I’ve been playing with digital ‘collage’ for days now, and the image below comes close to what I see in my head:
It’s not perfect but I did manage to create the ‘ramp’ which features in book 2. This ramp has been in my head for years :
‘A moment later, all thought of Vokh politics fled Kahti’s mind as the tunnel opened out into a cavern of mammoth proportions. Glowworms placed at regular intervals revealed a number of passages leading out of the cavern, but the young Trader could not take its eyes from the huge ramp that snaked around half of the cavern before disappearing through an arched opening near the roof.’
From the second book of Vokhtah, title still up in the air.
All of the scraps of texture and shape  that went into the final, composite image were manipulated in Corel Draw 8. No idea what I’ll do with the image, but it will be handy as a reference if nothing else. Just relieved it’s done.
All speculative fiction writers know about building worlds with words, but what if you need more than words to visualise the space in which your story takes place?
I’m a bit of a perfectionist yet even so, I recently discovered that a guestimate right at the start of Vokhtah was not only wrong, it was very wrong. That, plus needing a distraction from my first jab of AstraZeneca, lead me to Inkarnate, a brilliant, fantasy map making app.
Within the first week of playing around with Inkarnate, I had a map of Vokhtah that was a million times better than the dinky map I’d made using only Corel Draw 8. The trouble was, the more I worked on the map, the more I noticed the gaps in my worldbuilding. You see, the eyries of the Vokh don’t just appear as haphazard dots on a map. They are chosen for very specific requirements, such as:
the security provided by the cave system,
the proximity to water [and hence to food animals]
and the distance from other Vokh [the greater the better].
But if eyries have pre-requisites, so do the Trader caravans that service them. All iVokh can fly, including the Traders, but few can fly well. As for the Plodders who carry the bulk of the Traders’ goods, they can barely fly at all. And this is where biology and terrain combine to create problems, because if eyries need to be near water, but Plodders can’t fly over obstructions like rivers, how do the caravans travel from gather to gather? [A gather is like a human market place.]
In book 1 of Vokhtah, the only river the Traders had to cross was the Little Blue, and it had almost stopped running by the end of the dry season [Tohoh]. The ford across the river was dangerous but doable. But then what about the other seasons?
In my current WIP, I sidestepped that problem by saying that no caravans could travel during the wet season [Kohoh]. Neat. Unfortunately, when I came to filling in the Inkarnate map, I could no longer avoid the issue of terrain because the story of Vokhtah continues on past Kohoh into Tuhoh [the season of new growth] and beyond.
How in heck was I going to solve the problem of river crossings?
The solution to the problem of rivers required a complete rethink of the map, starting with geology and basic physics. Water always flows downhill, and depending on the slope and density of the material it flows through, it either slows down and spreads out:
… or it runs swiftly and carves out gorges. And sometimes it creates land bridges that span the gorge from side to side:
Or sometimes the bridge is actually the rim of a pool that sits high above the river. When the level of water goes back to its normal level, the rim provides a way from one side of the river to the other:
When there is too much water in the pool, it cascades over the rim and becomes a waterfall that feeds the river below:
And yes, I spent a couple of days just researching rivers and terrain here in Australia. 🙂 Much of the info. I discovered came from these videos:
The middle video was shot by an amateur so the helicopter noise is quite loud, but it feels real, as if you’re sitting in the helicopter, experiencing the trip along with the pilot and sightseers. Videos 1 and 3 are professionally produced and provide better visuals.
One of the things I learned was that Katherine Gorge, which is where most of the images were shot, is actually a deep cut through a plateau. All the images I’d seen before this were from the river level and made it seem as if the gorge had cut its way through a flat plain. Not so.
The realisation that the gorge was part of a plateau changed my whole perspective about the Inkarnate map, and how the eyries and caravans [of Vokhtah] would interact with the geology. The end result is this:
Click the image to zoom in closer. The legend on the left identifies the icons used in the map, including the eyries belonging to the Vokh, from the most powerful [large purple] to least powerful [tiny white].
The fuzzy purple areas represent the native vegetation of Vokhtah. As the planet is quite different to Earth, I had to re-imagine the evolution of plants without chlorophyll [the thing that makes Earth plants green and which they use to synthesize food from sunlight, water and minerals in the soil]. I pinched the idea from Earth plants that don’t have chlorophyll of their own. They’re basically parasites, but hey… 🙂
To be honest, I can’t remember exactly why I chose purple/lavender but you’ll notice that most of the water sources on the planet are shades of purple as well. A trick of the visible light off water in a binary star system maybe? The notable exceptions are The Eye [the lake at the top of the map], and the two rivers flowing out of the Eye [Little Blue and Big Blue]. The Eye is a maar lake and it was formed from a volcanic eruption.
