What’s up with Heidi, May 2016 edition

Boy, it sure has been a while since I posted! I’ve been quietly working at a lot of things.

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A rare picture of me, hard at work and contemplating making a chin-waxing appointment.

 

But, yeah. You’ll see some new work from me in the coming months — work such as:

  • Reason (A Story of Aligare) will appear in the ROAR 7 anthology. The ROAR series is an ongoing production of FurPlanet, and this year’s theme is “legend” — a perfect fit for the Aligare races and their storytelling traditions. ROAR 7 will release this July.
  • Repast (A Story of Aligare) will appear in Gods With Fur. Another Furplanet production, this anthology is helmed by long-time furry historian Fred Patten, and it explores animal/anthropomorphic gods in their many forms. Another solid fit for the Aligare series and its non-human peoples!
  • I’ll be attending What The Fur? 2016 in Montreal, Quebec this coming weekend. I’ll be selling paperbacks of all my books, plus some one-of-a-kind paper maché sculptures. I also contributed a furry spy story to the conbook.
  • This June, I’ll also be selling my books at Graphic-con,which is Sudbury, Ontario’s new SFF convention. The con was a huge success its first year, with attendance outstripping the venue’s size and causing long wait times to get in. I’m looking forward to being a part of it this year, in its much roomier location.

 

That’s all I’ve got for now. Photos and release dates will be forthcoming!


Why do dragons have hoards?

One of the more enduring ideas of Western-style dragons is that they hoard things. Gold and treasure, most typically. It’s a mental image I have from childhood, where I read The Hobbit in 4th grade and attempted to redraw the cover art of Smaug coiled around his mountainous heap of gold.

I had this paperback version. Wrote an extremely simplistic book report about it.

This is the cover variant I read, and it’s the first mental image I have when anyone talks about The Hobbit.

 

More recently, Smaug’s hoard was brought grandly to life in the Hobbit movies, where the coins in Smaug’s hoard were painstakingly computer animated to spill across his scales. Fans are trying to estimate the worth of Smaug’s hoard, and it seems like no one can agree on the dollar value except to say that it’s astronomically high.

Why did this traditional idea of gold piles come about, though? Why do dragons hoard treasure?

In a basic historical sense, dragons were found alongside gold. Or, at least, that’s what our ancestors would have assumed when they dug up precious minerals and ended up finding dinosaur fossils. We’re a species compelled by stories, so people would have made up stories about these ancient, reptile-like beasts who were always found deep in the earth, near gold.

It’s logical enough that dragon hoards are meant to represent greed. Western dragons are classically portrayed as greedy beings of pure evil. They’re thought to have hoards just because that’s what dragons do: dragons simply sit on their treasure and revel their ownership of it, as opposed to a rich human who could use their wealth to build things, provide for the poor, or otherwise improve society.

Feel free to insert a joke about the 1%, Donald Trump, or similar.

Feel free to insert a joke about the 1%, Donald Trump, or similar.

 

In stories where a dragon hoards treasure, that treasure can doubles as a reward for the human hero. Anyone brave enough to slay the evil beast can claim its hoard as their own — although Norse and Germanic stories often specify that a dragon’s treasure is cursed, dooming any human tempted to be as greedy as the dragon. Maybe the curse would be dispelled by giving the gold away to needy people, or similar acts of charity? That would make narrative sense.

Okay, so the greed metaphor works when dragons are depicted as evil monsters. What about more benevolent dragons, though? More recent fantasy stories acknowledge that dragons are interesting creatures and they might make good allies to humans — so why then would a dragon covet gold and treasure? What motivation would they have to collect it?

I grew up watching The Flight of Dragons, in which dragons need a soft bedding material that can’t be accidentally set on fire. Gold serves this purpose well.

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Other franchises suggest that dragons are just fond of shiny, pretty objects, or they like the idea of owning valuables to impress others with. And why not? That’s why we humans wear pretty jewelry or expensive watches. It’s why we consider a golden crown to be headgear for an important, royal person. It’s not such a stretch to think that other intelligent beings would feel the same way about rare, precious metals.

 

I tend to think that lifespan is a factor, too. Dragons are generally imagined as long-lived beings, able to watch human dynasties come and go like the tides. They have more than enough time to build up a collection of money and valuables. Maybe dragons want savings for the same reason human beings want savings: to look after themselves and their loved ones in the inevitable hard times to come. Whereas short-lived creatures wouldn’t be as concerned about what the world will be like 50 years from now. I’ve never made this idea explicit in my Stories of Aligare, but the dragon-like korvi people have the longest lifespans of the three peoplekinds and they’re also most interested in the earth’s mineral riches, and they’re most likely to have a stash of metals and gems in their homes just in case. That’s not a coincidence.

