had anything useful to say, and nowhere had Fox ever managed to find so much as a note on how he should go about learning to hone his own magical gifts. The Mapweavers were things of legend and myth, and when Fox’s own Blessing had come to light, no one had been quite sure how to manage it. Of course, there were the Shavid, who claimed the Mapweaver powers as a branch of their own magical family tree. They had helped where they could, along with a handful of scholars, teachers, and curiously-Blessed friends. All of them had given Fox the tools to understand how to begin. How to learn, and stretch, and unravel the mysteries of his own magic.
But mostly, there had been The Historian – Darby Whistler. The one living man tasked with recalling all of history. The man who had sacrificed his freedom a year ago, so that Fox and his companions might escape the dreaded Cinderstone Fortress. For him, Fox had pushed himself to the brink. And Tala had been by his side as he tested the very limits of his power for a year, discovering what could be done, and pushing down walls between himself and the impossible. After all, legendary Blessings were not bound by mundane things like reason and precedent. And so, Fox had learned. He had taught himself over the past year, how to do everything from map the waterways between realms to hiding whole pieces of the world so nobody else could find them.
But in these moments, when he let himself run too long without eating because he was lost in his power, or when his skin grew pale from magical exhaustion and Tala had to wrap him in a blanket and sing him to sleep despite his protests, she had to remind herself that Fox was still just a boy. And her job – the job she had tasked herself with almost since meeting him – was to protect him. Not for the first time since Fox’s plan to rescue Darby had begun to take shape, Tala wondered briefly if there was another way. Bringing something as large and dangerous as Cinderstone would be taxing on him, there was no doubt. And Darby might just as soon kill Fox for being reckless as be grateful for the escape ... But, just as quickly, Tala reminded herself that tonight was not only for Fox and Darby Whistler. Tonight was for the pirates.
Tonight was for Lai.
Almost as if Fox had heard her thoughts, his eyes snapped open once more and he swallowed his last bite of hurried supper. “Now then,” he said, pulling himself to his feet with another grunt, “all we need to finish out the tale properly is one,” he held up a single finger, “pirate goddess.” Fox grinned at Tala. “Shall we put out the call?”
For a moment, Tala listened. She reached out with her own magic into the depths of the open seas all around them, searching for any approaching ship. Like Fox could hear things and see them through his connection to the wind, so too could Tala and the Daughters of Ralith often sense things unseen by mortal eyes, so long as those things were ocean-bound.
No one else was coming. At least, no one would make it in time. Every sailor, pirate, and bard who would be gathering here tonight was already waiting outside, bathed in a dwindling sunset. This was the cast for Lai’s story – the tale that would spread through every corner of the world and let each pirate know: a new god ruled their seas.
“Tell her it’s time,” said Tala.
With an obedient nod, Fox touched a single empty space on his map, and the wood beneath his finger began to glow.
There are very few times when internet trolls will so enrage me that I go off on a proper, thought-out, written rant. But, here we are. Recently, I came across a thread on Twitter that brought my afternoon to a full stop. In it, the poster stated with absolute certainty that audiobooks were not REAL books. He then went on to imply (and, later, to outright state) that anyone who listened to a book rather than read it was stupid, lazy, and couldn't possibly grasp the actual story at the end of it all.
And while I would never have said those words exactly, there was a time when I, too, felt something along the same lines myself. A time when, in my false sense of childish intellectual superiority, I truly believed that reading books was the only thing that counted.
Oh you poor, sweet, stupid girl.
To Past Kaitlin, and all the other readers out there who think like her, let me spell out just some of what I've learned over the past few years. Because storytelling, in all its beauty, transcends the page and should be respected in all of its forms. Especially audiobooks.
1. Quality Family Time is Whatever YOU Make of It
My mother loved to read. Not only was it part of her job as Orson Scott Card's office manager and proofreader, but it was a passion of hers. She belonged to book clubs, started a friendly summer reading challenge between me and my siblings, and would fall asleep deep in the pages of her latest book every night. And, as our family took to the road every year for vacations and beach trips, she would have my dad read aloud to us from the passenger seat. Because, unfortunately, she got carsick trying to read for herself. But, of course, Dad could only read for so long before his throat would grow sore and tired. So even those moments were limited.
And then, one year, we discovered Framed, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. The audiobook was read by the most delightful Welsh actor and, on a whim, we gave it a listen. Immediately, we were hooked. We could listen to entire BOOKS without a parent throwing up or losing their voice? We could ALL enjoy, together, the discovery of a brand new story?
That one book changed everything, especially for Mom. She began actively seeking out great audiobooks for long drives, eager to find something we would all love. Drives to and from my college were filled with stories now, and we couldn't wait to take another trip that was long enough to justify a chapter or two. Because, as my parents proved to me time and time again as I was growing up, family time is what YOU make of it. Some parents don't have the energy to read TO their children. Or they feel insecure about their own literacy. They may be tired, overworked, or get headaches from reading too long. But audiobooks allow parents and children to gather around and be told a story together.
2. The Working Class Deserves Escapism
When Mom fell into the world of audiobooks, they expanded her literary world in a way I can't truly put into words. They began to keep her company even as she worked, and gave her more hours in the day to enjoy fictional worlds, autobiographies, and keep up with the stories that were important to her family. She had a full-time job, four children, and a house to manage. Who am I -- who is anybody -- to deny women like her the chance to absorb new stories through any means they can?
