Playing with Deep History

Posted: August 17th, 2013 under Craft, the writing life.
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Story #2, of the new Paksworld stories, the “lightning strikes” post,  is one of those “out of the blue/accidental hits” stories.   Here’s the article I found that started it all:   “The Ghost Cavalry of Gondole.”  Right off the bat, the title begs for a story.   Reading the article and bring up all the pictures…skin-tingling stuff.  It belonged in Paksworld.  It felt right for Paksworld.  But right as background does not make a story…a big fancy gravesite (a real one) is a fact, not a story.

Muttering and making notes followed.   Supposing it could fit into Paksworld, where and when would it be?   What people would be buried there, and why?   What non-ghost people would interact with them?   Would they be excited, happy, frightened…and why?   (Remember the much earlier post on motivations?)   Could this situation (grave, with people and horses buried in ritual positions)  fit the requirements for the second anthology?   How?   How would magic be involved (since this is a fantasy anthology and some magical something is needed)?   Are ghosts themselves magical?   Are there really ghosts or do the people (still undetermined) who see the grave think there might be ghosts?  Are they afraid of the dead?  (And always, WHY?)

It did not feel like “current times” in Paksworld–the time of the current books.  It felt…older.   So I wrote it as a bardic legend sort of thing…a king was buried with his companions (only not quite the same as those at Gondole) and their horses (though not the same as those at Gondole) and I let that tale unfold over some length of time, not really specified.  How did the bones get there, and why (again!) and then what happened to them?   I was feeling for the twitch of the web that means “A Story Starts Here” and nothing came until…it did, later than I expected.   So by the time the story starts, the bones have been there a long time, and a lot has happened in the lands around.

WHAT lands around?   I poked around in the land, in an authorly way.   Hmm.  Doesn’t feel like Dwarfmounts or Westmounts.    Something about the smell…the plants are different (WHY???)    OK, which way is the sea?   Or is there a sea?   If you just walked off *that* way,  toward the rising sun, what would you come to?    And how long would it take?   And who might you meet?  (And WHY???)

Because of another chance meeting with another chunk of archaeology,  the Valley of the Kings (the real one) tangled with the Ghost Cavalry of Gondole and then evoked a memory of the barrows and burial mounds in the UK and Scandinavia.    And I’d been reading Tony Hillerman’s Navajo country mysteries.  What if…there’s more than one grave?    How many could there be?    What would happen to them?    Over what span of time?   Say they were barrows…well built?  Not?  Animals burrow, rain falls, wind blows…what happens if people want to put a city on top of graves?   Archaeology knows.  How long does it take to build a city over some graves (WHY???  Is it supposed to be lucky?  Do people believe the spirits of the dead will protect them?  What kind of theological framework might go with that? )    Why put a city there anyway?    A ceremonial site to which people come regularly from…somewhere else?  (Where?)     And any ceremonial site may be a target for raiders, for attackers, because…it’s collected wealth.    And it can be raided, burned, ruined…hmmm.

Finally, after some hours, a character…actually a bunch of them…showed up.  They weren’t what I was looking for, but maybe they’d lead to something.   They were from a long way back in Paksworld history, but a time of civilization–they came from a land that had been thriving for a long time.  (WHY???)   They’re a different culture from any of the others in the books–older, but not primitive.   So I started writing Story, not Myth or Legend, in the POV of the one I saw first.   And now there’s a story that needs a title, but is enough of a story (say the first-readers)  to be sent to the anthology editor and see what he thinks.

The process in all this started with investigation, a willingness to poke around and see what was there,  a discovery of who, what, where, when, and why.   Then it moved into a kind of intense observation…feeling my way into the POV character, what he experienced in the past, what he thought in the present, what he thought about the future, and also his sensory input right this moment.   Feeling around inside him to find out his why, and the why of the others.    Short fiction doesn’t allow the leisurly exploration of character that novels  and series do–you have to get right at it, crack the code, evert the psyche the way some sea creatures evert their stomachs to get rid of waste (some have no through-flow.)   And then tuck it neatly back inside, in the way that works best for that story at that length, so the reader sees enough but not too much–so the reader gets the thrill of discovery as well.

It is a messy business, writing fiction, in part because people are messy inside (and so characters need to be messy inside, not too easily assembled or disassembled.)


  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — August 17, 2013 @ 9:31 pm


    This “poking around” that you do, is it in your head, or do you type or write things out–sort of poking around on paper?