Peregrine liked to think he could endure a little work. He had tempered himself in the mines, hauling rock until his body balked at the thought of more, until he felt like spent ashes all over and he still needed to cross the plains home. Fyrian hadn’t intended his sky-child korvi to break rock, but they did it anyhow. Someone needed to provide.

     -Remedy (A Story of Aligare), Chapter 9

And the whole reason I wrote the Serpents of Sky collection was to spin lots of different dragon scenarios. Dragons guarding gold to save humans from their own greed. Dragons who physically manifest the concepts of greed and chaos and destruction. Dragons whose close-guarded treasures let them bend time and space. Even a dragon whose precious stash is just cream and sugar to put in their coffee.

In short, there are lots of reasons dragons might hoard gold. It’s one of many traits we can get creative with, and reinterpret as we see fit. If you haven’t seen the Unusual Dragon Hoards artworks by Iguanamouth, I highly suggest taking a look — it’s a cute series where dragons sit possessively on piles of stuffed animals, spoons, comic books and other unexpected treasures. Golden hoards are just one more way for dragons to capture our imaginations.


Human posture as a marker of anthropomorphism

I’ve talked before about anthropomorphic stories, where non-human beings have the traits of a human. Humans in fictional stories are often held up as an ideal that other life forms aspire to. But I’ve been wondering what we consider “human”, exactly. What really distinguishes us from other living things, the ones we call mere animals?

Well, intelligence is a big factor.  Humans are the only (known) higher beings with elaborate developments such as technology, art and the ability to learn other languages. But intelligence is a loaded concept. Just because a being can’t do a specific task doesn’t mean they’re too simple. Maybe they just didn’t understand what was being asked of them. Maybe they didn’t see any motivation to comply. Earth animals such as ravens, squid, elephants and whales have shown relatively complex behaviours such as tool use, problem solving and communication — but they can’t exactly take an IQ test. They don’t follow our standards, so it’s hard to measure what their full capabilities are.

Okay, so intelligence isn’t necessarily humans’ domain. Brainpower can be a vague and scary thing. And besides, when fantasy or sci-fi prompts us to define “human” traits, we often think of simpler, more concrete things.  Maybe human social constructs — such as being given a name at birth, or working at a job to earn money. That’s hard to sum up in a snappy way, though. You can’t exactly draw cover art to represent the concept of a name. This is where simpler aspects of anthropomorphism come in — like when we give an animal different physical traits! Distinctly human physical traits! Yeah, there we go!

 

My favourite moments in Family Guy are when Brian actually bothers to act like a dog.

My favourite moments in Family Guy are when Brian actually bothers to act like a dog.

So, let’s see. How to make an animal seem more human. Mammals and birds already have a lot of similarities with humans: a fleshy body supported by a bony spine; four main limbs attached to shoulders and pelvis; a head with two complex eyes; a mouth with one moving jaw. We find mammals and birds fairly relatable, as evidenced by all the mammal and bird characters in human cultures. And when mainstream media does anthropomorphize insects — and tries to make them look “friendly” or “relatable” or “less scary” — we can really see how many physical traits we take for granted.

 

It's enough to deeply annoy an entomologist.

Look at that humanoid torso and toothy mouth! It’s enough to deeply annoy an entomologist.

 

I think we can agree, though, that the human body has a few truly defining factors.

Terrestrial biped posture seems to be the trait most strongly associated with humans. We’re the only creatures on Earth who stand upright on two legs, walk easily on just those two legs, and use our dextrous forelimbs for manipulating objects. So when we’re fictionalizing our normal Earth animals into thinking beings, the quickest visual way to say “These are people now” is to make them straight-backed bipeds.

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If you think that such two-legged animals are always childish, I’d point at the rightmost picture and suggest that you actually read Animal Farm.

King Louie from The Jungle Book? Brian from Family Guy? Team Rocket’s Meowth from the Pokemon anime (whose backstory is surprisingly sad, as a warning)? They all relate to humans by mimicking human posture. Look at the poster for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie and you’ll see Rocket the bioengineered raccoon standing in a remarkably human stance. And when we’re creating alien beings from other worlds, we tend to assume that the tall, stately, two-legged aliens are the intelligent ones — and any other body type is a cute pet and/or vicious monster. I think that’s an alarmingly bigoted way to look at other beings, but it’s a shorthand often used in our fictional stories.

