The geography of fantasy worlds

Screen Shot 2018-10-14 at 3.31.56 PMI have a confession: I didn’t finish the last fantasy book I read.

The reason? Among other things, I just didn’t believe the world.

If you’re going to write fantasy fiction, pay attention to world-building. It makes such a difference.

(I know, I know. Everybody says that. But it's harder to execute than it looks.)

In the book I failed to finish, a party of adventurers was trudging through cold, late-fall rain for about three weeks toward the far north of a fantasy continent. The terrain was reminiscent of northern Europe: mountains, boulders, grassland, some forest, almost totally empty of people and towns. They did not meet anyone for days.

In other words, a lot like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

So imagine my surprise when the travelers finally got to a city and had a civilized meal for the first time in three weeks. What did the meal include?

Peaches, grapes, and an orange.

I don’t know about you, but unless there was some kind of magic-refrigerated-storage-air-cargo situation in that world, there is no way in Iluvatar’s green earth that these three fruits are all going to be in season and on the menu of an ordinary inn in November in a fantasy world resembling northern Europe.

A small detail, you say! If it’s a good story, you can overlook it.

(Well, it wasn’t a good story, either.)

That mistake actually isn’t that small. To me, the author who makes peaches available in the fall in a low-technology world is not envisioning that world as a complete whole.

And that means, often, that the geography of the world—and maybe the whole story—needs more work.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a misleading case in point.

The Shire is pretty far north, but it feels like it has a pretty sweet climate, not too hot and not too cold, It’s a place where you can have lawns, farms, and dairy cattle--and it feels safe weather-wise.

In other words, it’s a bit like an idealized south of England.

But the south of England has that type of mild climate because it is influenced by the English Channel, which has a warm current. And in general, if you’re next to sea, the climate will not be as harsh as when you’re further inland.

If you look at the map of Middle Earth, the Shire is actually pretty continental—that is, mostly inland (200 miles inland on average) and mostly next to land rather than sea. The Icebay of Forochel, which we surmise from the name probably has sea ice in it, is only about 400 miles north of the Shire (for comparison’s sake, Anchorage, Alaska is about 370 miles from the Arctic Circle). Strictly speaking, the Shire should have a harsher climate than it does.

Now Professor Tolkien had good reasons for the way his weather worked. Middle Earth is not scientifically consistent with earth’s climate patterns, not because the author was ignorant of them, but because he envisioned his world as a place contested over by forces of good and evil. These forces affect everything, including the weather.

A lot of authors, without understanding this key concept, decide to create a land that looks like Middle Earth. There are mountains and rivers and forests and a sea and hey, yeah, let’s put a city here, a desert there.

This type of it’s-my-world-I-can-do-what-I-want leads to peaches being served out of season in fantasy books and books not being finished by readers.

But anyone who studies geography knows that earth’s terrain and climate and even the shape of land is influenced by a variety of factors. Of course, like Professor Tolkien, you can create your own magical or moral reasons for why oranges and peaches can be served on the same plate. But it’s a good idea to be at least somewhat conversant with the factors that go into earth-like climates.

Here are a couple of for examples:

Latitude: how close to the North Pole is your land? It’s not just about cold weather. Glaciers have a huge effect on terrain, whether they are spreading (in an ice age) or receding (in a warmer age).

Fault lines and tectonic plates: what is the crust of the earth doing near your land? Are two plates pushing into each other or away from each other? Active tectonic plates create mountains, rift valleys, and volcanoes, while adding to the frequency of earthquakes. Island groups tend to be rocky and steep, as they are often formed by volcanoes (like Hawaii).

Proximity to open water: in general, land that is closer to the sea has fewer temperature extremes. But groups of small islands are more susceptible to the effects of sea weather. Small islands and skinny peninsulas tend to be windier and more prone to flooding when they are flat. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy does a good job with creating an island-dominant world.

Go on a Google hunt (here's one good result) for information about geography and climate. I’m a firm believer that those authors who know their fantasy world backwards and forwards write better, more believable, and more salable stories.

In other words, stories readers want to finish.


