Windflowers 1903 John William Waterhouse

Maypoles, May Queens, May Day, and May — the Month of Flowers & Magic

When I was a young kid, growing up in poor, post-war South London on the edges of the County of Surrey, each April we rehearsed MAY POLE DANCING.

(If you wish, you can read all about my 1950s exploits in South London in the novel “The Sisterationship: A Charlatan’s Story” — a suburban folk-tale about a plain-clothes Nun… and I feature in it!)

Maypole dancing was a mandatory activity (which I hated) and it continued during the weeks leading up to May the First which is, as I’m sure you know, May Day. More or less each afternoon, we’d meet in a musty old school hall and we (the young school kids) circled a tall pole, recently varnished. At the top of the tall pole was a swivel shaft which (I think) contained curtain grommets. And from each buttonhole (or grommet) hung a long ribbon. Each ribbon was of a different colour.

maypole dancing 1950s

Then we had to practice, for endless hours, what they called the “May Pole Dance.”  This dance was basically boy-girl, boy-girl. Each of us held a ribbon and danced happily & supposedly merrily around the pole holding our end-of-ribbon in our little fingers, going in and out of other children, sometimes turning to go the other way, passing under arms or over arms… until eventually, and together, we made some pretty latticework patterns with the ribbons, a bit like a cat’s cradle (if you know what that is) only a bit tighter, like loose macramé. Then the teacher would come and unravel the latticework. And we’d start all-over, dancing in-and-out to make a new pattern.

maypole

Ultimately, after hours of practice, we got “good enough” to be shown off on the big day! So, on or around May Day, i.e. May the First, there was a concert (it was often held in the School Hall because it was raining) but the most magical May Day celebrations were held outside in the School Garden. All the adults (parents, teachers, notables, and even the mayor) came to watch as we danced around the maypole that had (now) been re-located onto the school lawn. They also “crowned” the May Queen at the same gathering. This was a little girl who was deemed the most beautiful girl in the school (by adult teachers, presumably which, now I think about it, is a bit concerning) and she was dressed in a wedding dress type outfit, and sat on a flower-decorated throne and was paraded around wearing a wreath-crown made of fresh flowers and holding a May Wand. She resembled a fairy princess.

The May Queen

Of course, not only is the May Pole a conspicuous phallic symbol, but the conjuration involved in this ancient ceremony (preadolescent and virginal children dancing around a phallus, to celebrate fertility and usher-in fecundity) is so manifestly pagan that I’m surprised the educational authorities of the day (much less the church) didn’t stamp it out long before the 1960s. I imagine the custom has gradually diminished. I don’t remember my children, raised in the 1980s, doing maypole dances at school (thank goodness.)

Although, when I was walking through the Salzkammergut (Austria’s lake district) in the mid 1990s, I noticed that every tiny village, every little green, had a maypole. So clearly, the Austrians still force their children to observe this rather strange custom.

What is a maypole?

Scholars think that maypoles have been around for a very long time. There has always been a fascination with planting a stick in the ground and watching it grow. I don’t know if you are aware of this (I’m an amateur gardener so I talk about such things) — but some bushes and trees can develop and even flourish from being “just a stick” driven into the ground. They don’t need roots or leaves, or branches, to get themselves growing. They are literally just a stick. A “stick” will grow, ask any gardener. I put a “grow stick” in my backyard this year, so I can show you what I mean by this (the photo below) and you can see how the new leaves have already formed by this May (2021) even though I thrust the stick into the ground just a few weeks ago. And the ground was still frosty when I stuck the stick into the ground. (Sorry, the photo isn’t very exciting… it’s not meant to be, it’s a stick with leaves.)

My Stick In The Ground

There are some sticks that grow better than others. What I mean by this is that some trees and shrubs may survive in a dormant state (separate from a “mother” tree, if you wish) yet will eagerly take root if you thrust them into a nourishing bit of earth. The most notable of these is the “thorn treeCrataegus in Latin, also known in Europe as the hawthorn; it’s also called the quickthorn (quick as in alive) the thornapple and, yes, the May-tree.

