How Democracy Killed the Mongol Empire

This week-end, we’ll be celebrating Independence Day, and all that it stands for:  freedom, justice, democracy.  Enjoy your cookout and fireworks.  This year, we also celebrate another milestone in self-determination, the signing of the Magna Carta by King John of England, acquiescing to the demands of the barons, and paving the way for future battles and statements of rights.  But during that key year of 1215, something else was happening on the borders of Europe, something much more alarming to the citizens of Eastern Europe in particular:  the Mongol Invasion.

Map showing the initial expansion of the Mongol empire under Genghis Khan

Map showing the initial expansion of the Mongol empire under Genghis Khan

These scrappy horsemen from the steppes, under the leadership of Genghis Khan as he is termed in English, determined in 1206 to begin their expansion.  In fairly short order, they had conquered many of the other tribes of the steppes, spreading outward into northern China, up into Russia, and down into the Middle East.  They sent emissaries offering alliances if the people ahead of their movement would surrender willingly, and they destroyed many cities and peoples who did not.

They moved so fast and attacked so furiously that the European border observers, who originally hoped that the strangers might join forces with them against the armies of Islam, became alarmed and began asking for aid from the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire.  The Mongols eventually established the largest contiguous land empire in history, outdone in its size only by the British Empire of several centuries later.

The influence of the Mongolian invasions on history and culture are still being examined these many centuries later–they are both lasting and far-reaching.  What might have happened to Europe if the Mongols had spread, as was their intent, all the way to the Atlantic?  And what stopped them from doing so?

The Mongol system of governance was not simply a monarchy in which the eldest son of the current ruler automatically became the ruler next, and thus passed the leadership down the same bloodline.  Instead, different tribes and factions had the right to put forth candidates, and the most suitable candidate (or the one who had the most allies in the Mongolian heartland) would be acclaimed as the Great Khan.  When Genghis passed away in 1227, therefore, the leaders of the far-flung armies–princes of the blood–had to return to Mongolia to participate in the council to determine the next ruler.

Genghis had four officially recognized sons, but he had designated Ogodei to succeed him, and divided leadership of many parts of the new empire among the other sons and grandsons, and his wishes were obeyed fairly readily.  When Ogodei passed away in 1241, many of the other princes were already unhappy, and the new council took longer, not accepting Ogodei’s chosen successor as they had his father’s.  Eventually, leadership passed to his nephew, who died on the way to meet a challenger from the same generation, Genghis’s grandsons.  This in-fighting among the candidates for leadership resulted in long gaps during which Europe could breathe more easily.  And in the long-term, the system of governance which required gathering in council, debating and acclaiming a leader, rather than merely bowing to a clear successor, resulted in the fragmentation of Genghis’s great enterprise.

In-fighting, back-biting, candidates accepting alliances in exchange for power-sharing, struggles to gain enough support to win the council. . .the foundations of democracy, even in such a distant place and time.

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Developing Fictional Worlds: The Nits are All you Have

As you may know, my most popular blog entry (still) is the one entitled Bilbo Baggins’ Bathrobe: A Example of Poor World-building.  Every month or two, someone new discovers this post and feels they must take me to task for nit-picking because of my elaborate examination of the cultural and industrial implications of this particular garment.  Hey, I’m always glad when folks are reading, and when they care enough to respond to something I wrote.  But this past week, I got such a comment just after I had done a workshop for the Odyssey Speculative Fiction Workshop (a six week bootcamp for science fiction, fantasy and horror, where I was pleased to attend back in 1997).

My talk at Odyssey was entitled “Making it Real.”  It’s not the first time I’ve given the talk, but I keep coming back to this topic because it is critical to the creator of fictional worlds to be able to reveal them clearly to the reader.  The more real the details of your world, the more believable will be the events that happen there, and the characters who make them happen.  I realized, in thinking about this talk and about this latest comment criticizing me for nit-picking, that really, when you are creating a world from scratch, the nits are all you have.