Not so long ago, I complained about the timeline in Vokhtah being out by three days. After a LOT of time and effort, which included combing through book 1 to see exactly what I happened when, I discovered that the timeline was actually out by 17 days. -pulls hair and screams-
The problem with the timeline goes all the way back to the very start of the book in which I guestimated that the journey to and from Deepwater gather would take about 50 days. As guestimates go, that fudge would not have been catastrophic had I gone back at the end of the book and worked out exact times spent. But I didn’t. 😦
I solved my timeline problem, but it’s left me very wary of any and all fudges, so when I went back to book 2 and came across a scene that involved a bad iVokh rappelling down into a ravine to chase a good iVokh, my fudge-alarm went off straight away.
Why? Because everything I know about mountaineering comes from a couple of old Hollywood movies. I think one of them starred Sylvestre Stallone:
Clearly, I could not allow the fudge to stand, so I’ve spent most of today doing research on mountaineering. To my utter surprise, the scene I wrote is actually possible using a method invented way back at the start of the 20th century by a climber called Hans Dulfer.
To use the Dulfersitz, [I think that translates as Dulfer-sit] you secure one end of the rope at the top of the cliff or wherever you happen to be, wrap it around your body a certain way, and then ‘walk down’ the near vertical face of the cliff suspended only by the friction of the rope against your body:
You can see exactly how to do the wrapping in the short video from which the still shot was taken: https://youtu.be/CLQ0IltdYd0 While revolutionary for its time, the Dulfersitz was not exactly painfree:
‘For quite a long time the Dülfersitz was the most common way of abseiling and it’s still remembered today, mainly with nostalgic memories of those gorgeous burns on the right side of your neck and shoulder along with some far less pleasant ones right next to your genitalia.’
I read the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood a long time ago, and loved it in the way you love something so horrifying you can’t stop reading.
I knew there was a TV adaptation, but I’ve never wanted to watch it, so this music is completely new to me. And I love it. I’ll be listening to ‘She’s a monster’ a lot today as I write the scene in which Hands discovers that it’s been betrayed. 🙂
If you’re still enjoying your weekend, have fun. If, like us, you’re yawning your way through Monday morning…take heart, the sun’s shining!
One of the things that distinguishes the iVokh Traders from the normal iVokh is that Traders aren’t afraid of fire. In fact, they light their underground cave system with burning torches. This means the colour of the light is different – yellow flame vs blue glowworm – and the smell is distinctive.
That all came from my imagination, but now I’m writing scenes that require a more factual approach, so how did primitive peoples make torches?
The whole video is fascinating, but the highlight for me was around the 6 minute mark.
So, what are these primitive materials, and would the iVokh have access to them?
The main ingredient in primitive torches [in the Malaysia jungle] is rosin. If any of you have played the violin, you’ll know that rosin is vital for the bow [thanks Dad]:
Rosin is a solid form of resin, the sticky substance that comes from trees that is not unlike sap….Violin rosin is made by heating fresh liquid resin, until it becomes solid. It smells a bit like pine and has a glassy, orange look.
I underlined the bit about the smell of ‘pine’ because that too is a distinctive feature of the Traders’ caves.
But wait…there’s more. I did ballet as a kid and I remember putting rosin on the soles of my ballet shoes – for grip . In fact, as I went from link to link, I discovered that rosin has a million and one uses, even today. Not so primitive after all. 🙂
Anyway, rosin is only one of the ingredients used to make primitive torches; ‘punky wood’ [dried rotten wood] is the other. Crumbled together in a 50/50 ratio, this mixture will burn quite happily for a couple of hours.
In the Junglecraft video, the presenter used bamboo as the locally sourced ‘container’ for the torch, but I’m pretty sure most of the inhabitable parts of Vokhtah are savanah rather than jungle, so I think the iVokh would have used animal horns instead. I haven’t actually created a horned creature per se, but I’m sure there must be a few somewhere in Vokhtah. Maybe down south where where only the Traders have been… 😉
So there you have it, my latest bit of research. I had fun, and I hope you did too.
Before I finish though, I have a small rant to get off my chest: I HATE the new preview function in WordPress. With the old Preview function, I could preview my post in a new tab and can jump back and forth between the two tabs, fixing typos as I find them.
