Who Decides What Becomes Literature? Understanding Literary Fantasy (from an outright amateur’s perspective)

If a masterpiece of artful and amazing prose on the human experience never reaches the public eye, is never praised by academics, never sells a single copy, is it still literature?

Who decides what is literature and what isn’t? Elitist assholes or literary experts? If you wish to skim through this blog post, I’ve bolded the juicy bits for your convenience. If you wish to read normally, please keep in mind that by “literature” I don’t simply mean “literate material,” but Merriam-Webster’s 3rd definition: “writings in prose or verse; especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”

What we need to do to understand literary fantasy is make a line between realistic literary fantasy for adults, like A Game of Thrones, and unrealistic literary fantasy for children and young adults, like The Hobbit or Cinderella, because by doing this we’ll notice there’s a middle ground between these two extremes, and, for a reason I’ll explain, this middle ground isn’t considered literature. Bear with me if you can. This is just theory for the mind, so bring a bucket of salt and we’ll have some fun.

In a previous post I claimed the biggest difference between literature and non-literature (genre fiction) is that the latter serves as a means of taking you away from this world to be entertained. Literature, on the other hand, draws you deeper into this world to be educated on life matters, because literature is what we would use to teach planetary aliens about us and our history. I still hold strong to this argument, but now I’d like to share a more obvious divide between the two: literature is performed by trained professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to learning how to express their thoughts and feelings into magnificent word-craft without common errors and without other amateurish expressions like passionate misconceptions overriding well-thought-out research. Another criteria is being accepted by a literary journal of some kind, but not all literature from history has had to go through this gatekeeper, and, let’s face it, many literary journals today are less professional than this mediocre blog post. With that ghastly intro out of the way, let’s now dig a bit deeper into two distinct niches (I will argue three) which I’ve studied enough to feel comfortable teaching at entry level: Literary Fantasy for Adults and Children’s (or Young Adult’s) Fantasy Literature (the third one being a mixture of the two which I will later refer to as the middle ground between the two extremes).

I don’t wish to be the angry ogre when I put such titles as the classic Conan and Lord of the Rings in the Children’s Fantasy Literature category. Some of you may hate me for doing that, but theorists and expressive thinkers like myself are supposed to be hated, and I argue that all the moral lessons learned from Lord of the Rings should already be known to adult readers, even though the book can still be appreciated by adults and considered literature for its artistic merit.

who decides what becomes literature

Literature is just like modern art with its auctions and galleries. Without establishments to bolster literature and let it breathe, everything becomes non-literature, and for anyone to say something IS literature and the next thing ISN’T makes them either an asshole or an expert.

Not one of us gets to make the magical decision anyway. The decision on what becomes great art is made collectively like a modern painting when it hits the auction. A dozen people may say this here painting only took one hour to make and is a disgrace to the classic masterpieces which took years, but then this same modern painting, on this very same day could sell for millions of dollars! Who made that decision? The fancy, mincing buyers in the auction collectively and the people who organize the auction! That’s who! Similarly with literature, the decisions are made by editors for literary journals, agents in publishing circles and professors in universities, along with consumers in established society whose tastes are respected by such professionals. Without these authorities on the matter, nothing could possibly rise to the standard of being elegant literature as opposed to amateur genre writing. With these academic authorities in existence, we’re able to take a newly written book and make comparisons. Slowly over time, definitely not overnight, a book that was shunned years ago for being grotesque and gruesome can rise up the taste-buds of the public tongue to resurrect itself as classic literature for future centuries to admire and be proud of, like Frankenstein. Now accepting that, individually, we each have little control over what becomes literature, let us now compare Children’s Fantasy to what is currently considered Literary Fantasy to grasp the handle a little tighter.

Fantasy for children is supposed to be black and white with predictable villains and cliche heroes for the better development of the child’s self-identity. It’s said that a good fairy tale should make a kid want to be like the good guy because he or she would never want to be like the bad guy. And indeed, younger children who still think mostly in images and have little understanding over the true, gruesome aspects of human existence are able to draw conclusions from things that adults can’t. Fantasy for children is not supposed to be academic or “literary.” Being so would ruin the whole point of being a children’s story. Stories deemed as Children’s Literature like Three Little Pigs, without elegant description, without artistic prose and without being at all realistic, teaches a child what it means to be brave, what it means to build a house out of the right material and so on. The evil step-sisters in Cinderella are studied as representing many deep symbols that, while adults try so hard to understand them with words, children pick up on right away using images in their subconscious minds. For more info on why fairy tales are important for children consider The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim.