Most people (who care about gardening) call these twigs hawthorns. Haw actually means hedge (Old English), so my stick will one day become a hedge with thorns. It will bear small fruits known as HAWS. The fruits are edible and we will use ours (harvested from the twig) to make jelly. The leaves are also edible, either as a salad or to make tea. In South Asian and South American countries the leaves and fruits are still eaten on special occasions. They say the leaves, made into tea, aid digestion.

Now think about it: a person can drive a dead stick into the ground. And magically, in just a few weeks (for example, I thrust my stick in the ground in February and it already has a good crop of leaves, as you can see from the photo) a twig will appear to thrive. One day, perhaps soon, my family could eat the leaves, eat the berries, use the thorns as fish-hooks, burn the older branches for firewood, and enjoy this tree that grew from a dead stick. There is magic for you.

According to one legend, the legend of the “Glastonbury Thorn” there’s a tree that blooms twice a year in Somerset, and it was supposed to have miraculously grown from a staff planted by none other than Joseph of Arimathea, near the mysterious Glastonbury Tor. Although legend has it he pushed his staff into the ground and it turned into an apple tree… I think it’s a fair bet his staff was probably made from Crataegus, the thorn tree. If you don’t know who Joseph of Arimathea is, by the way, because you didn’t do Bible studies, he’s the rich guy who paid for Jesus’ funeral.

We often find hawthorn trees beside clootie wells which I talked about in Myth & Magic Episode 49 that aired on Sep 2, 2020.  At these mysterious wells we sometimes call hawthorn trees “rag trees” because pilgrims attached strips of cloth to the thorns as part of their healing & cleaning rituals. Compare this to my earlier description of May Pole dancing at school, with ribbons tied to a tall pole. Were we children also involved in a healing ritual as well as (the obvious) fertility rite?

Glastonbury Thorn

Of course, shoving sticks into ground to see if they will grow and eventually bear fruits was probably one of the first farming experiences for a tribe. If a stick grows, they must have thought, what about twenty sticks? What about two hundred? I suppose that throwing seeds and “sticking” are a tribe’s first tentative steps towards a settled relationship with mother Earth.

If the tribe wandered away from their twenty sticks, perhaps to find a new home or follow the herds, someone else might take their sticks or break them. Or a pest could eat them, or they could die in a drought. So the tribe left people with their sticks, left people to take care of them. A stick in the ground is the first step on a path that leads to civilization. One last thing about hawthorn: in Gaelic folklore, the hawthorn marks the entrance to unseen otherworld dimensions… and because of this, it is strongly associated with fairies and the liminal (threshold between reality and fantasy) that I often talk about… so hawthorn is a threshold between “our world” and “theirs”.

DMC

Lore says that it is very unfortunate to cut down a tree at any time other than when it is in bloom; however, during blossom time (May) a hawthorn bush might be cut and some branches used to make wands or used to crown and adorn a May Queen. This warning persists into modern times; There was once a famous automobile factory known as the DeLorean Motor Company in Ireland that went bankrupt in 1982, just eight years after it was founded. You will know the car they manufactured because it is Marty’s time machine in the “Back to The Future” film franchise. The company destroyed a fairy thorn to make way for its production plant. Hence the failure of a highly capable engineer (Delorean) who was a leading business innovator, and a famously successful entrepreneur. The company went bust, because he didn’t respect the thorn or the fairies.

Mary Mary

So anyway, when you have a collection of valuable fruit trees (now I’m moving away from hawthorn and toward orchard trees such as apple, pear, cherry, plum, olive, apricot, peach, walnut) you must keep them safe, keep them comfortable, and keep them well nourished. It makes perfect sense to celebrate them once a year… because they bring you and your tribe food, drink, tools, firewood, and wealth. It is best to pay your respectful tributes when the flowers are out, and thus the promise of fruit (yet to be harvested) can be imagined. That’s when the fruit trees are honoured. On May Day.  