Time, not money, the obstacle to book sales

Skater-in-a-Strange-Land-800 Cover reveal and PromotionalI used to marvel at a certain fact about the book publishing business: people are more willing to risk three dollars on a cup of coffee than they are on a full-length novel.

Why would someone be willing to pay money for a drink that takes fifteen minutes to consume, for a temporary effect, but not for a piece of art that gives hours of entertainment and has the potential to change one’s life?

Image: Skater in a Strange Land has a new e-edition!

Then I realized something. Something extremely obvious to lots of people, probably, but not to me.

I realized that the temporary effect and disposability of coffee was the whole point.

Coffee gives the drinker a guaranteed result AND doesn’t take a long time to consume.

You don’t have to think about it, either.

And a book?

A book takes a lot longer to deal with than a cup of coffee and there is no guaranteed payoff.

With a book you’re not just spending money, you’re spending time as well.

And time is in notoriously short supply nowadays.

Not only that, time to read a book—that is, unbroken time when you can concentrate on something other than work or family—is even rarer.

So an author does something potentially very demanding of readers when a book is published. “Read this book” does not just mean spend a certain amount of money. It also means invest a certain number of hours, a certain amount of energy, and depending on the book, a potentially large amount of emotion and brainpower.

Back in the day when paper books were the only option and a traditionally published hardcover book cost $19.95, there was a strong sense of the import of the buying decision. The book was substantial and so was the price. You knew what you were getting into. You had better read that book to justify the investment.

Nowadays, an e-book that costs $2.99 is like a roll of the dice. Why isn’t it more expensive? Is it just a bad book that the author is trying to palm off on unsuspecting consumers, like old fish that’s been painted with bleach?

But $2.99 is the same price as a cup of coffee, the reader says to herself. If the book’s bad, I haven’t lost anything.

Yes, she has. She's lost time.

“There’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back” goes the old saying.

How many Amazon reviews basically just say “Waste of time” or “Don’t waste your time”?

Which is why, as authors, it behooves us to write books that are as “worthwhile” ( = worth the time) as possible.

But how does a reader know a book is going to be worthwhile?

  • It has a good blurb. Writers I know hate to write blurbs, but a good one can encourage the sale of a book like nothing else. Good blurbs say, “You will be using your time wisely if you buy this book.”

  • It is written to a specific genre and audience. A cup of coffee is what it is. It delivers a guaranteed effect. So, theoretically, do romance novels, cozy mystery novels, spy thrillers, and all those other familiar categories that comfort readers. If you want a cup of coffee and you get a cup of chai, you’re never going back to that same café again. Same deal with authors. Deliver in your genre and people will return.

  • The audience knows the author. The author has built up a trust and rapport with readers on social media. They like her personally, so they will be more likely to like her book. (This can go the other way for personal friends. They don’t want to have to tell you they didn’t like your book, so they might be reluctant to read it.)

  • The book is at the proper price point--not too inexpensive. This is a tricky one, because a lot of authors have offered their books for free in order to get an audience acquainted with their writing, and it’s been an effective strategy. But in general, a book that’s $2.99 or less as a regular price automatically triggers in the consumer a question: why is it so cheap? The suspicion that a low price point is an indicator of low quality is real. That's when things like a good blurb, active social media, and genre familiarity come into play.

  • The book is at the proper price point--not too expensive. This one is tough too, but for me personally once an e-book is priced at over $4.99, I want to hold it in my hands. I will pay $16.99 for a paperback that I know is going to entertain me, and up to $30 for a hardcover. E-books? There's an obstacle there. My two cents.

Add in your own criteria to supplement these. When you know it’s time that’s the big investment for readers, not just money, it doesn’t change that you’re trying to write a good book.

But it might change your perspective on the whole thing—and give our readers a bit more benefit of the doubt if they choose to buy a cup of coffee rather than our $2.99 novels.


What is teampunk?


The-Last-Phase-Shift_800 Cover Reveal and PromoHere at Breakfast with Pandora Books, we like to think we stand for creativity and originality.

So herewith let us inaugurate a new literary genre into the world of fiction: teampunk.

