Category Archives: Terry Pratchett

Why do we love werewolves?

Western popular culture has a special relationship with certain Medieval European folk myths. The history of religious and spiritual beliefs across the continent as well as how Christianity developed and coloured a lot of them makes for interesting reading, to be sure. So when popular culture went looking for scary things to mine for stories, there is lots of material ripe for re-imaging.

Vampires are one example of that. Werewolves are another. Both have been frequently re-used and re-invented over the last few decades. I don’t even need to list any titles. The best writers come up with new angles, like Jandar Sunstar in The Forgotten Realms – an elven vampire who actively and successfully fights his vampiric compulsions to the extent a vampire hunter ends up badly misjudging him. Or the vampires in Sanctuary who actually bear little resemblance at all to the popular tropes (and it is such a delight seeing Jonathon Young portray a vampiric Nikola Tesla). The more average ones either disappear with little trace, or come in for considerable amounts of ridicule. Twilight‘s sparkling vampires are a good example.

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Filed under J. K. Rowling, monsters, Stephanie Meyer, Terry Pratchett

The Edges Of World-Building: Paying for Stuff

One thing that usually comes up in invented fantasy worlds, even if just in passing, is the need to exchange money for good and services.

Rare is the story where you can focus on a strange way to do it – most of the time is it little more than colour. Worlds based on Dungeons and Dragons usually have “gold pieces” as the core value (often abbreviated to “gp”) plus lesser values in silver and copper. Which is kind of ironic because the original idea of “gold piece” was so that game writers could create some local colour by changing the name. Many don’t, of course.

It also ignores some of the economic history of our own world. In medieval Europe, which is the basis for a lot of fantasy fiction world-building, the average man-in-the-field never ever saw gold in his entire life. Gold was rare and thus highly valuable. Too valuable, in fact: silver was much less rare and so many coins were struck in silver. But even a single English silver penny was worth a lot: Wikipedia tells us that estimates of its equivalent value in today’s terms is something like $20. That tells us that a lot of local trade wasn’t transacted with money. No wonder few people ever saw gold.

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Filed under David Eddings, Terry Pratchett, The Edges Of World-Building, world-building, writing

The Edges Of World-Building: The Scale Of Things

Sometimes it is a bit too easy to forget how much smaller modern technology has made our world. Modern air travel makes it feasible to travel halfway around the world for a holiday and modern communications makes it easy to socialize with people all over the world.

But this wasn’t always so.

To a very large extent, how far you can easily travel is strongly defined by your world’s society. It is not just the technology, but also the economics that have made air travel affordable for many people. Go back eighty years and it was definitely a luxury exercise. Go back further and it becomes the purlieu of the enthusiast. The world was much bigger for most people.

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Filed under Jane Austen, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Pratchett, The Edges Of World-Building, world-building, writing

Who do you write like?

This is a difficult question. Many trying-to-be-writers will leap onto a particular favourite author and say “I write like them!”. Once they’ve gotten a hundred thousand words down in various projects, I see these writers hesitate to be identified with a particular writer.

We all write differently. It’s a stupidly obvious statement, of course, because we are all different people. Different life experiences, different educations, different value systems. Yet we still want to write like a favourite writer.

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Filed under Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, writing

That Distinctive Voice

It doesn’t happen very often, but I had the pleasure of seeing a modern Porsche 911 drive past whilst I was walking to work this morning. Whatever you may think about the German sports car maker, they do make very distinctive looking cars. I came across a promotion film on Youtube that Porsche made years ago about their 928: even in the late 1970’s, the Porsche 928 really stood out as different amongst the other cars.

In the sea of car makes and models, it seems to be really difficult to design and build a shape that stands out. Few manage it and those that do tend to hold on to their distinctive shapes for decades. Porsche clearly does. Lamborghini does, too. The Lamborghini Countach is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable car shapes ever.  And it has influenced their cars ever since. By contrast, the new sportscar from Toyota and Subaru (called the 86 from one and the BRZ from the other) is rather underwhelming, to say the least.