Some fascinating objects--what are they?  what are they used for?  what do they reveal about the people who made them or used them?

Some fascinating objects–what are they? what are they used for? what do they reveal about the people who made them or used them?

If you wanted to write a book in New York City, you could make a couple of vague references to subways, skyscrapers and bagel joints, and probably most readers would be satisfied.  They will be filling in the details from what they already know about that place, and about modern cities in general (although half of them will be picturing Toronto, which stands in for NYC in many television programs).  But if you want to create a world people have never seen before (including re-creating another time), then you must not only generate the landscape for that world–the geography, the climate, the plant and animal life–but you must find ways to reveal it with care, and with an economy of language or image.  What you show on the screen, in the frame, or on the page is what the reader will see and understand about that world.

The creator provides the key elements, and allows the reader to fill in the rest–there just isn’t time in the space of a book or novel to fill in everything, and it would get pretty boring if you did (this is one criticism of many fantasy novels, actually, that they go too far in pinning down details of setting and history that the reader isn’t engaged with.  Instead, you must be extremely deliberate about what you show, and, ideally, you try to make each of those images speak to multiple layers of the world:  the climate, the local culture, the availability of luxury goods, the status of this character, the level of technology.

Every individual item you depict, whether it is the king’s Golden Hall, the janitor’s key-ring, or the shaman’s head-dress reveals a wealth of information about the world you are creating. If you are not making deliberate choices about those items, then the world the reader imagines is not the same one you have in mind.  Sometimes, you can use these disconnects to build in a sense of mystery, as when Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman, in an apparently medieval setting, finds a blue “gem” the reader will eventually understand is a fragment of a solar panel.

If the author gets sloppy with details, including items outside the purview of the world, with unavailable materials or processes, or sending confusing signals about what they mean, the reader will begin to distrust the author, and the entire enterprise–founded on a willing suspension of disbelief, begins to crumble like the cheap facade it is.  These details that don’t fit, that fail to build a coherent world, are like dangling threads that will draw the eye and the mind–drawing them away from the story you want to tell.

When you are building a world from scratch, the nits are all you have.

Posted in essays, fantasy, fiction, history, medieval technology, research, Uncategorized, worldbuilding, writing | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Hand-bound Book of Elisha

leather-bound blank book devoted to Dark Apostle notes

leather-bound blank book devoted to Dark Apostle notes

Some years ago, I did a research project on medieval bookbinding, complete with making my own (rather clumsy) examples. At a street fair in Providence, I found this amazing book offered by a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and fell in love. I owned it for several years (I have a large collection of blank books, actually), during which time I couldn’t bring myself to journal in it. But when I took my first research trip to England while I was working on Elisha Barber, I gave myself permission to use it.

This book has since gone to England several times, as well as to Germany and to Avignon. It contains lots of notes, in a variety of pens (and with widely variable legibility). A few envelopes in the front contain leaves collected in the New Forest where I discovered that every tree has its own companion vines. Occasionally, I try to sketch some detail or map out a room or a place.

some sketches of the design of a coronet (chandelier) at the Tower of London

some sketches of a coronet (chandelier) and a fire place at the Tower of London

Taking notes and sketching are valuable tools for memory. Do I refer back to the notes? Sure, but in large part, they exist for me to digest what I’m seeing or hearing. This mnemonic is an aid to the maps, photos and guidebooks I bring home, as well as to the conversations that I have, or the guides I follow from room to room and street to street.

This book is bound in black leather in a classic style. It is just large enough to fit comfortably in hand. Because I am generally standing while taking notes, I don’t write on the left-hand side as I go through the book. It’s much easier to balance the book while holding it in my left hand if I write only on the right. Then, I flip the book over and write back in the other direction, resulting in upside-down facing pages.

A bay window sketch, and some illuminated letters.

A bay window sketch, and some illuminated letters. Note messy cursive writing on the right, and messy printing (inverted) on the left)

I have just a few pages left in this book. They are thick, cream-colored water-color paper with a distinct, soft texture. And they may remain forever empty, but I think the project worthy of this, and I am now on the look-out for another. . .

