tell me about deserts

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a hot climate (over ten years now). And even when I did, my experience was of a coastal urban environment.

Right now I’m writing a story set in a desert.

I’ve read up on real-life deserts. I’ve looked at dozens of pictures of sand dunes, barren hills and salt flats. I’ve watched videos.

But none of those gives me the sensory details I crave. What does the desert smell like? How does the wind feel on your face? What’s the light like? What sounds do you hear in the desert night?

Since I can’t just hop on a plane for some first-hand research (I wish!), I’m asking for details from some of you who might’ve experienced a desert environment. If you live in, or have visited, the American Southwest (like the Death Valley area) or any other hot desert, I’d love to know some sensory details that’ll bring the setting to life for me.

dragons I have known

When I first started writing fantasy, I swore that I would never ever include something so cliched, so stale, so overdone, as a dragon.


Whether I wanted them or not, dragons crept or stormed into my fiction anyway.

The sleeping dragon whose awakening would restart an ancient war. The cultured dragon who likes books and foreign travel. The continent-sized space dragon whose skeleton is home to humans and humanoid species.

And these are all in some way influenced by the dragons I have known, and fall in one of the categories below:

Force of Nature/Actively Evil

The dragons of Western literature dragons are seen as forces of nature–like a destructive storm–or actively evil. These are the dragons that Beowulf and St. George battle. These are the dragons from the movie Reign of Fire. The ones that are intelligent as well as malevolent are the most compelling and frightening of all–from Smaug in The Hobbit to the transformed Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Loyal Companions

Two words: Pernese dragons.

Admit it, you were thinking about Pernese dragons too when you saw the “Loyal Companions” heading

These telepathic dragons are genetically engineered to bond with human riders and fight Thread. They are sentient, but they are also totally, irrevocably loyal to and protective of their riders. These dragons fulfill a powerful human fantasy to command the utter devotion of such fearsome beasts.

They’re also from my grown-up perspective, a little boring. (I wonder what would happen if a genetic mutant in that sort of world didn’t bond with a human, didn’t die from lack of such bond, and grew up wondering what made humans so special that dragons had to obey them?).

Cute and Cuddly

These abound in children’s books, from the little kitten-sized dragon in There’s No Such Thing As a Dragon to the three, darling troublemakers in Good Night, Good Knight.

See, dragons just want to be cuddled and petted. Hmm, also sounds like Pernese fire lizards.

Very cute story. And look at those adorable little dragonlings!

Just Like Us

They may have sharp teeth and be overfond of princesses and sparkly stuff, but they are like us. They talk, they give dinner parties, they form governments. They argue and form alliances. Some of them are inquisitive and question everything. Others would rather read poetry than fight. They are easy to identify with.

Who are your favorite dragons? Any dragon categories I might’ve missed?

weird worlds in fantasy and science fiction

I love weird worlds. Tempt me with a clockwork universe, a planet with two suns, or a moving city. Immerse me in the details of how life works in such a bizarre place. Entrance me with your imagination.

Give me a weird world, and I’m halfway there for your book.

Some of my favorite strange worlds are:

Upon Another Living Creature

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld rests on the back of four elephants which stand upon the shell of Great A’Tuin, the cosmic turtle. In Martha Wells’ The Serpent Sea, a large part of the action takes place in a city built upon the back of a sea creature magically compelled to swim at the water’s surface (and you can just tell what would happen if that compulsion failed, can’t you?). In Leviathan, Derryn Sharp is a midshipman on a living airship engineered from a blue whale, with its own ecosystem of flachette bats, strafing hawks, hydrogen-sniffing canines, and many other (fun!) creatures.

Non-Earth-like Planets

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars (second in the trilogy) has delightful sections on the terraforming of Mars and the creation of colonies on other planets and moons. A giant umbrella shades Venus. The human settlement on Mercury is on a moving train. Denizens of the moons around the gas giants genetically alter themselves to survive the environment.