Teampunk is an amalgam of two genres: the sports novel (the "team" part) and steampunk.

Image: Book 3 of the Borschland Hockey Chronicles is available for pre-order.

Some of our readers will be familiar with steampunk, which is the umbrella term for stories set in a fantasy world that resembles the United Kingdom (or some other country) in Victorian or Edwardian times, but with the enhancement of strange, steam-powered, gear-working technology.

Steampunk types like to dress up in corsets and top hats and wear goggles. They write stories about airships (dirigibles, aerostats, blimps) with steam-powered engines. They let their imaginations go wild based on what could happen if history went down another path than the one that leads to the modern world.

Steampunk types are also fascinated with the formal cultural milieu of the Victorian age and with the melodramatic, romantic, and gothic nature of the tales told at that time.

At first glance, steampunk and sports do not appear to be a natural match. There might be an airship race in a steampunk book, but team sports are as non-technological an activity you can find.

And we'd wager that those readers interested in steampunk may not be interested in sports, and vice versa. Steampunk is an ultra-nerd interest. Sports are for, well, jocks.

But the nineteenth century saw the dawn of modern team sports (baseball in the US and soccer in the UK have teams whose pedigrees go back to the 1800's), and sports were extremely important in those days. Who's to say that gears and soccer balls don't go together?

Enter the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, the first known series of books with the Teampunk label.

In Borschland, the inhabitants have deliberately banned the use of petroleum in favor of their native natural resource, superpeat, which, when heated in a furnace, creates a robust amount of energy that can power steam engines. 

Borschland uses airships, steam locomotives, and steam heat. They use steam-powered escalators to go up from and down to their steam-powered subways.

And most importantly, they use steam engines to power the cooling machines that create ice rinks.

Ice hockey is the be-all and end-all of Borschland, and ice hockey gives the structure to the tales told about Sherm Reinhardt, the first North American to play in the fabled Borschland Hockey League.

As might be expected, Sherm gets into a lot more than the penalty box. In Skater in a Strange Land, he has to deal with an intriguing and attractive poetess, as well as the rumor that his success on the rink is being engineered for nefarious reasons by higher ups, while in the sequel, The Skater and the Saint, the hockey plot (women's hockey, too) is melded with the disappearance of the Flowering Branch, Borschland's sacred national symbol. In the last book of the trilogy, The Last Phase Shift, Borschland goes off to its first international hockey tournament in an alternate universe, with Sherm's children Conraad, Lily, and Wils as main characters.

We can only hope that there will be much more teampunk in the literary future. We will do our best at Breakfast with Pandora Books to make that happen. 

 


A revealing review of "Zeus Is My Type!"

Zeusismytype_cover
Breakfast with Pandora Books felt a small earthquake in the book sales realm this week and found that someone had recently bought “Zeus is My Type!” , D.W. Frauenfelder's book on Myers-Briggs and Greek divinities.

On a whim we googled the title to see if the buyer had had a reaction, and lo and behold, she had.

Sam over at Spines in a Line, a book blog, gave ZIMT four stars and a number of flattering compliments.

But we were particularly gratified by her use of the book to consider her own type and personality.

A personality test is okay for figuring out generally who you are.

But comparing yourself with characters from a brilliant set of long-lived stories might make it easier to illuminate your personality from a different angle, and in a deeper way.

Sam’s review captured this process wonderfully.

According to the review, she has always typed out as an ISFJ or an ISTJ. But the description of those types in ZIMT left her cold.

That makes perfect sense. A book lover with a penchant for introspection probably isn’t purely an ISFJ (Hestia) or ISTJ (Hera). The strong ISFJ is about quiet, compassionate service to others; the classic ISTJ is similar, but with an organizational streak and a spiky edge to her personal interactions.

Hestia wouldn’t have a book blog. She did not call attention to herself or her opinions. As the mistress of the hearth, she was anonymously providing for others.

Hera, similarly, wouldn’t have time for anything as frivolous as book reviews. She was too busy managing the heavenly household.

So where should Sam land?