When I first moved to Orlando eight years ago, I quickly filled my life with half a dozen jobs. By the end of three years, I had amassed no less than fourteen part-time or seasonal gigs, all just to make ends meet. I barely found time to write my own books, let alone read anyone else's. But I was starved for good literature. My own creativity was drying up, and it sank me into a deep depression. And, on top of which, my mother was dying of cancer at the time. Everything about my life was falling apart, and I couldn't even find the time to disappear into the pages of a favorite book for a few hours.
Now, before you start on that "if it's important you'll find the time" garbage, let me just stop you. That is NOT always the case. Our bodies, our jobs, our surroundings ... all of these things get in the way. And for those lucky souls who can balance all those things effectively enough to make time for hobbies, a tip of the hat to you. But many of us are not so blessed. And we are struggling. There were days when I would take my book to work in the desperate attempt to read something between shows or on my lunch break. But the break rooms were loud, I couldn't focus, and I'd find myself re-reading the same sentence over and over again, never grasping any of it.
The same thing would happen at night, as I tried to read in bed. I'd snuggle in, book open, bedside lamp ablaze with the warm, cozy glow that promised hours of solitary reading time. But sleep would claim me almost immediately, and I rarely (if ever) managed more than a paragraph.
But then, audiobooks. On a whim, I subscribed to Audible just to try it out. I downloaded Bloody Jack by L.A Meyer (narrated by the incomparable Katherine Kellgren) and my entire routine was turned on its head. I listened at the gym. I listened as I cooked, or did my morning and nightly routines. I could listen in crowded break rooms and drown out the chaos far easier than I could read to myself, and I DID! One book led to another, and another. In fact, finding the time to listen to an exciting read during my exhausting day kept my energy up in a way page reading could not at the time. I started branching out to other genres. Things I never would have taken the time to physically read, but I listened to and absorbed with gusto. I found books on the sciences, and autobiographies by my personal heroes (usually ready by the author themselves.) I found a corner of my life in which to fit reading again. And sure, it didn't come to me the way I expected or planned, but it was what I needed. Modern problems require modern solutions, and the idea that only physical reading grows the mind and expands your cultural understanding is outdated.
3. On Ableism and Reading
As I've mentioned briefly in my past two points, there are often physical and emotional limitations to reading from the page. But I know from experience that briefly will not be nearly enough to cover the true ramifications of these issues, and how important they are to the reading world. So, buckle in, because this truly is (in my mind) the most important issue I will discuss in this entire post.
Takes a deep breath.
NOT EVERYONE IS AS HEALTHY AS YOU!
It is 2020, we are in the middle of a pandemic that succinctly proves that not every health issue is the same across the board, and yet I STILL have to defend all of us with invisible illnesses and physical limitations. Or, hell, even VISIBLE illnesses! Because, frankly, how dare you make the argument that those who can't read don't have the right to claim audiobooks as real, actual literature? Shaky hands from cerebral palsy or Parkinson's, crippling migraines from staring at small words too long, missing limbs ... every one of them a limitation that would make reading from books impossible. Not to mention severe ADHD, dyslexia, and certain types of learning that require an audible component, rather than a visual one.
When my father was suffering through the final hours of his own cancer journey, he couldn't speak. He couldn't move. He was in a strange place, surrounded by hospice nurses and family coming and going at all hours. In fact, he couldn't even acknowledge my presence by the time I made it to him. Except for once: when I asked if he wanted me to read to him. It was the biggest reaction anyone had seen from him in days, and I read to him my latest book until he died.
In moments of chaos and hurt, there is something deep within us that just wants to be told a story. And there will not always be someone like me at their bedside to read to those who are suffering. Audiobooks are, quite simply, someone reading a story. Like parents have done for their children for ages. Like my father did for me. Like I did for him. The idea that children can learn and absorb stories by having them read aloud, but that adults are not granted the same permission, is upsetting to my very core. And I will fight anyone who says audiobooks are not important, or real, or proper stories.
4. The Roots of Storytelling
Stories did not become important because they were written down; they were written down because they were deemed important. When Homer stood reciting epic tales for his rapt fireside audiences, a new type of culture was just beginning to take shape. And the transition from oral storytelling to written chronicles changed the world forever. But, before that, stories were still told. Perhaps not as elegantly or with such widespread impact, but told nonetheless. The art of storytelling is ever-changing, and it is much, much older and bigger than any of us.
And there was a time, when written fictions were beginning to spread, that books were considered the lesser art form. True storytelling was out loud and in person. Just as films were once considered base and flashy, as opposed to theatre and plays. Now, you're considered uncultured if you haven't seen Citizen Kane. Culture is subjective, and art adapts, friends. We have no choice but to let it.
Audiobooks deserve a true place of honor. For the same reasons ebooks are real, or graphic novels, or reader's theatre: the story is what matters. They bring those stories to places that might never have found them. They can make a world of difference in the right person's life, and shaming someone for only listening to books is narrow-minded, arrogant, and a desperate attempt to cling to your own sense of self-importance.
Now, then, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to record another chapter of my own audiobook, so I can share my stories with anyone who wants to listen.
When I was about fifteen, my dad sat me down before school one morning and asked me, "So, who's the boy?" I was not allowed to date until I was sixteen. I knew that. But for weeks now, I'd been up, dressed, and ready for school hours early. And I was (am) not a morning person. All of this added up to, in my parents' eyes, "Kaitlin is secretly sneaking out to meet a boy."
