Monday, June 28, 2021

Penning a Myth

Turning the Tied with Words

Image borrowed from
Loki Tricks Hodr into Slaying Baldur
I thought I would take a break from my "Nexus of Writing and Cooking" series to talk about my contribution to a wonderful charity anthology titled Turning the Tied (available from Amazon in both Kindle and paperback). Published by the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers (IAMTW), this wonderful anthology is raising funds for the World Literacy Foundation, a global non-profit organization working to ensure every child has access to books and the right to acquire literacy skills from an early age.

More than that, though, Turning the Tied is a showcase of some of the best media-based novel writers working in the industry today, including Greg Cox (Star Trek, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, DC), Tim Waggoner (Supernatural, Resident Evil, Alien), Max Allan Collins (CSI, Dick Tracy, Mickey Spillane), Nancy Holder (Buffy, Angel, Smallville), Jonathan Mayberry, (X-Files), Jennifer Brozek (Shadowrun, BattleTech), Keith R.A. DeCandido (Marvel, Doctor Who, Leverage), and many others, including yours truly (Magic: The Gathering, Warhammer 40K, Kolchak: The Night Stalker).

In this anthology, all of these authors, noted for writing in some of the most popular shared worlds from recent movies, TV shows, and games, have taken a stab at writing stories for some of their favorite public domain characters of all time. These include Sherlock Holmes, John Carter of Mars, Hopalong Cassidy, Mulan, the Three Musketeers, Cyrano de Bergerac, Baron Munchausen Frankenstein's creature, and in my case, the Norse gods Baludr and Loki.

Note that all 24 authors and both editors (all members of the IAMTW) donated their stories and time to make this anthology happen and maximize the proceeds to the World Literacy Foundation. For more information about this wonderful charity anthology, check out the Turning the Tied page on the IAMTW website dedicated to the anthology. If you want to read blogs about the anthology by the other authors, check out this page

But for today, I want to talk about my contribution — The Trials of Baldur.

Genesis of a Heroic Myth

When I agreed to submit a story for Turning the Tied (which took zero arm-twisting, believe me), I knew immediately that I wanted to pen a mythological story written in the same style as the stories that have been handed down from ancient times (verbally for centuries until they were finally recorded by ancient scholars. One reason for this goes all the way back to college when I took Science Fiction Literature with Professor Thompson.

This class was probably one of the first of its kind (definitely the first at Purdue University in the mid-1980s). We read and analyzed such seminal works as Isaac Asimov's Foundation, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, John Gardner's Grendl, Kurt Vonnegut's Galápagos, and Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness. For one project that semester in lieu of writing an essay about one of the novels, we could write a new chapter for Left Hand of Darkness, creating a new Gethenian myth for Estrevan to tell Ai during their trek across the frozen wastes of Gethen.

My new story detailed the Gethenian apocalypse, which was oddly missing from LeGuin's novel. It came in at somewhere less than 800 words (well below the minimum wordcount), and yet not only did I get an A on the assignment, I received a long, glowing note from my professor that began with "Wow!" and ended with "May I have a copy?" This was some of the first real praise I ever received for a piece of fiction I had written. It truly made me believe that I could become an author.

Since that class and that assignment, I've often thought about writing other myths, legends, and/or fairy tales, but never had the perfect opportunity to do so — until now. the only other question was which mythology to use as setting. This choice also was obvious. I've loved the Norse mythos since reading Reading Kevin Crossley-Holland's retelling of them based on the 13th Century Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. I believe I read Holland's The Norse Myths as part of another English class (Possibly high school based on the date of the book), and I still have the original 1980 imprint in my library.