With the new Preview function, I get a floating [sic] pane that can’t be moved. As the ‘edit post’ screen is underneath the preview pane, I have to close the pane each time I find a typo. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit. Then reopen it to continue proofing. Then close it to edit…
Grrrr! Do none of the ‘Happiness Engineers’ ever test run their ‘improvements’? Or do none of the testers bother to fix bloody typos? Ahem… Okay, end rant.
It’s that time. Sorry. Rather than posting an excerpt from Vokhtah today, I want to talk about language, and how it is the true, living history of a race or culture.
Think about Shakespeare. The Bard died in 1616, yet many of the words he made up…yes, made up…are still in use today. According to litcharts.com there are 422 words that almost certainly originated with Shakespeare. Many are nouns turned into verbs, or two words smooshed together, but they did not exist in that form until The Bard made them so. Want some examples? Here we go:
You can find the complete list by following the link to litcharts.com, and I guarantee you will be surprised.
Yet why should we be surprised? We know that jargon/slang changes from generation to generation. Who would have known 30 years ago that ‘my bad’ could mean ‘I apologise/I’m sorry/I was wrong’? Language always changes to reflect the needs or concerns of the time. It’s just a different way of looking at history.
So why am I making such an issue of language? Well, it’s because one of my favourite bits of Vokhtah is the language I created to express who and what the characters are.
There’s a Vokh-to-English dictionary at the back of the book, but in reality I didn’t use many of the words in the actual story. Readers quickly work out that ‘ki’ means ‘no’ and that a wingspan is fairly wide in relation to the size of the body. Fingerwidth is pretty self explanatory too, but the pronoun ‘it’ is where the conlang [constructed language] becomes most noticeable.
Remember how I explained that all Vokh and iVokh are hermaphrodites? Well, how can you use ‘he’ and ‘she’ when the character is both? Take away the gendered words and all you have left is ‘it’. Once you start using the word ‘it’ though, other words become problematic…like ‘I’ and ‘you’.
I solved that problem by using ‘one’ or ‘self’ instead of ‘I’, and just for fun I turned the word ‘you’ into a very nasty swear word. But then I really started to dig myself into a hole. How on earth could I write dialogue without pronouns? Try it. ‘Tain’t easy, and sounds really…ugly.
I’m not a linguist, but I do speak a smattering of seven languages [only two properly!], so the sound of the language was really important to me. I was seriously thinking about not having any dialogue in the story at all when Hungarian, and to a lesser extent Japanese, came to my rescue. Pronouns do exist in both languages, but who is speaking is often obvious simply by the form of the verb.
This is what the present and past tense of the verb ‘To Go’ looks like in Hungarian:
For more on Hungarian grammar, please follow the link to the website.
Hungarian is my mother tongue so I’ve always known that in common speech, you almost always leave off the pronoun because it’s obvious from the form of the verb. In the graphic above, if you ignore the pronouns [shown in green] and just look at the verb forms, you’ll see that the verb changes… for each pronoun. In fact, the form of the verb is unique for each pronoun.
Thus, if I wanted to ask where you [plural] are going, I’d say:
Hova mentek? [Hova is ‘where’. Mentek is the plural form of [you] go because the ‘you’ is known from the verb form itself]
From there, it was a fairly easy step to reach: ‘”Where going?” it asked.’ The number of iVokh ‘going’ is understood from the context of the paragraph. If you’re talking about multiple iVokh then the question implies more than one. If only one other iVokh is present then the question implies the singular.
From the Japanese, I borrowed the short, sharp form of the men’s language to allow for commands. Thus: ‘”Hold!” it cried.’
And then, because I’m a bit of a masochist, I added a bit more biology in the form of the cilia. Cilia are like tiny pipe organs, and they are how my aliens breathe and speak [the mouth is used only for eating].
But what is the most noticeable thing about pipe organs? It’s that they play chords – major [happy], minor [sad] and variations on discord. Thus the words are automatically coloured by an emotional element, making it unnecessary to say “Self feeling sad” etc.
Finally, I added one more bit of biology – scent glands at the base of each cilia. I blame Golli for this one. Golli is a cat, and when I pick him up for a cuddle, he always rubs his cheek against my shoulder. Yes, it’s a sign of affection, but it’s also his way of scent marking his territory via the scent glands in his cheek. So he’s really saying “I love you, and you’re mine!”.
The Vokh and iVokh never show signs of affection, but those scent glands do produce cues that sometimes ‘leak’ into the air as they speak. Think a whole range of sneaky farts that all ‘mean’ something different. So the spoken language of Vokhtah – the actual words used – can be quite rudimentary because two other emotional cues provide richness and context.