But let’s look at the other part of the word: the “Pole” part of maypole. I have touched on this topic before. If you lie on your back, in a field, on a cloudless starry night, please look-up at the star directly above your head. We sometimes know this as the pole star. If you had time, you could observe that all the other stars seem to revolve around this star. I guess it’s fair to point out that it depends where you are in the world and it may not always be the same celestial body that everyone sees, but there will always be one star that all others in the galaxy seem to revolve around. And that star is the one that sits directly above your head. If you stuck a long vertical pole into the ground, and stood beside the pole, and then looked up… it would seem as if all the universe spiralled around your pole-stick. The stick would become (in essence) a real and tangible link between you and the stars. (Note: people living in Southern latitudes will have to use Sigma Octantis, the so-called Southern pole star.) 

Green Goddess of Beltane by ArwensGrace

If you imagine the pole you stick in the ground as the Axis mundi (the axis around which the entire universe revolves) and focus on the mystical nature of your mental images for a moment, you will come to understand that a vertical pole stuck into the ground isn’t just a stick that provides life: it also offers a genuine, and unmistakable link with the galaxies. And furthermore, it seems to indicate that we, us, all humans… have a direct connection with infinity as it spins and swirls above our heads. We are connected with infinity through a pole in the ground!  Best of all, wherever you jab your stick (to establish your axis) you’ll experience the same sense of interconnectedness, interrelationship and interweaving. It’s as if a single stick in the ground connects the many physical and metaphysical worlds that make up our understanding of the everlasting infinity of space.

And interweaving brings me back to the maypole dance at school. Gosh, how I loathed it!

words: @neilmach May 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

mind stretch

Warm up exercises for a writing mind: how to warm-up before a writing session

A marathon runner doesn’t merely put on her shoes and run 26 miles… a marathon runner takes time to warm up — she does “stretches” and probably scoffs a banana and sips water before she sets out on her endurance event. She checks her laces are tight and that she has all her gear with her… she tells her family where she is going (if she’s on a training run) and tells them when she’s due back… and when she’s sure she’s ready to go, she starts at a gentle pace to be sure all her joints & tendons are relaxed and painless. It takes a mile or two before she gets “into her stride.”

And it’s the same for you, as a writer. If you are venturing into novel writing, aiming for at least 50,000 words, maybe writing 2,000 words a day, it’s best to do your stretches before you head into the long endurance event… it’s best to start at a gentle pace, so you’re sure all your “joints and tendons” are relaxed before you get into a stride. And while all this sounds metaphorical — because it is 😊 — don’t forget that writing (and it’s brainier sister ideation) are both profoundly grueling & exhausting and they’re also truly physical activities — and so you’ll feel totally depleted after a long writing “session.” 

stretches

So here are a few warm up exercises to energize your uphill slog:

1: strengthen your flexors

Easy one this: there are 170,000 words in the English language: a high school student will recognize (and explain the meaning of) between 10,000 and 12,000 words. This increases to around 17,000 as a college student and around 20,000 as a senior. It means we use just a tiny portion of all available words.  As a writer, you owe it to yourself and your audience to be a logophile. And to always be on the lookout for new and clever ways to explain yourself. Plus, the new words you use don’t even have to be sesquipedalian! Some very simple (and useful) words may be small but mysterious. To help me learn new words, some mornings I use:

https://www.wordgenerator.net/random-word-generator.php

Or perhaps (for a change, because change is good) I use:

https://randomword.com/

Hint: To maximize retention of the new word you’ve discovered, be sure to say it out loud several times and try to find a sentence in which it can be used

The Go Gos
The Go Gos

2: prepare your propulsive cadences

Long-distance writing (like long-distance running) is about finding a rhythm. Some call it “getting into the groove.”  So, here’s an easy way to prepare your syncopation.  Have you already prepared a mix-tape of your favorite dynamical sounds?  (If not, then I eagerly suggest you do that right away) but let’s say you have a playlist on Spotify or elsewhere … select one of your “get up and go” songs (from the various sounds on your mix) and type in the song title and perhaps artist search for the lyrics. So, for example, if you enjoy “Get Up and Go” by the Go-Gos in the morning (and why not?) go find the lyrics and you’ll perhaps choose two lines that “mean” something to you right away. So, after I just searched for the Go-Gos song I  saw this:

