Castle Dunmar: the Technique of Backgrounding Your Fiction

 

So let’s start with a look at the castle.

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Castle Dunmar, with partially submerged gatehouse on the ground floor in the centre.

This castle was completed yesterday.  I loved the idea of as magical castle that could walk. I had the idea before I’d heard of the Miyazaki film Howl’s Moving Castle. The lesson today is somewhat similar to the previous lesson, analyzing and naming. But it’s a little different, too. Here’s how.  My fighters were complete as soon as I designed them–I just needed to analyze them and name their parts and explain how the technology worked. With this walking magical castle, I don’t yet have an idea ready for storytelling. What enables the castle to walk? Don’t know yet. What society could have built such a magical place? Don’t know. What is the conflict between the walking castle and people, or other walking castles? Don’t know. This is today’s lesson, character and/or concept background.

Background Precedes Analysis/Naming

I hope you see the difference between my needing to figure out the tech behind my starfighters and the elusive secret behind what animates a several-thousand-ton edifice of stone and mortar. I’m at that magical but sometimes frustrating spot writers who use my Lego technique get to–the questions that need answering. I have the premise: castles that are to some extent alive, if only animated, and can sprout massive stone legs dug deep beneath the terrain in which they’ve sited themselves. I came across this idea when I was reading Philip Warner’s book The Medieval Castle: Life in a Fortress in Peace and War. He discussed how castles worked in medieval war and politics. The idea was that you cited a castle not only for defensive purposes, but also to control and launch attacks into an area the castle effectively controlled. That gave me the idea: how much more powerful and significant politically would a castle be if it could walk to a new strategic location in a matter of days? That was the germ of the idea. But that’s only a premise. That’s a long way from the background information that brings you close to ready to start setting up a story. That’s what we’re talking about now. Starfighters come ready made with all the assumptions about how they work and what they’re all about. War in space. But a moving home. Even a military home that walks? What is that all about in terms of a likely story? Starfighters imply a war conflict of some kind, a space opera. But Castles with legs? It could be a rather silly children’s story, as Miyazaki’s tale of his moving castle is.

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Dunmar with the front gatehouse in direct view. Notice all the moss and vines that cover this ancient castle, particularly its legs and foundation.

So I have this castle, and I start thinking there would certainly be others, friends and foes, and they will be at the service of the people able to police their home country far more easily because instead of building a castle at the top of every valley or waterway or coast enemies might land and use to make incursions into their land, they have a castle or two that can move to where they expect the enemy to invade. I began to think of writing a Game of Thrones type of story but instead of dragons, I’d have magical castles. Do you see the basic questions I have to answer for myself before I’m even close to story writing? For instance, what made these castles live? Here’s a list of background ideas I thought of:

  • Ghosts or a ghost of an important person, perhaps the founder of the castle, remained in the bricks and mortar after he or she died, giving the castle life and mobility
  • A curse falls upon a hero, and his spirit is bound to the castle for eternity, or until the curse can be lifted.
  • A lesser god takes up residence in this edifice to people to defend them and their lands in return for human sacrifice and other forms of worship.

The Reading Experience

If you start thinking about any of these backgrounds, they spawn more questions that deepen your background and give you ideas about what I’ll call the reading experience. The reading experience is the recurring experience you have reading a piece of fiction, whether its nobles in Game of Thrones constantly trying to outmanoeuvre each other, or young cadets fighting exhaustion in a space dogfight that never ends and yields no hope. It also gives you ideas about what your heroes will be regularly going through as they try to be victorious in their story. Maybe its a priest negotiating with an angry and spiteful local god who has her own designs on power and influence in the world and only pretends to be the divine benefactor so long as the blood sacrifice is paid? Maybe instead, a beloved hero who sacrificed himself for his people by accepting a curse to be bonded to the castle for the sake of protecting his people can finally lay aside his burden now that his people don’t need a walking castle to defend themselves. And now they must fulfill a quest to lift the curse on the hero with the hero/castle’s help? Or, perhaps a desperate people retreat to a haunted castle so full of evil spirits that they can scarcely stand to shelter there, but it’s a great power able to protect them from their enemies? How can they live with the corruptions the castle perpetrates on its leading citizens? But can they afford to leave the castle and face the doom of war with a greater enemy?

 

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Dunmar side view. The hole in the side is a recent modification to allow a powerful magical cannon to fire through the wall.

All of these explorations of the premise are what I call developing background. Developing the background of your premise tells you what your story might be about, who your major characters are, and even hint at the villains or story conflict.

I suppose some of you might ask the question, why focus on creating so many new bases of novels to write? You have one novel parked at 85,000 words. Why not finish it? Well, besides the fact that I can’t bring myself to write while taking a full time PR program, there’s a precept by fantasy writer Orson Scott Card, author of Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-This-World Novels and Short Stories, that has stuck with me. He maintained that a story had to be growing in you for ten years before you were really ready to write it. And so the more stories you had floating around being developed in your subconscious mind, the better. That’s why I consider this Lego method such a productive, generative process for creating fiction. It forces you to come up with your stories’ backgrounds, premises, characters, settings, et cetera.

That’s today’s lesson, folks. I’ll leave you with some links that will help get you inspired about castles. They are all excellent books with different emphases–some pictorial, some textual and atmospheric. Here’s a link to Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections: Castle. There is also Frances and Joseph Gies Life in A Medieval Castle. And last, the Ewart Okeshott’s A Knight and His Castle.

See you in a week or so!

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