Trivia Time: The Forgotten Crusades

When you think of the crusades, what comes to mind? European knights rushing to defend or conquer the Middle East most likely, Jerusalem, pilgrimages, deserts, etc.

What if I told you that not all the crusades went to the Middle East? There was not one, but three crusades in, of all places, Finland. They are mostly forgotten, a tiny footnote in history.

Who were these crusaders and how did they end up in Finland?

In the Twelfth and Thirteenth Century, southern Europe was increasingly a patchwork of kingdoms and nation states. But in Scandinavia there was still a huge stretch of land in the far north, and between the Kingdom of Sweden and Novgorod (present day Russia) that was no man’s land, a wild place of Sami reindeer herders and loggers.

Lapper og Reinsdyr

Image source: Wikicommons


Eric the IX of Sweden wanted that land. So he got his bishop to petition the pope for the right to crusade to, ahem, “Christianize” those lands. I use quotes because despite the explicit purpose of the crusades, the Sami people wouldn’t be Christianized until the 18th century (some are not Christian to this day) and the Finnish Epic poem, the Kalevala records pagan mythos still being told in Finland in the 19th century. The first Swedish crusade was in 1150 and there were two more, in 1248 and 1293. The third crusade blended into the Swedish-Novgorod wars, which became a political struggle rather religious one.

Solid historical information about the Swedish crusades is sketchy. Archaeological evidence is completely lacking for the first crusade and researchers aren’t sure where exactly the second crusaders ended up, Hame castle or Haikonen.

Legends of the Finnish and Sami people record the crusades in their land as being a precursor to western colonization elsewhere in the world. It was a time of oppression, genocides and hardship for those colonized. Despite being a progressive country in so many other ways, the Sami people still struggle with the Swedish government to this day, over autonomy and land rights.

Monster Creation

I am at ICON this weekend, Iowa’s oldest science fiction convention. If you are in the Cedar Rapids area, stop by and see me. Plus there are lots of other great authors, costumers and wonderful people to see. It’s a blast. I hope to see you there.

Tonight at ten pm I will be part of a panel discussion on “monster creation.” When I first saw the schedule, I couldn’t quite figure out what I was supposed to say about that. I don’t have monsters in my books, I have characters.

And that’s just it. They key to creating believable “monster” creatures is that they aren’t really monsters. They are just characters. They have their own needs, wants and desires. They have a personality of their own. A race or group of creatures are going to share certain traits, but they are also going to be individuals as well. That is how you write monsters.

The panel will also look at authors that put a new twist on an old idea, and I both do and don’t do that in the Bear Naked series. As much as I love werewolf books, I swore I would never write one. It’s all been done, for one thing. There are hundreds of others. Why should I add to the cacophony?

But there are aspects of werewolves that other authors haven’t covered. In ancient norse mythology certain people are “shape-strong” and can take animal forms. Wolves, check. Bears, check. and Otters. Otters? Yes it’s quite common in the old myths. Otr is a dwarf that plays a huge role in the Volsunga saga and can take the form of an otter.

Nobody has written a werewolf book with otters in it. How would being an otter shape-shifter change your perspective? Wolves are warriors, fierce and strong. Bears are strong, solitary creatures. Otters can be fierce at need by they aren’t an overt warrior culture. They live in small, tight knit groups. They are quite different from the other shifters.

The more I thought about this, the more I knew I had to write a series that contained otters as side characters. And now that I have released the third Bear Naked book, The Hunted, I’m glad I did.

The Hunted

The beauty of panels is that as we discussed the issues with other authors and readers is that you think of new things, or look at things in new ways. If you want to see that for yourself, just stop by the panel. It should be fun.

You had Me at Mortuary Sword

I’ve been reading romances lately. It’s partially market research, I have a few I want to write, but it’s partially because I love a good romance. I particularly like historical romances. The book I am reading right now is set in the early sixteen hundreds and the main character uses a mortuary sword, a common weapon of the time period. What’s more, the author clearly knows what that weapon looks like and how it’s used.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I love that.

One of my biggest pet peeves in fantasy and/or historical novels is writers that seem to think different words for weapons are just fancy titles to make them sound cool. Actually those different words indicate very different weapons and not researching the weapons of your period leads to jarring breaks in suspension of disbelief. At least it does for me.