Oh, how I wished I were that cool. My father probably did, too. But no, the answer was much, much more frightening. Two words: HARVEST. MOON.
Every morning, I had been waking up at four AM, getting completely ready for my day, and scurrying downstairs to spend two blissful hours of uninterrupted game time before I had to go to school. And most of the time, that game was Harvest Moon. My first gaming addiction. Well, tied for first with the entire Neopets website and Spyro: Ripto's Rage.
To me, it was simple: when Mom was awake, my screen time was limited to half an hour a day. And, if she woke up and I was NOT completely ready for the day, she would FIND things for me to do. So I did everything in my power to make sure I was overly prepared. To make SURE there was nothing for her to find, nothing she could possibly invent for me to do before school. NOTHING that might take up my precious gaming time. Hence the makeup, when I didn't usually wear makeup. Bed was made, healthy breakfast was eaten, dog was fed (and often walked), and I was an all-around model citizen and perfect daughter. All in the name of gaming.
It's no secret that people can lose themselves in video games when they are experiencing depression or lack of fulfillment in their lives. In her memoir, You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day goes into great detail about her own World of Warcraft addiction. When she felt unsuccessful and lost as an actor, she turned a part-time gaming hobby into a full-time gaming alternative life.
We all know the danger. We have all seen the citcom cariactures that have lost touch with reality and drowned themselves in gaming. We've read internet articles about the dangers of too much screen time on our children and ourselves. But video games have saved my life, and given it purpose, time and time again.
When I first wrote this (originally for a journalism class, later published on a since-deleted literary website) I was stuck at home, recovering from a hosiptalizing knee injury. I was awaiting surgery. I was out of work. I could not walk without crutches, or get in and out of the shower safely without assistance. People had to come over and feed me, and I have never felt quite so pathetic in my life. Right after the injury, I was on the verge of becoming a semi-catatonic depression blob, never getting out of bed. I wasn't eating, even when people tried to bring me food. I slept all day. I wasn't even hydrating, because getting up to pee afterwards was just too exhausting on crutches.
And then, my boyfriend helped me downstairs one morning before he had to go to work. He turned on my console, and started up the game I had last left off on. Dragon Age: Origins -- Awakening.
It worked. I awakened.
The Dragon Age franchise has been my favorite video game series since I created my first Grey Warden in early 2010. I have fallen in love with the characters, the story, and the world. It has become my new Harvest Moon; the game that can literally get me out of bed in the morning. The next day, I figured out how to get myself downstairs for the first time in weeks, because nobody was home to help me, and the console was down there. Since my painkillers put me to sleep, I started drinking caffeine to keep myself awake and log more hours. Very soon, I was hydrating properly again. I was getting myself to and from the kitchen, not to mention other household necessaries. I started setting alarms to wake myself up at a normal hour in the morning. I started eating. I started sleeping regularly through the night, since I wasn't allowing my painkillers to force me to nap all day. Most importantly: I was out of bed, and happy.
I am a workaholic. At the time of my injury, I had thirteen different jobs, plus school, an active social life, and a collection of ridiculous hobbies. I have always been, as my dad used to call me, a "creature of chaos." I do not do well with a sedentary lifestyle. But, between medical bed rest and an entire apothecary of sleep-inducing medications, sedentary was forced upon me. Dragon Age kept the depression at bay, and gave me back a small sense of control and accomplishment.
And it's fairly simple to figure out why: there is measurable success. There are clearly defined quest lines and story progressions. There are battles to win, and every hour I spent in the game resulted in achievements and gained levels. But every hour my body spent healing? When I still couldn't even walk? (Insert eye roll and disgusted noise here.) How do you measure THAT?
It's not the first time a video game has positively affected my life and encouraged out-of-game progress. In 2015, when Assassin's Creed: Syndicate was released, my physical health took a major upswing. I have always loved the AC games -- some more than others (Edward Kenway, you will always have my heart) -- and in the back of my mind I always wanted to be able to do what they did. Physically, I mean, not the assassinating. But it wasn't until Evie Frye came along that I got up and did something about it. I wanted to be her. And it was a motivation that didn't fade. I started going to the gym more regularly, and taking kickboxing classes. It motivated me so well that I actually started to noticeably lose weight, an issue I've struggled with for over fifteen years. In fact, the only thing that stopped me in that particular quest line was my aforementioned knee injury.
But there is not a single aspect of my life that gaming has not touched, and changed for the better. I became a voice actor and electronic puppeteer, which is how I make my living, because of my love for video games. They actually hired me at one of my favorite jobs because I knew how to handle different console controllers. My boyfriend and I bonded over our favorite franchises when we first started dating, and became deeply involved in our tabletop and roleplaying worlds as well. My writing has constantly been influenced by the amazing worlds and incredible characters I find in my favorite console worlds. Even in my family life, games have helped shape who I am. As a child, my older siblings only let me hang around when I showed interest in what they were playing. It was usually Wolfenstein or Lode Runner, and for years it was the closest contact I had to either of them on a day-to-day basis. I wasn't old enough to play yet, but oh how I longed to do what they did. In my heart, even then, I knew I was a gamer.
