Friday, 21 December 2012

The trouble with trying to be clever...

A recent blog by fantasy author Nyki Blatchley on the prevalence of medieval, or at least pseudo-medieval settings for fantasy stories brought back the thought processes that lead to my major fantasy project of the moment.

I was on holiday at the time in Italy, near Lake Como. Wondering through the cobbled streets and winding alleys, ancient through-ways that no longer led anywhere, I was struck by the inherent sense of adventure in the place. I felt an irresistible urge to write something in this sort of setting.

A few days later I started a new book, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It was a good read, I had ordered the sequel from amazon before the holiday was over, but it set me thinking. Why were nearly all fantasy books in a medieval setting? Why couldn’t they be in any setting? Futaristic? Victorian? A 30esque Italian setting? Now there was an idea! And so began ‘The Walls of Tamorria’.

However a year and a half and three versions of the story later I began to understand some of the reasons why medieval has become the de-facto setting for fantasy. Whilst twists and turns are essential to a good plot (at least in my opinion) they have to follow some rules. The thing about unexpected events is, in a book they can’t really be unexpected. Of course this doesn’t mean the reader should be able to predict what is coming, but once it has happened they should be able to see that the story had been leading up to that point.

If for example James Bond were to have boarded the Orient Express in the climax of From Russia with Love, only to find it infested by KGB goblins, the reader would be left thinking, what the #%$*? Likewise if Dracula were unexpectedly defeated at the last moment due to a nut allergy, the reader would be left feeling somewhat cheated.

In creating a fantasy world it is essential that the presence of magic and fantastic creatures feels ‘right’. Our sense of the medieval world is so infused with legend and myth from that time, unicorns and giants, evil mages and mysterious damsels, that we are automatically open to the inclusion of such elements in this setting. By setting a story in a later age, one of diesel power and industrialisation, such associations need to be built up from scratch.

My first intended incarnation of the story was called ‘The Book Bound in Blue’ and was a novel  planned to be the first in a trilogy. However when I started writing it something was wrong. I got maybe a third of the way through before I realised that it was the setting. I hadn’t taken the time to develop the world as a coherent and logical backdrop to my stories. It was merely ‘you know fantasy, yeah? Imagine that, but in the thirties.’ The fantasy elements seemed bolted on to the world, not a part of it.

My next step then was to do some world building. I expanded the plot, reworked characters and tried to tie the whole thing together. In the process the story changed from a trilogy to a series of novellas. I wrote the first of these ‘The Winds Awaken’ and it was definitely better. But it still wasn’t right. I realised now that my story, despite all its trappings, was High Fantasy. And as such, it really wasn’t suited to novella form. I had given the main character, Lorenzo, a lot of background which ties in with the meta-plot, but none of this really came out in the first novella. I knew he was a troubled individual, eventually ripe for redemption, but to the reader he was just a cliché. I needed time and space to show the deeper aspects of him, and the other characters around him.

And so I changed again. Now we are back to a series of novels, I’m not sure how long a series yet. By changing form, not only does the reader leave Lorenzo at a later point in the plot, allowing them to see him develop, I can also slow the pace in the earlier scenes, allowing me time to insert some subtlety to his character that was missing from the novella.

So, in conclusion I think I can say that fantasy doesn’t have to be placed in a mediaeval setting. But doing so certainly makes life easier.


Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Future of Farming

First of all an announcement:


Things have been somewhat crazy over the past six months or so and this blog has suffered. Never fear though I’m back. The following blog differs from what I originally intended to write, but it is on a subject I feel very strongly about and so make no apologies that it is a meandering attempt at covering a topic that could easily take up a treatise.

As a farmer the freaky weather really affects my life and livelihood. For those of you not resident in the UK I’ll give a brief summary of the past 12 months or so.
Last Autumn: Dry. So dry a lot of the crops didn’t germinate.
Last Winter: Mild. So mild a lot of the autumn sowing finally did germinate, round about December.
Spring: Dry. Hosepipe plans were implemented. Crops pretty much didn’t grow.
Summer: Wet. Really, really wet. We got stuck trying to harvest the oilseed rape (canola), the same crop that we planted into dust the previous year. Disease is prevalent in the already weak crops.
Late summer: For two weeks it didn’t rain. Somehow we managed to get all our harvesting done in this patch. A lot of others were not so lucky.
Autumn: Wet. Again. The ground was already sodden from the summer and so there was nowhere for it to go. Floods around the country.

Well this may make me sound like a winging farmer: I’m not, honestly. The way the climate is going it looks as if the only thing we can predict about the weather is that it is going to be increasingly unpredictable.

I’m not an organic farmer, I don’t think that we should ignore modern science and it is my view that there is a place for it in the future of agriculture. Having said this however I don’t think we have been going in the right direction these past few years.

Cereal verities are bred up by global conglomerates who by and large are the same global conglomerates who sell us our fertilizer and spray. It is no surprise that to achieve the yield potential that these varieties are capable of a great deal of inputs are needed.

The argument for this is that the world’s population is exploding and all these people need to be fed, ergo production must be increased at all costs. This sounds reasonable enough, but to my eyes it doesn’t really hold up to closer scrutiny.

How much food the world is currently capable of producing is hard to calculate but there is certainly enough to go around. That’s not to say people aren’t starving, in fact the number of malnourished people is going up, but this has more to do with poverty and distribution than anything else.

The biggest cause of increase in demand for food is not the population increases in the third world, but a shift in consumption patterns in these countries. It is taken as a given that as a country develops, its population will ape that of the western world. So far this is proving to be true.

But should we just accept this as a fact? 1 in 5 early deaths in the UK are linked to over consumption of red meat. And yet as farmers we are pressurised into producing meat at lower and lower costs. Why? Meat is a very uneconomical way of turning land into food. I’m not suggestion we all become vegetarian. For health reasons the human diet should ideally contain some meat. Some. The western diet is currently wasting the world’s resources and killing its population. Surely to just accept this as fact is madness?

If the world were to move away from an over reliance on meat, and also to reduce wastage (a topic I won’t go into here, needless to say it really gets my dander up) then it would have a realistic chance of feeding the world’s population without resorting to massively yielding crops that rely on massive inputs, for generations to come.

If anything the current system of crop breeding could well lead to more starvation. Essentially we have spent the past two generations producing varieties that yield well in ideal circumstances. The trouble with this that the way the climate seems to be going, we are going to have less and less ideal circumstances. The UKs crops largely failed this year, we had less than ¾ of last year’s yield. America, Canada, Europe and many other countries also had harvests verging on the disastrous. As a result wheat prices have soured. Next year, who knows what will happen.

This wildly varying, unstable market might course the price of a loaf to go up in Britain or the States, but it isn’t us who is really going to suffer. Imagine you are a third world farmer. What do you do when it is a bad year and your crops fail? Will it help feed your family knowing that you could potentially have had a better harvest, had the conditions been different?

And what about when there is a good world harvest? When prices plummet from £200pmt to half that, or lower. What does this farmer do then?
Surely it’s time to stop maximising our yields, and start stabilising them. Let’s not think about what they can do, but what they will do in the real world, were droughts and floods are going to be ever more likely.