TWISTED HISTORY & MYTH - Adventures in World-Building
Thank you, Canva!
Now if only you'd let me search for the artist's name so I could credit it.
"Oooh, Izzy, you write novels?"
I do. It's one of my longest-kept, deep-dark secrets. I mean, people know about it. I just don't share it very often. It's even rarer that I share the actual words I've written.
Until this past year.
"That's so cool! What do you write?"
One of my friends, dancers, and writing buddies who can gleefully quote the opening lines of my novels coined the term that best sums that up. She dubbed it "Twisted History & Myth." Thank you, L.V. Bell.
And it's true. When I first started transforming my gladiators from historical fiction into fantasy, one of my earliest discoveries was Guy Gavriel Kay. His propensity for taking a historical setting, tweaking it into an imaginary place, and then painting his own slant on it had immense influence on the way I originally went about fantasy world-building.
The other two authors who had the greatest impact on me as a sprouting speculative fiction writer were the dynamic duo of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. My gladiators' world has gone back and forth and around and back more than a few times. For example, all my closest people know about me and the moon. Arooooooh! Even so, I decided after a couple years that I wasn't interested in dealing with things like double tides, especially after I really got to know my main male protagonist. I love science. I love character and plot more, so we're back to one moon. It's pretty much our moon, just like the physics of this place are pretty much our physics.
At one point, this world went waaaaaay too far down the rabbit hole to where it was pretty much Ancient Rome-with-the-names-chistled-off after discovering Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series. This collection of hefty novels details the political and cultural circumstances that allowed for the rise of Julius Caesar through the adventures with Cleopatra. Well, History Major that I am, this tumbled me into my second wave of historical research, now with access to the Colorado Springs library system and the internet. This intensive dive added so much to the surrounding world outside our arena, and it gave me the antagonists I have today, so...never a wasted rabbit hole.
Sidenote: The first book in that historical fiction series was also the book that helped me relearn how to read after my first big car wreck. Needless to say, those opening chapters took forevvvvvver to get through because I had to go back and reread everything so many times. I'd have to backtrack either five times in a row to comprehend a stinkin' paragraph, or whenever I first picked the book up again because I couldn't remember what I'd read the day before. Talk about crash course. Have you seen how thick these suckers are?
We take our neuroplasticity seriously around these here parts.
So once the history-nerd pendulum had swung too far, I realized how much I missed being a fantasy-geek. I also realized that my brain had gone into this strange hyper-focus on every minutely excruciating detail down to the friggin' millimeter size of a button and the number of splines on that cog in that fancy machine. I wrote like this, I journaled like this, sometimes I even spoke like this. FFS.
My writing partners and I now call this "cogging."
I've always wondered if this is because I rewired my naturally detail-oriented brain while reading such an intensely detailed author as Colleen McCullough. No matter how or why, as I was fixing this strange neuro-glitch and re-exploring my love of fantasy, I got blasted in the face by a fist. Then I got a year of chronic seizures. Then I got rammed at a stop sign. That three-punch combo altered everything in my cranial landscape. Again. Good thing I'd done the uber-load of historical details BEFORE that happened.
This latest round of neuroplasticity that I'm in seems to focus on broad sweeps, interwoven threads, and blended colors. My gladiator world's pantheon and anthropological structure got its much needed overhaul out of this. So did some other major fantasy elements.
For a time, I had toyed with direct mortal-and-deity interaction and the magic that came with it--mostly because I was fed up after two decades of being told how inconceivable it was that a female could ever beat a male in combat. I mean, other authors thought so and people bought their books. There they were in Dragonlance and a boatload of other fantasy novels, but I guess we can only have this quality in side-chicks and henchwomen, not protagonistas. You know, except super-she-roes with magical powers. And cartoon butt-whuppers with magical weapons. And Warrior Princesses who may or may not be daughters of Ares--fine! So I pretty much made my gladiatrix a demigoddess, just to see the reaction.
BOOM. At last, she was "believable" according to anyone with a penis who wasn't trying to stick it in me. Except for a few precious examples, almost every male who has said he believed in this story was either newly dating me or trying to entice me into bed. Given my shady history with sex and romance, and what I now know about these individuals, that's caused me to wonder how much of their enthusiasm was neuro-chemical high and how much was hooking bullshit.
A year after I coated my gladiatrix in supernatural woo-woo, women in the UFC happened. That changed oodles in the reception of the fighters, warriors, and soldiers I kept begging for combat critique. Not all, but more. It also helped with male reception in general. Then I had it confirmed by a male editor from Random House that my gladiatrix no longer needed magic to be believable, so I took it back out.
Thank all the fornicating deities! FFS.
There's been a whole of saking for poor ole Fuck while writing this series, and while being a female martial artist in general.
Maybe the Charlie's Angels really were angelic warriors. Maybe Nikita and Sydney Bristow actually wielded magical weapons the writers didn't tell us about. Maybe Boudica, Artemisia, Tomoe Gozen, Yaa Asantewaa, Joan of Arc, and Triệu Thị Trinh were as imaginary as Wonder Woman. We'll get back to The Inconceivable later.
Ultimately, my experiment in Incarnated Divinities was not a waste of time either. Not one single bit, because those deities were so colossally fun to write that it was like nothing to puke out words when the urge to tell Haides and Persephone's tale struck me.