She gravitated to the chapter on the INFJ, especially the narrative about Penelope. Now Penelope, in the Odyssey, is about loyal service, and in a way is quite ISFJ. But she also has a more introspective and clever side, which is more Intuitive than Sensing.

The section on Hades, and more specifically the part about the play Antigone (Sam’s favorite) also was a highlight for her of the book.

That doesn’t surprise me either. Antigone herself is an ENFJ, and Hades is married to Persephone, another INFJ.

So, because of all that triangulation, it makes perfect sense to me at least that Sam is more INFJ than ISFJ.

(And, of course, maybe it’s most accurate to say that Sam is IXFJ. The “X” reflects that we complex human beings are not restricted to 16 personality types).

Sam came upon ZIMT as a happy coincidence ("a really random selection"). We probably need to make it more available if we want more readers to benefit as she has.

But for now, this was a great treat.

Thanks, Sam.


Master Mage of Rome the third: "The Prophecy of Apulu"

Breakfast with Pandora Books is thrilled to announce the prospective release of the third book in the Master Mage of Rome series: The Prophecy of Apulu.

Following The Mirror and the Mage and The Staff and the Shield, The Prophecy of Apulu will bring to a hair-raising close the adventures of Lucius Junius Brutus and his partner-in-magic, Demetria.

The release is slated for June 2018.

Based on historical events, The Prophecy of Apulu follows Lucius, Demetria, and the two sons of King Tarquin the Proud on a long journey to the heart of Greece. 

The king sends the youths with a question: Who should be the next king of Rome?

The only one who can answer the question: the god Apollo ("Apulu" in the Etruscan language), who has the gift of unerring prophecy.

But Lucius and Demetria know that the haruspices, the Etruscan seers and soothsayers they have been battling for years, want to take power in the city for themselves, foiling the glorious destiny of Rome.

What does the journey have in store for the two friends? Danger, certainly. Pirates, most likely.

And what will happen when and if they make it back safely to Rome? Will the haruspices have seized power and found a way to counter Lucius' powerful magic?

The key is found in the marvelous prophecy of Apulu.


A storm-worthy book

ShatteredwallsWhat do you do if you’re looking down the barrel of a storm of Biblical proportions?

Hunker down inside and read a book of Biblical proportions.

This weekend I sent out a social media call for a book to help me cope with a deluge to which I am currently waving a long, unfond goodbye. That book ended up being Shattered Walls, Jane Lebak’s third book of five in her Seven Archangels series.

I am not the biggest heavenly host fan and theologically I find angels and demons edging over into the Manichean, but for a good story they’re hard to beat.

The author herself describes her work as “offbeat fiction for clever readers,” and Shattered Walls is absolutely that. To me, it comes off as ultra-original and yet ultra-familiar, and though the book is set about twenty years after the Resurrection, it also reads as ultra-contemporary with the author’s microscopic attention to psychological, technological, and scientific realism.

Now you might think, is a book going to work where angels make offhand references to neuroreceptors, or say things like “Your stress hormones are pegged”? You might say to yourself, shouldn’t angels be saying King James things like “Be not afraid, for behold I bring you tidings of great joy?”

But on the other hand, why shouldn’t angels be technologically advanced? After all, they aren’t limited by the understandings of humans of any age. They are beings who have spent thousands of years in the presence of God, honing their organization, hierarchies, roles, and effectiveness. Why shouldn’t they behave with the technical expertise and teamwork of a Google project team, and the bravery, fury, and service ethos of the US military, while exhibiting the love, care, insight, and consideration of social workers and clinical psychologists?

All this, of course, along with a genuine, heartfelt dedication to prayer, devotion to God, and to God’s plan for the world.

And the cherry on top: they all have sparkling senses of humor and a penchant for a quip, especially during the worst moments of a crisis.

They're very much what angels are cracked up to be, and I like 'em. They are on the one hand like the best comic book superheroes with a good amount of spiritual depth. There's no reason why this series couldn't be turned into a feature film, except the Christianity would have to be toned down for wider audiences.

