High tide and a room of your own

Under the glacier

The germ of the idea behind ‘Loot, kill, obey’ comes from two sources, one literary, one from real life.

The literary germ is going to be obvious to you once I mention it: Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Specifically the scene with the wreckers towards the end.

Of course that led to a bunch of research that revealed how the whole scenario doesn’t really work, you’re more likely to wreck a ship by turning off a real lighthouse than by erecting a fake one. Which is then what I had the wreckers do in my story.

The second inspiration is a little bit more personal: my great-grandmother’s farm in Staðasveit.


My great-grandmother, María Ásmundsdóttir, was a remarkable woman. She was one of Iceland’s earliest photographers. When she was born, Iceland was a pre-industrial agricultural economy. When she died, it was an advanced western economy with high living standards, free healthcare and free education.

When María was born, a child had only a 50/50 chance of reaching the age of five (which is why life expectancy numbers are so misleading, but that’s a topic for another day). She survived tuberculosis, two wars, saw Iceland declare independence, and got to experience radio, photography, movies, cars, TV, computers, airplanes when they were new and shiny inventions nobody had quite figured out yet.

She also made a decision early in her life which meant that her descendants are cut out of the farm on Snæfellsnes.

Well, maybe cut out is too harsh a word. Her siblings’ descendants own the farm. Her own descendants don’t.

For good reason, as well.


My great-grandmother’s farm

The farm is a beautiful thing to behold. It isn’t a grand thing like you’d expect an old well-to-do farm in Europe to look like. Iceland doesn’t have cottages or estates. A nice two story building covered with corrugated iron is pretty much as grand old style as Iceland gets.

The current farmhouse was built when my great-grandmother an adult. The farmhouse she had grown up in was a traditional Icelandic turf house.

Yeah, like I said. Iceland was a pre-industrial farming economy until the 1940s.

I’ve never seen the original burstabær, it was in ruins by the time I managed to visit the place, but María lived there with her two daughters for the first few years of their life. My grandmother, Áslaug, on a good day, could recall stories and details about the old farmhouse, about a way of life that hadn’t changed much Iceland for almost two hundred years.


My great-grandmother was a single mother in the early twentieth century.

Now, anybody who is familiar with Icelandic culture knows that most Icelanders are proud to live in a country where a single mother can raise her kids without sinking into poverty, anything else is a failure of society. There’s no judgement or condemnation. You cope. Relatives help. Whatever flaws Iceland has (and there are plenty) intolerance towards single mothers isn’t one of them.

This wasn’t the case when my great-grandmother was raising her two daughters.

Iceland used to be a strict Lutheran society. Thinking bad thoughts was a sin. Everybody was a sinner. Strictness and intolerance was the norm. More things were banned than not. Iceland was one of the earliest alcohol prohibition nations and one of the latest to lift it. In one word: puritanical.

Of course, María didn’t help matters by having two children with two different men and never showing any interest in marrying them or regret about them not marrying her.


Snæfellsjökull

The farm is in an unusual location. The only way to reach it is to walk, during low tide, along the beach, with the roaring ocean on the left and sheer cliffs on the right. It’s a bit of a trek to reach the actual farmhouse from the nearest road and you have to time it so that you get to the farm before the tide comes in. Otherwise you’d be washed out into the sea.

Of course, nowadays you can also use an SUV or a proper off-road vehicle to reach the farm, but back in my great-grand-mother’s day they didn’t have that luxury.

Most Icelandic beaches are black; the sand is made out of volcanic rock ground down by the elements.

Unusually for Iceland, the beach leading to the farm is white, like one of those white sand beaches you see in the Mediterranean.

It wouldn’t look odd to a foreigner, but to me, an Icelandic college student, this was one of the few times in my life that I had actually seen a white beach and seeing one in Iceland was an alien, somewhat weird, feeling.

Seeing the famous Snæfellsjökull just ahead, hovering almost mystically over the countryside, only made the experience weirder.


Snæfellsjökull is Iceland’s most famous mountain, volcano, and glacier. Or it used to be before Eyjafjallajökull erupted. It was the opening to the underworld in Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In Icelandic folklore it is Iceland’s point of greatest magical power, affecting all those who live around it in weird ways. Those born “undir jökli” (by the glacier) are said to be different from the rest of us.