But wait – isn’t this a blog about writing? So why all the car talk? Because just like car shapes, your writing needs to be distinctive, too. You might have captivating dialogue, fascinating characters, scintillating descriptions and a killer story – but if your writing is no different from the next five authors in your genre, you’re going to struggle.

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Filed under David Eddings, Douglas Adams, storytelling, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien, writing

A Master Story-teller at work.

Sir Terry Pratchett has been around a while. The writer of the world-famous “Discworld” fantasy books has more than forty novels in this universe.

I have been re-reading them in publication order and have gotten most of the way through. I’ve just finished “Monstrous Regiment” and there is little doubt that this is one of Sir Terry’s standout books. He has moved through at least three major shifts in writing by the time he wrote this one and the result is a well polished novel asking questions that don’t get in the way of a story.

In this novel, Sir Terry revists a topic he seriously explored in “Small Gods”. Namely, that of how much believers confer power on a god. In that book, it was Om who had but one believer left, Brutha, and the novel was a story of that one believer’s journey. The god and his one believer managed to get tangled up the highly ambitious Vorbis the Exquisitor who only believed in his own power. In “Monstrous Regiment”, Nuggan has lost all of his believers. So instead, the Borogravians pray to the long secluded and likely deceased Duchess. This means she has become the unwilling intermediary for him. And since most of the prayers she hears is about the survival of the essentially devastated country, the Duchess eventually finds a way to influence events.

But “Monstrous Regiment” is also about a topic explored way back in “Equal Rites”: that of gender equality. We know from the outset that Polly is a girl masquerading as a boy in order to join the army. What we don’t discover until later is that the little ragtag bunch of recruits is all girls. And then the wonderful reveal in the climax that the army is riddled with women, all hiding that fact from everyone else. And just Polly discovers at the end that Seargent Jackrum is, in fact, a grandmother, not a grandfather.

It is in a kind of coda to the story that the army makes it entirely okay for woman to join, which is actually fairly progressive thinking for the Discworld. Especially so for a country out towards Uberwald. However, Terry has been experimenting with this for some while, particularly with Angua in the Watch in Ankh-Morpork. It helps that Sir Samual approves of this and this is probably why he’s not surprised at Polly, either. Actually, the appearance by Sir Samuel, acting in his role of watchman of the world, is appreciated and highly effective. Without him and his humble watchman’s skills, Ankh-Morpork is just as capable of making such problems worse as better. In fact, he is rather essential.

(It was also interesting see Angua put in an appearance without the narrative shifting to her point-of-view. I wonder how much Terry wrestled with that decision.)

However, “Monstrous Regiment” is not just about the power of belief and gender equality. It is also a story about patriotism and army-life and sheer bloody-mindedness and bullying and propaganda and … The book covers a lot of ground and does it well. As only a master story-teller can do.

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Sir Terry Pratchett. Live.

Sir Terry Pratchett took part in an interview on stage recently. It was at the Sydney Opera House and just about filled their largest venue, the Concert Hall. Obviously not a public speaker, as such, he was “interviewed” by Australian author Garth Nix for a little over an hour. I paid to be in the audience.

I would have been surprised if Terry was nervous. He didn’t sound nervous; he sounded like someone getting on in years who had a lot of stories he could tell. Terry is on record as saying that he doesn’t think anyone would be much interested in what he experienced as a journalist. However, I suspect he might have backed away from that stance. When he did venture into that history (with encouragement from Garth), it was clear the audience wanted to hear it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After introductions, and to rapturous applause, Terry and Garth took their comfortable chairs on the stage. Garth then introduced Rob Wilkins who read a short excerpt from the upcoming Discworld novel Snuff. Terry himself introduced the section, describing Sir Samuel Vimes as basically on holiday from Ankh-Morpork. But he pointed out that once a policemen, always a policeman (a reference was made to Hercule Poirot’s constant adventures), as they say, and left it at that. Rob then read the excerpt, which described Vimes encountering a now wheelchair bound Lord Rust. Terry is certainly a master at saying just as much as he needs to and no more.