With all that said, let’s now dive on over into the middle ground between children’s fantasy stories and academic fantasy for adults. This middle ground is where most fantasy books are currently sitting. Before some major professor in some high-end university decided to pick up The Hobbit and scream “these armies have no commissariats! This is literature for children, not adults!” The Hobbit, too, dwelled in this middle ground. But forgive that creative metaphor. The truth I assume was a lot different. Adults cherish The Hobbit and they have good reason to. Now I ask you, if The Hobbit was never picked up by traditional publishers, if it just ended up on Amazon today because some grandson decided to self-publish an old stack of paper he’d found in his attic, would it still be considered literature? Hmm? Now that is a good question to ask here because it reveals a sad truth about elitism. I wouldn’t be surprised if the book flopped just like all the hundreds of other books flopping on Amazon daily.

The middle ground, for a passionate author who fears failure, is a dreadful place to be. For an amateur that doesn’t plan on ever becoming an expert, it’s a place they’ve never heard of. The middle ground is where all great works of literature come from, yet it’s always where all crap goes to die. With one extreme being Children’s Literature (or Young Adult’s Literature) and the other being Adult’s Literature, is the middle ground then for teenagers and adults who have yet to grow up? Not really. The scary truth is that being stuck in the middle ground means nothing more than your writing will never become literature. Even if you stand on top of a mountain, holding up your cherished art for the world to see, and scream “this is more than just genre fiction,” if no literary journals, agents in powerful circles or other authoritative figures agree with you, even if you have millions of non-academic followers being entertained, your work will remain in the middle ground, never to be whispered centuries from now as a bedside story for a curious little girl, never to be cherished by academics who wish to ride the waves of beauty in writing decades from now, to only be read in your own lifetime for the sake of entertainment. So what can you do to make your writing become literature, to make it something future generations would be willing to present to an alien race as “our great art,” and not just some hunk of writing, satisfying temporary tropes? The answer was never simple but it’s becoming so: you must either become Literature for Adults or become Literature for Children, because the middle ground is simply Writing for Entertainment.

It would be a shame if mankind’s greatest art was used solely for entertainment because there is so much about us to teach.

Understanding this, let us now ask “what is Literature for Adults?” I already have a post answering the question “what is medieval fantasy for adults?” but here I’m going to explain differently. The easy answer would be “well, it’s not literature for children!” We’ve already discussed how children learn in different ways than we do. Children get much use out of hearing unrealistic fairy tales. But would adults get use from them, too? Maybe we could go into Memory Lane or be entertained for a little while, but most life lessons learned in children’s stories are, well, lessons we’ve already learned. In order for us to go up a level and be taught something from what we’re reading, the writing itself needs to be much different. I’ve never learned much about the truth of historical Japan by reading manga or watching anime, genres in the middle ground for teenagers and youthful adults who wish to be entertained. However, I have learned a whole heck of a lot about real Japanese history by reading non-fiction and watching documentaries. The difference between a documentary and an anime is the difference between being in the middle ground and being of academic use to adults. But simply being of academic use to adults doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly got literature on your hands. You still need to go through the great gatekeeper of time, through the circles and schools who collectively make the final decision.

Literature for adults like such writings by Shakespeare and Cervantes have passed the gatekeepers with fabulous success. They’ve moved out of the middle ground. With their insights into the matters of daily life, their elegant styles, prose and artistry, no one can argue that they’re not literature because they’d be arguing with thousands of famous dead people and would look like an idiot. And after studying this stuff for long enough, calling much of today’s popular fantasy “literature” also looks quite idiotic, and only uneducated students on the matter who love to be entertained would agree with you. If a fantasy novel is going to be of academic use for future generations, if it’s going to be considered some of mankind’s best art, it must not thrive on contemporary tropes but on timeless ideals like preserving truth, presenting culture and teaching history, ethics and morals!

When the writing’s purpose becomes more than just simple entertainment, when it has the ability to teach even a professor something new, I will argue that it deserves to enter the immortal field of masterpieces, not the graveyard of entertainment, to become literature! But deserving and becoming are two separate things, which is why anything written in the last half-century must wait for the collective, final decision–“is this literature worthy of being passed through the ages?” Only time can tell.