I’ve read battle scenes where a character armed with a Claymore dukes it out with a pikeman in a narrow castle hallway, both fighters swinging wildly at each other. Have you seen a Claymore? Or a pike for that matter? Both are huge.  

And then there are those fantasy stories where every male character is a knight in armor with great swords. And the one female mysteriously carries a scimitar with no real explanation for why. Not only do scimitars come from a very different culture, they are cutting weapons that would be pretty much useless against armor.

So it impresses me a lot when an author gets it right. I love it when they know that a mortuary sword is different from, say, a broadsword. In historical fiction, getting it right matters.

In fantasy you can be a little freer, bend the rules here and there. But it still has to make sense. The swords a character might carry will be dependent on the kinds of weapons, armor and enemies they might face.

Weapons have uses. They evolve and change based on armor, tactics, economics and developments in warfare.

Armor is great protection against a cutting edge. Piercing weapons can punch through armor, if they are made of high quality steel. A simpler, low tech approach to beating armor is heavy bludgeoning weapons like maces and morning stars.

The point is that when you are doing world building for a fantasy novel you need to spend some time thinking about these things. Every culture is going to be at some level of technical expertise, which will influence the weapons they can make. There will be prefered tactics and styles of warfare. There will resources that are bountiful and others that are rare. All of these things will influence the weapons your characters might carry and use.

Weapons also frequently have cultural significance. Swords are perfect example, they continued to be important status symbols long after they were retired from the battlefield. Even today they are frequent collector items.

In the Gilded Empire saga, the druids carry scimitars. It suits their fighting style, which is fast and circular. It also suits their role, they are not soldiers. They are more likely to be fighting bandits in some wild region then armored knights on a battlefield. The staff, their other main weapon, and the scimitar are symbols of their path, and important cultural items for them.

The gnomes, which feature heavily in the next three books, fight with short swords and hand axes. Their fighting style is close and fast. Their technology isn’t as developed as elsewhere in the empire and they are poor. Most wear leather armor, and short blades and axes fit with the kinds of armor and battles they face. The hand axes can be thrown as well as swung. Gnome traditionally carry three axes, called a bevvy, and they have a strong cultural significance for them.

The bottom line is, research your weapons. Include them in your world building, so that when the story gets put down on paper it all flows organically and feels right. It’s really worth the time, and besides it’s fascinating stuff.

Fighting in Armor

A couple of interesting things have floated through my social media feed in the last couple weeks that have me thinking about fighting in armor, what it would be like, how it changes things for the fighters involved.

This is apparently a thing in Russia:

They are using steel swords in that video. They aren’t sharpened, but honestly, that wouldn’t make as much difference as you might think. Movies often portray knights fighting in armor in the most unrealistic ways, swords chopping straight through metal plates and hacking off limbs. Other knights with limbs hacked off still managing to fight some how.

That’s not how it happened at all. Battles between knights in plate armor in medieval times wouldn’t have been so different from what you see in the video, a battle of endurance as much as skill. A properly armored knight was pretty impenetrable, without specialized weapons. That was the other thing that crossed my stream this last week.

Thick wool tunics and leggings were often wore underneath armor to help absorb some of the force. Chainmail came next, deflecting cutting blades but still allowing for movement. Over that protective plates. Steel gorgets protected the neck, helmets protected the head. Once the knight was encased in armor, he seemed pretty unstoppable.

The one factor they don’t mention in either video is socio-economics. Plate mail armor was expensive to buy and maintained. The knights and men at arms that wore it had to be trained to move and fight in it. For most of the medieval period, knights were a privileged social class.

Socio-economics was both a source of great power for the knights, and ultimately their undoing. Foot soldiers in the early medieval period simply didn’t stand a chance. They might be armed with spears, short bows, swords and axes. Their armor was little more than thick leather, or if they were lucky, pieces of chainmail. A small band of heavily armored knights in plate armor could easily dominate the battlefield. I can almost imagine how terrifying it must have been for the peasant foot soldier, their weapons would bounce off the knight with no effect. Meanwhile one false move on your part and the knight would hack you to pieces.