Life on the Edge

Living in extreme yet Earth-like environments also works for me. Kat Falls’ Dark Life takes place on Earth–but in human settlements built undersea. Brandon Sanderson’s world of Roshar is battered by massive storms and much of the natural life, including botanical, is able to retreat into shells.

In the Air

Flying cities show up in games, movies, and books. From Skies of Arcadia to Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky to The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier, habitats in the air are toe-curlingly wonderful to this reader.

Build Your World

Some habitats, notably in science fiction, are entirely man-made. Space stations and generation star ships are good examples. An interesting megastructure is Larry Niven’s Ringworld, an artificial ring orbiting around a star like our own sun.


Weird worlds also creep into my writing. The world of Quartz is a disc in a mechanical universe. The world of Riven is folded, like a paper fan. And in Rainbird, an entire community lives upon the skeleton of a continent-sized dragon.

What are your favorite weird worlds and environments, in fiction and out of it?

are you my genre? on defining science fantasy

There is no doubt that I write fantasy. The whole secondary-world settings kinda give that away.

The trouble starts when I try to narrow my work into a sub-genre.

My stories don’t have the scale and scope of epic fantasy. They don’t have the the coming-of-age themes or adventures of heroic fantasy. I stay away from writing in a historical or alternate Earth setting, so those genres of fantasy (including steampunk) are out. Some of my work is obviously based on fairy tales, but a large part is not. YA fantasy is a nice catch-all, but my protagonists are mostly older and I write with an adult audience in mind.

But, Rabia, why not call your genre traditional fantasy and be done with it?

Well, see, that’s what I started writing, way back when. My first novel was set in a pseudo-medieval world, with its attendant attitudes and technology. But since that book, my worlds have become more modern. They feature indoor plumbing and firearms, trams and trains, elevators and radios. My societies perform great feats of science and engineering, whether its using a radioactive element to punch portals into other worlds or hanging an artificial sun on a track made from the skeletal remains of a cosmic dragon. I have magic in my worlds, but my sorcerers are just as likely to be scientists as they perform genetic experiments and create mechanical constructs.

And not only that, but I have a fixation with what goes on in high above the ground. My first novel featured a sorcerer-made flying fortress. I love to deprive worlds of their suns and create weird universes. The back stories of many of my races has them traveling from other planets. Events on my worlds are affected by what comes from the sky, whether it’s space dust or the aforementioned cosmic dragons.

You could blame all this on too many episodes of The Universe. But truth is, science fiction elements have always crept into my stories and woven themselves into the background.

Can it be that I’m really writing science fantasy?

Turns out that it’s not too easy to define what science fantasy is. It’s a fluid genre with fuzzy boundaries. Often it looks to be straightforward fantasy, with the science fiction elements so well-hidden that they come out either in later books or in bonus material. Or it might look like science fiction until the elves and dwarves show up.

Take for example, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern book. The first book, Dragonflight, has a pseudo-medieval and low-technology setting that is familiar to readers of traditional fantasy. It contains dragons, another classic fantasy element. Yet the threat to Pernese society comes not from Dark Lords rising from their underground tombs, but in the form of Thread falling from the skies when the Red Planet draws near to Pern.  In later books we learn that the dragons were genetically engineered to fight Thread and that the Pernese people can trace their origins back to our Earth.

The Star Wars movies are often classified as science fantasy, and I can see why. When you take fantasy conventions (princesses, a brotherhood of mage-monks with arcane powers, swords–even if they are made out of lasers and called sabers) and plunk them into a universe with spaceships, firearms, and tanks, you’re blending the two genres. I think one could even put Cameron’s Avatar in the same sub-genre.

I love both science (chemistry and anything space-related) and the humanities (literature and history). When I write science fantasy, I’m free to draw inspiration from both these wells. And that makes for a happier writer and better stories.