I'm telling you. All these creative detours, rabbit holes, accidental stumbles into the Underworld, misfires, and seemingly "useless" tangents we go through in our art--none of it is useless. The 100K words of my gladiators' backstories that splatted on the cutting room floor and were relegated to literal backstory? INVALUABLE in giving their conversations, motivations, and interactions the rich detail of an actual person. Instead of explaining about a particular issue that plagues one of them, they have literal trigger words people have said or too-vivid images that blast them between the eyes.
It's all fodder. It's all fertilizer. It's all fuel.
Kinda like the feces of Life, if we can figure out how to use it to our advantage.
Creature creation was another of these frustrating vacillations. My original fantasy world included a boatload of outrageous creatures and plant life we don't have on our planet. Those were extracted along with the second moon and the second Moon Goddess, then put back in two decades later when I realized that Ancient Greek and Roman mythology had already done more brilliant creature creation than I ever could have.
That's not my jam either. I mean, it's fun. It's just not what lights me on fire to sit down with pen and paper. I'm way more interested in how my characters have to deal with said creatures than I am in creating them.
So we now have things like the hippocampus, the hydra, and leviathan sea monsters. I could not, however, go without my favorite original creature: the dagger-toothed kitty with the gorgeous spots and a prickly hackled mane. Y'all know how I am about kitties.
Bonus Silver Lining #927: This dive back into monsters also gave me everybody's favorite three-headed Hound of Haides, everybody's favorite undead spider, and our beloved anthropomorphic Assholes of the Underworld, so...yeah.
Creative Process. Let it flow. Even when it's shite. No, especially when it's shite. There are nuggets in there to--
Okay, moving on.
So remember how I’ve told you about my Gladiatrix and how she came to full life in that furnace of a bedroom over the summer of 1993? I’ve told you that my new boyfriend had introduced me to the Weis-Hickman series Dragonlance, and that's how I became inspired to transform my fighter-chick’s tale from historical fiction into fantasy.
But I didn’t tell you about the other story that was swirling in my mind in that same time period. It starred an immense supernatural creature. He was an important creature to me, and he would lay dormant for many years, only bursting to life after I completed the first draft of my gladiator books--but not at all in the way I had once imagined.
At the time I started researching and drafting my amphitheater adventures, my boyfriend, the black-belt painter-illustrator-photographer, had a droolable book collection. In addition to turning me into a fan of graphic novels over comic books (Batman was my favorite), Kyle also had the most gorgeous coffee table art books. The one I loved most was The Art of the Dragonlance Saga.
I spent round after round poring through that book, sometimes with Kyle as he jabbered like only a genuine artist-geek can about why it inspired him, what touched him most, the minute details that captivated him, the way it was rendered, the inspiration of the sketches, what he wished to emulate in his own art... Other times I snagged it off the shelf on my own.
Yesterday, when I clicked on various unboxing videos and started catching snatches of these old familiar images, my heart gave the most geeklicious squeeee imaginable. “Ermgrrrrds, Raistlin! Eeeeee, Kitiara! OMGs, Caramon! Squeeee, Soth!” It was like catching sight of beloved friends I hadn’t seen in decades.
But then I clicked on the third video. The cover flashed across the screen and landed with a thud: That’s it. This is the book Kyle had. My pre-crash longterm memory only has a few patchy holes from the time period shortly after college, so 1993-95 remains vivid and clear in all its sweeping glory. It’s been a quarter of a century since I’ve held this book, and our host’s excitement parallels my own. As he unboxes this long-awaited treasure, I unbox memory after memory, and they are all painted in these fantastical hues.
A variety of artists made up the Dragonlance collection. For Kyle, Michael Whelan ranked at the top. My boyfriend also had a glorious coffee table book of his work.
And of course, there was Keith Parkinson. Upon opening his website. wouldn’t you know it? There is the star of my secondary story inspiration, looming down at us in all his fiery glory.
🔥The Great Red Dragon.🔥
You can see another version of our star where I first saw him, on the cover of Fire Sea, part of the Deathgate Cycle, which also had immense impact on me as a writer in my twenties. Or if you want to geek out over a collection of the Parkinson artwork, the dragon looms at about the 2.5 minute mark and again around 4 minutes in:
I was constantly haunted by this dragon--not specifically any of the ones from Weis and Hickman, or from any other author or artist. I'm talking about the one in my imagination. He began to loom in the shadows of my mind after I vacated the scorching patio-turned-bedroom that I subletted for a summer. That fall, I moved into a townhouse with three theater gals for my junior year.
My bedroom was upstairs behind frosted-glass French doors. The sunlight slanted down upon my new bed and the warm, hardwood floors. It was a magical room, and I spent many hours putting together a series of cute Kim Anderson puzzles on the floor. Do you remember those? They were all the rage in those days. The black-and-white photos of darling kids in lovestruck poses, always with one splash of red--a balloon or a hat or a rose.
Kyle and I exchanged those cards when we were feeling romantic. I was deeply in love, don’tcha know, so I constantly felt that way.
But behind the scenes, I was being stalked and I didn’t know it.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: The one who stalked me: DANCE WITH THE RED DRAGON
--OR: if you'd like to read one of my monster myth short stories, I've got one: BEWARE THE MINOTAUR