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 17, 2013 @ 9:51 pm


    Both…it depends on how fast things are germinating. And it varies from one time to another. That’s probably no help. Once I have something thought out (if I don’t think it out by writing it out) then I write it down. For every novel project, there’s an ideas file. Short fiction, which comes harder to me, doesn’t usually get a separate ideas file, but may use up paper scraps. Writing by hand can loosen the kinks sometimes. So can sketching…faces, houses, trees, hills, etc.

  • Comment by Richard — August 18, 2013 @ 8:09 am


    Comrades who’d pledged to all be buried together when their chieftain died? – I feel for the poor horses!

  • Comment by Linda — August 18, 2013 @ 11:40 am


    But what if the horses were rather like Paladins’ mounts? Are the humans and “horses” bound spiritually? Do they pass on together? Gosh I’d love to know what goes on in one of those horses’ heads.[Is this grammatically correct? I have a head cold and can’t reason.] Are they totally driven by an outside power or do they as individual horses have more of a role to play?

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 18, 2013 @ 12:40 pm


    Richard: So do I. But several cultures buried horses with their dead leaders. The Altai burials included horses in fancy trappings, for instance.

    Linda: The paladin horses are not bound to their riders the same way as the dragons and their riders in McCaffrey’s Pern books. They can be killed by malice, but they can outlive their first rider (I think they return to a “place” I’m not defining further [yet] and rejoin the pool of possible paladin horses. That’s a sort of feeling at this point, and not a proven fact. We may find out, though not in the next book.)

    What goes on in their heads…I’m not sure. They are horses, as intelligent as the smartest horses I’ve known (that would be Ky and Illusion, both problem-solver smart; I think Ky was the better communicator, but it may be that Illusion was as good with his first owner, or she was better at it than I am.) Not all horses are that smart.

    Paladin horses are granted some magery (those always- shiny coats, those never-thrushy hooves) but some of that also applies to paladins’ gear–their armor doesn’t rust; their leather stuff–from belts to bridles–stays clean, oiled, supple. I will need to think about whether paladin horses when they aren’t being paladin horses get knots in their manes, frowsty-looking coats, etc. They will find their rider if the paladin is unhorsed, or gets lost in the woods, and they won’t panic and run off if they smell a wolf. They stay healthy (barring malice) while on paladin duty at least–they’re immune to horse diseases, parasites, etc. They have more endurance than ordinary horses, but they’re not twice as fast, twice as strong, etc., etc. They do get direct “orders” from the Windsteed (who, at some level, communicates with the gods) and thus know where they should go. But those orders will probably be experienced in horse terms. Unless I’m wrong.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — August 18, 2013 @ 5:05 pm


    Gird’s “old, broken-down plough horse” had the ability to hid his true nature. He confirmed as much by gesture to the “youngsters” in Liar’s Oath ( Seli? and Arash?).

  • Comment by KarenH — August 18, 2013 @ 8:05 pm


    @ Nadine I got to wondering if his broken down old plow horse was the Windsteed himself.

  • Comment by Chris Hero — August 18, 2013 @ 10:58 pm


    Ms. Moon,
    Only slightly related to the retirement of Paladin’s horse’s…
    Have your thought about what happens to Paladin’s who have grown old?
    Old in the sense that the gods are done with them, they are no longer the right tool for their work. Some must survive into old age. Not crippled as you’ve already shown but just, no longer up to snuff?
    Both what do they do with themselves and how does it feel to have been a genuine player, with a real connection to god, and then , not.
    You imply that PAk’s biggest job was Saving the King… But how does one live the rest of a life after that?
    Thank you for all your excellent writing!

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 18, 2013 @ 11:33 pm


    Chris: Yes, indeed–in the old lost notebooks, I had written about several possible “after retirement” things paladins might do. Some, of course, may retire into education–they become the instructors for young knights and paladin-candidates. Most will find some sort of service to do for their patron/deity. But there are a couple of other things I don’t want to talk about yet. I don’t think they lose their connection to their deity, or their ability to sense good and evil, although I have written one story about a paladin who lost his faith, in “Gifts.” They don’t think of themselves as “genuine players” in the sense I think you mean it, in part because many of the paladin deeds aren’t the huge things like finding the missing king, but smaller ones. They aren’t rulers; they aren’t politicians (Marshals certainly can be), they don’t make the laws, or policy. They’re servants; they do what they’re told, and if they’re not being told anything in particular, they just do whatever seems useful in the ordinary way. Paks will cheerfully do some weapons practice with anyone handy, take the Verrakai children on a picnic, or to play games, or teach them to weed in the garden, or help someone with a flock of sheep, or share a meal with friends…but if she gets a call in the middle of any of those, she mounts up and goes.

