Worldbuilding, 1,000 Words at a Time

Alexandre Duret-Lutz via Flickr CC 2.0

Alexandre Duret-Lutz via Flickr CC 2.0

Six months ago, my writing routine was upended. My husband and I put most of our stuff in storage to properly stage the condo before it went on market. We moved to the new house at the end of March, and several rooms were in serious need of renovation. I didn’t bother unpacking much until the contractor’s crew finished the rooms we decided were part of “phase one.”

The consequence? The fourth novel has been on hold. The Muse haunted me daily. So I delved into the world of flash fiction. One piece won a contest over at Indies Unlimited, and I expanded my literary horizons between the flash fiction site Describli and Chuck Wendig’s (in)famous weekly writing challenges. I tried new voices and genres. I even wrote a piece of fan fiction. The stretch of time gave me insight into how characters could develop, and what features of the worlds I was building would look like. In short, I was still producing—not in a linear or organized fashion—but producing nonetheless.

These spontaneous excerpts have helped immensely. One of Chuck Wendig’s writing challenges, using photos of unusual places, resulted in the final pages of my third novel. Another helped with the details of the fate of one of the characters of the novel I’m currently working on. A fantasy series I’ve been working on for ages has benefitted the most.

A “random title generator” challenge led to the creation of a character and secret sect for the series. (Old D&D fans, dust off that 20-sided dice!) I didn’t expect to get so attached. I was simply trying to add more to this world—the scenery, the ambiance. I didn’t even plan on adding it to the series. A comment appeared below the link on the post of Wendig’s blog: “I want more of this. Now.” So did I. “The Oathkeeper’s Forge” struck a nerve. This character just appeared on a whim, and she intends to stay. Every time I watch the reality show Forged in Fire, I learn something new to help this character in her trade.

Another random title generator challenge inspired me to create a land that was largely believed to be a myth. “Five Days of the Cartographer” gave me a grumpy man who baited people into a dangerous region of the world, where they would be exploited at the whims of a society that wanted no visitors or trade agreements. They take what they want, when they want it.

Then there are the random stories that appear and threaten to become novels in their own right. An “X meets Y” prompt challenged me to blend the worlds of the Matrix and Twin Peaks, and while I was certain the universe would tear itself to shreds at such a combination, the results were intriguing.

Worldbuilding Collage

I’m ending the summer with nearly 40,000 words for my fourth novel, and a wealth of new ideas for works in progress. Now that my life has stabilized and my new writing routine is established, I look forward to integrating more flash fiction into the process. If I feel stuck on the current work, these little writing prompts are a great way to think about something else for a while, or perhaps help me find the missing piece to the current work.

I look forward to returning to the writing workshop powerhouse, Scribophile. I was also recently introduced to Scriggler via Twitter. Scriggler’s a platform for writing and discussion, and while I haven’t tried it yet, it looks promising.

It’s going to be a busy fall as a try to finish my new novel by the end of 2015. I’ll be signing up for NaNoWriMo for sure to help in this endeavor. In October, the fabulous authors behind The Emotion Thesaurus series (a must-have resource for writers!) are launching a new platform called One Stop for Writers with a developer who works for the company that produces the writing studio software Scrivener. I’ve joined their “street team” to help promote the project.

And all along the way, I continue writing, and building new worlds, an excerpt at a time.

Why I Write

When I saw the writing prompt about this week’s writing challenge by Chuck Wendig, I didn’t even have to think about what to say…


1977: It’s a rainy day in second grade and recess is inside. The fluorescent lights shine with a certain yellow glow under the dark grey skies, and I watch the rain stream down the windows as I think of how to string the words of a story together. I’d stapled some lined and plain paper into a neat stack. Illustrations filled the plain paper, and my shaky writing stayed as close to the blue lines as possible.

A shadow loomed over my desk. “What are you doing?”

“Writing a story,” I said. I still remember the feeling of the thick yellow lacquer on the pencil. It was starting to crack.

The teacher scowled at me. “What a waste of paper!”

I was then instructed to put my head down on my desk and take a nap. My “book” was thrown in the trash.

So much for supporting creativity in schools. My mother was horrified.


I’ve always been obsessed with writing. I’m filled with anxiety if I don’t have a means of putting pen to paper. There is a notebook and an abundance of pens in every bag I carry. (I’m old fashioned. My preferred implement is also a fountain pen. I’m more thoughtful about my words when I do it by hand.) Back then, characters were like invisible friends. I worked out the plots by talking to people no one saw. I suppose it’s still like that to some degree.