 

As a writer of fantasy and sci-fi, I always try to question norms before I use them. Why must intelligent species be bipeds? Would a species reasonably end up looking like us, if they evolved in their own speculative world? As much as I like Star Trek, I don’t think it’s reasonable that the path to sentience always makes a creature look like a makeup-decorated human. So I made sure to think about physical form while developing the non-human people in my Stories of Aligare. And since my ideal fantasy works hand-in-hand with science, I basically asked myself why these fantasy beings would develop into what they currently are.

 

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  • Ferrin are the most closely linked to their animal origins. They move like squirrels: switching between quadrupedal movement for running/climbing, and bipedal movement to free up their forepaws for delicate tasks. They have thumbs, if small and still-developing thumbs: they sometimes use their jaws to help hold and manipulate objects. (The other peoplekinds don’t put too fine a point on it.)
  • Korvi are dragons, and dragons can have as many limbs as they want because fantasy genre, that’s why.  But I looked mainly to birds when I was designing korvi, which is why they’re bipeds. I think the biggest design decision I made was using the classic lizard-like dragon tail as a third weight-bearing limb. Korvi are a bit top-heavy, so they walk on two legs but use their tail as a tripod leg while resting or leaning backward — somewhat like an Earth kangaroo would. They’re not very biologically realistic — with all those big, well-developed, metabolically expensive limbs — but that’s why korvi rely on their innate magic as a fuel source.
  • Aemets are a grab bag of insect and mammal traits, and they use a partial exoskeleton (their “shell”) in place of a mammalian spine. They might look humanoid at a cursory glance but if you X-rayed one, the story would be very different. They have two arms, two legs, and the vestigal traces of a second pair of arms buried in their torsos (like how Earth snakes have remnants of their ancestral leg joints). Aemets’ casting magic comes from the palms of their hands, so it seemed reasonable to me that they would use those limbs for dexterity, not for bearing body weight. Aemets are related to sylphs, which look much more bug-like, so I imagine that proto-aemets made some pretty dramatic evolutionary changes before arriving at the aemet characters I’m actually writing about. Maybe. Depending on how long it’s been since the gods created life long ago …

Long story short, an upright bipedal posture is one of the most significant parts of being a Homo sapiens. Anthropomorphic characters have human posture and body structure to make them more relatable — which is one thing when we’re talking about a humanoid tiger selling breakfast cereal. But in more meaning-laden fantasy and sci-fi, I think that human appearance is a tool to be used wisely. Two legs and a vertical spine don’t have to be directly related to intelligence. Fantasy races from magical worlds don’t have to be just humans with pointy ears. If we learn to understand living things who don’t physically resemble us, we’ve taken a big step in broadening our minds. That’s something I care a lot about.


May 2014 update! Writing, gaming and a convention roundup

Just a quick update on my writing-related endeavours lately, for those who didn’t happen to catch my Twitter commentary:

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—My short story submission was selected for the Distorted anthology forthcoming from Transmundane Press. Distorted‘s theme is modern reimaginings of mythology — and my story puts an environmentalist spin on the oceanic Greek sirens. This is my first sale to an established fiction market, which finally makes me a professional author by conventional standards. I’m awfully amused about that! Distorted is tentatively slated for a fall 2014 release.
—This past weekend, I had a great time at What The Fur? 2014. It’s a small convention (breaking 300 attendees for the first time this year), so it’s a wonderfully friendly event to return on an annual basis.  I always see familiar faces dropping by my dealer’s table. As a first, I was invited to participate in the annual Iron Artist competition — which isn’t exactly geared to writers, but I suppose I made an interesting underdog against the three well-known visual artists! The surprise medium was cheap face paint (plus brushes and a small canvas). My painting didn’t win — that honour went to the Guest of Honour, Ookami Kemono — but I enjoyed the challenge a lot anyway.

—Work continues on the tabletop game Omens of Aligare. A small game company has expressed interest in our project! Further developments if something solidifies.

—Work also continues on the first draft of Tinderstrike, my next novel. Hopefully this summer will be a productive one.

 


Is blood thicker than water?

I grew up hearing the expression, “Blood is thicker than water”. Meaning that a person’s family is more important — and more reliable — than their friends.

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But the funny thing about idioms is that they change over time. A quick look at Wikipedia shows various ideas of blood thickness. There’s an interesting Arabian idea of blood (as in the blood-brother you’ve sworn loyalty to) being thicker than milk (suckled together).

