Modern Pop Culture References in Fantasy

Call the practice what you will: a shout-out, an homage, or simply a reference. If you’re a fan of pop culture, movies, TV, books, or music, perhaps you’ve seen filmmakers, directors, and writers being cute with this ritual. Recently, my wife and I were watching an episode of “Heroes,” and were pleased at the appearance of George Takei (Mr. Sulu from the original Star Trek). In this new series, he’s a wealthy Japanese business magnate, and the license plate on his limousine read “NCC-1701.” We had a good chuckle over noticing that little shout-out. In “Jersey Boys,” directed by Clint Eastwood, there’s a scene in a TV studio and a wall of monitors. The screens are playing many of the TV shows from that era, including a shot of Rowdy Yates from “Rawhide.”

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These allusions are everywhere if you take the time to notice them. But of course, one must be a veritable fountain of useless cultural knowledge (like me) to catch them. Even The Beatles dropped a shout-out to Bob Dylan in the song “Yer Blues” from The White Album.

With all this in mind, I couldn’t resist the temptation to do the same within my own pages. The original manuscript for Storm of Divine Light was replete with Easter Egg type shout-outs. But alas, my wife (The Queen) and some beta readers suggested their removal. They said that my references, although entertaining, were too overt and jolted them out of their reading immersion.

For some odd reason, I figured that including some shout-outs was the right thing to do as a way of adding humor to Storm of Divine Light. After all, I hadn’t played any word games with a reader since my first short story “A Purveyor of Odd Things” from the Ragged Souls collection. No pop culture references in that one, but an assault of palindromes, anagrams, and double-entendres.

I reluctantly agreed and removed most of them during the final edit. Most of them (heh heh heh). The remaining ones are quite veiled, and I doubt if anyone will identify all of them. I confess, one of them is somewhat blatant, but I figured that one would stay as a signal that there are more. Hopefully, you’ve paid strict attention to my favorite movie lists. Although I do have a nagging suspicion that my friend Lynne will catch most or all of them.

Do you know what NCC-1701 signifies? Or what Rowdy Yates has to do with “Jersey Boys”? Or the lyrics from The Beatles “Yer Blues”?

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Editing Crutch Words

When we (the Queen and I) were on the cusp of completing the final draft of my fantasy novel, Storm of Divine Light, I came across an intriguing post by #WritingCommunity member, Indie Author and Editor Dan Alatorre. His blog post concentrated on the dreaded phenomenon known as “crutch words.” Just when we thought we were safe, it was back to the draft for another round of editing.

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What are crutch words?

They are words or expressions that an author’s brain defers to like a default setting (and therefore, they become over-used). These repeated words / phrases should not be obliterated from your writing, but rather, their frequency and usage needs to be reduced.

What do I mean by “usage”?

Word usage falls into two broad categories. First, there is description / exposition and second, there is dialog. I’ll use the word “look” as an example in exposition.

Janet flashed a stern look at him.

Occurrences like this are borderline “telling.”  You can allow about fifteen per novel; just make sure they are distant from each other.

John looked at Janet’s stern face.

Blatant “telling” and also “distancing.” Please edit (with extreme prejudice) such usage from your manuscript.

On the flip side, the word “look” seems quite natural in dialog:

John held up the old photograph. “Wow! Come over here and take a look at this.”

Proper, simple, and to the point. Good job!  Now here’s an example where I make a special effort to  avoid the word “look.”

“Hey, Janet! Amble over to my location and visually scan this old photograph and let’s see if it surprises you?”

An overzealous crusade to edit any and all occurrences of a crutch word in dialog may result in stilted, wooden, and unrealistic conversation.

In another example, you may have placed the word properly, but it appears too many times within a short space.

John held up the old photograph. “Wow! Come here and take a look at this.”

Bill glanced over his shoulder and said, “Now look, I can’t drop everything whenever you think you’ve found something important. Keep searching and we’ll look everything over later.” He huffed a breath and stared at John with a disdainful glare.

“Don’t look at me like that.” John flung the photo into a box.

Every single line of dialog is perfectly acceptable. However, “look” is used four times within five lines of text. Do not only refer to the sidebar within MS Word. When you do a search for any crutch word, scroll though and look for clusters.

Is it possible to use a crutch word to one’s advantage?

People, not just authors, have crutch words in their arsenal. Therefore, to make a character more realistic, give them a crutch word or phrase that is reflective of their personality. Remember to use it and don’t abuse it. If a particular character has a verbal crutch, don’t let another character say the same phrase or word as much.

In Storm of Divine Light, I used the word “quite” thirteen times in dialog. The main secondary character, Cyril, uses it seven times, Maynard four times, Dagorat once, and Liberon once. I gave the character Cyril the phrase “Quite right.” Maynard says the same with some frequency, but I also established that he and Cyril are peers in age, education, and social status.