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Josh Vogt’s Contemporary Fantasy: This is Gonna Get Messy. . .

You may recall that Josh Vogt answered some questions about his Pathfinder novel, Forge of Ashes in April.  Well, now he’s back, this time launching his own fiction, with a truly wacky concept for a fantasy world, the magical realm of The Cleaners!  Read on. . .

Enter the Janitor, first in The Cleaners series about a supernatural custodial firm.

Enter the Janitor, first in The Cleaners series about a supernatural custodial firm.

What was the inception of this project? What were your first steps in building that idea into a viable story?

With Enter the Janitor, I got to thinking about what mages or wizards might be like if they took on different professions. When I realized the mops and spray bottles and plungers sanitation workers often wield could be stand-ins for traditional wands and staves, the idea clicked and I ran with it. Then it was a matter of figuring out the rules of that reality and how a supernatural sanitation company might blend in with modern society.

What kind of research and/or world-building did you do before beginning?

I researched sanitation workers in general, getting an idea of the tools they use and how they’re perceived these days. I also looked into the history of sanitation, plagues, hygiene, and world mythology, finding (or forging) connections between them all to fit into the lore of this story.

What’s your first-draft process? outline, edit as you go, speed-writing?

I do a lot of upfront worldbuilding and outlining until I hit a certain point where I realize that constructing the details is keeping me back from telling the story. Then I take the outline I’ve worked up and fill in the gaps as I draft, giving myself the ability to be creative and make new discoveries as I go.

How do you start revisions?

Enter the Janitor didn’t actually start out as humor-oriented as it is now. It had its funny bits, yeah, but when it was being shopped around to publishers, I got feedback that encouraged me to really ramp up the comic elements—which I did, and which I believe really helped set it apart from other typical urban fantasies.

If you could choose a few descriptors that would go in a blurb on the front cover of your book, what would they be?

This is gonna get messy…

Fun fantasy that takes a unique spin on what it means to save the world.

What cool thing would you put in the DVD extra version that didn’t get into the published work? research or created detail you had to cut or couldn’t use?

I’ve only just begun to explore the world of The Cleaners, so anything that hasn’t gotten into Enter the Janitor is lined up to appear in future stories! The second novel, The Maids of Wrath, will be out in 2016, so get ready!

Where should readers go to find out more about your work?

Most info can be found on my website, JRVogt.com. You can also contact me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Goodreads, Amazon, and a few other platforms. Or see me at one of the many conventions I often attend.

Care to share a link (aside from your own work) to something amazing you think everyone should see or know about?

I know some folks are a little leery about Reddit in general, but actually the Fantasy subreddit is an excellent community of people who love to talk about genre authors, books, movies, games, and more. There’s a SciFi subreddit as well that’s equally active.

Josh Vogt's head shot

Josh Vogt’s head shot

Josh Vogt has been published in dozens of genre markets with work ranging from flash fiction to short stories to doorstopper novels that cover fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, adds to the RPG Pathfinder Tales tie-in line. WordFire Press is also launching his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor (2015) and The Maids of Wrath (2016). You can find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt. He’s a member of SFWA as well as the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers

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Rehabilitating Medieval Monarchs

At last week’s International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, I attended the annual Pseudo Society session, a humorous presentation of papers crafted to resemble the other academic presentations at the conference, but on topics like “Njal’s Flat Pack: The Historical Evidence for Ikea,” in which the presenter linked the strong Nordic heritage of the famous store using runestones and knotted snakes. The final paper attempted to show that England’s King John (John the first, and the only) was, contrary to every Robin Hood film, actually a great king.

A gatehouse in the city wall at York serves as a museum about Richard III

A gatehouse in the city wall at York serves as a museum about Richard III

This is only the most recent, and most light-hearted attempt to reclaim a figure from the past on behalf of a more enlightened time. King Richard III, whose grave was recently discovered, allowing him to be received into the bosom of the nation with the proper respect due to a king, already had his own society, dedicated to greater understanding of this maligned and pivotal figure, and an interesting museum in one of the towers of the city wall in York, where displays about the history of that turbulent time suggest that Richard is innocent of slaying his nephews, the infamous Princes in the Tower.

