In his remarkably sensitive review of our work, Harley Sims refers to its aspect of Recovery, the term Tolkien used to describe one of the key hallmarks of the fairy tale. The role of Recovery, Sims notes, is “to refresh the reader’s perspective on and appreciation for the real world.” In the area of speculative fiction, this implies the need for a delicate balancing act between the fantastic and the gritty reality of life as we know it in all its many workaday aspects. I discuss this in the essay that I’ve written for a forthcoming collection that will be appearing in late 2013 under the Tarcher/Penguin imprint and featuring expository exercises on the writer’s craft by various contributors, including well-known novelists like Ursula LeGuin. Here is a preview of my piece:


In the realm of folklore, a special, oftentimes sinister, significance is attributed to the in-between places, the earthen boundary between forest and ploughland, for example, or the in-between times like dawn and twilight, which mark the slow-stepping progressions of day and night towards one another. At the same time, these places and times of shape-shifting uncertainty are suggestive of mystery and hopeful possibility. In many ways such boundaries stand as a metaphor for the dangers and ambiguities that mark the frontiers of human experience in all its enigmatic fragility, things like birth and death, sickness and health, loss and gain, wayfaring and homecoming, and so on. Similarly, in an uncanny echo of this vital aspect of our humanness, fantasy as a literary genre occupies the uncertain, frontier area between what’s “true to life” and soaring flights of the imagination that beckon the reader towards the unfamiliar and the strange. For those of us who practise the craft of words, fantasy can pose some serious artistic challenges, precisely because it occupies such perilously unsure ground. Writing speculative fiction can be a tough row to hoe, one that requires the exercise of high standards of good judgment, as we try to negotiate our way through the pitfalls and dangers of the ground that lies between a sturdy realism and the figments conjured by our imagination. Like all writers from time immemorial, what we’re aiming to induce in the reader is a willing suspension of disbelief, a term coined by the 19th century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

According to one school of thought, writers should write about what they know, i.e. their own life experiences.  When it comes to the genre of fantasy, this rule of thumb clearly needs to be revisited and qualified. To give a notable example, elves and orcs did not stem from Tolkien’s practical knowledge of the world.  This is because Tolkien wrote quite properly not only about what he knew, but what he was able to envision by way of his fertile imagination. In so doing, he attracted vast legions of readers. But it wasn’t all about his imagination. In the end, it was about balance. Tolkien succeeded in spectacular fashion because he portrayed perfectly the homey, reassuring realities of everyday life, while setting them in a compelling imaginary world quite out of the ordinary. The key thing about Tolkien’s imagination is that it is not arbitrary, nor is it a faculty untethered from reality. As fantastic and extraordinary as the outpourings of his imagination are, they are marked by an overarching coherence and groundedness. They resonate with the reader because they exhibit a twofold strength. On the one hand, they are placed in a matrix of ordinary life, many of whose aspects we recognize as normal and human. In this respect, Tolkien wrote about what he knew and experienced. On the other hand, his creative approach is steeped in his vast scholarly knowledge of old England and the medieval world of northern Europe, which he embroiders with his own flights of genius and inventiveness. In this respect, Tolkien’s imaginary creations illustrate the proverbial wisdom inherent in the statement that truth is stranger than fiction.

Of all genres, fantasy most requires the touchstone of truth as an aid to the reader in the suspension of disbelief. Just as electrical devices need to be grounded, so too does speculative fiction. Otherwise, it risks becoming literally incredible, a phantasmagoria of the bizarre. In our “Legacy of the Stone Harp” series, my co-author Jim Anderson and I have made it a key principle that our invented world of Ahn Norvys should in vital ways mirror the laws and constraints of the real world. Of course, the actual nature and extent of this grounding in the real varies from work to work and is a matter in the end of artistic judgment and preference. Jim and I are convinced, however, that by pursuing a fairly rigorous exclusion of plot devices that depend on the miraculous we have added plausibility to our portrayal of Ahn Norvys. This is not to say that we have do not have thematic elements that are arrestingly strange, evocatively suggestive, in fact, of the miraculous. The theme of songlines that we use in our series is a good example. It’s an idea that was sparked when I read travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s book on the importance of this concept for Australian aborigines. The concept of ley lines is also very similar to that of songlines, suggesting fresh new, even haunting, ways of regarding the world around us.

For me, travel writing and historical non-fiction have always played an important role as stimulants of my imagination. I’m thinking here in particular of the though-provoking theories of alternative archaeology proposed by a writer like Graham Hancock or the fascinating accounts of ancient Mongol and Chinese civilization tendered by John Man, for example. It’s all wonderful grist for the mill and serves to keep our work within the limits of credibility.

In “Kubla Khan”, one of the most famous poems of the Romantic period, Coleridge provides another excellent illustration of what I mean here. An important commentator on the role of the imagination in literature, Coleridge begins with a lavishly fanciful, indeed fantastic, description of Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol emperor from whom the poem takes its name.  While in the poem Xanadu is actually much more reminiscent of Coleridge’s native Somerset than it is of northern China, we learn that he drew his inspiration for the poem from a passage in the writings of Samuel Purchas, an Elizabethan geographer.

Consider an area of the world that you’re interested in or some place by which you feel intrigued. Then use the internet to go onto a search engine like Google for 20-30 minutes, looking for historical information or travel blogs on the subject. Keep your eyes open for any tidbit that might serve as an example of truth being stranger than fiction and that might be used the keynote of an alternative world. The web being such a vast and wonderful place, odds are you’ll find more than enough material that strikes your fancy. After that, spend 15-20 minutes framing out a one or two paragraph outline that could be used as the basis for a novel.

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