 “the words you say don’t mean a thing/ They fly right by my eyes

It’s a line of eight beats, followed by six beats

Now I will try to “think up” two comparable lines of my own, one with 8 beats and the other with 6, perhaps taking the idea of “flying words” a little bit further than the Go Go’s did… so here goes my attempt:

the voice within my head buzzes / bites me like a sawfly…” 

Of course, I try to generate strong emotions in my little rhyme (I didn’t just write gobbledygook) and maybe I hinted at conflict (the bite and the buzz) — but let’s remember that this is just a “stretching exercise.” It took me about 10 minutes to do, by the way and I ought to say that if it goes on any longer, it won’t be an exercise… it will be a full-blown session. I must also tell you that it may take a little longer to set up the exercise the first time you do it, but once you start using it regularly, it will be easy (and fun) and may will produce some fancy lines to share on your socials

(with thanks to songwriters: Charlotte Caffey / Jane Wiedlin for the little snippet above)

real tea

3: stretch your improvisational hamstrings

Improvisation is a key skill for a writer. How does your spontaneity feel today? Some days my spontaneity feels flat. Other days my spontaneity feels bright. How do you fire-up your originative processes on flat days? Well, the best thing you can do is take your brain away from words & writing for at least ten minutes (no more than twenty).

Sometimes I do real physical stretches on my yoga mat, or I do ten minutes on my rowing machine (cardio is good for flexing a tired brain.) Try a treadmill or an exercise bike if you have one. I often take time to fix a hot drink (I make coffee the “old way” by grinding beans and putting a pot on the stove…) I only do it the lengthy way because it requires mental effort and tests my senses and coordination. Or I make a pot of tea (using leaves and a proper teapot).

I might tidy up a bit of art I had been working on the previous evening, but whatever I do, I do it for ten minutes, and they are ten minutes that are away from keyboards, screens, words and writing.

marketing dept dictionary

Interestingly, and I suppose this is a bit counter-intuitive, I have found that the more “routine” I make this ten-minute “wordless creative blip” — the more it helps my synapses to be yielding & amenable, flexible and compliant. I think it’s because making coffee or spending time on the yoga mat helps me focus on smelling, touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, and coordinating with parts of my body I won’t use while I’m writing (that is, I’ll be in contact with all my senses) — which, of course, will help me write more meaningfully and more imaginatively once the working day starts.

rubberband ball

Just one last thought: “It always seems impossible until it’s done…” Nelson Mandela

Got your own stretches? Tweet @neilmach

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

procession of elves by gwillieth

How Elves help us understand the objective reality of things we cannot see

On Myth & Magic episode 76, which aired on April 7, 2021, I talked about how to build belief in your characters, in your plots and even in your author brand. Belief (and belief building) is an indispensable component of fantasy fiction.

Apple: https://tinyurl.com/y9ae6fyh
Google: https://tinyurl.com/ya7qhzz8

As a fan of fantasy fiction, you are most likely an enthusiast and appreciator of ELVES and the Elfin race… but did you know that Elves helps us understand the objective reality of things we cannot see? In other words, Elves contribute to our understanding of belief in hidden things.

elf female by Akbutea

In Old Norse the creatures (or elemental constructs) that we know as Elves were earlier called hulder or the (hylja) which means: the “hidden ones” or the “veiled ones.”

Hulder is a very ancient word and it stems from the verb hylja  which means “to hide.” In other words, the ancient Norse peoples believed there were supernatural beings that shared our world, even though they were hidden from us! I suppose if the ancient Norse had any notion of time/space (who’s to say they didn’t?) — they might have said that the hulder inhabit an alternate dimension and that these entities could travel across the threshold (infrequently and fleetingly) and enter into our own dimension… perhaps causing disruption and harm to our timeline.

If Elves cannot be seen (because they are hidden) and they cannot be experienced (because they inhabit an extrasensory dimension), how can anyone believe in their existence?