Others say that it’s like a magnet for Iceland’s hidden people.

One group of cranks has congregated there on a regular basis because they believe it will be the landing site for a visiting species of benevolent aliens.


Dividing an estate caused friction. It always does. There’s something about inheritances that drives siblings to argue about things that ultimately don’t matter.

When her parents died, my great-grandmother was the cause of a schism in her family. She argued with her siblings about what should be done about the farm.

They wanted to continue to run and keep the farm. She didn’t.

Her logic was impeccable. If they kept the farm, she’d be doomed to live and work there, raising her daughters there, for the rest of her life. If they sold the farm, she could buy a flat in the capital—have a room of her own, so to speak.

In the end, she forced a sale, took the money, and moved to Reykjavík with her daughters, buying a tiny flat by Hringbraut in Reykjavík’s Vesturbær. Many years later, the descendants of her siblings bought the farm back, sans most of the land, which now belonged to a neighbouring farmer, and have been using it as a summer house since. They let the rest of us visit the place occasionally, if we ask really nicely.

María Ásmundsdóttir lived in that flat for most of the rest of her life, only moving into a home during the absolute last years of her life.

That small flat at one point housed six people when my grandmother moved back in with her mother with her four children after she left her husband. The flat was a life saver.

My great-grandmother spent the rest of her life sewing, painting, and photographing. She held her first gallery show of her paintings when she was eighty. Her daughters only found that she had suffered from glaucoma when she told them about the operation that fixed it, after the fact. She, a half-blind octogenarian, had managed to conceal her half-blindness, organise the operation and doctor’s appointments, and make her way to the operation all without any help from anybody.

Then she went back to painting, sewing, and taking photographs.

She was an awesome woman whose frequent criticisms of people were both brutal and especially stinging because she invariably had a solid point. There were times when she was absolutely terrifying. I miss having her around as she was one of the few people who had a tendency to be even blunter than I am.


From the last leg of the trek to the farm

The small town of Galti in “Knights and Necromancers 2: Loot, kill, obey” is inspired by my great-grandmother’s farm. The beach-side walk that is only passable during low tide, the horizon lined with mountains, the small dock and simple buildings are all drawn from my memories of that place.

And, although none of them are based on, María, my great-grandmother, the memory of her and the other awe-inspiring women in my family are the motivation for the creation of the female characters in all of my stories.

In Loot, Kill, Obey, four of the five main characters are women, as are two main ‘bad guys’. The sorcerer Cadence, a character in Knights and Necromancers 1 (and in stories five and six), was created because I wanted a character who was, frankly, as intimidating as some of these women were in real life.

You don’t see truly intimidating women that often in fiction even though they are all over the place in real life.

I hope I can change that a little bit.


You can buy “Knights and Necromancers 2: Loot, kill, obey” on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, on the iBookstore, and from Kobo.

Or, possibly for a limited time, you can read it for free online.

Sanitation in fantasy world-building

Where I address one of the most important questions in fantasy fiction:
A picture of Batgirl crying with the caption: where does the poo go?

Batgirl needs to know!

But first…

There are, roughly speaking, two different ways of approaching world-building in fantasy storytelling: mythological and anthopological.

(Yes, I’m grossly simplifying things, bear with me here or bugger off.)

The mythological approach is easy to find; it’s what almost everybody who writes fantasy, science fantasy, or steampunk does by default. Defining it is a bit trickier, but it generally comes down to one thing. The world is built around the tropes, myths, and themes the writer wants to play with.

Now, everybody does this to a degree, even the pretentious unread few who do literary fiction, but fantasy takes it to another level. The worst of them are little more than grab-bags of tropes the writer enjoys, a mixture of ingredients they enjoy, like a moron’s cliché goulash.

“Dwarves? Check. Elves? Check. Dragons? Check. Enchanted swords? Check. A destiny that will change the world? Check. Grey-bearded all-powerful magicians? Check.”

If the writer’s feeling particularly clever they’ll do a witty twist on a trope, usually by mashing it together with another one.

“They’re dwarves, except they’re actually Morlocks and the elves are actually Eloi. Brilliant!”

No. No, it’s not.