On the cultural side, I decided to make life even more difficult for myself by not having public ‘names’, only titles or ranks. There are strong biological and cultural reasons for this, but I can’t tell you what they are because the published story hasn’t revealed them yet. Suffice to say it’s all because of the big, nasty Vokh. 🙂
One of the very first people who read Vokhtah said that I should change the dialogue into everyday English. I did think about it, for about five, very unhappy minutes. Then I realised the obvious: Vokhtah was going to be a difficult book to read no matter what, so asking Readers to get used to the dialogue was peanuts. And really, how could I change the language without changing the very core of the story?
Inevitably, this begs a whole slew of uncomfortable question: why bother creating such unappealing, difficult aliens in the first place? Why go to so much work and effort to write a story only a handful of people are likely to read? Why not use the tried and true trope of having a human main character who could ‘explain’ the bits that really needed explaining?
I guess the most honest answer to all those questions is the same as for the question: why climb Mount Everest? It’s because I wanted to.
Like almost every speculative fiction author I know, I wanted one shot at creating something new. Something that hadn’t been done before. A world that was not Earth, and an alien that was not human.
There’s a lot of ego involved in trying to climb the writing equivalent of Everest, but it’s also a rite of passage because it’s hard, bloody hard. For that reason alone, Vokhtah will probably remain the best thing I ever write. Also the least commercially viable. C’est la vie, n’est ce pas? [That’s life, right?]
Thank you for following me down this linguistic path, and if you know anyone who might be interested, Vokhtah will be free for five days starting on March 16, 2021 [that’s not until tomorrow for Southern Hemisphere readers]. I’m not expecting to make money out of Vokhtah, but I would dearly love to see one more review to bring the total up to 20.
I know I should be writing a post about Vokhtah, but I haven’t been this inspired in a long while, so here’s that dark scene from my latest WiP instead. And because so much of that inspiration has flowed from Lucas King’s incredible compositions, I’m including another dark track that I discovered today. It’s called The Grinning Man:
Excerpt from ‘Kahti’, book 2 of the Suns of Vokhtah
The Escapee took a long time to die, and all the Messengers stationed outside the door breathed a sigh of relief when its wordless keen finally stopped. All, that is, except for Death; it stayed silent and unmoving until the Yellow opened the door and ordered it inside.
Once inside, however, Death could not suppress a hiss of disgust as the melange of blood and body wastes assaulted its cilia. The stench grew progressively worse as it followed the Yellow down the short passage from the door to the main cavern.
“Throwing in pool,” the Yellow said, pointing a long finger at the body curled up in the middle of the floor. “And not forgetting…head first.”
A wet stain had spread around the body, blurring its outlines, but there was no sign of a wound until Death grabbed the Escapee by the ankles and flipped it onto its back. Only then did it see the bloody ruin where the groin sack had been, and the two eyeballs lying orphaned on the sand.
Jumping back with a hiss, it stared at the body in shock. It had seen bodies, or parts of bodies before, out in the Wild, but never anything to rival this deliberate, careful savagery…
The Yellow’s mocking laughter echoed from the passage until it was cut short by the slamming of the door.
Quivering with hatred, Death dragged the body into the bathing cavern and hauled it into the pool. Wrestling it into the correct position, however, proved to be an exercise in frustration as the current kept trying to suck the wings in first. In the end, it was forced to pull the body out of the pool and roll it up in its wings before feeding it into the fissure again. This time the Escapee was sucked away without a trace.
Once the body was gone, Death grabbed the slop bucket and returned to the main cavern where it sank to its knees beside the stain. It had almost finished digging out the filthy sand when it noticed a glimmer of white on the floor, near the Yellow’s perch. The glimmer turned out to be a jagged shard of ceramic, roughly the length of a finger…
“And sharp“, Death thought as it hurriedly withdrew its hand. A drop of fresh blood dripped from its finger as it scurried back to the bathing cavern. Grabbing a drying cloth, it hurried back to the main cavern where it kept one eye on the passage as it wrapped the shard in the cloth and placed the bundle in the bucket. It had just shovelled the last of the dirty sand on top when a voice said, “Still smelling bad.”
Startled, Death spun around and saw one of the Messengers standing at the end of the passage.
“Yellow wanting to know how much longer being,” the Messenger said, its cilia retracted to half their normal length. “Just finished,” Death said as it reached for the bucket. “Only needing to empty rubbish.”