Many of the strange weapons we see in the second video were designed by and for the peasant foot soldier, in a desperate attempt to even the odds against the better armored knight and man at arms. And as they appeared, the flipside of socio-economics appeared. Knights were expensive to maintain. Forget what you’ve seen in Lord of the Rings or even on the TV version of Game of Thrones, armies composed entirely of heavily armored knights and men at arms are works of fiction. Knights were elite forces.

A lot of people mistakenly believe that the age of knights was ended by the development of firearms, which blasted through the plate. The truth is that a) early firearms were difficult to use, slow to reload and incredibly inaccurate and b) the age of knights was already fading.

What really ended the knights reign of the battlefield was a new generation of foot soldiers. Soldiers with specialized weapons and training. The English longbow decimated the French knights at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. The second video mentions the Flemish Gottentag, a peasant weapon that successfully held French knights at bay as well. Swiss Mercenaries armed with pickaxes, working in phalanxes, could withstand a charge of knights on horseback.

This all has me thinking about a story I want to write someday. It’s in the Gilded Empire saga. The only problem is that it’s nearly a generation ahead of where I’m at right now in the saga, so I probably shouldn’t write it yet, not until I have finished the books I am on anyway.

This story creates a powerful three way conflict between one of the noble houses, with a huge private army of men at arms, the church, with a strong force of it’s own, and a group of elvish peasants. The peasants are being driven from their ancestral home. The lord hopes to open the woods to logging, and the church wishes to enforce its beliefs on the elvish people. However the two powers quickly come into conflict with each other over who ultimately holds sway in the land, the lords or the church.

It’s a long way from being written, let alone published. But for now it’s interesting to research and plan.

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A Literary Confession

I have a literary confession to make.

I hear readers all the time talking about their favorite authors. “I’ve read everything they written.” “When they publish a new book, I run right out a buy it.”

As a writer, I would love to have these people as my fans. I would love to have lots of people run out and buy all my books. It would be awesome.

But here’s my confession: I am not one of those readers. I have favorite authors and I love them. But I haven’t read everything they ever wrote. Nor am I typically a new release buyer. There are precious few books that I pre-order or wait in line for.

Why would someone who is as big of a bookworm as I am have not read everything by their favorite author? I think the first answer to that is to look at who my favorite authors are. I grew up reading and loving Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C Clarke. Ray Bradbury alone wrote 27 novels and over 600 short stories. Asimov wrote, edited, co-wrote or was involved in the production of over 500 books. Clark has been attributed nearly 300 publishing credits between his novels, short stories and academic publications.

Ray Bradbury’s Goodreads page gives readers some indication how prolific he was.

Given that I admired prolific author sections these is easy to see why I never thought I could read everything an author had published. I also grew up in the 1970s long before the Internet or ebook to come along. I grew up in a small town and access to books of any kind was a challenge. So even to track down and find all of the books that a prolific author like Ray Bradbury had written would have been an incredible challenge.

I graduated from the classic science fiction writers two more contemporary writers who were if anything just as or more prolific. I discovered Ursula K LeGuin through the Lathe of Heaven. I was an early reader of the Xanth series, the Dragonriders of Pern and the Sword of Shannara. What all three of these series have in common is that they went on to include many books.

So as much as I admire readers who have read everything from their favorite authors, I admire prolific authors even more and my to-be-read pile is simply too large to think that I will ever read all of the books by all of the authors I admire. Despite this I have to confess that I’m a little bit ashamed that there aren’t any authors that I can say I’ve read every single thing they written. So what is your literary confession? Let me know in the comments.

There are no new ideas, but plenty of new takes on old ideas

I’ve been watching season five of Game of Thrones this week, and reading Outlander. I’ve also been working on a book for my own fantasy saga, the Gilded Empire.

I know, roughly, where I am going with the entire series. But it’s a rich world and there’s always more details to fill in. Especially since this series has such a strange structure to it. In ways its Game of the Thrones meets Discworld. What I mean by that is this, it has nothing in common with Discworld in theme, mood or storytelling, but it shares the same structure. There are multiple series within this world, with one large meta story that will eventually drive all the stories together. In mood and themes, it’s close to Game of Thrones, a dark series about geopolitical upheavals, the tenuous relationship between the haves and have nots in a medieval world with a dose of large scale change thrown in.