However, the New York Times recently included an article about an even more unlikely rehabilitation, that of Ivan the Terrible. Now, you’d think that just the appellation, “The Terrible” suggests a problematic ruler. Ivan is, in fact, known for his ruthless slaughter and conquest during his reign (although he does hold a place near to my heart for in 1555 commissioning my favorite building, the iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow).

Why this obsession with revising contemporary attitudes toward long-dead monarchs? I think there are two main reasons. The first, and perhaps the most obvious in the case of Ivan, is national pride or reputation. Imagine the most famous monarch associated with your nation being referred to as “the Terrible.” It’s a stain on the national scorecard. The second most famous, Tsar Nicholas, was killed along with his entire family in a revolution which, in the national narrative, had to look good, so Nicholas must be resigned to the ash bin. But Ivan, a powerful figure in his own right, could be resurrected and used as a rallying symbol for a new era of national pride. And if the nation in question may be harboring new imperial tendencies, then the image may come in handy. In Mongolia, Chingghis Khan is a national hero, less because they have a current desire to conquer the world, than because the image of the great conqueror reminds them that their ancestors were very successful in doing so. For a small democratic nation caught between two giants, a symbol of their national courage and independence is vital.

The other reason for rehabilitating history’s villains is the historian or academic’s fascination with unknown or unconsidered perspectives, the idea that assumptions and prior conclusions should periodically be re-examined in light of new ideas. Hence, we should not passively accept history’s judgement of a leader because, at the time that history was written, it might have been controlled or manipulated by the agendas of the time (The NYT article above contains some quotes to this effect). Since we prefer to submit to only our own agenda, a review of the evidence seems to be in order. The liberal generosity to accept all points of view as valid has lead to re-tellings of Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel and of The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. These characters were the heroes of their own story, and it can be informative to figure out what that narrative might be.

We like to root for the underdog, to come out in support of the downtrodden, even if they have been trod down by their critics over the course of centuries, they may, in fact, in the famous words of Jessica Rabbit, not be bad, they’re just drawn that way.

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Greetings from Kalamazoo!

Here in beautiful (aside from the weather) Kalamazoo, the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies is, sadly, coming to a close.  Most of the conventions I attend are science fiction and fantasy fan events, like the World Science Fiction or World Fantasy conventions, where I enjoy talking to other writers, meeting fans and participating in the conversations of our genres.

Kalamazoo is a completely different animal (now I am picturing something from a medieval bestiary):  an academic conference which brings together thousands of medievalists from around the world. It is also an amazing place to re-fill the well of my inspiration as a writer.  I listened to papers about the Mongol invasion, and about monstrous babies in the romances of the time. I was sorry the session on Outlaws was cancelled, except that it freed me up to attend a session on astronomical predictions like the conjunction of 1345, later claimed to have presaged the plague.

one of the marvelous medieval streets in York, England

one of the marvelous medieval streets in York, England

I attended a segment of the York Passion Play, performed in Middle English, which always takes me back to an earlier time.  This, I imagine is what Elisha and his friends really sounded like–the language is difficult to read, but hearing it aloud brings out the roots of words and their pronunciations.  This kind of event also creates a sense of communal presence and engagement in entertainment that is lacking in many forms of entertainment, with few boundaries between viewer and performer.  The performers, like the performers of the Middle Ages, were drawn from the attendees of the Congress, our fellows, and I noticed both Jesus and Satan, and some of their respective followers, in plainclothes at other places around the Congress.  The citizens of York would have had a similar experience, seeing their friends and neighbors portraying various roles, with a different Jesus in each of the segments as they moved around town.

Later, after revealing my interest in period medicine, I was drafted to patch up Sir Kay during the annual Malory performance, another highlight, and an interesting linguistic contrast with the earlier pronunciation of the York Passion Play.