Just a little about plot and characters: the two leads are Remiel and Zadkiel, female angels (yes, these angels have gender; Michael and Gabriel are two of the males ones) who are investigating a super-secret weapons project in Hell being organized by a higher-up in the infernal hierarchy, an aptly-named demon named Hastle.

Of course, the infiltration of the weapon’s workshop goes awry and both angels find themselves in unfamiliar circumstances. The race is on to figure out what exactly happened, how it is related to the weapon, and what consequences there will be from the initial snafu. Hint: potentially enormous both for individual angels and for the angel realm.

The climax is climax-y. I enjoyed it.

Big kudos to Jane Lebak for unraveling and weaving back together this highly entertaining and intricate ball of yarn.

PS: I looked for a place online where there might be a discussion of the background of the series and the author’s own thoughts about world-building decisions, but could not find any off the bat. The author might well consider adding a page to her website that gives some insight into how her version of Heaven versus Hell came to being, along with a glossary of characters and technical terms. What exactly was the “Winnowing”? What are the rules for making and unmaking a “Guard”? What is the difference between a “Dominion” angel and a Cherub? Inquiring minds want to know.

PPS: I'm not wild about the cover and I hope my promotion of the book will lead to huge sales that finance a cover re-do. But that's just me.


Half Sick of Shadows (spoilerish)

HalfsickofshadowsIt is really impossible to say anything about Half Sick of Shadows, Richard Abbott’s newest and most creative book, without giving the whole thing away.

So instead of reading this review first, go out and buy the book and read it— I promise, it’s very inexpensive— and then come back and read this.

If you have already read the book and want to know what someone else thinks about it, go ahead and keep scrolling.

Otherwise, I’ll see you in… however long it takes for you to read and come back.

In fact, if you read the book and hate it, I will treat you to another book of the same or lesser value as an apology for making you read Half Sick of Shadows.

Now that we have established I am biased towards this book, and now that everyone is gone except those who have read the book already, the way is clear to say a few spoilerish things. Spoilerish because I know there are a few lingering readers who haven’t gone away and gotten the book, and believe me, you will be disappointed.

(Shoo! Shoo!)

Okay.

First, you don’t need to know that Half Sick of Shadows is taken loosely from the British legend of the Lady of Shalott best known to poetry readers in its version by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It’s a fun curiosity to map Half Sick of Shadows on to the legend-- especially the weaving and mirror parts-- but the story stands on its own.

You also don’t need to know what genre the book is in order to enjoy it. The author says it is Historical Fantasy. I would say it’s Speculative Science Fiction. But it really is its own thing.

Now, for the spoilerish stuff: lately there was a flurry of activity on the internet about alien intelligences and whether we would want them to contact us when it is somewhat more or less likely (how does one decide these things?) that they would be hostile to us.

Stephen Hawking has famously said for years, for example, that if intelligent life outside our solar system tries to contact us, we should act as if we’re not there.

"Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well,” he is recently quoted as saying.

Also, there's a new short film by a director I admire, Neil Blomkamp from South Africa, about a yuckfest alien invasion that is our worst nightmare. (I loved the film and I don't like yuckfests, by the way.)

But with all due respect to Stephen Hawking and rousing good stories, I think the proposition absurd that aliens advanced enough to travel through space for light years are as callous, cruel, and greedy as Christopher Columbus and the Europeans who followed him.

I find it much more likely that truly advanced aliens would have no need of exploiting worlds they found, but in fact would be more benevolent than we are, having come to the conclusion that survival depends on creating abundance rather than hoarding scarcity. 

So far in history, all human cultures that pile up resources at others’ expense have fallen hard after no more than a thousand or so years (the Byzantines did a great job for a long time, but that made the Turks really, really jealous).

But to live through the long haul— long enough to develop viable light-year space flight technology— I think you’d need to find a way to make resources abundant enough that people don’t need to fight over them and kill each other off. 

And thus, aliens traveling to earth would know to leave well enough alone.

Unless, of course, they found a way to hang around us without destroying us.