Up though high school, my stories were derivative of my favorite fantasy series: Tolkien’s work, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and the Dragonlance series. In 1994, my brother told me I should see The Crow. I told him I hated stupid love stories. It was the last conversation I had with him. A few days later, he was killed while walking to work by a man who had no business driving. His closest friend brought a copy of The Crow on VHS with him when he stayed with me in the days before the funeral. I wasn’t able to tell Matthew how much I loved the movie, but while it played, I felt a desperate need to keep him alive. Writing him into a novel was the only way I knew how to do that.

Four hundred pages later, I was too wrapped up in the grief and had to put the manuscript aside. I began graduate work at Harvard Extension and found other sources of inspiration. And though I didn’t set out with this as my mission in life, a common theme was evident in all that I wrote: finding real women marginalized in history and giving them a voice to tell their tale.

It began with the consort of Vlad the Impaler. Legend had it she committed suicide during a Turkish siege. In movies, she’s referred to as his wife, but the more research I did, including reading Vlad’s letters, it was evident she was a concubine. I traveled to Romania to do research and stayed in the shadows of the Carpathians. This novel became the focus of my graduate thesis, and I self-published it two years later, in 2010.

People were intrigued by the list of women I kept for inspiration. Friends dropped off biographies of women they thought I should write about. Some made it to the list. Since then, I’ve written about Irish pirate queen Granía O’Malley, who negotiated with Queen Elizabeth I for her family’s freedom. A short piece was published about a woman who dressed as a man to travel with her betrothed, who was fighting for the Spanish armada and she couldn’t bear to be away from him. Her ghost allegedly haunts a barn in England. A trip to an Arizona museum resulted in finding an affidavit about a woman who shot her lover and served as the only female prisoner at the time in an all-male prison. May Woodman ran a cigar stand in Tombstone, and knew all the famous names we associate with that town. Her lover was killed on the same corner as where Virgil Earp was ambushed after the gunfight at OK Corral. May was scrappy and couldn’t stay out of trouble. She was pardoned and subsequently exiled from Arizona after officials discovered she was running a contraband cigar business out of her jail cell.

I delve into all eras and cultures: ancient Mesopotamia, medieval Baghdad, coastal Maine during the War of 1812, and beyond. I’ve branched into speculative fiction as well, bringing Sumer into the modern era as a space-age superpower in my fourth novel, due out next year. Visions of Enheduanna, named by some historians as the world’s first (known) author, link the story to the roots of civilization’s history.

I don’t write about Cleopatra or Anne Boleyn. As much appreciation as I have for the most famous names in history, what draws me to the women I write about is that they’re all underdogs, outcasts, and rebels. I never thought I put much of myself into my novels. I’m thorough in my research and hope to portray the most authentic world possible, no matter which slice of history I’m focusing on. But as I look back over my life, I see that correlation. I’ve always been the rebel and outcast. Like I’m an alien stranded on this planet, listening to dark ambient and space music while I write, focusing on the voices of women who led extraordinary lives but are generally overlooked or misrepresented. I’m so into creating accurate settings that I began a blog series about how food is portrayed in historical fiction, recreating recipes in my kitchen to more closely connect with my characters.

I’m 45 and my fourth novel is due out next year. My list of works in progress continues to grow, and I worry about how many I’ll actually get to. I just hope I’m doing them justice, and that somewhere out there, people are enjoying the books about these extraordinary women I happened to find on my journey through this incredibly strange, frequently discouraging, and yet absolutely amazing world.

Six Bells Chime

Another irresistible writing challenge from the inimitable Chuck Wendig. The theme: random song title—shuffle your playlist and write a story inspired by what shows up. For me, it was “Six Bells Chime” by Crime and the City Solution.

Robert Couse Baker via Flickr CC 2.0

Robert Couse Baker via Flickr CC 2.0

Mackenzie was too wild for the city. The crowds confined her spirit; she hated how people judged her for being from the country. They always said country with a drawl to mock her.

It all fell apart when she cracked a beer bottle against a financial analyst’s nose at a club. He said something about wanting to be her cowboy version of Christian Grey. I would’ve hit him, but she was quicker.

Outside, she pounded the graffiti-covered wall with frustrated fists until they bled. “Get me out of here,” she said. I kissed her bloody knuckles and promised to take her wherever she wanted to go.