This sort of thing is fun if you’re Alan Moore and have an insane and detailed mastery of all of the tropes and stereotypes you’re playing with. For the rest of us, I think it’s an approach that gets in the way of good storytelling.

My approach is very simple, but tedious, and requires a bit of research beyond trawling the fan fiction listings on dreamwidth (no that there’s anything wrong with that):

You pick an important part of the social infrastructure or economy and figure out how it works in your world. You note everything you learn about your world in the process. Then you pick another detail or part and repeat the process. Repeat until the place feels real in your head, like a place you’ve lived in for, at the very least, a few months.

See? Couldn’t be simpler.

So… Sanitation.

Whenever I see an architecture or city in a fantasy story or movie that clearly is or was jam-packed with inhabitants, one of the first things I worry about is, yes, where does the poo go?

Fantasy is full of buildings like towers, with hundreds of inhabitants, so big that a turd tossed out of a chamber pot on the top floor would achieve terminal velocity and nuke the donkey stables below upon landing, scattering hooves and tails and blood-soaked donkey chunks all over the poor peasants who serve the masters in the tower.

Well, at least the peasants get an outhouse. The wizards living on the top floor aren’t so lucky.

Does the society completely go without a sanitation infrastructure, sewer systems, etc.? That means they’re plagued regularly by typhoid, cholera, and a host of gastric fevers, as well as the bubonic plague (possibly). That also means that the place either stinks to high heaven (the human and dwarf cities) or is soaked with artificial perfumes to drown out the stench of poo (the elves, asthmatics probably have a three minute life expectancy in an elven city, before a semisolid cloud composed of thick perfume and the stench of turd blossoms chokes them to death).

Those massive underground cities built by dwarves in every cookie-cutter fantasy? They can’t exist without a sanitation infrastructure. That means they have a large sanitation staff, sewer engineers, etc..

If the city doesn’t have a sanitation infrastructure, it also means that they really don’t know what they’re doing, that they don’t actually understand the magic they’re learning, because if magic was a science that could be researched, that same scientific method is likely to let them discover why everybody dies young in the cities but not in the countryside. (Sanitation, sanitation, sanitation.) Without sanitation and without antibiotics, moving to the city and seeing a doctor is likely to cut your life expectancy dramatically. (Hence the positive role of faith healing and homeopathy before antibiotics. They saved your life by keeping you away from the demented quacks that dominated medicine. Diluted water or being pawed by a deluded preacher is relatively harmless in comparison to the bleeding and the poisons doctors used.) Even if magic does heal gastric fevers, that still leaves out the poor who continue to die in droves because they can’t afford to hire healers (which tells you a little bit more about what sort of society it is).

If they do have a sanitation infrastructure, is it based on engineering or magic? Do they have sanitation wizards? Who, if they do, don’t have to appear in your story, but their existence should change the way you portray wizards, forcing you to cut down on the mystery aspect. If it’s based on engineering: where do the engineers come from? Is it an apprentice-based system like the bridge-builder and his apprentices? Does the society have colleges? Universities? If you have engineering then you probably have mathematics as well which tells us that bit more about the society.

Also, how this infrastructure came to be tells you a lot about how your society is structured. Was it an automatic, self-running, infrastructure created by a group of all-powerful wizards as a voluntary gesture? (It’s an oligarchy.) Was it done as a civic engineering project and paid for by taxes? (Probably a democracy, or at least a parliamentary monarchy.) Was it done on the king’s orders, by his engineers or wizards? (Benevolent dictatorship. One where the king has the greedy self-centred upper class under control. Also probably not at war at the time.) The existence of sanitation or not also tells you whether labour is cheap, replaceable, and unskilled (why bother with sanitation, who cares if they die?) or educated, unionised (or do they call them guilds in fantasy?), and with political clout.

I’m not saying you should mention any of this in your story. You could write your entire epic without ever mentioning toilets, sewers, or turds, if you want to (why wouldn’t you want to do that? crazy). All I’m saying is that you think about it, how it works, because picking at the sanitation problem forces you to think about how the society works as a whole, how everything hangs together, about the power-structures in place, the class structure, the education infrastructure, and the economy.

World-building isn’t built on tropes. It’s poo all the way down. 🙂