And this is a roundabout way of saying that I think Richard Abbot has that question of alien intelligence absolutely spot on. Half Sick of Shadows is an intricate, delicate story about a Lady who grows through time into something new, both physically and mentally, and how interaction with those she encounters affects that process. But it’s also a wonderfully imaginative take on how we might be-- or have been-- in touch with others outside our ken.

Now is Half Sick of Shadows as fun as Neil Blomkamp's yuckfest with the Texas flag whipping from armored trucks and people exploding and lizard men and squirty goo and methane manufacturing towers?

Yes. Make a movie of it now.

Well, maybe not.

But so few books have that quality of an engaging story that also makes you think. Half Sick of Shadows is one of those few, and it deserves widespread attention.


Upright Bears stand tall

AnthropomorphicbearsThe Borschland Hockey Chronicles concentrates on one thing: chronicles about ice hockey in Borschland.

But there have always been bears as well.

Upright Bears, to be exact. 

In Skater in a Strange Land, the first book of the series, our hero Sherm Reinhardt enters the hidden continent where Borschland is located through a phenomenon called Bear Air, an airplane service from a secluded airstrip in the Maldives Islands to Bearland itself.

Or, to hear Sherm describe it:

At the airstrip there were twenty palm trees, a shack, and an old 727 parked out back with a logo that said Bear Air and a bear head with wings coming off of it. The driver left me off with my gear and the first person that greeted me in that shack was a bear.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Reinhardt," he said to me. "The plane is right on time."

I'll never forget that. It was in an accent that sounded English and maybe Jamaican and something else I couldn't place.

That is the moment in the Borschland Hockey Chronicles where some readers step off the suspension of disbelief train. One reviewer, for example, thought that Sherm should've reacted more dramatically to the weirdness of having a bear talk to him. But by that time he (Sherm, not the reviewer) had been flying for 20 hours and in that state you don't react dramatically to anything.

Yes, talking bears. Kind of strange.

But I think most people can get past the talking bears. After all, most of us have had talking bears in our lives at one point or another. Anyone who's had a teddy bear, for example, and has not heard that bear talk is in a very small minority.

My childhood was filled with talking bears. One of my fondest memories involves the Paddington series of books by Michael Bond. Those were the most comforting things you could read, because they always began with the sentient bear Paddington from "Darkest Peru" creating a vortex of chaos and his ultra-calm, ultra-mature English family doing what was necessary to get him out of it.

As a child with quite the usual amount of chaos in my life-- there were four boys in the family-- that was attractive to me.*

I also had two younger brothers who got connected with a whole community of talking bears and spent most of their waking hours before a certain age going on adventures with them.

Even then I was creating worlds and making maps, so it was just a matter of time before I collaborated with my brothers on a homeland for their bears, which they sensibly named Bearland.

As I got older and the universe that included Borschland incorporated Bearland and a number of other lands (including Zimroth, about which you can read in another of Sherm Reinhardt's adventures), Bearish characters began popping up in my stories. The Borschland Hockey Chronicles wouldn't be what they are without them.

Up to now, all of these bears have been supporting characters. Now, for the first time, I'm publishing a short story where a bear takes center stage. I expect, if all goes well, that this will lead to more and longer bear-dominated sagas.

Josiah U. Bear, the main character, probably owes his origin to my interest in the Tintin series of books, though there is also more than a hint of James Bond as well. Unlike the hockey stories that take place in Borschland in the present day, Josiah's tale is set in Edwardian times (1912 to be exact), when Great Britain has colonized Bearland and many complications have arisen therefrom.

Tintin's adventures have always appealed to me as rollicking tales that are told with resorting to the language and explicit situations that characterize much of popular storytelling today.**

That's why I'm publishing this story in a fantasy anthology with a group of authors who tell tales by choice with at most a PG-13 rating. That group is sponsoring a launch party and giveaway on July 1 and I hope you'll attend-- though unfortunately I cannot be there.

I hope you seek out and enjoy this story. The book is out on June 27 and I would love to hear your reactions at the Facebook party. I'll be sure to read all of the comments and get back to you if you have comments or questions.

--D.W. Frauenfelder

---

*If you are a Paddington fan, you might just catch a reference to that series in my short story.