So we packed up everything and hit the road.

Mackenzie calmed as tangled expressways became solitary highways. She pushed the passenger seat back and planted her boots on the dashboard. She napped with the brim of her hat over her eyes. The sleeves of her black t-shirt were rolled up, and a thumb hitched in a belt loop. She didn’t wake up until we were surrounded by fields and the occasional farm. As the sun warmed the truck’s interior, the smell of old clove cigarettes infused the air.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked her when she finally woke up.

She pushed the brim of her hat up, bleary-eyed and smiling slightly. “Broken places. Let’s just wander for a while.”

Nicholas Tonelli via Flickr CC 2.0

Nicholas Tonelli via Flickr CC 2.0

“No destination?”

“I know what I want to find; I just don’t remember where to find it.”

“What’s that?”

“Home,” she said, squinting off into the distance. Dark clouds of a thunder storm passed miles ahead of us.

I gestured toward the windshield. “Nice to be out here again. Seeing the big sky.”

Her smile broadened. “I feel like I can breathe again.”

We were good traveling companions. We knew when one or the other of us needed some quiet. Neither of us were very talkative to begin with. The more remote we got, the more interested Mackenzie was in the landscape. Sometimes we slept in the back of the pick-up, philosophizing or recalling old memories as we counted shooting stars.

“Wish I could see an aurora,” she mused, braiding with her long blond hair in the darkness.

“We’ll drive north if you want to, sweetheart.”

“Not yet. Not until I find it.”

“Can you give me a hint?”

She fell silent for a moment. A flash of flame appeared in her hands. The paper on the tip of the joint flared and broke away. “Nope,” she said on the inhale. “Jake, you know me better than that.”

“Queen of mystics,” I said, laughing as she passed it to me.

“A Sufi nomad with Taoist leanings,” she reminded me.

A shooting star ran long across the sky. It seemed to move in slow-motion—a fiery trail blazing toward a broken place Mackenzie wanted to call home.


Then came a long string of visits to the abandoned souls of the American heartland. The dilapidated barns and sagging farmhouses that had been neglected for years. She stepped in each one like she owned the place, exploring even the most dangerous structures that I didn’t want to set foot into. I followed her, though, rather than be called a chicken.

Vincent A-F via Flickr CC by SA 2.0

Vincent A-F via Flickr CC by SA 2.0

“What are we doing?” I asked, picking up a rusted shovel that disintegrated in my hands.

“Chasing memories.” She threw a rock at the one remaining light in the ceiling of the barn.

Days passed and we kept driving. Our world turned grey when the rain came. She traced the lines of drops along the windows as we rolled down the road. Cracks of lightning illuminated the sky.

The sky stayed grey for days after the storm. We ate lunch in a rest area and watched as crows wheeled and cawed as they chased a hawk from their territory.

“Six crows,” Mackenzie said. “We’re close.”

The music matched the mood. Darker shades of rock, punk, and Goth that we loved. It was a perfectly composed soundtrack to accompany our journey.

A tree-lined road finally led us to her destination. A hopeful but almost teary smile haunted her features. “This is where it started,” she said.

A burned-out truck disintegrated next to an old one-room schoolhouse that also served as a church in this small town I forgot the name of as soon as we passed the sign. The building was in bad shape. Scorch marks from the truck’s fire clawed along the side of it. The steeple was open on one side, the planks probably torn off by a storm. Mackenzie stepped out of the truck and walked as if she wasn’t sure this was reality.

Her hands were up, her fingers seemingly tasting the air—she stared and closed her eyes by turns to drink in the environment. I heard her humming a favorite tune. She ascended the small steps of the building and ran her hand along the wooden railing. The varnish, if it ever had any, was long faded away. Her hands came to rest on a platform of bells. Each varied in size.

graywolfx47 via Flickr CC by S.A. 2.0

graywolfx47 via Flickr CC by S.A. 2.0

“It was like Morse code,” she said. “The ringing meant all kinds of things.” She struck them—six bells. A languid clangor, one after the other.

“What does that one mean?”

“I reclaim this place. I’m home.”

As she turned around and walked in the front door, I wondered if I would ever learn what that meant. A murder of crows flew out of the steeple and announced her arrival to the turbulent sky.