 

But the alternate version I heard first was this one: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”. Which means the polar opposite of “blood is thicker than water”: it means that the relationships we choose are stronger than the relationships we’re just born into. I found it striking that the expression changed meaning completely — but hey, that’s the power of language. Phrasing matters.

More than that, I think that “blood of the covenant” idea is the more truthful one. Some people are born into abusive families who hurt them and stifle their potential. Some people are born into families they don’t hate, but also don’t really get along with. Ironically, relatives don’t always relate to each other. It’s great if you truly connect with your blood family, but if you don’t, there’s no good reason to prioritize DNA connections over the found friends who actually love and support you.

My stance shows clearly in the Stories of Aligare. In that world, a family is whoever you care about. Homes can be a patchwork of different people and connections. It’s fine if they’re not biologically related to you — or even if they’re a dramatically different species. Peregrine the korvi loves his adopted ferrin friends more than anything. Tenver the ferrin considers Constezza the korvi to be his mother. And as the years go by, Rue the aemet rearranges her definition of her nuclear family:

“I’m glad [Feor the dog] went to you,” Mother admitted. She worked an arm behind Rue, to put a love-soft hand on Rue’s shell. “You two match. Two is a half-measure of luck, you know.”

“You match?” Denelend hopped closer, tipping his head. “Oh, your names? Aemet names mean things, don’t they?”

“They do. Come on, Denelend — have a rest, dear. We’ve got plenty of light.”

Mother paused until Denelend was seated by her booted feet, patiently enduring while Feor sniffed him over. It was growing less strange to think of this gathering as the Tennel family — one with found friends woven in, a ferrin and a korvi and now a dog, too.

                                                                                    —Render (A story of Aligare), Chapter 7

I find that sort of attitude fulfilling to write about — as opposed to the more common fantasy ideas of family lineage and bastard children, which seem to breed nastiness and judgement. I think we can all use as many covenants as we can get.

 


Serpents of Sky now available! Plus an interview with Self Publisher’s Showcase

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Today is the day! You can buy Serpents of Sky from Amazon for $1.99 US.

This 34 000-word collection explores the many roles of dragons. Contains 9 short stories of fantasy and science fiction, including:

  • With Less Lament. During a dragon attack on her city, an elderly woman meets unexpected guardians in her own garden.
  • Cardiology. Trapped in his laboratory and running out of supplies, a scientist bioengineers reptilian creatures based on the dragons he grew up reading about. These flawed beings are his only hope for survival in the ruined outside world.
  • Clearsight. Two dragons perform magical biology experiments with prehistoric Earth animals. They hope to aid the evolution of more dragons — a rare event in all the universe — but an oncoming extinction event threatens all their efforts.
  • Iron Workings. A boy stands on a cliff edge, his flightsuit wings spread. His dragon captains use electric magic to force his compliance and enable him to fly — but then one of the dragons whispers in his ear about mutiny.
  • In Lifetimes Spared. Once a princess kidnapped by a terrible dragon, she is now a wise queen who calls that dragon her friend. Her dream is for humans and dragons to share peace, but the process is not proving simple.
  • Raise (A story of Aligare). A novelette set in the magical, human-free society of Aligare. Tenver, a weasel-like ferrin, accidentally trades away the eggshells his adoptive mother Constezza hatched from. Those eggshells are any korvi’s most precious possession. Determined to fix his mistake, Tenver enlists the help of Judellie, a korvi just finding the courage to leave home on her own wings.

Also of note, I recently did an interview with Self Publisher’s Showcase!

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They asked me some great questions about the Stories of Aligare characters, as well as my own path to self-publishing and why I write fantasy fiction. Check out the interview here!


Some Aligare sketches

I have lots of final prep to do before Serpents of Sky launches next week! So I don’t have much in the way of bloggish thoughts today, but I did do a few rough sketches. Just some random Aligare folk.aemetfeb14sketch korvifeb14sketch ferrinfeb14sketch

 

I think it’s about time I update the diagram of the Aligare peoplekinds — the one that appears at the beginning of every Story of Aligare book. In the original image, I was trying for a clean, simplified look. But I’m thinking a more detailed, dynamic art style like these sketches might make it easier for readers to visualize the Aligare races in the story to come. Thoughts?


Serpents of Sky cover reveal

Well, folks, here’s that cover art I’ve been working on! That paper maché dragon got a few coats of paint, then I enlisted my dad’s help to set up lights and take photos. I’ve been slaving away over a hot image editing program and now I bring you the Serpents of Sky cover:

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Because dragons are fictional, yet such a deeply-rooted part of human culture and lore, they’re unreal even when they’re “realistic”. So I was going for a semi-realistic look to this cover. This art project has been a learning experience!