The same question (of course) can be asked about ghosts, gods, cryptids, demons and angels, etc. but for Elves the commitment to believe in them is even more intriguing (and complicated) because we’re faced with the basic principal of Elves (and their essential ingredient) — and that’s that they are undetectable, imperceptible, and unknowable… in other words, Elves are hyperphysical (in the sense that they exist beyond our physico-chemical senses.) Ghosts come to spook us, Gods inspire awe and bring emotion, cryptids might be (occasionally) witnessed, demons bring ill luck, angels bring tidings… but Elves (by their very nature) remain hidden.

dark elf by Akonit Alle on ArtStation

However, when enough people believe in something — in this case, Elven reality — then the thing will have a tangible effect on our real, non-fictional world. It’s at this stage of believing that the hidden thing might be be understood to become part of a shared worldview, and will have a genuine place in our social reality.

To explain what I mean by this, take the Old English etymon for ELF, which is ælf or sometimes ælfe — or even on occasions ylf — (ancient people also used the words elphis and elphen) and see if you can find real place-names (of actual places) using one of these ciphers hidden inside the name. If you can, it possibly means that ELVES became associated with the real-world place, so they once formed part of the social reality of that actual place. We know the people of yesteryear believed in the “idea” of Elves because they even named their places after them! Examples:

  • Alvingham in Lincolnshire, England
  • Olveston (Ælfestun) in South Gloucestershire, England.
  • Eldon Hill, in the Peak District, Derbyshire (first attested as Elvedon in 1285)

You might like to try to find your own

dark elf

And, likewise, many ancient forenames (and even some hereditary names) included the idea of ​​elfdom. Here are some real ones:

Ælfwine  — literally means “elf-friend” 

Ælfric — literally means“elf-powerful” 

Ælfweard — literally  means “elf-guardian”

Ælfwaru — literally  means “elf-carer”

“A thing has a tangible benefit for society when everyone believes in what is stands for”

Furthermore, something that has no tangible quality or material value can, nonetheless, stimulate a sense of great pride, enormous respect, or enormous worth if: “enough people believe in it.” 

A good example of this is the passionate feeling that a national flag awakens. Another example is a five-pound note (or a five-dollar bill); in reality, these things are just bits of paper that are worth next to nothing, but they “represent” some time invested, the output earned, or the value traded . A five dollar bill is a “real and valuable thing”. A thing has a tangible benefit for society when everyone believes in what is stands for. Elves are the same. They represent something we understand, although, like banknotes, we cannot easily identify or explain it. They are real (although they cannot be easily imagined) because of what they “mean to people.” 

Elves are real because more people believe in the “idea” of Elves than the amount who don’t. More folk believe in the absoluteness of their (unseen) existence than those who don’t… And therefore, like a flag or a banknote, these elemental beings have been part of, and will probably always be part of, our objective & shared reality.

It’s also interesting to contemplate a society that believes in the possibility of a “hidden” race of “different” peoples that hide themselves away in another dimension: is it so we (as a society) can think metaphorically about real-life ethnic “others”? The thoughts can be positive (or negative) but at least we consider the possibility of other tribes, other nations and/or other ethnic groups that live way-beyond our visible realms, as we try to find our place within a larger universe.

T-Pol by Melanarus on DeviantArt

It’s also worth acknowledging that our (shared) beliefs about elves and their social roles have varied across time and space: once upon a time, Elves were identified with demons (in fact the earliest Christian prayer book used the word elf to mean Satan) — while some ancient folklorists defined the creatures as “divinities of light” so they regarded Elves as demi-gods. Some folk thought Elves caused disease (elf-shot) while many others thought that elves raped people and stole their babies.

The romantic concept of a “noble elf” only entered into literature in Elizabethan England. Much later, the creatures were became depicted as positive (though they were always moralistic and somewhat haughty) like the Elves found in Tolkien’s legendarium

How much does Legolas equate with the satanic child-abductors of earlier years? Not much. Our social view of Elves has changed, as we have matured. Now compare Legolas with the extraterrestrial aliens you are familiar with from Sci-Fi fiction (the humanoids known as Vulcans in the Star Trek cannon are a good place to start) — and think about how many people believe in aliens… abductions, UFOs, Area 51. Are inter-dimensional, invisible aliens just Elves by another name?