The day also held a certain sense of affirmation, beginning with plenary speaker Richard Utz presenting a sort of call to action for medievalists to re-invest in the world (which included references to the Society for Creative Anachronism, which at K-zoo in the past has been a bit of a secret society to which one did not readily admit belonging).  Then came a lunchtime panel with a group of historical novelists.  Someone asked, rather timorously, if they wrote fantasy–expecting to be laughed out of the room.  But several of the authors proudly stated that they did, and one, Lucy Pick, whose first novel, Pilgrimage, is now out, said something especially apt:  the stories they {i. e., the medieval people} tell about themselves contain the fantastic.

And so, thankfully, does Kalamazoo.  If you are a medieval enthusiast, even if not a professional in the field, I highly encourage you to attend, and to leave all the richer with the treasures of knowledge so generously shared.

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Guest author Josh Vogt on Forge of Ashes

Today’s guest is Josh Vogt author of Forge of Ashes, a Pathfinder novel that launches this week!  Dwarves?  Barbarians?  Check it out!

Cover of Forge of Ashes, by Josh Vogt

Cover of Forge of Ashes, by Josh Vogt

What was the inception of this project? What were your first steps in building that idea into a viable story?

When I got asked to pitch a novel idea for the Pathfinder Tales line, I’d already been reading through many of the books Paizo authors had written. None of them had a dwarven-centric story, nor did a barbarian play a particularly key role in any of the adventures. So that became the core of the idea and evolved from there. I worked with James Sutter, Paizo’s executive editor, to nail down some specifics about the people Akina travels with, the beasts she fights, and the larger foes she has to face down.

What kind of research and/or world-building did you do before beginning?

Since this is set in the RPG world of Golarion, the world had already been fleshed out and established well before I came along. But I did have to go through dozens of game manuals to ensure I was familiarized with the setting enough to dive into the drafting. Of course, I did a lot of reading on dwarves as well as the various regions the story would take place in.

What’s your first-draft process? outline, edit as you go, speed-writing?

I’m an outliner by nature and preference. The more intensively I outline a project from the get-go, the faster the manuscript gets written. Paizo also has an in-depth novel outlining process in order to approve the characters and story details. So by the time I sat down to write the novel, I knew almost every detail from beginning to end, and sped through it quite nicely.

How do you start revisions?

I gather a wide range of feedback from beta readers (and my editors), and then look for common themes or issues people point out through the story. I’ll do a revision round focusing on the overarching developmental edits, reworking scenes, characters, and plot elements. Then, once those are dealt with, I can go back in for line edits until it’s more fully polished.

If you could choose a few descriptors that would go in a blurb on the front cover of your book, what would they be?

Monsters, magic, and mayhem!

What cool thing would you put in the DVD extra version that didn’t get into the published work? research or created detail you had to cut or couldn’t use?

In one of the battle scenes, there was a particular construct we originally had duking it out: cannon golems. They were lots of fun to write and are just cool monsters in themselves! However, we had to remove them for a variety of reasons (including legal) and rework the fight in their absence.

Where should readers go to find out more about your work?

You can find out practically anything you need to know about me and my work on JRVogt.com. I also am building a little YouTube channel with updates, event recordings, and behind-the-scenes commentary on the writing career. If there’s anything you want to know that isn’t already there, just contact me here!

Care to share a link (aside from your own work) to something amazing you think everyone should see or know about?

Check out Tabletop Audio! It has 10-minute long ambient music and sound effect audio tracks you can download and listen to for free. Some people use it to set the mood for a gaming session, but it also works marvelously as background noise for writers.

Josh Vogt's head shot

Josh Vogt’s head shot

Josh Vogt has been published in dozens of genre markets with work ranging from flash fiction to short stories to doorstopper novels that cover fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, adds to the RPG Pathfinder Tales tie-in line. WordFire Press is also launching his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor (2015) and The Maids of Wrath (2016). You can find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt. He’s a member of SFWA as well as the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers.

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