    KarenH and Nadine: Gird’s horse is a particular case and because Rahel’s book disintegrated on me, I do not know exactly what it was. If the horse that came to Rahel was the same as came to Gird…well…it’s an interesting puzzle that maybe the Plot Daemon will share with me someday.

  • Comment by Sharidann — August 19, 2013 @ 2:42 am


    @ Elizabeth

    Thanks for sharing your thought processes. Really interesting stuff.

    Does your muse tell you whether this old civilization you refer to for your story is still around today, and if yes, still flourishing?

    Could they be related to the horsepeople on the way to Kolobia ?

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 19, 2013 @ 6:43 am


    Sharidann: I don’t know yet if there is any population related to them still in existence somewhere on that continent. As for related to…hmmm. I’ve taken the general position that the human populations are all sort of related (they’re not separate species, but diverse cultures arising from a common root) but some of the cultures have been separated a very long time. Think central Asian horse nomads and the great city-empire building cultures of Meso- and South America. There’s a common ancestral genetic mix, but they split apart a long time ago and did not remember it.

    But there’s a problem with filling in too many places on the map, or too many dates in the history, of a fantasy universe…at some point (and I’m not sure where the point is, only that it exists) it becomes too defined, too complete, and what made it magical disappears in an instant. I suspect (but do not know) that what makes a fantasy world compelling is exactly the longing to know more…and at some point the writer’s mind and the reader’s mind feel they now know enough…and what’s left is a mundane ordinary story-space, with the wall between fiction and reality clearly visible all the way around. To be effective in the fantasy sense, it must always be bigger than the stories written in it, always remain in large part a mystery.

    The balance between including enough detail and specific information to make it “real” in the mind, and including too much is a tricky one. I don’t want to have Paksworld “break” and throw us all into the middle of Manhattan without warning. So on some things I not only don’t have answers to questions, but I won’t seek them. If the little warning buzz comes when I think about it…I’m not going that way.

    That just made me think about the possible difference in mindset between people who read fantasy happily (whatever else they also read) and those who dislike it. The SF story-worlds I write are just as much the product of imagination as Paksworld…but individually, everything in them traces back through time to the here and now. The story universe is huge–there’s interstellar travel, there are planets with different parameters–but there’s no danger that defining more, at any scale, could “break” the utility of those worlds for the stories being told in them. (I can still screw up and write an inconsistency, but that’s a simple mistake, not a flaw in the story-world.)

  • Comment by Wickersham's Conscience — August 19, 2013 @ 3:27 pm


    I appreciate the insight into how you discover new stories.

    The presence of bones certain is consistent with Old Humans; it’s an important, if ambiguous theme, in Paladin’s Legacy. But unless the horses died with their riders, I’d think killing horses to bury them with their riders would be Evil. I can’t think the Windsteed would approve.

    But burying bones to serve as guardians is an extension of existing Paksworld themes. I look forward to seeing your new story(ies).

    I respectfully disagree with your point on detail and specifics in a fantasy world. Christopher Tolkein has made a handsome living, even before the movies, on shuffling the incredible detail in Middle Earth. Terry Pratchett has published maps – even City maps, in the case of Ankh-Morpork – and it has enriched the DiscWorld (as well as Sir Terry). Even Ursula LeGuin, who is about as minimalist as a fantasy author can get, has published appendices to the EarthSea universe.

    I do agree that different authors choose to set the level of detail at different points, or find that a level of lesser detail gives them more flexibility. But that’s a matter of individual style. As someone who has spent an evening discussing Galadriel’s ancestry, I may not be the best case for a neutral view on this, though.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 19, 2013 @ 3:41 pm


    The point of collapse certainly may vary from reader to reader.

    And it’s not a matter of how deep the detail goes–which is what I think you mean by the level of detail–but how much of the imagined world is all laid out. Tolkein did not give us a detailed map of the West across the sea. In fact, we don’t see all the lands mentioned (we know there’s a South, because of the troops that come from there, but we don’t get explanations of the Oliphants, their evolution, their natural history, their training, etc. Some of that would be fine: a treatise on their evolution maybe not.

    What a fantasy world needs is misty edges, places the writer knows, that the reader has hints about, but that leave those places mysterious. I have read some, but by no means all (and am not that eager to read all) of the supplementary material for LOTR. Some comes close to dropping me of Middle Earth (which is why I haven’t pursued more.)