How to find those crutch words

I searched on-line for crutch word lists. Although some results geared toward public speaking and therefore contained “Um,” “Ya know,” and “like.” I found enough sites to compile a general list, but then came the ultimate problem associated with crutch words in your manuscript:  finding the personal ones unique to your own brain.

You may find those elusive personal crutch words by searching for a different one. When I searched through my manuscript for “very,” MS Word also highlighted “every,” “everything,” “everyone” and “everywhere.” In this way, I discovered that “every” was one of my personal crutches. By the time I was done, I had an extensive list to scrub:

  • A bit
  • A few
  • Actually
  • Almost
  • Appear
  • As though
  • Basically
  • Beginning
  • Certainly
  • Could
  • Definitely
  • Each
  • Every/thing/one
  • Felt
  • Finally* (Obliterate this one)
  • Gaze
  • Glance
  • Heard/hear
  • Just
  • Look
  • Nearly
  • Nod
  • Only
  • Probably
  • Quite
  • Rather
  • Reach
  • Realize
  • Really
  • Saw
  • See
  • Seem/Seems/Seemed
  • Shrugged his/her/their shoulders
  • Simply
  • Slightly
  • Some / Somehow
  • Touch
  • Turn / return
  • Very
  • Virtually
  • Was
  • Watch
  • Wonder
  • Would

Remember to apply the principles of usage and frequency when hunting these buggers down.

I’m somewhat knocked out by the difference between a crutch word-cleaned draft and the preceding draft. My manuscript for Storm of Divine Light became tighter, and neater. Or shall I say more groomed?

Did you find this helpful? Did you find a personal crutch word not on my list?

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Balancing Your Chapter Titles

Back in 2016, while still writing and editing my first fantasy novel, I wrote a post concerning the pros/cons and naming conventions of chapter titles. Since then, I’ve learned more about the ins and outs of creating them. First, a chapter title must be true. An author should never title a chapter something like “A Stampede of Pink Elephants” when there is no stampede or even a mention of a pink elephant, real or imagined, within the chapter. This notion of truthfulness brings us to the next problem, and the reason that creating chapter titles requires writing and editing skills, too.

We may label this second can of worms “honesty to a fault.” Imagine a sub-plot dedicated to the romance between the main character, Mary, and the detective, Richard. Naturally, the pages spent building up the romance teases the reader and forces possibilities and questions to grow in his or her mind. Will one die? Will they break up? Will they get married? Perhaps the end of chapter ten is a cliff-hanging hook. Will Richard save Mary in time? Too bad you titled chapter sixteen, “Mary and Richard’s Wild Wedding.” The author created an honest title, but his/her table of contents is nothing more than an extended spoiler list of the novel.

Here are the chapter titles for Storm of Divine Light:

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Chap.  1 The Signs & Portents of Mage-Sense

Chap.  2 The Confessions of Brother Maynard

Chap.  3 Religious Relics Are People Too

Chap.  4 How to Roast a Goblin

Chap.  5 Secret Steps

Chap.  6 The Metamorphosis of Liberon

Chap.  7 Under the Stolen Kiss

Chap.  8 In Hot Pursuit of a Mouse

Chap.  9 Affection’s Afflictions

Chap. 10 The Last Wagon

Chap. 11 The Incredible Gnomish Vision Tube

Chap. 12 A Bloody Fragrance

Chap. 13 Soft Footsteps in the Dark

Chap. 14 Forks in the Road

Chap. 15 Suns, Moons, & Stars

Chap. 16 May the Light Shine upon Thee

Chap. 17 Something Stirs in the Wood

Chap. 18 Across the Queen’s River

Chap. 19 Ancient Rites Fulfilled

Chap. 20 Red Desert Rezzin

Chap. 21 Palatial Brevity

Chap. 22 The Price of Blood

Chap. 23 Golgent on the Horizon

Chap. 24 Weapons of Light

Chap. 25 Bulls, Ballistae, & Bandoras

Chap. 26 Guilder’s Gambit

Chap. 27 Stronghold of Shadow

Chap. 28 Full Circle

Chap. 29 Vows

I hope these chapter titles create an air of mystery and will entice the reader rather than reveal the whole plot of Storm of Divine Light. Of course, they are all truthful descriptions as well.

Do you use chapter titles when you write or prefer them in the books you read? Which chapter title of Storm of Divine Light intrigues you the most?

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Storm of Divine Light: About the Cover and Book Design

Do you like the cover and interior book design for Storm of Divine Light? I have to give credit where the true credit is due, namely, Creative Publishing Book Design. Before my first contact with Creative Publishing Book Design, I have to admit to having reservations. Too often I’ve read warnings from others about the vultures out there looking to scam a quick buck from unsuspecting Indie Authors.