There is something about art that draws us in. Mankind has killed for paintings and sculptures. We idolize musicians, and have glamorous awards shows for film and television. Books take us into a new world we can visit over and over again, and classic poetry has survived since the age of Homer and The Odyssey. But there is something sorely overlooked about the particular immersive beauty that is video games.
It is important to have a life. But it's just as important, I think, to have an alt life. It is a built-in social circle, filled with friends you haven't met yet. It's not just a hobby, it's a life you can aspire to. Maybe you can't slay dragons in real life, but you can always be a hero. Maybe you can't actually sword fight in real life, but why not learn? Bring a little magic into your real, everyday life. Stand up for what you love.
I had a long, arduous recovery ahead of me, after my knee exploded. In fact, to this day I still have pain and weakness and healing to manage. But, because of Dragon Age, when my boyfriend came over after that to check on me, I didn't have to tell him all I did was sleep and mope around all day. My glow of success from fighting through Thedas had put the spark of determination back into my life. A spark that has never faded since, and has reminded me that I can, in fact, fight through the worst of times. I began to write a few scripts. Podcasts, a webseries, even revisited some of my dusty old novel ideas, one of which I'm still working on to this day. I threw myself into a few hands-on projects -- crafting in real life, guys! It's so much harder than in looks in the games!
Gaming woke my imagination back up, because that's what gaming is at its very core. Imagining. Even if you're playing a farmer, in a little mountain town with pixilated people and cows and truly impractical farming mechanics. I will always call that little mountain town home. It taught me to balance life and gaming, and always let one inspire the other. It taught me that it was okay to love a fictional world that took up more time than an average book or movie.
If I could go back to that fifteen year old girl, embarrassed that she was hiding a video game obsession instead of a cute boy, I would tell her, "Baby, it's all gonna turn out alright. Love what you love. And game on."
A few months ago, I published a blog post over at Random Encounter Productions about the art of storytelling, and how it relates to roleplaying in Dungeons & Dragons. I have always believed in the power of storytelling. It is so much more than simply words on a page or on a screen. The art of storytelling celebrates such a grand and ever-shifting piece of magic within all of us. Even as children, we want to tell our parents EVERYTHING that happened to us each day, as if it were some grand adventure. I have often said, if I could create my own major in school, I would absolutely try and earn a Masters in Storytelling. After all, I've spent my life checking all the boxes:
That last one is what I'm most eager to discuss, as my aforementioned post on the REP blog made me realize just how much of Dungeons and Dragons has seeped into the way I tell my own stories today.
BUILDING REAL CHARACTERS
Let's start with the most basic building block of any story, OR any good D&D campaign: the CHARACTERS. Without good, interesting characters, even the most epic stories would fall flat. Without characters we care about in our fiction, we have no real reason to continue caring about the world. Without Frodo's worry over The Shire, he has no reason to take the ring to Mordor. Evil may continue to roam the countryside in the form of the Nazgul, but why would we ever become involved? The same holds true with any good D&D game: without our heroes, the world would not matter. We choose to play as these rangers and rogues and barbarians, in order to see the world through their eyes.
But the glorious thing about D&D character creation (if you're doing it right ... power players need not apply) is that all of the classes are inherently flawed. By nature, a Warlock has made a pact for their soul. Backstory is written in, because what sort of person would sell themselves for power? Clerics and Paladins are often torn between doing what is right and doing what is best. Rogues cannot be sneaky AND heavily-armored. Now, there are ways around every rule, and there will always be players who stat their characters in such a way that they have NO WEAKNESSES. That is perfectly fine, and I do not fault those players. Sometimes, you just want to be a demigod in your escapist tabletop fantasy. More power to you! However, I would argue that there's power in a "dump stat." There is built-in creativity and roleplay in embracing something your character is NOT good at!
Too often in our own stories, we forget to give our main characters flaws. And, whether at the table or on the page, those flaws are usually the thing that has the chance to make them the most interesting. The most relate-able. The most real. The moment I started thinking of my book characters as playable D&D classes, they became much easier to write, and so much better to read. They were no longer epic warriors who could just do anything, they were Human Fighters, with a low Charisma stat: getting the job done, but maybe a little harsh with people. Because when you play D&D for long enough, you stop being afraid of the flaws. So stop being afraid to give your book characters real flaws and weaknesses! They don't always need to have flawless skin, perfect teeth, or thick and flowing hair. The princes don't always need to be charming, and not every damsel in distress is a golden-haired, corset-waisted goddess. Your hunters can be bad at simple household tasks. Your roguish charmers can be terrible at actual fighting, just really sweet talkers. Give us reasons to care, and reasons to relate.
OUR PLACE IN THE WORLD
In a D&D campaign, it's easy to feel like your actions don't have consequences. This often leads to the "murder hobo" mentality of "HEY I can do anything I want! LET'S KILL PEOPLE AND TAKE THEIR STUFF!" I don't know about the other players out there, but for me? That's the LAZIEST approach to a campaign ever. And a lot of Dungeon Masters agree. So, a GOOD one will take those instincts and fold in real consequences in-game. Very quickly, players learn that yes, they CAN burn down the village and rob everybody, but they'll spend several game sessions after that running from the law, breaking out of prison, or being executed and having to roll up a new character.