The Loki/Baldur Prequel

So, with "writing a new Norse myth" set in my head, I began reading through the stories in Holland's book. I had always been drawn to Baldur, so I started there. What struck me was that there were only two stories about Baldur (and one or two other mentions in passing). 
Both of these stories deal with Baldur's death. In the first, he has foreboding nightmares that Odin finds upon a trip to the Underworld are premonitions of the god's death. The second details the efforst of Freya to get all things in the nine realms to swear they will not kill Baldur (only to skip Mistletoe), and Loki's efforts to get Baldur's blind brother Hodr to shoot the supposedly death-immune god with a Mistletoe tipped arrow.
The other thing that struck me about the Baldur stories were the odd, almost cameo appearances of several characters that are mostly unexplained. During the preparations for Baldur's funeral, much is made about hos deeply all things love the god. In fact, Hela decrees that if all things swear their love to Baldur, she will allow him to return to Asgard alive. Only one creature in the nine realms refuses — a giantess named Thokk, whom most believe is Loki in disguise.

Then, at the funeral, another giantess named Hyrrokin must be summoned to shift Baldur pyre boat off the shore. She arrives riding a wold using snakes as reins. Near the end of the funeral, a dawrf (dark elf) name Lit wails and wails as the boat burns in the water until Thor kicks the dwarf into the boat, where he dies.

So, an idea began to form. Baldur is seen as the fairest and best of the gods, but the only stories about him that have survived detail his death. This is not completely out of bounds as his death brings about the beginnings of Ragnarok, so it is a vitally important event. But what if there were other stories that told the tales of Baldur while alive, that depicted why he was so beloved by all. I realized that Baldur needed a Hero's Journey. 
My story shows Baldur in his prime working to bring Mistletoe to the Druids of Midgard who are pining for any sign of spring in the middle of a harsh winter. Along the way, he defeats a serpent, defeats a giant, and rips a mighty oak tree from the ground.But I also wanted to tie in the other characters who appear in the later stories. So, along the way he meets Thokk, Hyrrokin, and Lit and their interactions help explain their reactions in the Death of Baldur tale. 

And, because this is a story about Baldur and Mistletoe, you know the mischievous Loki plays a vital role in the tale. Loki hates Baldur because the shining god is the antithesis of the Dark Lord. Baldur is everything Loki is not and he cannot abide Baldur's continuing existence. To see how it all works out, you'll have to purchase a copy of Turning the Tied (which is also available from Barnes and Noble).

Monday, June 14, 2021

Gadgets and Gimmicks

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 12

Way back in Part 2 ("The Tools of the Trade") I discussed some of the essential items you need in your cooking and writing arsenal if you want to be successful. Today, I want to look at some of the gimmicks and gadgets you can use to make your life easier in the kitchen and add some pizzazz to your writing.

Let's get right to it with a list of cool things I have in my kitchen that I simply couldn't do without anymore.

Kitchen Gadgets

Shot Glass Measuring Cup. You need a lot of measuring cups and spoons in your kitchen so you can add precise amounts of spices, flour, sugar, milk, wine, or broth at the exact moment called for in the recipe.A shot glass measuring cup helps you add small amounts of liquid (an ounce or teaspoon or tablespoon) precisely. I use mine for honey and brown sugar when I make my own teriyaki sauce.

High Wall Baking Sheet. We all have baking sheets that we use for baking cookies, heating up fries in the oven and placing under pie tins when we fear they may bubble over. But a high-walled baking sheet is the best way to cook large pieces of meat like a turkey or a ham or a couple racks of ribs. The high walls keep the juices in but are low enough to allow the heat to circulate around the meat for more even cooking.

Baking Rack. Add this to your high-wall baking sheet to raise your meat out of the juices and allow the heat circulate beneath as well as completely around as you bake.

Silicone Baking Mat. The last piece you need for your baking sheet. Silicone mats are amazing. Easy to clean AND keep your baking sheet shiny no matter how many times you use them.

Wooden Tongs. A good set of wooden tongs are a must if you are cooking in a high-temp, non-stick skillet that might melt your silicone-tipped tongs. I use mine for bacon or sausages mostly, but they come in handy any time you need to turn or flip meat in a skillet (steaks, chicken breasts, etc.).

Silicone Cast-Iron Skillet Handle. Speaking of high-heat, I love the silicone handle cover I got for my cast-iron skillet. Sometimes, you just can't beat an old-fashioned cast-iron skillet (absolutely necessary for Yorkshire pudding). Unlike modern skillets that use non-conducting materials for the handles, all the heat transfers to the handle on a cast-iron skillet. Thus the silicone sleeve.