Stormcover7blogAfter my first phone call, I was very impressed. They were quick and patient with me, but they also worked with me. I cannot overstate the importance of working with me. Instead of making me choose from some prefabricated generic covers, they looked at my initial sketches and built everything from that starting point. They even requested three chapters to develop a design that reflected the mood of the book.

Communication is a key factor

There were many emails, phone calls, and text messages. I must say, their answers were quick and accurate as were their attention to details and small adjustments. For example, I did not like the eyes of the figure on the cover. I thought, because the MC is a rogue, there should be an air of mystery about him. Within hours, the team at Creative Publishing Book Design made the adjustment.

The Results Were Worth the Money

I have some print editions from Indie Authors, and unfortunately, some of those books look like they belong in the “minor leagues”. The cover combined with the stunning interior make Storm of Divine Light (use the ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon) into a professional looking book, as if it was plucked from the shelf of a major book dealer.

I will contract them again for the next novel in my fantasy series, M & M: The Tales of Tyrennia: Book II. Why? Because I was treated like a valued client.

Have you ever contracted for covers and design? Got a horror story or an endorsement to share?

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New Epic Fantasy Novel: Storm of Divine Light

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The words “epic fantasy novel” do not paint an exact picture. With absolute justification and zero mental gymnastics, Storm of Divine Light is also a mystery, a romantic fantasy, an action adventure quest, and a battle laden with sword and sorcery, all written with a healthy dose of magic, religion, and humor.

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These sub-genres weave into the main story line and world-building. Most importantly, they are not simply tossed in from left field, or as some like to say, “parachuted” into the plot. Instead, they grow organically from the main plot line.


Epic Fantasy + sword and sorcery + mystery + romance + quest + action adventure + magic + humor = A most splendid entertaining experience.


stormpromoF3Imagine the epic fantasy plot line as a thick tree trunk with the sub-plots and genres as branches. Naturally, some branches are thick and closer to the base of the tree, while others are the twigs sprouting from other branches. Therefore, Storm of Divine Light has a winning formula.

Without naming the different descriptions (except quest), can you see the possibilities within the blurb?

A disturbance in the night and an unlikely stranger force the exiled master rogue Dagorat into a perilous quest. Along with his oldest friend Cyril the Wise, he sets off to retrieve a powerful weapon stolen by the dark mages of the Golgent.

Together, they brave the journey across a continent to Dagorat’s former home of Easterly, where discovery means certain execution. Along the way, he uncovers hard truths about his past, and finds new hopes for his future.

But the rising threat of war means those hopes tremble on a razor’s edge. Can he ever find his way out of the shadows and into the light?

Do you like to read multi-genre books? Does the blurb intrigue you?

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Storm of Divine Light: The Tales of Tyrennia: Book 1

Free with #KindleUnimited       eBook $3.99       Print $13.99

 

History in a Fantasy Novel

The history of your world should play a major role if you are writing a fantasy or even a Sci-Fi novel. Imagine how a reader will feel when they are dropped into a civilization or a post-apocalyptic setting without any knowledge. Surely this scenario can make anyone feel like a stranger in a strange land. History is an essential part of world-building.

Of course, one has to naturally avoid long-winded historical passages when world-building. After all, it’s a fantasy novel not a history textbook. Earlier, I discussed the use of Technology In Your Fantasy World. Dropping such hints tells us where a civilization or society currently stands, but it doesn’t speak about how they got there.

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Reflect for a moment upon Gandalf returning to Bag End to impart his knowledge about the Ring to Frodo. The scene plays out with a sense of urgency rather than seeming conveniently dropped into place as world-building filler material by Tolkien.

In my upcoming fantasy novel, Storm of Divine Light, I only delve into several great ancient battles and religious history. Both are incredibly linked to the main plot and the mystery at hand for the main character.

Another “history” would be backstory for characters. I used some of the same techniques and will discuss the in a future post.

I cringed at the thought of writing a chunk of history and sweated profusely when chapter 3 “Religious Relics Are People Too” was read at a critique. Oddly enough it passed with flying colors.

The trick was to “seed” the history in the previous chapter.

In chapter 2, there are sub-characters discussing and comparing historical notes. The main character listens and sometimes get frustrated by their knowledge. He wants to jump in and ask questions, but feels foolish. Later, he’ll accost one of them alone for the information he needs. His sense of “itching” for more information transfers to the reader. A sense of urgency made everything in chapter 3 flow without the aforementioned “contrived” element and seems perfectly plausible.