To recap I will leave you to answer the very first question I presented at the top of this post, but in a slightly different way: If there’s a great masterpiece of writing full of inspiring truth about history, full of marvelous prose and literary words, and it doesn’t contain a single error, yet no one ever gets to see it because it’s buried beneath a rock, is it still literature? The answer is becoming clearer, but really who’s to say? An asshole or an expert? After all, literature as we know it has only been around for a very brief time in human history. Like modern art, it’s evolving everyday.

Advertisements

The “real” Second Renaissance: Revival, Progress and Cooperative Nationalism

Millennials are no longer making the same unethical and environmentally-damaging mistakes made by our predecessors in the Industrial Revolution. Thinkers, noticing this change, like to call our current conditioning “post-modern.” They are right to do so because history is never static. She is contently and constantly on the move. We cannot be modern forever. The word, for me at least, conjures images of World War I and II. But on the other hand, “The Second Renaissance,” when uttered, augurs images of green energy and nations working together.

I have so much hope for the future!

the second renaissance in the 21st century

To make this idea of being passed modern, being in the beginnings of a wide-spread renaissance more understandable for everyone I feel obliged to speak of a phenomenon that since the fall of the Roman Empire has only happened once before: a vast cultural revival due to a vast discovery of precious, old knowledge.

Brief side note: There’s an article on the Huffington Post website about the rise of nationalism in Europe and America. But bear with me here. I’m talking about the revival of national histories. Call it geographical-culturalism if you will. Forget all the secondary and extremist definitions. Nationalism here simply means the conscious awareness that you are part of a nation.

To strengthen the assertion of a “second vast revival” I will, in ambiguous ways, be answering these questions: What changes mark the beginning of the First Renaissance? How do these changes compare to our current situation in the 21st century?

The ending of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance together mark a blurry line, but it’s safe to say these two categories of time merge for roughly one- or two-hundred years. For understanding the differences between these times and ours it’s important to note some things here: People in the Early Middle Ages had no idea they were “being medieval.” Japan, a very educated society, had to learn she was “becoming modern.” And Petrarca, the voice of the Renaissance in 14th century Italy, spoke of a moving forward for the better because being medieval was similar to being barbaric.

Today we are very much moving forward, away from barbarism and modernism. For some people it may not seem like it but really we’re on a planet revolving around in space and we can’t stop ourselves from moving forward. If you are alive and reading this then you are experiencing or are studying the beginnings of the age of the digital coin, the first days of the internet, and together we’re watching a generation of humans be born into a world where their parents are highly distracted by floods of information.

Like Petrarca when he rediscovered and studied ancient writings in the Late Middle Ages, the parents of today are exploring and discovering writings on places like Reddit and universities where people with interests are discussing interesting things.

For the first time ever in human history, people are translating and sharing rediscovered medieval writings, much like Petrarca did for rediscovered ancient writings in the early days of print publishing.

Some minor notes to throw: Just recently, people in Britain were awfully excited to get the Bayeux Tapestry back. And Britain is just one nation. Without the concept of nations, or geographical-cultures, could people in Renaissance France ever hope to get some Frankish artifact back onto mother soil? Speaking of nations, Japan, India, Korea, China, Russia, Mexico, Jamaica, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and many other “modern” nations separate from Europe are likewise becoming more interested in their own pasts because lost information about them is being revealed for the first time in centuries.

Nationalism for many people is a derogatory word because of some lunatic-fringes. This is why I decided to categorize a related phenomenon–“cooperative nationalism.” Nations have been at daggers drawn countless times throughout history, some still are today, but in Canadian universities young people are still being open about their national backgrounds, even Israelis and Palestinians, and, as they’re learning about all the horrible things their nations did to each other in the past, they’re also digging into the fascinating culture each nation has to offer. I call this cooperative nationalism because, not only are students sharing insightful truths around campus and on Reddit, nations themselves are increasingly finding ways to work together and cooperate.

bringing history to life

A vast moving forward. But it’s not all change. A lot of it’s revival. A second renaissance if you will. A resurrection of history

For I see harbors where people are giving tours on ships that were built to replicate real medieval ships. On screens and tablets I see people watching longsword tournaments instead of modern football. In popular culture I see castles and cartoon samurai. Welcome to the Second Renaissance where digital currencies can be discovered in mathematical equations, where answers to ancient questions are being shared in vast quantities and where people are harnessing the wind once more instead of burning coal.