Alone in some hidden places/they stand then very still,
They that are called eluene…are from among the ghosts…
” 

(Extract from the Southern English Legendary, 1270)

Here are some authentic elven derived words you might want to use in your next project:

  • Elfin race: Ælfcynn
  • Of elves: ælfisc
  • Mountain elf: beorgælfen.
  • Field elf: feldælfen
  • Wood elf: wuduælfen
  • Water elf: sæælfen or wæterælfen
  • A nightmare caused by elf: ælfādl

Working on a project with Elves? Tweet @neilmach

words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

Death of Prince Consort

Death isn’t cosy. Here’s why death should be handled appropriately & responsibly and never as a convenient twist or fun plot device + five characteristics of sudden death

Death dealing is our #1 form of light entertainment

cozy murders

We’re not being entertained by the thought of confronting death. Nor are we entertained by the idea of coping with death. Or handling death. Or overcoming death. Not even about caring for those who suffered the consequences of death… no, as a species we care little about any of those topics…instead, our #1 form of light entertainment is watching death being dealt. The upshots of sudden death are rarely discussed or even covered… perhaps it’s because they are not fun enough for our short-term recreational needs! Instead, we savor & revel in the thrill of voyeuristic death and the excitement a shocking death brings. Clearly we delight in it!

You don’t believe me? Look at the TV schedules: they’re stuffed with cop shows, murder-mystery suspenses, action thrillers and… of course, the news. The news telly brings us 24-hour coverage of death and it beams images & words about death directly into our sanctuaries… we have technology that allows death-as-entertainment to enter the same cave we keep our children, and our old folks safe — the same cave we use to hide away from worry & threat.

Death Head

Death as entertainment is intoxicating and it’s problematic for our species… it’s not just an unhealthy fascination either, it’s more pernicious than that — it’s a boundless, insatiable and global preoccupation that’s turning into almost hypnotic obsession… We have lessened the dire consequences of death, we have diluted death’s terrible sting, and instead we have come to regard death as a form of carefree light entertainment.

And if you think I’m right about this and you suppose our preoccupation with death might be connected to the internet, video games, Hollywood movies, or even racy literature, I’ll remind you that humans have always been partial to a bit of death as entertainment… death has always been viewed as something to get excited about: think of the Romans and their gladiatorial combat (or throwing Christians to lions, just for fun) think of the Aztecs who rolled heads down the slopes of their pyramids to cheers from the crowd, think of the Egyptians who employed legions of slaves to create elaborate time capsules so kings might carry their possessions into the afterlife, think of the Elizabethans who would take the family for a fun day-out to Tyburn “triple tree” to witness a wagon-load of criminals swing on the ropes… think of the iron-age Britons who spent hundreds of working hours constructing hills, mounds and henges to celebrate death. Think of the Victorians who took death daguerreotypes of their own children!

Tombstones

So recreational death is not new … it is as pernicious & destructive as it’s ever been. And, to me, the biggest catastrophe of all is that weak, under-performing writers (hopefully not you, but there are some out there) will recklessly use wasteful death as an entertaining plot device.

We all know that soap operas use the “shock” of a sudden death to improve their ratings when the normal story-lines run-out-of-steam; and directors of soaps like occasional death because it allows their actors to practice their chops… but I can tell you from personal experience, that sudden death in a community will totally disrupt and destabilize everything. Sudden death will fracture friendships, jeopardize fragile family ties, and often divide families for generations. If soap operas ever handled death properly & appropriately, it is likely that the death of a main character would spell the end of the show… just one “shock” death would be enough to end “the street” the village or the neighborhood.