**Captain Haddock's colorful but inoffensive cursing, a great source of humor, is a nod to the tendency of authors to be enamored of what is sometimes called "adult" language.

 

 

 

 

 


How Borschland got its name

BorschlandmapcoloredHow do authors name things?

J.R.R. Tolkien created an entire mythos as a companion to his renowned Middle Earth series of novels. The names Legolas, Boromir, and Frodo all had linguistic reasons for being what they were, since Tolkien was himself a professional linguist.

Conversely, Christopher Paolini, the bestselling author of the "Eragon" fantasy series, spent much less sweat and ingenuity thinking about the names in his book.

"Eragon," Paolini once admitted, is simply "Dragon" with an "E" instead of a "D."

And what about Borschland, the setting for a story about an ordinary American ice hockey player who becomes, against all odds, a national sensation in his adopted home?

As the progenitor of that name, I guess I'm more in Paolini's corner than Tolkien's, though the story is a bit more involved than the swap of an E for a D.

I was something like twelve or thirteen when Borschland was born. In those days I was prone to create three worlds in a single afternoon. Most of my creations came in the form of maps, and stayed that way. I was a forgetful god, and the inhabitants of those forgotten places would have justly railed at me for not taking care of what I had started.

Borschland was different. It also started out as a map-- the medium of which was markers on butcher paper-- but it soon took on a life of its own.

Borschland's inspiration was the last name of a friend of mine whose father was the dean of an Episcopal seminary in my hometown. My friend lived with his father, mother, and twin younger brothers in an impossible wonder of a house, an on-campus stone-and-brick edifice with soaring ceilings, endless bedrooms, enormous kitchen, and backyard basketball court. It had apparently once been a dormitory.

It was the perfect place for all manner of early adolescent diversion. We played every sport known to man either there or in the quad of the seminary across the street. To play baseball, we used a yellow plastic ball my friend dubbed a "grapefruit." I once whacked that sphere on a rising arc across the quad, smashing a window in the building that acted as the right-field fence.

We also started our own soccer team, and when we could not find a coach willing to train us, my friend's father, the seminary dean, consented to shepherd us until he found a willing divinity student.

That student was the first man I ever knew besides a pirate who sported a gold earring. He was a prince among men to put up with my fourteen year-old diva self.

My friend's mother, the Platonic ideal of mothers, presided over the kitchen, doling out bowls of yogurt and cottage cheese for afternoon snacks, and ferrying us around in the family's white station wagon. Later in life, I had a nightmare that involved being pursued by Satan in a desert wasteland. Presently my friend's mom appeared in the station wagon to rescue me, as ever an angel of mercy.

Since my friend had spent time in Chicago, he had the equipment for street hockey-- goals, sticks, rubber balls used for pucks-- and we played glorious games in the backyard basketball court.

My friend also had a table-top hockey game which I borrowed and played on my own, keeping careful statistics of all goals, assists, and penalties.

With such enrapturing memories stoking the fires of my nostalgia, it was in a way a foregone conclusion that Borschland, which is truly what my friend's idyllic household could be called, would take on a life of its own.

In college I maintained a Borschland Hockey League with teams from all the cities I had created on the map.

Like Tolkien, I became interested in language, and modified the city names to have more uniformity and logic. Borschland's language became an odd combination of Dutch, German, and French, with certain native elements of a land I had named after our seventh-grade science teacher.

Borschland also became the location for a bad short story I wrote about a young man whose mysterious landlady had the odd last name of "Enoon" (hint:  enoon is "no one" spelled backwards), and whose climax took place at an ice hockey game.

Thus, fiction entered into Borschland.

Much later in life, I introduced the fantasy ice hockey league to my son, who created a blog around it, and I contributed posts in the voice of a Borschic ice hockey journalist named Kadmus Greningen.

A story thread grew up around the blog posts involving an American ice hockey player named Sherm Reinhardt. You can still read those original posts today.

Eventually, the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, two novels and an anthology of short stories (plus another novel in progress), were born.

Now I have learned of the passing of my friend's father. The generous, genial man who was our interim soccer coach went on to be a revered bishop in the Episcopal Church.