And when will you be able to read the short stories underneath the cover? February 17th! Serpents of Sky is going to be an Amazon exclusive when it first launches. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can use Amazon’s free Kindle app, or convert the .mobi file to another ebook format using Calibre or a similar service. Paperbacks should be available by the end of February. After a few months, I’ll consider bringing Serpents of Sky to Smashwords and other ebook retailers.

Like any of my writing, I’m really excited to show this to the world. Serpents of Sky touches on a wide variety of genres, from sword and sorcery to dystopian sci-fi. The crown jewel of the collection is Raise (A story of Aligare), a novelette of adventure and family drama — which I hope will welcome new readers into my land of Aligare. Judellie of Cherez, one of the dragon-like korvi from Render, makes another appearance in Raise. (Syril of Reyardine returns, too, but it just wouldn’t be a Story of Aligare without some mention of that guy.)

That’s enough blogging for me. Back to editing!

Related articles:

Once again, it’s paper mache season heidicvlach.com)

What do dragons represent to us? (heidicvlach.com)

What’s on tap, Heidi C. Vlach? My plans for 2014 (heidicvlach.com)


Serpents of Sky progress

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The paper maché dragon is coming along! He’ll get a finishing layer and some paint, and then he’ll be ready for the cover art.

How’s Serpents of Sky coming along? Well, it’ll be a February release, I know that! I’ve got a bit of writing and editing left, then I’ll make the most agonizing decision of all: what order the stories appear in. Serious to lighthearted? Lighthearted to serious? Should the mood rise and fall like the swellings of the ocean? Soon, I’ll pick one and go with it.

Next week I’ll reveal the exact release date, plus the finished Serpents of Sky cover. I’ll be busy until then!


What’s on tap, Heidi C. Vlach? My plans for 2014

Hey, readers! Whether you just stumbled across me in some Google result today, or you’ve been reading my fiction for years, I’m glad you’re here. Let me tell you what I’m working on for the coming year.

—That short story collection I’ve been talking about. Tentatively titled Serpents of Sky, it’ll have many different spins on dragon mythology.  One of these shorts will be a new Story of Aligare about the motherly korvi, Constezza. I predict a February 2014 release, but we’ll see how it goes.

I'm still designing the cover, so have a stock dragon from Openclipart.org.

I’m still working on original cover art, so in the meantime, have this stock dragon from Openclipart.org.

—A tabletop game called Omens of Aligare. My roommate/best friend is a tabletop game enthusiast. He’s been tinkering with the idea of a cards-and-tokens game that’s faithful to the Aligare books — because multi-racial fantasy societies can make for really interesting roleplay games. The Aligare tabletop project picked up steam when some of our other writer friends got involved, and I’ve been offering up ideas and lore that might make the game more fun. All the effort is beginning to pay off!

Playable for 2-6 players (probably), Omens of Aligare is a resource-management game where the players work together against Aligare’s “demons” of natural disaster and illness. The game is in a playable state right now but it still needs adjustments and balancing. We don’t have concrete release plans yet; crowdfunding will likely be involved. I’ll keep you posted if anything happens.

—Two convention stops this year. I’ll be attending Furnal Equinox in Toronto, Ontario for my first time. As well, I’ll be at What The Fur? in Montreal, Quebec for my fourth year running. I’ll have dealer’s tables at both events and I hope to schedule readings, so folks can hear me perform a sample of Render (A story of Aligare). With character voices, of course. You gotta do character voices.

And since we’re very near the end of 2013, I’d also like to mention that Render (A story of Aligare) is eligible for the 2013 Ursa Major Awards.

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The Ursa Majors recognise excellence in anthropomorphic art and literature — that’s anything where non-human character(s) plays a significant role. If you’re voting, please keep Render in mind for the Anthropomorphic Novel category! If you’re not voting, then I’d still recommend browsing the Ursa Majors’ recommended list for 2013, as well as previous years’ listings. They’re a helpful compendium of books, artwork and other media featuring non-human characters, with many works coming from independent artists and small presses.

That’s all I have planned for 2014 so far. I’m not sure what I’ll write after Serpents of Sky — maybe another novel in the Stories of Aligare series, or maybe something from a new world. I’ll chew what I’ve got on my plate first.

Hoping to see anything in particular from me in 2014? Doing anything special yourself? Share in the comments!