And for those curious about the song, it was featured in Wim Wenders’ gorgeous 1987 film, Wings of Desire (originally Der Himmel über Berlin):

Laura Esquivel’s Between Two Fires

Between 2 Fires

“I spent the first years of my life beside the hearth in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens, seeing how these wide women, upon entering those sacred places, became priestesses, great alchemists who dealt with water, air, fire, and earth—the four basic elements that comprise the entire universe. And the most surprising thing is that they did in in the most humble manner…as if they weren’t transforming the world with the purifying power of fire, as if they didn’t know that the foods they prepared and the rest of us ate remained in our bodies for many hours, chemically altering our organisms, nourishing our souls and our spirits and giving us an identity, a language, a legacy.”

So begins a series of essays and stories by Laura Esquivel. Like Water for Chocolate has been a longtime favorite, and this little book, Between Two Fires, sat on my shelf for a long time. One of the perks of moving is that you get to re-examine all your accumulated stuff—books you forgot to read, music you haven’t played in years—discovering treasures you already own is a pleasure.

As the plaster dries in my office, I’ve taken my writing life to the dining room table. This works well for the “How Do They Feast?” series I began a few years ago. The cooking experiments and the writing occur together.

Getting plastered is fun!

Getting plastered is fun!

After the success of Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel was approached by Vogue to do a regular column where a story featured a recipe. It worked for a while, but the magic of that formula began to wear thin. The stories within this anthology are delightful—a view into the author’s philosophy and experiences—the Mexican culture in which she was raised comes to the forefront, alive with folklore and family stories.

The book features several recipes, including a Oaxacan black mole and an intriguing apple soup. In the story, an apple soup is beloved—and made for a favorite uncle every time he visits. After learning about his dark double life after his death, the soup never tastes the same again—as though it’s been haunted by his ghost.

The recipe that inspired me the most was manchamanteles. Also known as “the stew that stains the tablecloth,” it’s a rich mix of pork, chicken, plantains, pineapple, sweet potato, and spices. Ancho chilis are the star of the show. Not being fond of bananas, I wondered if plantains would overwhelm the flavors for me, so I chose the greenest ones I could find. Being married into a Puerto Rican family has taught me a bit more appreciation for plantains, and when done well, I actually really like them.

This was not a small dish. It took the largest cast iron pot in the house to pull this one together, and it smelled amazing as it cooked. A search online brings up many versions of the recipe—some have just chicken, others pork, or both. Though one of my all-time favorite cooking magazines, Saveur, offered a recipe for manchamanteles, the one I went with for the more complex version from the Food Network. (Rather than a re-do with my own spin on the recipe, I’m simply linking to it. Go forth and live adventurously—give this stew a try!)

“Intimate Succulencies: A Philosophic Treatise on Cooking,” takes a historical perspective. Esquivel writes passionately about women’s roles, and an account of a woman forbidden from learning who takes her scientific experimenting into the kitchen is moving.

Of course, Like Water for Chocolate is mentioned several times. Esquivel explores how she developed the relationship between Tita and her mother in the final essay, “Mother Witch.” It’s always interesting to learn how an author creates motivations—what drives them emotionally, be it cultural traditions or personal ambitions—and weaves them into a story that you can fall into. Laura Esquivel paints rich character portraits, so much so that they seem like real accounts rather than fiction.

Her connection to culture of the kitchen is delightfully portrayed in Between Two Fires. The sensuality, the folklore, and the techniques developed by those who cook in those kitchens are wonderfully described.

I rarely look for “30-minute meals” and recipes with fewer than five ingredients for simplicity’s sake. As much as I love to watch cooking shows, the prospect of designing and making a meal in a short amount of time is a source of anxiety. Especially when watching something like Chopped—duck, rutabaga, fermented anchovies, and wintergreen Altoids—what?! I’d probably stand there crying. I like to spend time in the kitchen. It’s a meditative process, and I’m happy to spend hours making something for family and friends to enjoy. So it’s not a surprise that one of the quotes I related to most came from the first essay, “At the Heath”: “The time it took to prepare didn’t matter, because there is no such thing as wasted time in the kitchen—rather that is where we are able to recover lost time.”

Fan Fiction—and an Irresistible Urge to Write Someone Else’s Story


Fan fiction can be a touchy topic. Some authors fiercely protect the worlds and characters they create, while others endorse fan works inspired by them. Hugh Howey happily promotes some fan fiction based on the Wool series. Several years ago, a person who loved my first novel contacted me about writing fan fiction about it. Why not? After all, Vlad Dracula and his family were not of my making. Sure, I took some artistic license in how I portrayed them, but anyone has free reign to write about historical figures.