And death isn’t (though we like to kid ourselves it is) but believe me, it isn’t, final. I know many soldiers who have confronted, addressed and (yes) dealt in death. And they continue to react and respond (negatively) to their (terrible) encounters for many years afterwards… for some of these death traffickers, the death will take forever to overcome and forever to understand. And here’s another thing: they can’t communicate what it was like. This makes me speculate that death is inexpressible... it makes me think that death is so barbarically awful that it is indescribable. And if it is inexpressible and unspeakable to a person who has been intimate with it, then we better be very skilled writers indeed if we are ever going to (dare) handle it properly with words on paper! And that’s the problem with using death as a convenient plot device, or using it as an easy narrative “twist” in a humorous and almost frivolous way, perhaps as an easy way to bring fun to our readers… a writer will almost always overlook the inevitable sufferings that sudden death brings… sufferings that intrude and compromise the progress of all characters involved, all the independent narratives and even the trajectories of entire populations.

handling death

In the U.K. these last few days we have been dealing, as a nation, with grief. We have been thinking about the death of Prince Phillip. And perhaps some have been making fun of it. And some have treated his death lightly. However, it is a fact that television companies and the media (in general) have been capitalizing on and exploiting his death for their own ends. For them, the death is a source of income. They have benefited enormously from the death of the Prince, not only because death is our number one form of light entertainment but also (this is my theory, and you may challenge it if you wish) because death is easy to write-up! Yes, easy.

Because, as a species, we care little about the troubling and “problematic” aftermath that death brings with it, so news writers & reporters don’t have to bother thinking about the more daunting details of sudden death: like how the royal family (and the nation ) faces his death, how we all deal with death (not only that of the Prince but of over 100,000 sudden deaths that have occurred during the last 12 months) or how we handle death as a society generally, or how we overcome the tragedy of death as a family and a nation. The news writers & reporters certainly don’t need to write compassionately about any of this… because it won’t be entertaining for their readers.

death chairs

So here are five characteristics of death that you should really try to explore as a responsible, perceptive, and considerate author:

Death is violent

Yes, of course! you’ll say with a chuckle. It is undeniable that death is violent! That’s self-evident, you’ll probably scream. But if it’s so self-evident, why don’t writers treat it the way it deserves to be treated? Why don’t they explain how spectacularly violent it is? Consider the reality of sudden death: even if a person “dies peacefully in bed” there is still an egregious brutality about the finality that disrupts the ongoing narrative of the people who are “left behind.” I think that’s why a nation mourns a man they don’t know (a Prince, perhaps) and a man they never met. It’s not that they lost a good friend or a beloved family member… no, they are heartbroken because they lost a link to their own backstory… they lost a legitimate link to the narrative of their own time-line. For example, many of us see Prince Philip as “always having been there” like a rock. Philip has been the cornerstone of a nation’s history since the 1950’s… he is an important character in the history of post-war Britain. So his death is violent because it impoverishes a shared history, his death disrupts national continuity, his death destabilizes the continuum. And death always foreshadows more death to come, perhaps the death of even more important (more loved) characters in our shared history and shared life-journey. This is the violent nature of sudden death: the spontaneous disintegration of everything, absolutely everything, that we assumed (or had hoped) would continue forever.

Death is uncomfortable

Death is never cosy. Talk to a police officer who has investigated a murder and he or she might summarize (although they will never fully communicate) how gruesome, horrifying, and how dreadfully harrowing the scene of a sudden death can be. Even to someone who is supposedly “used to it” — what they see and what they experience is dreadful. Don’t forget, these folks are seasoned professionals… often equipped with years of experience. Yet even these professionals find sudden death daunting & disturbing (only recently has the police service bothered to help detectives overcome the obvious side effects of post-traumatic stress.) Or talk to any member of the medical teams who have been dealing with death on the front lines of the pandemic this year… they’ll say the same thing: it’s been devastating, horrifying, cataclysmic (these are just some words I’ve heard experienced doctors used to describe what they have experienced.) So talking about death informally and indifferently is a falsehood. Death is never comfortable.

Death is consequential

Don’t forget that there are “four trajectories” of grief. These are: resilience, recovery, chronic dysfunction and, for some, delayed trauma: you will probably see the Queen and Prince Charles demonstrating resilience over the coming weeks… you may also see them demonstrating a version of recovery… what you will never witness is any chronic dysfunction and any late trauma. As an author, ask yourself if you have always adequately explored the four trajectories of grief in your own work. One of the best ways to bring death into a storyline without the discomfort and the violence (but facing the consequences) is to have the death occur “outside” of your timeline, so your characters live (and face) life in the shadow of death. The best recent example is Harry Potter. Although Oliver Twist is another well-loved character who faces the consequences of death, even though the death (of his mother) occurred outside his own chronology.