I leave you to enjoy this spectacular time in history.

For you are no longer modern.

Yuk, modern is so drab.

 

 

Fantasy’s Everlasting Quality: A Service You Can’t Get Anywhere Else

Like any artform fantasy is susceptible to change. Think of 60s rock-and-roll and compare it to modern rock, 90s cartoons compared to cartoons today. Just like how music is changing due to technology, fantasy is changing due to a flux of information on the internet. The re-discovery of medieval combat treatises is putting a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of everyone who works with medieval themes, especially writers.

But as things change the more they stay the same.

And although like a meteor blazing through the heavens the newest mediocrity may outshine the oldest excellence temporarily, the oldest excellences are timeless.

To make an artform timeless it must appeal to people in all times. For example Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is, after so many years, still relevant today. Unlike a briefly best-selling novel written to satisfy temporary tropes, Cervantes’ Don Quixote of the Mancha appeals to minds around the world eternally. And unlike a TV show blindly following a fad in popular culture, The Lord of the Rings, with its valuable insights into comradeship, can never be swept under the rug due to a nuance in fashion. Samwise’s relationship with Frodo can be studied for its truths so long as people are around to study it. To be timeless is to provide a very specific service, a service which, I argue, is what the fantasy genre does best.

The quality most important in making something timeless is a quality fantasy holds above all else.

Fantasy makes life more meaningful.

People, after a day of hard work in this world, can’t wait to get home to their favorite place in the universe–their fantasy world. Whether it exists in a book, a Netflix series or a videogame, their fantasy world, for them, has made the toughest of jobs bearable, the hardest of days worth living.

traditional fantasy

Even after HEMA becomes as popular as boxing and hockey, even after the average fantasy fan can no longer stand unlearned sword fighting choreography in movies, fantasy’s most important feature will be stronger than ever. Just because popular tropes are disintegrating, just because the niches known as low-fantasy and grimdark are becoming more popular, doesn’t mean the heart of traditional fantasy will change. At the end of the day fantasy must provide a service, a service which the word escape doesn’t completely give justice to. Certes, there is no one word to describe how a great fantasy movie can make you feel inside. Beauty, love, growth and understanding are all things we can gain from even the most unrealistic of fantasy stories. These, too, are all things we can gain from ultra realistic fantasy yet to be written.

The fantasy genre’s one everlasting quality is a quality that, to be fully understood, cannot be explained in words but must be experienced through the mind and heart.

Magical Realism plus Medieval Fantasy equals what? Historical Fiction with Magic or something totally new?

It’s common for people to confuse magical realism with fantasy, but what, I ask, after understanding their differences, would they look like combined? Combined, would it simply be medieval historical fiction with some magic thrown in or would we be dealing with a whole new genre? You may find my conclusion very interesting.

First let me briefly describe what I find to be the extreme difference between the two genres.

Magical realism uses magic to bring the reader closer to reality, while fantasy uses the same to help the reader escape from it. Magical realism, in other words, brings us closer to truth. Fantasy, by its design, takes us away from truth. This is exactly why much magical realism is considered literature and why much fantasy is not. Literature, for reasons of academic growth, urges us to think in order to understand the meanings behind things in our own real world. Fantasy, though it may provoke thoughts now and then, wants us to escape from reality for reasons of pleasure.

fantasy vs magical realism - creating a new genre

I believe that in a “magical realism-esque fantasy story” there should be little or no explanation of the laws governing magic and spells because all the laws here are already governed by all the natural laws of reality.

Now, some may wonder, is something like this no different than historical fiction with some magic thrown in? The answer is no because we’re still stealing from fantasy here in the sense that the world our characters live in may be a different world than our own, so therefore all the nitpicking of names, locations and dates you find in historical fiction is unnecessary here. In historical fiction a reader would scoff if she saw a knight with a 16th century bascinet wearing a 12th century harness. The said technology is separated by 400 years! In fantasy, however, a combination like this is acceptable because it’s fantasy. Considering this, we also can’t forget that we are stealing from magical realism as well, and what that means is, though we may be able to invent our own locations and dates, we can’t, however, change the laws of reality. The fantastic elements we’re applying are all here to make the reader learn more about the very world she lives in and this would be difficult, but not impossible, if the world in the story was too different than our own real world.

the difference between magical realism and fantasy

Traditional fantasy, full of myths and misconceptions about history, can very well teach us a few things about our own world but that still doesn’t make it magical realism. Magical realism would be no different than fantasy if it didn’t pride itself in being an academic source for truth. So if they were to be combined would we get something very similar to alternate history or low-fantasy? Yea, medieval alternate history, with made up dates, a few fake locations, yet still holding true to the laws of our own universe, suggesting what might have happened if a bit of magic existed here and there for the purpose of learning more about our own world, is very close to “magical realism and medieval fantasy combined,” but we’re still not quite there.