Do you read or write science fantasy? Do you have any other examples of the genre? How would you define it?

spider silk: the logistics of luxury

The world’s largest spider silk garment is on display for the first time at the Victoria & Albert museum. Spider silk is one of those ultra-exotic luxuries that crops up from time to time in fantasies, often imbued with magical powers. A spider silk cape, one can imagine, might come with Spidey powers: keen senses, near-invisibility, the ability to leap from building to building. It’s so easy to throw spider silk into the economy of one’s fantasy world, along with heart-sized rubies and mollusk-made purple dye.

However, this article shows that some things are too rare and too labor-intensive to be more than one-time novelties:

To create the cape, British art historian Simon Peers and his American business partner Nicholas Godley spent five years collecting and harnessing over 1 million spiders in special “silking” contraptions to extract their threads, 24 critters at a time.

On average, 23,000 spiders yield roughly 1 ounce of silk, making the process intensely laborious and time-consuming. It’s not hyperbole then to claim that the textiles are among the world’s most rare and precious objects—liquid gold, if you will.

Unless, of course, you have a high-tech world where they’ve figured out how to manufacture artificial spider silk.

Or they have really really big arachnids.


“Spider hunter” on that world might be an um… interesting job!

I would love to touch spider silk cloth, though. Just to see how it feels.

What about you? What rare or one-of-kind item would you like to see in person or hold in your hand for a few minutes?

back-to-school for writers: creating languages

Fellow writer and blog reader Megs Payne graciously agreed to write this guest post about creating languages. Thanks, Megs, for providing us with such a thorough and thoughtful approach to building a language!

The Quick and Messy Way to Make a Language

by Megs Payne

Crafting a language is like writing a story. It can be a short story, novella, or a novel. When devising my very first created language, Vas’her, it took years to conceptualize, draft it, edit, and finally fully revise it. I’m still working on it. That is a novel, or series of novels even. When it came time to write a short story as a Christmas gift a few months away, I knew I didn’t have that sort of time.

Tatan took me three weeks.

This is the quick and messy way to make a language.

Step One: Conceptualizing

There are three main aspects of conceptualizing your language.

In order for the language to add value to your story, it must be tied to the culture and characters. For a fabulous description of how to consider the final result desired, check out Juliette Wade’s article on the matter.

The language should have an overall feeling or idea that keeps you on track as you write it. “A language is the soul of its people,” says Holly Lisle. This core idea must and will affect how its speakers think. Tatan is a cohesive language, completely built off of a single table of concepts and roots that is expanded only systematically. It differentiates between making and creating. Vas’her includes only a single negative word—“no”—and makes use of meaning over sound in its core alphabet.

From the very beginning, you should decide how your language makes use of syntax and morphology. Syntax refers to the rules for putting words together into complete sentences, whereas morphology refers to how to expand the meanings of words with affixes and declensions. Whether your language conjugates practically nothing (as Vas’her) or absolutely everything (as Tatan), you will have to come up with almost the same number of rules. For story languages, however, I recommend going with a fusional language and leaning towards more morphological rules. Vas’her was written in three years. Tatan was written in three weeks. Using the same method.

Step Two: Drafting

This is the stage where you get down the bones of your language. A language’s framework, or skeleton, is composed of how it categorizes things: people, space, time, number, ideas. There are five primary tables I always like to know up front.

Grammatical gender is not the same as biological gender, though it can be based on it. Gender is the way language categorizes people (and often everything else) and reflects the way its speakers categorize people. Latin languages use masculine and feminine. Several African languages use deity, human, and animal. Vardin, a language I’m currently writing, uses the four social positions. Tatan uses parent, peer/sibling, child, and unmarked. Just remember: the more genders you use, the more work you have ahead of you, especially if you include case.

Ideas and their application are handled by grammatical case (morphology). Is a gift received and the receiver of the gift grammatically identical? In English, pretty much, and it’s the objective case. In other languages, these are considered to be very different and take the accusative and dative cases, respectively. You can have a case for an object in motion, something that belongs to someone, something that was used in an action. In short, for anything you want.