In his obituary, I learned he wrote twenty books, among them two novels.

Much of what survives from an author's imagination seems to be random. Why Borschland? Why ice hockey? What necessitated the birth of that particular story?

But, as the Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon has written, as Christians we must take what seems to be random and act as if it is, instead, full of intended grace.

Which is why I will always be grateful to the Borsch family for their hospitality, generosity, and for the greatest gift of all: the name of an imaginary world.


Throughtalking books

Bookbeer7Have you ever heard the term “throughtalking”?

I hadn’t, till the other day.

In fact, Google doesn’t seem to know the term.

But I do:

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This insight, which I love, is spliced out of a post by a Facebook friend. I tend not to have to deal with this phenomenon socially, because I don’t go to high-gloss parties where the movers and shakers move and shake, but I recognize it from my days at professional conferences.

There’s nothing more disheartening than watching the eyes of the person you’re talking to scanning the crowd for someone other than you. 

You may be good, but there’s always someone out there who’s better.

My Facebook friend thinks there may be a “throughtalking” trend for beer that’s manifesting itself in online reviews. No matter how high the quality of one craft brew, somehow there must be a better one out there. So proper attention is given to nothing. 

I think we can apply this same trend to books, but bear with me for a little on this. 

If “throughtalking” beer is a thing, I think it has to do with the sheer number of beers now available. Time was, there were about seventeen brands of beer, and if there was something new, you had plenty of time to taste it and figure out whether you liked it.  

I remember in the previous century sitting down in a restaurant near Cincinnati and asking the waitress whether they had any local beers on tap. She looked at me as if I were from Mars.  

I wasn’t talking about brewpub stuff. Back in the old days, there were some regional brands. if you were in New Orleans, you drank Dixie. Texas, Lone Star. Oregon, Henry Weinhard’s. Upstate New York, Genesee. Baltimore, Natty Bo. That’s what I was asking for. Even Bud is supposed to taste good if you order it in St. Louis.

But Cincinnati, apparently, had its Waterloo (or Beer-loo) during Prohibition, and never recovered.

Today things are different. I can get thirty kinds of beer brewed onsite in just one establishment. 

How am I going to keep up with that? 

Maybe, by “throughtalking” beers until I get to the “ultimate.” 

Except that there isn’t an ultimate. 

Now for the books part.

Independent (small-press and self-) publishing, like craft breweries, has exponentially increased the number of books available, especially novels. 

Now, instead of there being a thousand “literary” or “high quality” novels per year, of which ten to twenty were played up by publishing houses and the media, there are tens of thousands that may be good or not. But because there are so many, it’s impossible for anyone to curate them the way we used to when traditional publishing had a chokehold on supply. 

For me personally, I seldom buy books anymore. I “try” a lot of them. I will go to the Amazon page and dip into the book, effectively taking a sip. Some of them are just bad or don’t interest me, so I move on.

Others look like they might be good, but I’m not looking for “might be.”

I want that one that knocks my socks off.

So I end up not buying anything at all. 

I am guilty of “throughtalking” books. 

The last book I bought was The Bookminder by M.K. Wiseman. It’s a historical fantasy about a teenage would-be wizard set in what appears to be medieval Serbia. I was attracted by the setting and similarity to my own The Mirror and the Mage, and the sample shows that the author has respectable writing chops.

I hope to “drink it down” and give a review soon. 

So what’s the upshot of this? Am I advocating, like some, that we should turn off the taps on the book supply?

Should us authors all voluntarily stick to one book per year, to let breathless readers catch up?

Maybe we’d get less “throughtalking.” 

No. Not at all.

I’m still in the more-is-better camp. I think especially of those dedicated book devourers who have benefited the most from the independent revolution. True book lovers always want more.

And I say, give it to them.

Online book curation methods are still pretty crude, but I think they'll improve.

And we “throughtalkers” will always be around, and maybe we’ll leave snarky reviews about the few books we actually bought.

But that shouldn’t spoil the party.

So write on, authors. Your readers await.

Image taken from here.