What would the Battle of Crécy have looked like with dragons involved? What would be the most realistic outcome? What could this outcome teach us about our own world? These are questions an alternate history author might ask. And these questions also underline the one limitation alternate history has, the one limitation “magical realism and medieval fantasy combined” does not have–historical setting!

what is magical realism compared to fantasy

Fantasy worlds have very different historical settings than our own. For example you might call a fantasy author rather unimaginative if she named the two warring kingdoms in her story England and France because fantasy kingdoms should have their own fantastic names. And, indeed, the kingdoms in “magical realism and medieval fantasy combined” might very well have their own fantastic names as well. In fact, the whole planet the story occurs on may be different, BUT although the planet might be different, it still, in order to be “magical realism-esque,” has to exist in the same universe as our own planet and therefore must obey the laws of our own universe!

Do you know what this means? Do you understand how impactful this is? Knowing that my “medieval fantasy” is taking place on a planet very similar to Earth, in the same universe as Earth, I’m free to make up my own locations, dates and events while still being “ultra realistic,” and, unlike in alternate history or historical fiction, I can even invent a completely new historical setting as well. And although my world is “ultra realistic” no one can bash me if my characters are wearing morions with hourglass gauntlets (two pieces of armor which, when considering Earth’s historical accuracy, would never be seen together) because, lo and behold, technology here has transpired differently than on Earth because my whole historical setting is different… EUREKA!

This in an essence, having a medieval setting (which happens to have magic) on a different planet than Earth while still being in the same universe as Earth and so therefore still adhering to the same laws of reality as our own universe, is “magical realism and medieval fantasy combined” because, like fantasy, our story is taking place in a different world than our own, but, like magical realism, our story is also obliged to follow the rules of reality and bring us closer to truth. The only thing we must do now is create a name for this exciting new genre. What do you think?

It’s nearly time to begin the Great Crusade to bring Truth to the Medieval Fantasy Genre

I chose the title for this paper very carefully. A few months ago I might have said “time to begin the Great Crusade against Misconceptions in the Medieval Fantasy Genre,” but I’ve learned, through comical experience on Reddit, that in order to win this holy war we must not fight against what we hate–lies and misconceptions–but rather save what we love–truth!

When first becoming a self-published fantasy writer I did all kinds of research into “how to sell e-books” and even joined forums like Kboards to ask for help and advice. In my search I came across a popular strategy called “write to market” which has helped many authors on Amazon sell thousands of books. I would have tried this strategy for myself if it did not work against my ethics and against my vision for the Medieverse. You see, in order to implement this write to market strategy I must learn all the popular fantasy tropes that fantasy readers love and, yea, copy them, copy all the tropes which are essentially misconceptions (like the hero wearing a sword on his back, or medieval cities having no surrounding suburbs or farmland because it looks pretty). In other words I must be a “John Doe” and write what the majority wants to read. I call that a short-term strategy. Now I, after dear and sincere studying, have instead decided to make a grand, public long-term strategy very similar to the Crusades.

the crusade against medieval misconceptions

Like the great Latin barons of the first military Crusade, not the People’s Crusade, I’m not warring for myself or for any material gains; I’m warring because I truly believe it’s wrong to pump misconceptions into young people’s minds so that they then go on to take it all as truth! Like Peter the Hermit, I’m appealing to a subconscious need, one inherent in many of us, that may take several decades to ripen into material life, and as things like HEMA and Lindybeige become more popular my quest will become easier. I see Lindybeige as one of the great Crusader barons bringing truth to the Holy Land, and each and every HEMA practitioner, every Matt Easton fan, as one of the many knights, footmen, auxiliaries and camp-followers who are making this Crusade possible. And I don’t mind if other authors see my ideas and steal them. In fact I want as many authors as possible to follow this much-needed calling and join me.