It's an idea we need to remember for our writing as well: YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT ALONE! Nobody exists entirely in a vacuum, or if they do it's VERY difficult to make an interesting story about them. For those of you planning on bringing up classics such as I Am Legend or famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, sit down and be quiet. There are exceptions to EVERY rule, and it is your choice if you wish to pursue them in your own art. Clearly, I'm discussing other things, so let's just let those go for now :)
Layering the world around your characters is vital for keeping any long-running tabletop campaign going. Who is in charge? Who do you shop from? Do they turn you away or raise the prices on you if you're a troublemaker? If your adventuring party become criminals instead of heroes, how much does it change how townsfolk react to your presence? Are they excited to see you, or terrified? All of these things can be applied to our fiction in much the same way. Take time to think about every action your characters take. Every choice, every possible consequence. Maybe while they're saving the world, they are fairly destructive. Yes, they are doing a good thing, but how will the people react?
This example is perfectly executed in Disney's The Incredibles: superheroes being pushed into hiding because their exploits are, while good, very dangerous. In fact, many of the best superhero stories center around the main character having to hide because of society. Whether they think it will make them a target, endanger the people they love, or they simply aren't allowed to reveal themselves because of some social or political reason, that external influence from the rest of the world is crucial to the survival of their story.
Remember the people as you write your own. Stop and think how your main character's actions are going to ripple out and change the lives of citizens they may never even meet. This mentality allows the world to grow into something much larger, more complicated, and more engaging to read about.
For those of you who aren't familiar, there is a moment in any D&D game that can make or break your character: rolling a Natural 1. Natural 1, at most tables, is a critical failure. You have made a mistake. Your blade misses. You fall. You lose a body part. All of these things can help shape your character's story from then on, in a way you couldn't have possibly imagined because these things aren't planned. The great thing about rolling the dice and letting them decide your fate is reacting to it. Will my character learn how to go on without a leg? Will they still adventure? Or is it time to retire them into a life of barkeeping somewhere, and roll up somebody new?
While our books are generally not as chaotic and unplanned as a D&D campaign (I say "generally" because many of us out here are writers of pure improvisation) there's still something lovely to be gleaned from this: my character doesn't always have to succeed. In fact, it is often so much more interesting if they don't. It may feel catastrophic to lose the person you were trying to save. To be scarred. To fail. But here's the beautiful thing about in-game failures: we get to build new quests around them. Lost a leg? Let's find a wizard who can make me a new one of wood. Castle burned down in the midst of war? The King is now a refugee, and we have to find a new home for an entire ruling family. Not to mention, there's that whole war thing going on ...
Our books are allowed to follow failures. Sure, we usually want the hero to win in the end, at least in my genre. But how they get there can be twisted and unclear. They may lose the love of their life to somebody else, and that love story may not untangle itself for several books. They might fail to save one of their companions, and deal with the loss. Heroes are not only heroes because they win. Their heroism is bigger than that, or it should be. They are heroes because they keep trying. They get back up. They learn to walk again. They fight when the odds are against them. So, set something against them! Even if they are eventually meant to come out on top, reminding the readers that there's a chance they could fail is never a bad thing. The failures make the successes that much richer.
EXHAUSTION, ILLNESS, AND THE RULES OF MAGIC
Fantasy authors have heard for YEARS about finding a "price" or "rules" of magic. It is a topic I could attempt to tackle in an entire SERIES of posts, and I'm sure I will someday, but today is not THAT day. There are plenty of other people who have explained it better, and discussing the exact nuances of the prices of magic is a complicated topic. However, the great news is that D&D has already BUILT IN rules of magic! Not only that, but the rules shift and change depending on what type of magic you studied. Which, if you think about it, is so much better than just one set rule for all magic everywhere.
In Dungeons & Dragons, if I play a Wizard, I have studied from books. I am a normal person, who simply went to school to learn. As a Sorcerer, however, something inside me simply has that spark of magical power and potential. There are different flavors of magic, just like there are different flavors of art, music, woodworking, and writing in the real world. Why should magic be confined to one set of rules, if people are using it differently? Not only that, but each class has a built-in chart explaining how much magic they can use in a day, and how strong of a spell they would be capable of.
This tabletop way of looking at not just magic, but all talents, opened my eyes as a writer. For instance: my hunter, learning to shoot his weapon in the woods to feed his family, is going to learn to handle a bow and arrow differently than a soldier learning to shoot target practice in combat training. Same ultimate end, but very different ways of getting there.
The rules in D&D don't only address magic and skills, but sleep. Eating. Sickness. The day-to-day routine things we often don't stop to think about when we write. We want our characters to run off into the sunset with their bags packed and adventure in their hearts.
But has your character ever had to run off with such a bag hanging off their shoulders? Camping equipment is very heavy. Swords are heavy. Food, bedding, clothes ... if your main character isn't a seasoned adventurer, all of these things may be more exhausting than you think about. And that's where D&D comes back into the picture: they also have rules for ALL OF IT. Any condition that might befall someone on a quest, and the repercussions associated with it.
There is something almost Homeric about sitting down with your friends and telling an epic, improvised story. I like to imagine Homer sat his friends around a fire while he spun tales of Odysseus and his quest. But you can circle yourselves around a tabletop, some paper, and a set of dice with much the same end in mind. And, if you don't have a group of fellow storytellers right now? Don't fret. The art of storytelling is bigger than all of us, and the rules of roleplay are adaptable even by yourself. It's time to start looking at your book like a game. So pick up a die, and roll.