Singular and plural are not the only numbers either. Number can included a partitive plural, a collective plural, dual, triple, or any other specific number. In Tatan, every word can be easily affixed to be of a certain number, though a simple plural can also be called.

Space is a cultural concept. In some cultures, personal space is not the norm (thinking of India, here). In others, six feet may be barely enough. Being close could mean intimacy, as in English, or it could mean rudeness. In Tatan, the idea of space as relationships is magnified. To draw near is to become close emotionally; to put distance between is considered openly hostile. The terms for going on a journey frequently avoid any mention of distance, no matter how far the destination. Also keep in mind whether there is anything different about direction, such as west and east or even up and down. A spacefaring race will have quite a different concept of space.

Another cultural concept enshrined in language is time. Grammatical tense is only one place this shows up. In English, time is conceived of as linear and generally traveling from left to right. In some cultures, it’s viewed as vertical or in a circle. In some languages, time is never mentioned unless necessary, as in Vas’her, or is viewed as happening in the past and also now or in the future and also now. The ways a character views time affects more than just language and it’s important to make sure they match.

Finally, check back over your culture and determine if there is any other point that is integral to your characters. In Tatan, the concept of blood is vital. To be blooded is to belong to the culture. To be blooded is to be an adult. To be blooded is to have conquered in some battle, whether that be between men or in childbirth. It’s how they define themselves versus outsiders. It’s in the personal pronouns table. There’s one for the unblooded and one for the blooded. Look at your overall language concept again if you need ideas.

Finally, the easiest way I have to nail down all these structural constructs is to simply build a table of the personal pronouns. I do this because even in nongender languages, some genders usually show up on the pronouns table. It’s an easy way to see if you’ve missed anything and if you’ve included the absolute maximum categorization available to nouns.

Step Three: Layering

The good news is that if all you want is how to make your characters sound like their language, you’re just about done. If you actually want to put some flesh on it though, add more than just a handful of vocabulary words to your story, then there’s a little more work to do.

This is where you get into syntax, regardless of whether it was your big point. Decide what word orders are acceptable. If you had a heyday using case, you really don’t have to select one. But if there’s a preferred one anyway, make a note. Consider how to deal with nested clauses, if statements, and complex sentences. Also think about whether word order or mere inflection is used to note questions. All of this should appear in your rendered English dialogue.

Decide how your language references previously mentioned items. Vas’her has a system much more complex than ‘it.’ They can reference ‘it’ for inanimate objects, ‘this’ for the previous idea or person, and ‘that’ for the idea or person mentioned before ‘this.’ In short, this will translate well in dialogue and gives more depth to the language.

Finally, I must point out stress. This is an oft-overlooked point. Words have stress. English has borrowed so many words from other language, that where its words are emphasized is all over the map. Most languages are not. In Tatan, I not only developed an extremely consistent stress pattern, I used it to increase my available meanings. Verb tense and several cases are changed by simply moving the accent mark (á) to another syllable.

Step Four: Polishing

Deciding on the sounds of your language, its phonology, is easier if you already have some words that sound right. When I began developing Tatan in earnest, I had several names (Daigan, Cautan, Ashreh, Ashikah, Shikai) and words (kinaté, rhaná) to go on.

First, I figured out why I had two k sounds, then promptly discarded bothering about it again. If you don’t have a reason for using two different letters, DON’T. Ever. No matter how tempting.

Second, I made a list of all the sounds currently included and which ones I could not do without. Do not include any letters that you don’t have a word for. Ever. No matter how tempting. Nobody knows your alphabet anyway until well after the story’s published, so you can add it later if you find a word that needs it. (For more on why, see Holly Lisle’s language course.)

At this point, you’re just looking for a feel for what sounds right.

Go back to your stress rules. Consider how having a certain syllable stressed can shift pronunciation. Apply these consistently across your vocabulary. In Tatan, this resulted both in some irregular words and some words based on the same root being spelled and pronounced differently. This is because irregularities are initially produced when rules conflict.