Spatula Thermometer. I have a couple instant-read thermometers, which are absolutely necessary for getting meat heated through to the correct internal temperature. The spatula version of this essential tool is great for sauces, bread-making (to check the temp of the water you're adding to the yeast) and whenever you're deep-frying and need to keep a constant temperature in your oil. 

Writing Gimmicks

Unlike cooking gadgets, you can't just go out and buy these items (other than the thesaurus; although you still need skill to use one correctly). Instead, you must develop these techniques over time through practice and research. Here are a few of my favorites.

Simile and Metaphor. As a writer, the most important thing you do is to describe the world your characters travel through. For fantasy and science fiction writers, especially, those worlds can be so strange and alien that it can be tough to describe them in ways that readers can understand. That's where a good metaphor or simile comes in handy. These help you relate what the characters see to something the readers will understand. Just be careful not to break the illusion of the story. Saying a strange large rock formation looks like a football balancing on a golf tee won't make sense if your character lives in a world without those two sports.

Thesaurus. I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Choosing the strongest nouns and verbs you can find to describe actions and items in your world is far superior to stringing together a bunch of adjectives or adverbs. It makes your writing stronger, tighter, and less cluttered, which are all good things. A good thesaurus will help you find the best words to use whenever you get stuck in your writing. Most word processors come with one, but I find them to be too limited. I use Rhymezone, a website created for poets that you can use to find synonyms as well as rhymes. You can even go down the rabbit hole of  looking at related words "grouped by relation" which can be a lot of fun.

Foreshadowing. There is an old saying in murder mysteries: "Don't put a gun on the mantle in act one unless you plan to use it in act three." This is foreshadowing, and it is a tricky gimmick to use. You often want to give your readers a peak at what's to come later on so they don't feel completely blindsided by some major plot development. For example, if readers don't know a character is an astrophysicist when they first meet them, when that character starts spouting some quantum mechanics integral to the plot later on, it will feel odd and forced (and just a little too convenient). 

You have to be careful with foreshadowing, though. If you are too obvious when you mention it (or mention it too often), readers may see your plot twists coming a mile away. If you are too oblique (or don't mention it often enough), you risk losing some readers when the revelation becomes important. Make sure you integrate the foreshadowing into the narrative so it feels natural and not forced and then reinforce it once or twice again during the story to make sure all readers catch the reference.

Plot Structure. I have discussed this before, so I won't go into a lot of detail here, but having a plot structure in mind as you write can help keep you on the rails as you move through your story. I often use the three-act structure where action intensifies through act one as things fall apart, the characters try to find ways to combat the obstacles in act two, and then everything falls apart again at the end of the act, forcing the characters to change gears in act three to find a new solution to the main problem. This structure helps readers as well, because they understand where they are in the story, but the rising and falling action of this structure also maintains reader interest as the action builds toward multiple climaxes as reader move through the story.

Analogy and Allegory. Similar to simile and metaphor, analogies and allegories help writers convey information to the reader through comparison. These two gimmicks work at higher and larger levels, however — more at the plot structure level than the word, sentence, or paragraph level. An analogy is simply comparing one thing to another that makes people assume additional similarities in other aspects. So, you might write a story where two character who are going to fall in love must fight each other in a fencing match (or tennis or whatever). The sporting competition becomes analogous to the development of their relationship (turning it into a contest).

Allegories plot structures where the story being told is directly comparable to other stories that have deeper meanings. These are often used by science fiction writers (especially) to delve into topics that are tough to discuss straight on (religion, politics, race relations, etc.) without bringing all the baggage those sensitive topics carried by both writers and readers. The original series Star Trek episode "Let that Be Your Last Battlefield" was an allegory about race relations set on a planet where people were half-black and half-white, with right-half-white people hating left-half-white people and vice-versa. Silly? Today, maybe. But still insightful and depressing as we see what has happened in America since this episode first aired more than 50 years ago.