While some of my earliest unpublished works are strongly influenced by other books or video games, I can’t say I’ve really indulged in fanfic—until now. I feel odd delving into a copyrighted world, even if the creators of the world don’t mind. Knowing 50 Shades of Grey began as fanfic based on the Twilight series doesn’t make me feel any better.

There are many sources of inspiration. People who know me well may guess if I were to dive into fanfic, it may be the Elder Scrolls games or George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. However, there is only one story that captures me like no other: Thief.

In 1998, I pulled the box off the shelf at a store, enchanted by the graphics and description. I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d come to love this world. Every game in the series has been amazing. I’d actually have it share the number one spot in gaming experiences alongside the beloved Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls has inspired me with its worldbuilding as well, but it was Thief that inspired me to put pen to paper.

In short, the world of Thief had (until the recent 4th installment) two factions of faith. The solemn and technology-driven Hammerites, and the pagans who worshipped nature. Both religions were replaced in the latest 2014 release. I miss the old gods, but look forward to seeing where this new lore may be taking us. It’s always been gloomy world—the City is ancient—one layer built on top of another, with eras of secrets and artifacts. Garrett, a pickpocketing youth, was taken in by a secret organization called the Keepers. Though he leaves them in favor of becoming a master thief, he’s continuously manipulated by the Keepers through the end of the third game.

The revamped version of the story is gorgeously gritty and dark. Yes, the longtime voice actor who played Garrett is gone, and the change upset me for a bit, but after 20 minutes of gameplay I was so deep in the storyline I didn’t care. And I want more.

While there have been consistent elements of the story throughout, there is plenty of mystery. The kind of mystery that tantalizes a writer.

In Thief 4, there are several sets of collectible items Garrett saves for his home in a broken clock tower. The paintings are cool, but it was the little snippets that threaded together the collection known as “The Pinned Castinets” that lured me in enough to write fan fiction.

With each pin discovered, a piece of the story is revealed:

  • It was written that the Castinet daughters were married to lords of the highest standing, all to enrich the family reputation.
  • Perhaps some of Castinet’s daughters found love. Others knew only the shame of a cold bed and an empty facade.
  • But his youngest was lucky enough to find freedom from her family’s expectations.
  • “I will show them all!” she wrote in her diary. “I will show them what true freedom looks like!”
  • They said her broken body was found at the foot of The City’s walls, and all Dayport wept.
  • And every summer for years afterwards, pale butterflies would flock to the site, then scatter.

Granted, it’s always the haunting and slightly morbid stories that light my imagination on fire and summon the Muses. You should see my list of novels in progress.

After recently finishing the game for a second time, I was unable to let this story go. I initially refused to write about it. It’s not my world, after all! But then I checked in to one of my favorite flash fiction sites, Describli, and one of the images used for a writing prompt caught my eye. It may as well have come right out of the City where Garrett dwelled. And the prompt involved a visit to a witch. Suddenly, I knew what happened to the youngest daughter of the Castinet family, and I wrote the following story:


The Butterfly Girl

The girl was crumpled by the hearth in an endless fit of weeping. Her red gown and velvet cloak caused a stir when she rushed down the City’s wharf to get to the witch’s house. She didn’t care. Consumed in her own anguish, she only sought a cure to her problem.

“I won’t marry him!” Sofia said for the twelfth time. “They can’t make me. I’ll run away. All I’ve ever wanted was my freedom!”

“You’re a long way from home, sweetness,” Agatha said, petting the girl’s head like she was a pet. She admired the comb in the girl’s coal-black hair. Shaped like a butterfly, jewels of pink, lavender, and pale blue sparkled in the fire’s light.

The girl looked up at her, confused. “But I’m from Dayport.”

Agatha smiled. “Indeed you are. So knows every thief, pimp, and lowlife in the South Quarter. A little discretion would do you a lot of good.”

“I have to leave the City.” Tears streamed down her face.

“And where do you plan to go?”

“Anywhere…a place where I can be free to live the life I want. To be an explorer, maybe. Do you think one of the sea captains will hire me? I can read, draw well, and can keep things orderly.”

Agatha suppressed a laugh. “My dear girl, women are not allowed on ships for a reason. Imagine one woman on a ship full of men, out to sea for months at a time. You haven’t thought this through.”

“What can you do to help me?” The last words were choked in a sob.