How many people do you know believe that knights in plate armor were walking tin cans that could barely run and jump? How many people do you know believe that you can hold back the drawstring of a war bow at full draw for as long as you want in order to threaten someone with dialogue? How many people do you know believe that cannons weren’t around in the Middle Ages? These people have been lied to, arguably unintentionally, and they don’t even know it yet. It’s our duty to “wake them up” so to speak.

Now I could go on for hours and hours about all the things that every fantasy author is doing wrong but in the long-run that would only damage myself. In order to truly see a change I must talk about all the awesome things the medieval fantasy genre should be showing and why they’re so important. I say that it’s “nearly time” to begin our Crusade because frankly I still have much, much learning to do before I can become the man I need to be in order to lead our crusading armies to victory, and perhaps you yourself are already ready and can lead your army past the emperor at Constantinople (traditional publishers) without me. Yea, I see a bright future with movies that show HEMA techniques and picture books that make children want to learn more about the real truth of the Middle Ages rather than about orcs and goblins. Welcome to the early days of the Western world’s second Renaissance where instead of gaining inspiration from our Roman and Greek predecessors we are doing so from our true national histories (Americans falling in love with their ancestors’ Franco-German traditions for example). I highly thank you for reading, for reading this and just reading in general. I promise we will be victorious. Truth will, metaphorically, thrive within the holy places, within each and every one of us.

PS, if you live in Victoria BC, Canada and are interested in custom leather book binding or collecting rare vintage books I highly recommend Period Fine Bindings in Oak Bay. There I recently got my hands on a A New Dictionary of Heraldry printed in 1739 and will soon be using it to design the coats of arms for many characters in the Medieverse.

 

How To Triple Your Vocab In A Year!

I could just say ‘keep a dictionary by the toilet’ and end this article there but I actually found a very efficient way for everyone to grow their vocabularies at alarming rates. Get ready to impress your friends!

Most people unintentionally grow their vocabulary over many years, kind of like how laborers and lumberjacks unintentionally grow muscle mass. So to intentionally grow your vocabulary is very similar to purposely growing a six pack or losing 300 pounds; it takes hard work and dedication. But with the tips and advice you’ll find below, the journey to tripling or doubling your vocabulary in the next year will not only be easier but more fun as well.

Before I spiel my secret, however, I want to share some additional knowledge that may save you gobs of time and hardship. If you wish to skip this additional knowledge, just scroll down to the picture of me holding an old leather booklet and read on from there.

building your vocabulary has never been so easy

I was going to write this article months ago, but I’m glad I decided to wait because, at the same time as learning so many new words with my special technique, I’ve also learned that it’s very important to know when to use the words you’ve learned. Growing a vocabulary is necessary for every writer or speaker but learning discipline is key. What do I mean by ‘discipline’ in this context? I mean don’t purposely structure or restructure your sentences JUST so that you can implement an exciting new word. To create a smooth read you must force yourself to only use the words that come naturally to you during the writing process. Let me explain this a bit more before we get to the good stuff.

When I first started intentionally building my vocabulary, my writing suddenly became unnatural and overly complicated because, rather than getting in the zone and letting my subconscious mind select the right words, I was strenuously trying to use as many big and new words as I possibly could. Even though this created some interesting and artistic paragraphs, I nevertheless created many headaches for my readers.

Reading, for many people, is a relaxing hobby–something they can do to enjoy their time. Therefore you take much of the fun away when you have them scrounging in a dictionary every three sentences. For my writing this problem of using too many new words was tenfold because I specialize in medieval fantasy and love archaic/medieval words. I flooded my writing with countless terms that most people will never hear or read in their lives. As much as I want to use a sexy medieval word sometimes, I know the better decision is to use the first word that comes to mind during the writing process (unless, of course, you have the habit of using a particular word too much).

author explains

So what’s the point of learning new words if you shouldn’t use them when you want? After you truly learn a word, have used it at least three times with a bit of strained effort, it will naturally start to find itself in your writing and speaking. About 80% of the words I’ve learned over the past year haven’t been shown in my writing yet, and now, unlike before, I know that’s a very good thing. In the future, after years of writing and honing my craft, those exciting words which I haven’t used yet, so long as I keep them in my vocabulary/memory, will one day find a natural place in my writing.