This past week, I celebrated my FIRST WHOLE YEAR as a published author! And, as you can see from the numbers, I ACTUALLY MADE MONEY OFF OF THIS?! Yes, internet, I did. And I continue to do so. With just two published works so far, I'm feeling remarkably confident about my future as a writer and creator, and I'd love to share with you now some of the tips and tricks that have worked for ME in my journey. They may just be little things, and simple ways to make it in this world, but they've kept me going for a year now, and helped me find relative success. Indie authors out there, take note! Everything may not work for you, but I give you these tools in your own journey, that you may be better armed to face your own path and fight your own dragons.
1) Invest in good cover art
Someone once told me that your cover is your greatest asset as an indie author, and oftentimes your only billboard. Having been around the convention block a few times now, and seen what other indie authors are putting out there, I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH: PAY FOR A COVER ARTIST. In all honesty, the MS Paint "I want to write but can't afford an artist" look does not usually pay off. It will not matter that your writing is great, and it will not matter that your story is spectacular. If your cover does not grab people right as they walk away, 9 times out of 10 they won't be buying a copy of your book.
In fact, my cover art is what got me and my book into my local Barnes and Noble branch. The visuals are so professional, that the saleswoman who initially started carrying my work didn't even realize I was indie. And neither do the readers. At the end of the day, people will always judge a book by its cover. So turn that to your advantage! Make your work pop off the shelves and stand out in a crowded convention center! Make sure when people are scrolling through Amazon, they have a reason to stop on your book. I wouldn't be doing half as well as I am without my cover artist, Fiona Jayde. I owe so much of my success to her artistry.
2) Find your market
I myself have had a remarkable amount of success at conventions. In fact, there's several hundred more dollars unaccounted for in the Book Report graphic above, simply because they were all cash sales at cons and events. Just a week after my first book was published, I hit the road and set up a booth at Ancient City Con. There, not only did I make back my booth cost (plus a little extra) but I learned some valuable lessons about myself as a salesperson. My theatre background and naturally-bubbly personality both grant me the skills necessary to thrive in a person-to-person marketing setting. While the internet is a great place to network and sell your product, I have done the best in the past year face-to-face with the readers. People get excited to talk to me about my work, and they enjoy spending time at my booth and getting to know me as a person.
That isn't to say the convention approach will work for everyone. There's a fine line between being an engaging vendor and harassing people, and I've seen it go very very badly. On the other hand, just sitting silently and waiting for people to notice your work can be just as off-putting. A little tip from a professional performer: talk to people about other things. Compliment their shirt. Ask them how their day at the con has been. Gush over their hair color. If they want to know more about your books or your merch, they will take the next step. You just have to make yourself a safe, friendly person to talk to. It comes naturally to me, but I hope that little bit of direction can help you have a more successful time at your next event.
In addition to finding what market works best for you, don't try and torture yourself to learn a marketing tactic or technique that just isn't your speed. Yes, there are tried-and-true methods of marketing on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. But, just like with writing styles or habits, not every approach will work for every author. Try them all, and learn what you can, but at the end of the day you'll have more success if you feel comfortable with what you're doing.
3) Find Your Tribe
Whether in-person or online, there is always a support group to be found for aspiring artists. We creators need a specific type of love and care to make the magic happen, and finding those people who know how to take care of your unique brand of creativity-induced crazy is remarkably important. Without mine, I could never have made it through this first year, or published to begin with. Sometimes, it's something simple, like finding friends who will come to your signings and buy your books, just to support you as a person. Other times, it's people lending their own talent to your project, like my dad did when he painted my map, or my sister still does when she proofreads my pages for free. And then, there's another kind of support. A daily, never-ending journey. Here, we find the partners. The best friends. The boyfriends or girlfriends. The Twitter families. The coworkers. Those who know what you're going through, and pick up the slack while you push through your next chapter or a particularly bad writer's block. For me, I had an entire team willing to make sure I was fed and watered. To manage my business while I was deep in writing mode at night. To reach out whenever they found an event they thought my books would do well at. To be there, when I needed to scream into the void about the bad days.
Find your tribe. You'd be amazed how helpful people who are already in your life can be when you just reach out. And if not? Make a new group. Find an online family, or an ally at a local bookstore or coffee shop. Build a community around yourself. After all, it's dangerous to go alone.
4) Don't be afraid to ask
Waltzing into my local Barnes and Noble and casually asking for a book signing was absolutely terrifying. But guess what? It paid off big time. Not only did they say YES, but they are still carrying both of my books to this day! And displayed front-facing, people. IF YOU ARE IN THE BOOK BUSINESS YOU KNOW WHAT A BIG DEAL THAT IS! *ahem* Again, please refer to Tip #1: cover art.
What started out as a dream has turned into a recurring signing event every few months (in fact, I have one tonight), a monthly gig hosting their YA Book Club, and an incredible relationship with the men and women who work there. For a little indie gal like me, this is the greatest achievement of my career so far. I glow with pride and joy every time I see that my books are still in stock, or being re-stocked because the original batch sold out. And it never would have happened if I hadn't just asked. Will everyone always say yes? Absolutely not. But if you don't even try, you might miss out on something amazing.