    But tastes vary.

  • Comment by Tuppenny — August 19, 2013 @ 4:02 pm


    You need the ‘Here be dragon’ spot.

  • Comment by Richard — August 20, 2013 @ 1:14 pm


    “The Ghost Cavalry of Gondole” – yes, that title begs for a story. More than if it had been, lets say, “The Ghost Cavalry of Grenoble” (or, closer to Elizabeth’s home, “of Galveston”).

  • Comment by rkduk — August 20, 2013 @ 3:41 pm


    Hmm. “The Ghost Cavalry of Galveston” could be intriguing. Something to do with hurricane steeds, and dunes pounded flat by myriad fluid hooves …

  • Comment by iphinome — August 20, 2013 @ 7:25 pm


    @rkduk and @Richard I’m holding you both personally responsible for the image in my head of a ghostly Confederate officer yelling about yankees in the middle of a hurricane.

  • Comment by GinnyW — August 20, 2013 @ 8:14 pm


    I am fascinated by the story potential. On the subject of paladin’s horses, do paladins of Falk have the same kind of horse? And if so, was the ‘lost’ paladin in Gifts abandoned? He was certainly not riding a paladin’s mount in the story.

    The Ghost Calvary of Gondole reminds me somehow of Custer’s last stand – the whole troop lost in an uneven battle far from the main forces. But who buried them, and why? Honor from the enemy? Friends who arrived too late? Bystanders of another kinship entirely?

    I am glad to see the plot daemon talking to Elizabeth again. And eager to read the story.

  • Comment by Richard — August 21, 2013 @ 1:27 am


    he said he’d had a fine prancing horse once, and one of the other wood-carvings he must go find where it washed up was a horse.

    By the way, some more paladin-horse magery not mentioned in #5: getting out of a bolted stall in a locked stable (in a guarded palace in a walled city), turning up ready-saddled, and most recently saddlebags that don’t need tying.

  • Comment by Richard — August 21, 2013 @ 1:29 am


    I meant, don’t need tying on.

  • Comment by Genko — August 21, 2013 @ 11:30 am


    Even Manhattan has mysteries…

  • Comment by Linda — August 22, 2013 @ 1:41 pm



    Thank you so much for all the horse detail. I need something pleasant and distracting to think about. Mysterious animal companions committed to the light work well as a theme for musing.

    I once had a cat who seemed attuned to my deepest needs. The most amazing thing to me was the way she would seek me out and make eye contact and then apply the cat version of good vibrations. Sometimes it was a purr, or a snuggling close and other times it was a steady regard or a paw on the knee. She was very good at pulling me out of dark places.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 22, 2013 @ 10:36 pm


    Since paladins may all need the same kind of horse (in general)–it must be hardy, have endurance, have strength, and look reasonably good (I’m sorry, a flea-bitten gray or a faded-out roan with a dilution gene in the colored hair just doesn’t do it for me.) etc.–none will look like TB racehorses or huge draft horses. But there may well be variations (in fact, I’m pretty sure there are.) There might be a Falkian paladin horse in Crown. Maybe. No promises.

    Linda: What a wonderful cat! So glad you had her.

    iphinome: As soon as they mentioned Galveston,and you mentioned a Confederate, I thought of the song “Ghost Riders In the Sky.”

  • Comment by iphinome — August 23, 2013 @ 12:27 am


    @Lady Moon the song is fitting to the image.

    With the elements of hurricane horses, ghost cavalry and Galveston I thought of a cavalry unit that died in the water for some reason, maybe they were driven into the gulf or tried to escape on barges. I’m not sure I’d have to know more about shipping in that area 150 years ago but they didn’t or couldn’t surrender, the ghosts “live” under the water but hurricanes are strong enough to push them onto land for a time to do what mischief ghosts can do, maybe directing wind and water to specific targets. I saw their ghostly officer angry and yelling with the storm around him and the others waving his spectral cavalry sabre around, cavalry sabres are cool!

    That’s all I got.

  • Comment by GinnyW — August 25, 2013 @ 1:24 pm


    Iphinome: WOW!

  • Comment by Richard — August 26, 2013 @ 5:55 am


    Back to #9: I still think that when Paks got the call to go to Verrakai Steading, then showing the children how to be happy, and teaching them to call Dorrin “auntie”, was as much part of the mission as getting out the regalia and making sure Dorrin went to the coronation. I also think the Marshal General saw that immediately, which is important to the plot now that others are showing magery.

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