Now I’m about to contradict myself because there will be instances when a word you’ve recently learned should replace an old word in your completed writing. A perfect example of this is when I learned the word ‘linstock’. A linstock is a tool used to fire a cannon. Before I knew this, the characters in my writing were using torches to fire their cannons and so of course I had to go back and replace all those torches with linstocks. Situations like this are the rare exceptions.

On the other hand, reading for many others is an opportunity to learn; they love having to lookup a word in the dictionary. Like me when I read historical fiction from the early 20th century, I spend nearly just as much time in the dictionary as I do reading because I never let a word I don’t know slip by. But even readers like me, the ones who treat dictionaries like bibles, will admit that, when they’re reading a particularly suspenseful scene, it’s much better to have a smooth read so that the story flows unhindered. In some very rare cases I’ll let a word I don’t know slip by ONLY because I’m too eager to know what will happen next in the story.

With all that said, it’s finally time for you to learn my secret. How did I triple my vocabulary in a year? It’s quite simple.

Book of Words

Allow me to introduce you to my Book of Words, my very own handwritten dictionary/notepad/journal that I bring with me wherever I go.

Remember when I said ‘keep a dictionary by the toilet’? Well, my secret is somewhat similar except instead of a dictionary you’ll need a blank booklet and instead of a toilet you’ll need, literally, EVERYWHERE YOU GO!

After following the tips listed below, the blank pages of your newly acquired booklet will start to look like this:

details matter

Like a daily diary, you’ll start off by writing the date. Underneath the date you’ll scrawl down every unfamiliar word you come across throughout the day. I write down the words in capital letters just to make the page seem less jumbled. Beside the listed words, like I’ve done above, you should have space to write down the words’ definitions. It’s also useful to use symbols to identify if the word is a noun, verb, etc. On average I learn about 5 new words per day. Some days it’s only 1 or 2, and on others it’s 10 or 20!

So how do I come across these new words? By listening and reading! When I watch a Ted Talk there’s a good chance the speaker will use a word I don’t know and, knowing me, I’ll have to Google it. I never let a word I don’t know slip by. I do the same thing when I’m reading. And by reading everyday, you’ll watch your Book of Words grow and grow and grow. By writing your new words down, you’ll not only remember them more easily but you’ll also be able to go back and find them when you’re struggling to remember them.

Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll remember there’s a word for some certain thing I’m trying to describe but I won’t be able to recall it right off the bat. No worries! All I have to do, because I’ve dated my words, is remember roughly when I learned the word and then leaf through my Book until I find it again. Then–bam!–the word slides right into its slot. You’ll never forget a word again so long as you bring your Book of Words with you wherever you go.

never stop learning

But what if you’re one of those readers who hates stopping to look in a dictionary? Simple! If you’re willing to, you can scrawl down the word as fast as you can, highlight it, do whatever you have to do to remember it, and then once your reading session is over you can go back and Google the words you’ve listed to find their definitions. That, in fact, is exactly what I did during my reading session yesterday. I chose to do an hour of reading in the park and, since I didn’t have internet or a dictionary at the bench with me to define the unfamiliar words I found, I just wrote them down and later when I got home I sat at my desk and did some quick and easy Google searches. Here is a picture to show what that looks like:

collecting words on the go

For Tuesday, June 6th, as you can see, I discovered 7 words that I otherwise may’ve overlooked if I wasn’t intentionally trying to build my vocabulary. And by discovering words in a natural setting, as opposed to just poring idly through a dictionary, I typically remember when and where I learned these words and so they have a lot more meaning to me. For example, I’ll never forget the time I learned the word ‘machicolation’ because, rather than just finding it by skimming through the dictionary, I came across it via a speaker in a YouTube video and so whenever I hear or use the word ‘machicolation’, a string of memory comes attached to it.

Sometimes when I’m walking down the road or riding on the bus I’ll flip to a random page in my Book of Words and point at a word I haven’t used yet. I’ll turn the word around in my head, look at it from different angles, place it in different settings, all the while having the sole intention of using it in a natural setting one day.

Thanks for reading and I hope this helps!

P.S. Join my mailing list by clicking HERE and get the short story “A Quarrel for a Quarrel” in PDF format for free!