5) Never stop learning
It's painful to hear, and painful to say to another creator, but sometimes the reason your project isn't as successful as you'd like is because it's simply not up to the caliber it should be. And that's okay! The good news is, you took the first step! You finished your book, and put it out into the world! That's further than a lot of people ever get in their lives, and you should be proud of yourself. Celebrate that achievement, first and foremost, before you read any further!
Celebration done? Okay, now for the hard part.
Your work may not be as good as you think it is. And while it is important to have a supportive tribe, you also need critics who are comfortable telling you what is wrong with your book. If you're not willing to take constructive criticism, or you refuse to continue honing your craft, you're selling yourself short. You're doing your self a disservice by not continuing to grow and learn as a writer, and artist, and a storyteller. You deserve to have your story told, and to have people want to read it. Sometimes, that means going back to the basics, and re-learning some things you may have forgotten. Take a writing class. Pick up a novel in a genre you may nave never considered reading before. Find someone willing to tell you the truth. In those moments, when we are faced with our own weaknesses as creators, something magical happens: we learn what we are truly made of.
I have been told, time and time again, things I need to fix. And, with a lot of them, the critic was right. But by the time I published, I knew what was good about my work, and what wasn't. Not only did I put forward the strongest piece I could at the time, but my heart has not been broken by the handful of bad, potentially hurtful reviews I have received. Being sure of myself and my style has given me great confidence to face the internet trolls. When someone says "this character didn't behave like a strong woman should," I know that their definition of strength is different than mine. And that's okay. I know my character is who she is meant to be.
I never would have gotten there if I hadn't been ironing out the problems in my own writing over the past twenty years. In fact, I am still ironing to this day. Finding the weakest points of my own craft and stamping them out, so when I am confronted with an enemy I know I can hold my chin high and say, "that is your opinion." Think of it like learning to cook: it doesn't always come easily, and you could spend a lifetime discovering new tricks and new recipes.
This is just the beginning of my personal Indie Author Survival Kit. And, as I mentioned, the advice may not be for everyone. But please, don't hesitate to reach out if you need a friend in the business. I'm going through all of this one day at a time, just like many of you. I learn something new every day, and I'm grateful for it. Now, it's your turn. What are some things YOU have learned on your Indie Journey? How can you help better the writing world with your knowledge? Feel free to share! And, in the meantime, keep writing! Someone out there needs your book. I'm just giving you the tools to try and help make sure they find it.
For me, the milestone was my 30th. I had set two major goals for myself: weight and career. All I wanted was to feel healthy and fulfilled, and these were measurable, simple ways to achieve that. With all the health problems my family has experienced over the years (and that definitely run in my genes) and my own myriad chronic conditions, I wanted to push myself to get into better shape and head off the issues before they become truly debilitating. Now, before you get touchy about it, I know weight is not the only indication of health. For me, however, it's the most consistently tangible guidepost. So let's move past that.
Since my knee injury two years ago, I've gained more than 20 pounds. The goal, I decided, was to hit 130 by my 30th. Catchy, right? 130 by 30? Well, I thought so ... anyway, I started myself on a diet plan and started working out more, but progress was incredibly slow. And painful. My body does not enjoy working out, and it was mad at me for about three months ...
The second goal was to finish my third book, Wayfinder. For my own progress as an indie author, it is important to me to try and release a book a quarter. That's four books in a year, and I already missed the first two. As much as I love my performing jobs, the aforementioned health issues have made continuing in them for much longer an impossibility, and I'd love to finally commit full-time to writing. So, I set out to push through this next installment of my series, and dedicated every free moment to finishing on time. I took time away from my D&D company and streaming with them, which broke my heart. I spent hours in front of the computer, making great strides and churning out more chapters in a short amount of time than I would originally have thought possible.
But it wasn't enough. Not on either count. I hit my birthday 10 pounds shy of my weight goal, and only sixteen chapters into my book. And, I was depressed about it. What more could I have done? Could I have worked harder? Should I have worked harder? Sleep isn't a thing people need, right? For days I beat myself up over my failures. I felt terrible for not making my goals, and all I wanted was to feel like I'd made something of myself by the time I was 30. I wanted to feel comfortable in my skin again.
And then, slowly but surely, I started realizing the truth behind my birthday goals: I may not have hit them, but what I did do was set myself up for long-lasting, future success. I didn't just try and push through to make an arbitrary date, I actively spent three months developing new habits. I didn't starve myself in an attempt to lose weight, I made conscious decisions to eat better and work out more, both of which have stuck around past the goal date. I also developed a new writing regiment, one that makes me think I'll actually be able to make my publishing goals next year, without compromising the quality of my work.
But the self-imposed deadline made me address some things about myself as a writer that I'd never dealt with on my own, and I think I'm stronger now for it. I still hope and pray and believe that he'll recover enough to start reading again (not just selfishly for me, but because he genuinely enjoys my stories and my world ... and, ya know, so he can BE HEALTHY) however, my career as a writer has to be strong enough to survive these setbacks. My desperation and desire to push through, even without my cheerleader, has been one of the hardest times in my writing journey so far. Now, however, I'm equipped to deal with the times when he can't be there to read alongside me. As painful as that is, it was an important lesson to learn. I found a new support group in my sister and my friends, and a new faith in my own work that has carried me further in the past few months than in years before. Diving into self-publishing a year ago was terrifying enough ... finding out who I am in this new phase of life, without that safety net? Even more so.
Believe in yourself. Whatever version of you that may be, right at this moment. Because, I promise, you are amazing. And you are worth believing in.