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History and backstory have to be present in order for a complete world-building experience in a fantasy novel, but many feel intimidated by it. How about you? How are you handling history or backstory in your novel?

Technology in Your Fantasy World

Fantasy novels can cover so many different types of worlds. It doesn’t always have to be a medieval or agrarian setting. Remember, pre-computerized or pre-electrified societies had guns, cannons, and steam power. Have you wandered into Stormwind City in World of Warcraft lately? While many players ride around on traditional steeds, others ride dragons, and still more have motorized transportation. There’s no reason that a little technology can exist in your world as well, if you wanted.

Sometimes a map, creature encounters, or a sword fight are not enough. A reader needs to know what type of world s/he has been thrust into upon opening your book.

Mythical Creatures Fairy Tales Gnome Control Troll

Public Domain Image Courtesy of Pixabay

Now I’m sure some may say, “They know they’ve purchased a fantasy novel. They should know what kind of world to expect.” All well and true. But how to best describe the intricacies of your world? One unique aspect may be the level of technology.

Exposition right out the gate is definitely NOT the way to go. Imagine opening a book or using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature and seeing something like…

It was the third age after the fall of Westernia. Many people roamed far and wide over the centuries. They built communities, new cities, and were now the denizens of four separate Kingdoms. The distances created new languages, regional accents, alliances, and war.

However, all the Kingdoms would unite when faced with a common enemy blah blah blah… Maybe this could work as a blurb, but not as a chapter opening.

Here’s My Approach

A better way to build your world is in dribs and drabs emerging from the story and characters. As an example, in my forthcoming novel Storm of Divine Light, I have a single passage from the middle of Chapter 3 that locks in my world’s technology level and a few other things.

***

The vendor blinked his over-sized eyes and smiled ear-to-ear at Cyril, as only a Gnome could do. He held out a small, plain steel box, about two inches square and a quarter inch thick. With a flick of his fingers, the Gnome flipped the top open to reveal a wick and a gnarled metal wheel. His thumb pressed on the wheel, and after a quick quarter turn, the wick burst into a small flame.

Cyril raised his eyebrows and smiled. “By Korak’s staff! Instant fire.”

“I’d hate to hear the price,” Daggorat said.

After a hearty round of bargaining with the vendor, Cyril paid eight Golden Claw pieces. He proudly admired the gadget as they walked away. “An amazing feat of Gnomish ingenuity and craftsmanship.”

“And you accuse me of being impulsive. Just twelve copper-jacks for our breakfasts. We could eat at the tavern for almost a whole year on that money. Why does everyone trust those Gnomes?” Dagorat shook his head. “It must be those huge childlike eyes.”

“Oh, stop casting shadows upon my enjoyment.” He moved closer and whispered, “Besides, with this fascinating little trinket, I can make fire without suffering the company of dark mages. Or bending to their will.”

***

Within this small passage, I’ve introduced Gnomes, the monetary system, some information about the technology level of the world, and something mysterious concerning both Light and Dark Mages. All while keeping the story flowing. This is the approach that I’ve had the best feedback from at critique groups. Give it a try and see what it can do for your writing!

Hope you found this writing tip helpful.

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The World of Tyrennia

I’m writing a fantasy novel called Storm of Divine Light. It is the first in The Tales of Tyrennia series. Set in a Tolkien-inspired world with other muses like the famous tabletop Role Playing Games (RPG’s) Dungeons & Dragons, and Pathfinder. Also, there are the equally inspiring experiences associated with Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and World of Warcraft (WoW).

Within Tyrennia are the three Human Kingdoms of Ravenna, Easterly, and Quintalya. Ravenna is the most powerful and wealthy kingdom as is its main city Mentiria, which also lies near The Shantokran, a separate area for light mages.

In the far North lies the Dwarven Kingdom and The Golgent lands of the Dark Mages. There are also Gnomes and Halflings lands as well as an Elven refuge.

Eleven of the first twelve chapters are set within Mentiria, a hustling and bustling cosmopolitan city containing taverns, saloons, guilds, and shops of all sorts. The tale opens during the Festival of the Summer Solstice, in which readers will encounter street vendors, performers, magicians and drunkards. The city’s atmosphere and culture provide ripe raw material for tales, adventure, and world-building.

Within the novel’s pages, the reader will follow a quest-based adventure with my two main characters, Dagorat and Cyril. Something precious and powerful has been lost (and no, it’s not a ring), and our heroes must retrieve it. Along the way they will be joined by interesting personas, all of whom bring something unique and fun to the journey.

Although classified as a fantasy novel, Storm of Divine Light has a healthy dose of humor, magic, religion, romance, mystery, action and adventure.

Is Tyrennia the name of the world or simply the main continent? Or both because the continent is the known world?

You’ll have to read to find out.