Out in the main passage, the Yellow and the other Messengers flattened themselves against the walls as Death edged past with the bucket.
“Pah!” one of the Messengers cried as it fell in behind Death.
As expected, both Messengers stayed well back to avoid the smell, and neither followed Death into the waste pit. The moment they were out of sight, Death put the bucket down and hurried over to the edge of the wooden platform that jutted out over the waste pit. The platform had been part of the ramp building project, and each plank rested on two massive beams that had been attached to the walls of the shaft with arm-long starrock spikes. Some of the spikes stuck out more than others.
Dropping to its belly next to the wall on the left, Death dug the claws of its feet into the gaps between the planks and hung its upper body over the edge. If it twisted just so…
The small ceramic pot hung in a cradle of sturdy leather that was hooked over the end of one of the spikes. Unhooking the cradle, Death pulled the pot up onto the platform and quickly undid the knots.
It had stolen the pot of fast acting poison four years before, soon after being assigned to the Yellow. But the Yellow had never eaten anything prepared by its Assistant, and so the pot had remained unused. But not discarded. Death had thought about the pot many times during that first terrible year, but things had never been quite bad enough…
“And now having something better,” it thought with glee as it held the pot out over the void and opened its fingers. The pot fell for a long time before a distant smash signalled that it had finally met its end. The easy way out was gone.
Hurrying back to the bucket, Death dug the shard out of the sand and hissed in dismay when it saw that the soft cloth was already worn through in spots. The fat end of the wedge would have to be blunted or it would useless. Luckily sand was an excellent abbrasive.
Wrapping the cloth around the tip of the wedge until it formed a thick, padded lump, Death dug the fat end into the sand, again and again, until the sharp edges were scraped away. If there had been more time, it would have bound the blunted end in overlapping layers of leather, but there was no time so it cut a rectangle of cloth instead and wrapped it around the blunted end of the shard before securing the lot with a strip of leather.
The knife was far from perfect, but Death’s cilia quivered with joy as it gently inserted its new weapon into a crack and hid the end with a couple of pebbles. Messengers did not use weapons, but Tellers did, and whatever else Death may have become since entering the Settlement, it still knew how to use a knife.
“What taking so long?” the Junior Messenger demanded when Death finally emerged from the waste pit.
Death knew it should ignore the question, but as it pushed past its escort, a daemon of mischief made it say, “Trying to escape, of course.”
The two Messengers snorted in contempt, but when Death finally lay down on its pallet and closed its eyes, it slept like a newborn.
For those who haven’t read anything about the iVokh before, they’re humanoid-ish aliens who are all hermaphrodites. Because of their biology, they only ever refer to each other using gender neutral pronouns. And because the iVokh are distant cousins of the much bigger, aggressive Vokh, they follow the Vokh custom of keeping their personal names a secret. Thus they refer to each other as either ‘it’ or as the position in society that they occupy – e.g. Healer, Acolyte, Teller, etc.
Oh, and they all fit somewhere along a continuum of sociopathy. A subset of iVokh called Traders are the least sociopathic and have a strong sense of community, and honour. Death was once a Trader, but now it’s a Messenger, one of the enforcers of the Guild of Healers.
I hope most other things in the excerpt you can work out for yourselves because now I want to talk about this music! Widds commented in the last post about the bass notes of The Silent Place, and how it made us feel ‘wibbly-wobbly’. 😀 Well, this piece is very similar in that the melody is carried by the bass notes, all of which have a…resonance…that is almost visceral.
In most of the music we’re used to, the melody is carried by the higher notes while the bass provides a kind of ‘rhythm section’; it’s subordinate to the treble. In the Grinning Man this pattern is almost completely reversed with the higher notes [played by the right hand] being an almost hypnotic accompaniment to the growling melody played by the left hand. Most of that melody is also in a minor key – the ‘sad’ key. Put it all together and you have a piece of music that you, or at last I, cannot forget. 🙂
I’ve come across some brilliant Indie composers since I discovered SoundCloud, and I’ve showcased some of them on this blog, but Lucas King is the only one I would unashamedly label a ‘genius’. His music is classical but different, yet he isn’t going all atonal just to be seen as ‘different’. He’s simply writing what he feels, and boy does it speak to me. And he’s still in his twenties.
Okay, I’ll stop gushing now. Thank you for reading, and listening.
This is not the post I’d planned, but I’m utterly taken with this music and just had to share. It’s another one of Lucas King’s piano compositions, and it’s called The Silent Place. It also happens to be perfect for a scene I just wrote about Death [Vokhtah 2].