There was a scene in Game of Thrones (I won’t give any spoilers) that sparked me to think about how I would handle a similar situation. There was another in Outlander. The twin reflections suggested a new storyline for me, one that explains a big chunk of the backstory to the Gilded Empire in one fell swoop. It’s a cool heady thing when it happens like that.

Pessimist say that there are no new ideas under the sun, and perhaps they are right. Every theme, every setting, every character idea has been written somewhere. Writers waiting for inspiration to bring them a truly novel story, wait in vain. No sooner will a writer proudly spill out their truly unique storyline than someone will pipe up with, “that’s just like…” It can be frustrating.

Unless you embrace the nitty gritty bits of story telling. Because every idea might have been written, but not by you. And you will put a uniquely you spin on those idea. You will digest the idea through the lens of your own experience and tell a new tale, one no one has read before. And that’s part of the magic of being a writer.

The Book is always Better

I’ve been watching the Game of Thrones. I read the series and I am eagerly awaiting the final book, like many fans. What do I think of the show? The book is better.

That’s what we readers always say, the book is better. Non-readers often accuse of us the worst sort of snobbery for always, and I do mean always, insisting the book is better. Is it really?

Book lovers have plenty of reasons to think the book is better. Books are typically longer, have a richer story in them, then the movie or show.

Though I am starting to wonder why that is. With the new trend towards turning books into shows rather than movies, you could tell the whole story. It might take awhile, but that just means more material to work with, right?

Another common reason given is our own imaginations. Reading triggers a dream-like state where we imagine the story playing out in our head. We can get fully immersed in this fantasy, at least good readers can. Movies engage our sight and sound. They, too, engage the imagination, but not in the same fully immersed way. At least that the theory.

Watching the Game of Thrones show triggered something of a revelation in me. There is another important reason why the book is better, and it’s paradoxically one of the problems with reading a book series, time and commitment. Books take a lot more time to read than a movie or even a season of TV.

The Game of Throne show runs ten episodes to a season, about an hour each. So to watch all five seasons (what’s available for rent or purchase right now) would take nearly fifty hours back to back. This chart from I09 estimates it would take twice that, nearly a hundred hours, to read the series. That’s based on an average reading speed.

As I’ve said, I’ve both read the series and I am currently on season five of the show. I will be watching the show and some major plot point will happen. My first thought is, “what? already?” And that’s when it hits me. One of the reasons the book is always better is because it takes longer. That means that by the time things happen in the book, we are already deeply invested.

The first moment that I saw this was when Theon Greyjoy meets Asha Greyjoy for the first time. In the book we already had quite a bit invested in Theon Greyjoy before that happened. It was a huge scene for him. In the show, I can’t say how non-readers reacted, but I felt it came too fast. He hadn’t been enough of a character in my mind at that point.

Which is why, all things being equal, the book will always be better. Books are more work. We have to make the time and emotional commitment to spend hours with these characters. We have to make more effort to get the words off the page and into our heads. So we start with a bigger investment. That means, for better or worse, the payout will be bigger, too. We will cheer, curse, love and hate those characters more.

The Darkest Aspects of Fantasy are the Realistic Aspects

The trend towards dark, gritty fantasies has dominated fantasy writing for the last decade or so. The relatively light-hearted Harry Potter series grew darker and more somber as the books progressed. Game of Thrones came to dominate epic fantasy, filled with violent battles and characters that may be murdered in the blink of an eye. The YA market has seen dystopian novels like the Hunger Games pitting children against each other in a battle of survival.

There is another, less apparent theme that runs through all three of these series. Their brutality is grounded in actual history. Ironic as it is, the darkest aspect of each of these books is actually the most realistic.

Game of Thrones

George R. R. Martin has created many fantasy elements for his epic series, dragons, ice zombies, seasons that last many years, and even the land he describes. But the drawn out civil war that drives the story is inspired by, if not based on, historical events. The English Wars of the Roses contain many elements that Game of Thrones fans will recognize, including at least one battle that puts the series to shame for it’s pure brutality.