“How much coin do you have?”

Sofia held up her purse. Agatha weighed it in her hand. It was too light to do anything meaningful. The petted the girl’s hair again. “This hair pin will do.”

The girl unpinned it and handed it to the witch without a thought. Agatha expected more of a fight. Some are too easy, she thought.

Agatha stood and went to the window. The hearth’s bright flame played on the dusty windows. In the grimy South Quarter, it was a futile effort to keep the glass clean. The City seemed endless. Superstitious folk who never left their own neighborhoods believed it was endless—and that nothing lay beyond it—no pastures or farms, no meadows or vast forests. That the zealous builders devoured all of nature in their plan to obliterate the pagan faith. In the darkest of nights, when the rain was driving and the hearth’s flame threatened to be blown out from the winds that spiraled down the chimney, Agatha wondered too. Maybe it does go on forever.

“There aren’t many of us left,” the witch said. “All but driven to the ends of the earth. A few communities remain. I know an honest captain who can take you to the sunny coast of Illyria. I’ll write you up a letter, and you can be an apprentice of the witches until you can maintain a shrine of your own.”

A smile broke through Sofia’s tears. “That sounds wonderful. When can I leave?”

“Whenever you wish.”

“Now, if you please. I need naught but the clothes on my back.”

“You can sleep in the attic until I make the arrangements. Shouldn’t be but a day or two.”

As a humble host in the poorest region in the City, Agatha fed her guest well. She shielded her from prying neighbors, who came to this relatively peaceful section of the wharf wanting to know about the pretty girl in the red dress.

The South Quarter factories churned in the distance, filling the sky with smoke and soot. Tradesmen and merchants filed in a never-ending procession down the Baron’s Road, on their way to buy and sell goods, and drink their fill in the mangiest of taverns. The girl watched the City in fascination from the attic window. This was nothing like the luxury of Dayport.

Soon enough, Sofia embarked on a ship and cried tears of joy at the prospect of freedom. She vowed to become the best witch in the land. Agatha waved and walked back to her house on the dock.

A torrential storm hit that night. As if summoned by magic, it rose up and smashed the ships heading out. The storm continued for days.

“The gods are angry again,” Agatha said. “There’s no pleasing them.”

When the news came, the witch endured her creaking knees and sore back to go down to the shore where the shipwrecks lay. The girl’s broken body lay by the city wall. The unusual sight of people from Dayport astonished the residents of South Quarter. Her red dress was sodden like blood and oil.

Pity flickered in the witch’s heart. She stayed until the bodies were cleared, and walked to the spot where the girl’s body had lain. She pulled the butterfly hair pin from her pocket and cupped it in her hand. She whispered a brief spell, and a spirit in the shape of a butterfly emerged from the jeweled piece.

A glittering display of pink, lavender, and pale blue, the butterfly spirit hovered in a circle. With each turn around the spot, another butterfly came to be, until there was a cloud of them.

“We all have to make sacrifices,” the witch said. “But you finally have your precious freedom.”

And from then on, on each anniversary of the girl’s death, a flurry of ghostly butterflies appeared and lit up that dark corner of the wharf for the night.

Five Days of the Cartographer

One thing I can say about Chuck Wendig’s weekly writing challenges, is that they give me the opportunity to do a bit of worldbuilding. A series has been brewing for a long time, and with many of these challenges, I’ve had the chance to sketch out the lands, the characters, and ideas for the plot. Kind of distracting for making progress on my fourth novel, but at least it counts to another book in some regard!

And herewith, the new random title challenge, “Five Days of the Cartographer.”


16th-century map, author unknown

Cal hunched over the parchment and groaned. He stretched his cramped arms and turned his neck side to side, but felt little relief. He held the quill over the map. “Where to put Aurora Bay?” Cal scratched his beard.

He decided to place the bay tantalizingly close to Gallixia’s Shellshard Islands in the northeast corner of the region. The stormy seas north of the islands prevented travel most of the time, but there was always one fool who would venture through it, if the promise of treasure was large enough.

It was almost time to go to market. He had five days to sell the map and return to the ship. He drew cross-hatched lines to indicate the steep cliffs that guarded the coast near Aurora Bay. As the cliffs formed, Cal missed home.

