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Monday, January 4, 2016

GUEST POST: Building A New World by G.R. Matthews


The Stone Road’ is set in an alternative ancient China. In this land there are Kung Fu masters of many styles, magic of many flavours, exotic weapons, politics, ecology, geology and mythology.

My childhood years were spent surrounded by Iron Age hill forts, long barrows and the standing stones of Avebury. Why did I decide to write a novel set that far away, in a culture so different to my own? And do I have any right to do so? A new world cannot be revealed to a reader in encyclopaedic sense. It cannot be rammed down there throat, or driven into their skulls with the hammer and six inch nail of info-dumping… I hate info dumps. A world should be created around the reader from little seeds that grow into the full flower of imagination and vision. And a story is not about the world, it is about the manner in which the characters interact and exist within it.

The first seed is language.

China is often quoted as the birth place of the written language – though Egypt also has a hand on that crown – and the use of the Chinese words here and there, where appropriate, where they are easily recognisable and can be reused, add to the flavour of the world. Take, for example, the Jian, the ‘gentleman of swords’. It would be simple to use the word sword, but Jian has more potential to take root in the readers mind. Add in the names of other authentic weapons and though were are talking spear, staff, sword, dagger; Qiāng, Nángùn, Dao, Shuāngdāo all sound so much better, more evocative of a different culture.

Language extends through all aspects of the world-building. Take the major groups in ‘The Stone Road’, the Jiin-Wei (spies and secret police) and the Wu (shamans, spirit walkers, sorcerers) are real groups from ancient China. A little drop of the language here and there, a military rank and a name, provide a structure to hang the world upon and before long the reader is thinking in those terms. The language creates the world in their imagination.

What about other cultural seeds?

Two taps on the table when tea is served is not something you see a lot of in café’s or diners (for the American readers amongst us) and might seem strange, began when an Emperor, who liked to travel incognito amongst his people, served tea to another who recognised him. Not wanting to bow and reveal the Emperor’s identity, the tea drinker tapped two fingers on the table in place of a deep bow. The tradition took hold and now, tapping fingers on the table after being served tea, is a way of saying thank you without interrupting the conversation. It is a little gesture, easy to overlook, but it is something different, a cultural clue.

And the magic? Though book one does little to explain the magic, there are clues in everything. The Jiin-Wei cast magic through the written word. The spell has to be written, the power is in the words and paper. It is an idea from some Chinese movies with ghosts and the undead. And it reinforces the idea that China is the home of writing, and more than that of nationwide literacy and books.

Then there are the Wu, the ‘magicians’ who can call upon the spirits of animals to aid them. The Chinese horoscope identifies birth signs and years with animals. The Wu are the embodiment of their animal counterpart, over time they take on the name and the traits of their spirit. A little research will tell you the characteristics that ancient Chinese scholars ascribed to the animals and there is your character. It feels a little like cheating, but really it just helps that seed of imagination to sprout.

The actual source of each magic, and there are (Spoiler alert, though not a great one) ten types in the world of ‘The Stone Road, is something I based upon a broadly Taoist philosophy. The Baopuzi and the Zhong Lü Chuan Dao Ji contain some information, and I only dipped a toe into the shallow end of the internet to find inspiration. There is so much out there to read, to find out, but how much will the reader need to pour water on the seed and help it grow?

The Jade Emperor, another aspect of Taoist belief, is synonymous with Chinese culture appearing in the popular myth ‘Journey to the West’. Eastern dragons and the association of the Emperor with such creatures is part of culture and architecture. Little drops of rain and sunshine that can fall upon the seeds within the first book, ‘The Stone Road’, and grow taller in later ones, spreading a canopy over the trilogy.

Food. Not to the GRRM level of foodiness, but alongside tea there are things like congee, a porridge of rice, and Youtiao, a type of doughnut fried in oil. The characters have to eat and drink or they would die of starvation before the refugee crises that sparks the story off ever took hold.