This video does a good job of explaining the connections:

Harry Potter

Does Voldemort’s obsession with muggle blood strike you as eerily familiar? It should be. J. K. Rowling based a lot of the Death Eaters rule on Hitler’s Germany. Voldemort’s hatred for muggle blood, especially his shame over his own, mirrors Hitler’s obsession with Jews. Even the way he uses an existing bigotry, building a mythology of Salazar Slytherin around the destruction of muggles, mirrors how the Nazi party played on existing racism and anti-semitism. The world of the later books, where Voldemort holds sway, gives us a haunting glimpse into the lives of resistance fighters in any repressive regime.

The Hunger Games

The idea of forcing provinces to send tributes to compete in a bloody battle royale might sound like the most preposterous fiction, but that’s exactly what ancient Rome did. And that’s where Susan Collins drew much of the inspiration for the Hunger Games. Even the purpose of the Hunger Games matches that of the ancient coliseum. Not only were they displays of wealth and power by the sovereign state, they were vital distractions for the masses.

Other examples

I could continue in this vein for some time without running out of examples. Tolkien denied that the Lord of the Rings, published in 1937, had any historical allegory. But many readers and critics can’t help but see the rising power in the east as being applicable to both Sauron and Nazi Germany. The analogy between the middle earth and the times in which the books were written is remarkable, whether he intended it or not.

Tolkien’s close friend C. S. Lewis, on the other hand, was free in admitting that the Narnia series were written in response to World War Two, and the parallels are significant there as well.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Authors are often influenced by the times in which they live and the experiences of the real world.

I think the bigger question we need to ponder is this, gritty fantasy shows us about ourselves. We create dragons, evil wizards, and mythical weapons, but they true horrors aren’t the things writers manufacture in their minds, but the reality of human nature itself.

Two Rules for Writing Magic

Magic is one of the signature features of fantasy writing. It’s what separates it from other genres. It’s also one of the great joys of writing fantasy.

Magic allows us to bend reality. It should come as no surprise that the words witch and wicker share an origin. Wicker is bent wood furniture, a witch bends reality itself, shapes it.

Magic means our characters can do amazing things. They can bend the laws of nature. They can overcome incredible obstacles.

Is there anything that magic can’t do? Personally, I have only two rules for creating magical systems. Here they are:

Magic must be consistent

Magic can bend the laws of nature, but it must have it’s own set of rules. Fantasy readers are willing to suspend disbelief on many, many aspects of the world they are reading about. But they will only go so far. Walter C. Langer once said “People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one.” I don’t know much else about the man, but that one quote is a doozy.

Fantasy readers will suspend disbelief on the laws of physics, if you demand it. They will believe that magic exist. They want to believe it, even. They will believe your character can do incredible things.

But the little lies, the tiny discrepancies between one scene and the next, will break the spell. If you say the druid needs nature to cast a spell, and three chapters later they cast a spell in town, you will get angry emails from readers, guaranteed.

In short, there must be rules for how magic works, what it can do and what it can not. Those rules are the big lies that make your world believable to your readers. A lack of rules, or a discrepancy in the rules, is the small lie that will break the suspension of disbelief.

Magic must not be overpowered

My son is a big gamer, both online MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, think Warcraft) and Pathfinders. The jargon of gaming gets thrown around our house a lot. “That’s so OP,” he will declare. OP – over powered, refers to a character or ability that is so much stronger than the rest of the game that it negatively affects game play.

Stories require tension. As cool and exciting as Magic can be, it can be a tension killer, too. If you character can overcome any obstacle with magic, where’s the tension? How do you keep the reader on the edge of their seat? How do you keep them from thinking, oh, she’ll just use spell x and problem solved?

Why do you think so many of the great epic fantasy series aren’t told from the point of view of the wizard? Lord of the Rings would be a very different sort of story from Gandalf’s point of view. How would the Belgariad have read if the wizard Belgarath had been the main character? Magic might be exciting but often less powerful characters make a more interesting story.

Comic book superheroes are often OP as well. The comic book solution has traditionally been to pit the hero against a super villain. If you must write the powerful mage as your main character, you must also give them equally powerful obstacles and enemies.


I love writing magic. It’s fun. It’s allows us to explore levels of reality and outcomes that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Just keep it consistent and make sure your story still has tension.