The Three Rules of LitHEMA (Literature about Historical European Martial Arts)

Rule 1. SHOW HEMA IN ACTION: Grappling! Rondel daggers! Poleaxes! Niches in armor! LitHEMA, although some authors may or may not choose to use Old German or Old English, takes pride in showing historical action for what it is! As all of you will one day come to agree, many fantasy stories, whether they be movies, games or books, repetitively fall for the same myths and misconceptions. Type “drawing swords from the back” into YouTube and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Don’t forget to subscribe!

LitHEMA separates itself from most fantasy by dutifully straying from misconceptions. A lot of the history we know as true is, of course, speculation made by experts and archaeologists and likewise LitHEMA writers must rely on creativity to fill certain gaps, allowing us to create the most awesome and realistic sword fights ever! It’s reenactment for the mind, baby! Yeah!

Imagine a lord in his prime, a master with a sword in the Late Middle Ages. He’s been using the same lifesaving techniques with his one-handed sword for many years and must suddenly duel an angry levy who’d picked up a deadman’s zweihander! The sparks! The grunts! The parries! It’s experience and swiftness versus revenge and strength. And you can’t deny it’s beautiful because, as Shad from Shadiversity says, swords are awesome!

historical fiction with historical European martial arts

1150-1200, Austria 

Rule 2. PRESENT TRUTH, SAVE THE ODD EXAGGERATION: Gobs of HEMA practitioners admit that fantasy is what got them interested in swords in the first place. And so in that sense LitHEMA respects its roots in more ways than one. LitHEMA respects fantasy as much as it respects historical combat treatises because we all must rely on creativity and fascination to assume certain things about history. Indeed, all we can do about certain things is make assumptions, about certain unprovable things which almost always rely on context like ‘why did falchions become popular?’ or ‘how easy is it to shoot a moving target with a crossbow from a tower?’.

It is impossible to be perfectly accurate, but that wouldn’t stop a LitHEMA writer from replying ‘well, what period are we talking about? What type of crossbow is it?’ LitHEMA distinguishes itself from most fantasy subgenres by being as realistic as possible and the writer must present, after much studying and research, what she thinks is realistic. She decides, “The moving target below the tower is wearing a gambeson and the crossbowman’s quarrel glances off the sturdy textile because it was a low-poundage crossbow and the quarrel didn’t hit plumb.”

Some historians may say that scene should have happened a different way, but our author dug down into her heart, did her research and presented what she thought would really happen in her fictional universe. Even if she has magic and elves and dragons in her universe, which is more than possible in LitHEMA, she has to ask herself ‘would the dragon’s flame really burn down a castle made of stone? And would elves really use war bows if they had flimsy little arms?’

Thanks to the internet and many hard working enthusiasts around the world, authentic historical artwork is slowly and steadily putting a burdensome responsibility on the shoulders of writers! We feel guilt when we realize our heroes were wearing unriveted mail when they should have been wearing riveted mail. Trust me, as a passionate LitHEMA writer I know that guilt all too well. My stories have many things that are unrealistic, like a disposable diamond-tipped throwing knife. At least I state the blade had to go through mail and gambeson.

LitHEMA, if it is solely written as a subgenre of fantasy, can combine creativity with truth to show an exaggerated version of reality. On the other hand, if LitHEMA is solely written as a subgenre of historical fiction, it should focus more on action and stress the techniques used in historical combat treatises.

LitHEMA

1255-1260, England

Rule 3. SUGGEST CONTEXT: Medieval combat treatises teach us many tricks and techniques, guards and attacks, but they tell us very little about the context in which these tricks and techniques could have been used throughout history. To understand context we must coalesce our HEMA knowledge with other sources like written accounts and paintings. LitHEMA is just one medium that enables us to use our historical research and creativity to suggest certain scenarios.

Now imagine a small peasant revolt, an entire village raging against sixteen knights trained in the combat techniques of a master. Written with HEMA in mind, this imaginary scene could allow us a special viewpoint, a viewpoint very unlike a battle in a 1970s fantasy book. Of course, it is inevitable that creativity will fill many gaps, but after studying the artwork left by ancient, medieval and pre-modern cultures around the world we can create a reenactment-like image in the reader’s mind. While suggesting a context, LitHEMA can indeed show the world what mortal combat may have looked like in the past. Frankly, a movie based on a such a novel is exactly what Hollywood needs.

Images from http://manuscriptminiatures.com, a fabulous website!

Shot out to http://wiktenauer.com and all you HEMA enthusiasts out there!