Deciding on how to put those sounds on paper is why it’s so important to limit yourself. Throw out any grand ideas on forcing readers to pronounce words a certain way. They won’t. You’re going to have to get creative with your spelling.

First of all, note that American English and other English is mostly different in how vowels are pronounced. Use lengthening or shortening letters, like ‘h,’ to get the sound you want. For example: Sahlorih is a strange spelling sure, but it was the only way I could get it to be pronounced with a word final short ‘i.’ English doesn’t do that.

Second, use accent marks consistently. Generally, English uses accents to note stress, so recognize that when you decide to apply them. It will make a word final ‘e’ audible and generally gain you the long pronunciation of the vowel.

Step Five: Revising

Change your mind any time you want, just like with a book. You can always revise later. Well… Until you’re published.

For more resources, try: Zompist’s Language Construction Kit, Essays on Language Design, Holly Lisle’s Create a Language Clinic, Juliette Wade’s blog, and How to Create a Language

back-to-school for writers: creating maps

You’ve heard the joke: If there is a map on the front of the book, expect to be dragged to each and every location marked on it. A map has practically become a fantasy novel cliche.

That doesn’t minimize just how useful maps are to both readers and writers.

The fantasy I’m reading nowadays doesn’t have a map. Characters casually refer to countries, provinces and cities, and there is no handy visual reference to see how these places relate to each other. The result: I’m lost and disoriented in a world out of someone’s imagination. And that translates to a nagging discomfort that distracts me from the story itself.

The same holds true on the writer’s side as well, maybe even more so. A writer needs to be spatially oriented in her world, continent, country, village, castle keep or college campus, so she can plan her story and block her scenes accordingly. How long does it take to travel from Molemphis to Milemphos? Is there time for Anna and Di to argue about George’s intentions while they walk from their dorm building to their English class? What natural barriers lie between the warrior Thvor and the City of Rich Nubile Young Women? Can Palla escape out her bedroom window when assassins burst in from her dressing room, or  is she caught between the bed and the entrance to the garderobe?

Okay, so now that you’re convinced your story needs a map (*wink*), how do you go about creating one?

Well, for one, you start by checking out real maps. You can find physical and political maps here.  And the University of Texas Libraries site has tons of links and images of historical maps here (okay, I could get very lost happily following links on that one!).

You can also start your own collection of maps by hanging on to those free pamphlets you get when visiting attractions during your vacations. I’m jealously guarding the Mt. Desert Island map we brought home with us. Looking at the maps will give you an idea of what kinds of physical formations you can put on on your map. They’ll also give you a sense of naming conventions and (in city and village maps) of how human habitations are laid out (Where’s the mill? Where are the fields? Where would the castle keep be?).

Here are a few tips I’ve found useful when drawing maps:

* Pay attention to coastlines. Enjoy creating bays, inlets, coves, headlands, peninsulas and islands. I personally LOVE sand bars and land bridges.

* When drawing a map of a city, town or village, think long and hard about the reason the place came into existence. Was it the presence of mines, proximity to the river, a defensible position or the crossroads of major trade routes? Think about what the first buildings of the town would be and build the rest from there.

* Yes, we all make sure to put mountains, deserts, rivers and forests on our maps, but let’s not forget mesas and volcanoes and steppes and canyons. And by all means have castles and fortresses and towns, bu don’t forget mines and lighthouses and colleges.

All right, now you’re all gung-ho to draw your own fantasy map! Start here for a basic tutorial.

Still need inspiration? Here’s a blog dedicated to fantasy maps. And look, there’s even such a thing as a Cartographers’ Guild.

You can download fantasy mapmaking software AutoRealm for free.

And, if you’re stuck for story ideas, Holly Lisle shows you how to build a world around a map.

Do you draw maps for your stories? Any tips to share?