Garth is an inexperienced interviewer, unfortunately, and his credentials as a fellow published author were not required. It took Terry at least twenty minutes to visibly relax, although he sounded congenial from the get-go. Garth had a few questions the audience had submitted, but only got to two of them. A more experienced interviewer, say Andrew Denton, may have gotten Terry relaxed faster and woven more audience questions into the dialogue.

The topics were rich, and segued fairly well, as you would expect from two accomplished authors. Not necessarily being a comedian, Terry nevertheless had the audience laughing several times. Perhaps one of the most profound was when he opined that “awesome” was for the presence of Jesus, “everything else is just cool”. As most would be aware, Sir Terry is not thiestic. He describes himself as a humanist, rather than an atheist, and did so in this interview, pointing out that this was hedging bets. He also pointed out that Brutha in Small Gods basically behaved in a very Christian way in his treatment of his enemies. This was met with an interestingly muted reaction from the audience. He also revealed that he treasures a small wooden crucifix solely because his mother treasured it.

As alluded to above, Garth got Terry to talk about his early life (“raised on the chalk”, i.e. Wiltshire) and his time as a journalist. What had not been apparant to me was that Terry’s oft-quoted line about seeing a dead body with hours of his first real job as a journalist was because said body was, in fact, a suicide. And it was far from the last. Terry had some remarkable anecdotes about the suicides he’d witnessed the aftermath of. There was one where a woman had stepped in front of a train: and how he’d found the six cigarette butts behind the signalman’s hut where she had gathered the courage to do so. Another story was told that he had heard from a lady who had been a nurse in the 1920s. This was before antiobiotics were discovered, remember (a point Terry curiously left implied), and there was very little that could be done for, say, sufferers of advanced cancer. It was not unknown to euthanase such patients and Terry made a special point of saying the chaplains and priests knew it happened. And why. Nowadays, of course, medical professionals avoid this type of action, due to legal ramifactions. But Terry is clearly on the side of medically assisted suicide.

Mention was made of when Sir Terry was knighted and there was a few minutes levity about the ancient ritual. That led to an audience question about the sword that Terry had made. The actual question was whether he was going to make armour. It took a while, but Terry’s answer was no and he showed why the question quite missed the point. Terry has two neighbours who show up on Time Team as experts in iron-age technology. It was one of those neighbours who helped and showed him how to forge a sword, starting with “walking the fields”, looking for suitable iron ore. The process itself is quite complex, and Terry cheerfully admitted he could not have made the pommel, but then, when ever someone says “sword”, they almost always mean the actual blade, which Terry did make. He brought up the concept of “mana” at that point, which you would expect this audience to get (they did). His sword is imbued with his mana, including some genuine iron-age steel. And that’s really why he doesn’t need make armour. Apart from his daughter, which he amusingly said he could only claim half the work, his sword is his single best creation.

The evening could have gone on far longer as Terry got more voluble. But the venue would not have approved. Besides, it was a Sunday night. Terry had brought in a stock of plastic teeth as used in the live-action production of Hogfather and at this point, he and Garth scattered them throughout what audience they could reach. This was, of course, received well. Then Garth revealed that Terry’s birthday was not far away and so he was treated to the Concert Hall full of people singing him “Happy Birthday”.

As we filed out, I diverted to the North Lobby, being one of the lucky hundred selected to have a book signed by Sir Terry himself. Terry was clearly enjoying himself here, but it was not a venue for long conversation, or even any conversation, with a hundred books to sign. Here, too, was Sir Terry comfortable being the most important cog in a well-oiled machine, but sadly, here, too, there were one or two signs of his condition. Still, it was very good of him to come all this way to his fans “Down Under”.

It was a good night, overall, and I know I’ve forgotten details and perhaps whole topics. The fact that fantasy fiction is essentially mainstream, now, got aired briefly, for instance, but I would consider the most interesting points of that topic were not even discussed by Terry or Garth. But I’m glad I went. My only regret was that I didn’t organise to meet with some friends who also went.

Picture of Sir Terry Pratchett and Garth Nix taken by Jacq aka Zja Zja obsidiantears83

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