Silkur was but a legend to many people in the Vourae and Gallixian kingdoms. Those who had seen it in person never returned. Their people preferred to be left alone. Though resources were abundant on Silkur, they craved the goods from the kingdoms from the south. And sometimes, people were those goods. Trade was one-sided. Fiefdoms in Silkur were comprised of solitary sorcerers who ruled over small villages of corsairs and fishermen.

When the map was done, Cal dusted the parchment with a fine powder to absorb the excess ink. The powder glowed a faint orange. Cal grinned. With the magic imbued in the map, the plan was set. He prepared to walk to the market.

With the exception of the capital, Silkur had no cities. Cal disdained crowds and his mood darkened as he approached the cartographer’s stall. His tubes and satchels of maps landed on the table with a loud thump.

“And a fine day to you, sir!” shouted the cider-seller across the way. He laughed and waved, and offered Cal a free mug of cider.

Cal hung his head down for a moment to regain his composure. “I’m no actor. How I wound up in this job is a wonder,” he muttered.

When he raised his head, his smile was bright. “Thank you, neighbor. And a gentle reminder, please tell your patrons to be cautious with their cider around my maps. Can’t afford any accidents, now.”

The cider-seller laughed again. “Of course; wouldn’t want anyone to lose their way due to a stain on one of your fine maps.”

Cal’s grin was wry. He waved again and proceeded to organize his wares. If he only knew.

By mid-morning, throngs of people pressed through the corridors of stalls. Hunters, traveling workers, and explorers of all kinds visited the cartographer. The ensorcelled map of Silkur remained under the display table, rolled up and waiting for just the right opportunity.


By the fifth day, Cal was frustrated enough to sell the map to the first curious patron who came along. And luckily, the first customer was the perfect mark.

Rain drizzled on this grey day. The east coast of the Vourae Kingdom was less tropical than the west coast. The rains tended to be lighter and less frequent. Cal ignored his aching knees as he stood, watching a man stroll through the marketplace. The man wore an oil-coated fisherman’s jacket. He looked like a seasoned seafarer—but not too seasoned. Just ambitious enough.

As the man approached the cartographer’s stall, Cal met his eye with enthusiasm. “Hello there! Are you from the Shellshard Islands?”

The man looked surprised. “What gave it away?”

“Your coat—the best oilskin coats come from the Shellshards.”

“This coat will last longer than I do.”

“What brings you this far south?” Cal asked.

“Expanding my business. My family fished for scallops and crabs for generations. That’s fine enough, but I don’t want to spend my whole life sailing around the same islands like they did. I love seeing new places, and it’s helped my finances a lot since I started importing goods back home. A lot of this stuff,” the man waved his hand around in the direction of the other stalls, “fetches a fine price in the Shellshards.”

“I bet it does. Say, have you ever been to Silkur?”

The man scoffed. “Close to home, but ever so far away—that’s what my granddad always said. Impossible to get to.”

“Not if you know the way.”

A scowl descended over the man’s face. “So say the charlatans.” He took a step back from the stall.

Cal held up a hand. “Now, please, hear me out. My maps are all authentic. There’s not a one on this table that I haven’t traveled myself.”

“Including Silkur?” His arms crossed over this chest and he stared Cal down hard.

“Things are changing there, believe it or not. Yes, they’ve been isolationists for ages. Trade with them meant pirates taking what they wanted and returning home. Did you know that along the coast, the supply of fish has been running low? Overfishing, you know. The people of the villages are crying for change. They need to connect with the rest of the world and they know it.”

“They want to trade? With us?”

“Consider what the prospects are if you are one of the first to establish regular trade with Silkur? You could become a titan among merchants! Handle this well, sir, and your fortunes would help your family for generations.”

The man paused. His hand hovered over a pouch hanging from his belt, surely where his coin purse lay.

Take the hook, my fisherman. It took Cal every ounce of willpower not to sneer.

“Can I see the map?”

“Yes, I have it right here.” Cal reached under the table and pulled out the tube. He gently pulled out the parchment and unrolled it on the counter. “May I ask your name, sir?”

He man let out a long breath as he stared at the details on the map. Lifting his hand up to hold his chin, he stood and grew increasingly distracted. The orange dust on the map shimmered just a bit—just enough to appear as though the light came from the nearby lantern. “Damon Silversky.”

“Mr. Silversky, I don’t think I have to tell you this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I promise you, this map is as authentic as your oilskin coat. Think of the opportunity—The Shellshard Trading Company, founded by Mr. Damon Silversky.”

“How much?”

Cal named his price. High, but not exorbitant. Coin changed hands, and the man with new dreams in his eyes walked away.