Main Street, USA. The first place you set foot in The Magic Kingdom. A street simply dripping with atmosphere and charm. The music is playing, and the mouth-watering smell of popcorn is piped through the air. Characters wait in welcome, and parades and trolley shows roll down the way every few hours.
Yet despite the tantalizing sweets at the confectionery, or the Photo Pass photographers waiting to immortalize your visit in film, the longest line on Main Street is usually at City Hall: the home of Guest Relations. And while many of those poor unfortunate souls waiting for assistance are in line for legitimate reasons, an alarming number are there for something else: to complain. Because they didn't get the exact same experience that somebody else did. They didn't get "The Right Kind of Magic."
And it's not just at Disney World that these complaints run rampant. Universal employees are just as regularly accused of "ruining vacations," and Sea World can't seem to catch a break no matter what they do. And while these complainers, bellyachers, squawkers ... while these people have always existed, it seems to have gotten exponentially worse over the last few years as the social media age has taken off. There is no doubt that technology has made it easier to vacation -- to plan, to execute, to enjoy. But with it has come an unfortunate truth: magic has been raised to an impossible standard.
It used to be simple. The Magic Kingdom was simply that: magical. The sheer joy of looking up at Cinderella’s castle and seeing your childhood come to life was enough. “Magical Moments,” as the company calls them, were scattered throughout the day as often as possible, but unannounced. Characters might decide to accompany you on your favorite attraction. You might be the one to finally pull the sword from the stone. Your child could be chosen to join a parade or a special photo opportunity. And even without these moments, your vacation would be unforgettable.
But then, articles started to circulate. BuzzFeed did several videos about “If you do
THIS, then the characters HAVE to do that.” And, usually, these articles were completely based on isolated incidents. One of the most notable examples is the famous “Andy’s Coming!” from 2013.
The story was, if you shouted “Andy’s Coming!” to the Toy Story characters, they would
immediately stop what they were doing and fall to the floor, perfectly still. It seems innocuous, but this rumor spread like wildfire and caused countless problems among all of the theme parks.
Now, several things are wrong with this situation as a whole. Allow me to illustrate, and I
apologize that it’s not presented in song. I know most of the important messages that Disney characters have ingrained in our minds and hearts are catchy. We’ll just have to make do with words, like boring adults.
The important take-away here is the effect these attitudes have on the park operations.
Once people start expecting special moments at every turn, we raise the bar. We try and
accommodate as much as possible. But then that becomes the norm, and so on. Soon, there’s nowhere else to go. Because once you make every moment magical, no moments really are.
As I mentioned, Disney is not the only victim. With the opening of Harry Potter World, Universal has felt the pressure as well. Amazing interactions like the wand ceremony at Ollivander’s and the Gringott’s Money Exchange have been tainted by entitlement. At the Gringott’s interaction, for instance, you can meet a goblin named Sir. He will have an entire conversation with you, if you’re interested. However, because of certain internet videos (again, I’m looking at you, BuzzFeed) people have come to treat him like a glorified version of Siri. They simply stand there and shout what they think are trigger words, and get angry if he doesn’t respond “the right way.”
It’s this idea of The Right Kind of Magic that is not only hurting our theme parks, but
hurting us. It’s made us less compassionate, and less understanding. Time and time again, I’ve seen parents say heinous things in the name of “special treatment.” Sometimes it’s as simple as calling to complain that one child with learning disabilities gets to walk around in the classroom while their own child has to stay put. But other times, times I have witnessed far too often, it’s much worse.
For instance: it’s no secret that children from the “Make a Wish” foundation are given priority access to characters and attractions at Disney World. But when they do, it seems to bring out the worst in the parents with healthy children.
“Well, I wish my child was dying.” That is a phrase I have heard said to my face. It is
just one of many horrible things parents have done in front of their own children, all in the name of right-ness. And I know they are being facetious. No one wants their child to be terminally ill. But, to the parents who are concerned with one family getting in line in front of you, I have one thing to say:
Because the horribly painful truth of the matter is this: your children don’t mind. I have
lost count of how many times, in my days as a cast member, I approached a child and explained the situation. “This family is going to meet Mickey right before you, and then he’ll be right back to see you, Princess!” And the child is perfectly fine. It’s the parents who lose their minds.
It’s the adults who stand in line at Guest Relations and complain, and demand refunds for
the rain, or because Goofy lingered 30 seconds longer at the table next to theirs, and now they feel slighted. It’s the adults who stand and shout at the Goblin for saying the wrong thing, and cause a scene in the middle of Diagon Alley. It’s the grown-ups who yell at cast members, telling them that their substandard parade viewing ruined their vacation. But the children? They still find joy and wonder in simply existing in the same space as a castle. And sure, they throw tantrums when things don’t go their way. They get hot, and tired, and cranky. They are just tiny humans, still learning how to function.
But we know better. And we need to remember the magic. The fact that such places still exist in the age of technology is something of a miracle. That real roller coasters haven’t all been replaced with virtual reality by now is amazing. When you step onto Main Street USA, you’re stepping into the heart of the longest running show on Earth. Books and movies and childhood dreams have sprung to life around you, and continue to change and grow every day. Universal’s Diagon Alley gave us real Butterbeer and interactive wands, to cast spells on your own! People could wait their whole lives to visit somewhere so special, and most of them never will.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.