But it isn’t China, at least not the one in our world. The needs of the story would not permit, and I did not want to make, a perfect recreation of our world’s China, but the history and mythology is a rich hunting ground. The development of writing, imperial exams, administrators, a culture built on the written word, all make it different.

Back to that question at the beginning. The one I have dodged, not answered. Do I have any right to write a story in a culture that is not my own? This question was raised, briefly, at BristolCon by one of the panels; writing a story in culture that is not the one you are raised in – “Cultural appropriation” was the term used. Well, you know what, I wasn’t raised a Viking, a Franc, a Saxon, or a Venetian. I’m not Gaelic, Celtic, a Vandal (though my year 8 German teacher might disagree… sorry about that), a Roman, a Goth (never went through that teenage phase) … and I suspect many authors who write stories based in fantasy world that uses ideas and concepts from those histories/cultures weren’t either.

Looking at my family tree, put together by a relative and forwarded by my fantastic father, you discover that one of my ancestors was born in China in 1675. I suspect that if you look in most people’s family trees you’ll find something similar. In fact, I’d bet that someone reading this has the same ancestor.

I wanted to write was a fantasy novel set somewhere different, where there would be a different flavour to the story and culture, so that’s what I did. I love Kung Fu movies, the old ones and the new ones. In my childhood, I studied Kung Fu for a year or three. I find it fascinating; the country, the culture and the differences.

Confession time.

I ‘cheated’. Kind of. No more than any author who uses their imagination (and what else do they have if not that). By creating an alternative far eastern realm, analogous of China, I could move across the millennia, picking and choosing those bits which excited me, that slotted into the story and either helped or hindered the characters. As the reader (you with any luck) moves through the series they see those bits that are historically accurate and those that diverge. Some might notice, some might not, it doesn’t matter – it is a work of fiction.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely (mostly) coincidental.

I ‘cheated’ in another way too. I’m not sorry. Maybe I am sorry that I am not sorry. I did not write historical fiction, I wrote fiction in the fantasy genre – and as such I didn’t need to be an expert, I just needed to be convincing enough to give the reader a flavour, a scent, a sound, a taste, a feel of the world and culture. Enough that their imagination would create the world based upon the seeds and saplings I planted. No two readers create the same world, the same vision, but there will be some commonality despite the differences. In the writing, I researched as much as I needed to do that job, to create that image. No more, no less.

You may think less of me now, for that I’m sorry. But I am in good company, the best. Stephen King’s rule 6 of writing a bestseller; Do the research, but don't overdo it for the reader. What you could do, this is just a suggestion, feel free to follow it, is read the book and decide for yourself. Maybe those seeds I planted will sprout and grow into to a full forest in your imagination. I hope they do.

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Official Author Website
Order The Stone Road HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Geoff Matthews (G. R. Matthews) began reading in the cot. His mother, at her wits end with the constant noise and unceasing activity, would plop him down on the soft mattress with an encyclopaedia full of pictures then quietly slip from the room. His father, ever the pragmatist, declared, that they should, “throw the noisy bugger out of the window.” Happily this event never came to pass (or if it did Geoff bounced well). Growing up, he spent Sunday afternoons on the sofa watching westerns and Bond movies with the self-same parent who had once wished to defenestrate him. When not watching the six-gun heroes or spies being out-acted by their own eyebrows he devoured books like a hungry wolf in the dead of winter.

Beginning with Patrick Moore and Arthur C Clarke he soon moved on to Isaac Asimov. However, one wet afternoon in a book shop in his home town, not far from the standing stones of Avebury, he came across a book by David Eddings – and soon Sci-Fi gave way to Fantasy. Many years later, Geoff finally realised a dream and published his own fantasy novel, The Stone Road, in the hopes that other hungry wolves out there would find a hearty meal. You can follow him on twitter @G_R_Matthews or visit his website.

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