Cal sighed happily. “Finally, now I can leave this godsforsaken city. Just enough time to get packed up and off to the boat.”

Pirate Ship Orange Storm

When Damon Silversky’s ship reached the Ghost Storm Peninsula on the northern edge of the Shellshard Islands, the sunset brightened to fiery shades of orange. Clouds that appeared to be made of soot began to cover the setting sun, swirling too fast for normal clouds.

The would-be trader clutched the map in his hands. “Can’t abide rough seas now.”

The first mate approached with the sextant, handing out to him. “You can see land to the northeast! I think we’re close.”

He used the sextant. His heart swelled with ambition. “What do you make of this sky? What storm are we facing?”

“Honestly, I’ve never seen colors like this. Aurora Bay,” the first mate whistled. “That’s what they say about the skies in Silkur. Absolutely otherworldly. The clouds are unusual, but I think we’ll be fine. The winds aren’t very strong.”

Damon stared at the black clouds in wonder. How they moved so fast, yet the swells and wind remained the same, peaceful calm as they had for hours. “Sail on,” he said.

Dark Aurora

The enveloping night sky delighted the sailors with the varied colors of the northern lights and the clouds that danced around them. The closer they got to the shore, the more amazing the skies became.

Until the lighthouse came into sight. They didn’t notice it at first. The beacon remained dark until they were close to the end of the bay. The beacon’s light flared into a ball of magical light, and the sky went dark.

They were not blessed with starlight nor moonlight. Plunged into the blackest of voids, Damon called for the ship to be stayed.

They waited, tensely listening to the sounds of the gentle waves.

A crescent of fire surrounded the ship. Seven dragonships of Silkur came into view. Ships of legend, the dragonships were massive, each metal dragon’s head at the bow puffing smoke and flame, ready to burn an enemy ship at a warlord’s command.

A voice came from the darkened bow of one of the ships. “You will surrender.” It wasn’t a question.

There was no choice.

As the corsairs boarded the ship en masse, Damon wondered who Cal really was. Obviously no simple cartographer. The slavers clasped each sailor in chains, and assigned their own to guide the ship home to Silkur behind the dragonships.

A titan among merchants, Cal thought with a sardonic grin, feeling the iron cuffs weigh down his wrists. A titan among fools, more like. If I ever get out of this mess, I’ll hunt down that cartographer and feed him to the god of the kraken.


A Tribute to an Amazing Influence: Tanith Lee


My mom’s closest friend has been a mentor to be in many ways. Though not a writer herself, we share many of the same interests that helped shape my life as a writer. When I was growing up, it felt like the height of sophistication to visit her in Boston. My mentor, godmother, and pseudo-aunt all in one, she’d take me shopping after my parents dropped me off. We’d stay up late watching Elvira take down the cheesiest of old horror films while indulging in candy and sips of Grand Marnier. It was a great place to be. I was always the only kid in this three-decker full of great friends. I was always treated like an adult. I related to this world far more than the one I knew at school. One of the best parts? The books we shared.

My mom’s friend turned me onto the Gothic path with H.P. Lovecraft and a lot of beautifully illustrated dark fantasy. She introduced me to one author’s work that captured my imagination—Tanith Lee. It began with Sometimes, after Sunset, and I considered Vivia a masterpiece.

Tanith Lee’s books are filled with gorgeous turns of phrase—the kind I’d scribble down and pin to a corkboard for inspiration.

Even though I consider myself a fan, I hardly scratched the surface of her work. She was a prolific writer. There are certain authors whose works I pore over time and again, pulling apart sentences and thinking about why certain wording resonates so strongly with me. I tend to love flowery prose. For me, it’s where literature and painting intersect. I mainly stuck to the florid styles of epic fantasy and literature reminiscent of 1001 Nights, but after being a teaching assistant for a course on Modernism in Paris at Harvard Extension School, Hemingway taught me otherwise. Painting and writing can be fused on a more basic level. It doesn’t have to be so elaborate.

“I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put n them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” —A Moveable Feast

Authors like Tanith Lee taught me to paint with words. Sparingly or with intricate flourishes, these words provided portraits, landscapes, and rich tapestries that fed my artistic spirit. Her books will always be shelved with the authors who influenced me the most.

I was sorry to hear about the loss of Tanith Lee this week. Her work enriched me as a writer, and for that, I’m ever grateful.

After Sunset