Note:  On my blog post (dated 24th October 2020 ) I explained how to Write the death of a character without shtick and cliché

Death is indescribable

As I already mentioned, soldiers cannot communicate how they dealt with death. This makes me think that death is inexpressible. If you really must include death in your plot, then it might be better to describe it poetically (read up on the war poets to understand how to do this well) or you might have to write symbolically or allegorically. Because sudden death is so darned difficult to describe. Think of using symbolic representations, anthropomorphic metaphors and very original wordplay… do you now see what I mean about having to be a bloody skillful writer if you’re ever going to (dare) handle death in words?

Death is unimaginative

Yes, this is the fundamental problem for authors. Using “stock death” in a story shows a lack of imagination. Using “cozy” death as a plot device gives an author away as unadventurous, unoriginal, and (to be frank) sloppy. But why? I hear you moan. The answer is obvious: death as a plot contrivance is amateurish and trite because it’s so commonplace. Death is everywhere! Like I’ve already said, death is pumped into our lives 24 hours a day… it’s our number one form of light entertainment. Death is easily done. Death is mundane. Try something different! Try to think imaginatively instead of re-hashing tired old clichés.

Please, please, please, think outside the casket!

Agree? Disagree? Don’t care either way? Tweet me @neilmach

Words: @neilmach 17 April 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “Moondog and the Reed Leopard” available for purchase now.

independent thinker

How to be an Independent Thinker

How to be an independent thinker:

independent thought alarm

* Discover the world by reading books (not by consuming scheduled broadcasting)

* If you must follow the news, browse independent opinion that is posted outside the Big Five consortia

* If you don’t know who the Big Five are, read about them and check their assets

* Learn to be a critical thinker; discover truths by analyzing the information you consume

* If you want to know where the broadcast post/media leanings are, keep in mind who their backers and sponsors might be

* Not sure how independent your preferred publication / media is? Check their corporate assets

— author.neilmach April 2021

Independent Thought is Hard & Liberating

Fancy polishing up your communication skills too? Neil shares tools, tips and advice for voicing & expressing on social media on his Max Expressificity podcast

modizardry

List of modizardry. Are you a creative fantasy fiction author? Send your crazy new magic and I’ll add it to the list!

Do you like novel sorcery? Do you like new-fangled wizardry?

Are you a creative fantasy fiction author?

If you enjoy playing with magic and conceptualizing & planning your own magical systems, and you love to give new powers and special abilities to your fictional characters, you’ll want to be part of my nifty list (below) of modizardry (i.e. modern wizardry) and brand new pseudoscientific paranormalogicals!

In other words, here’s some crazy new magic conjured-up by me (along with the proper scientific nomenclature)

It’s not a finalized list — I expect to add to it when new ideas occur to me — and I think you can help too…

Here’s a challenge: if you have your own new magic, send it in and I’ll add it to this alpha list.

Submit your idea, with or without scientific nomenclature, and I will add it to this list and I’ll credit you as the inventor. Tweet me @neilmach

Good luck! : )

paranormalogicals

Agathodemonic Therianthropy – humans that are turned (or can turn themselves) into animal spirits to do the bidding of others

Alchemical Apotropaism — altering or recovering from base metals fundamental substances (elements such as gold or diamond) to counter or protect against demons, ghosts, or evil sorcerers

Bilocating Suffumigation — sending oneself into other dimensions by becoming smoke or flames (an ability to travel as a wisp of smoke)

Postcogniscent Astrality — travelling back in time astrally by leaving one’s mortal body to perceive past events as if one is actually there, visiting as a spirit

Sciomantic Astrality — to leave a mortal body and enter the otherworld as a free spirit with the intention of communicating with the dead in their own plane

Levitation

Exorcistic Cacodaemoning – working with or controlling bad spirits so they grow within others to do one’s (your) bidding

Psychokinetic Chaldeanics — changing or improving the weather or climate by mental (psychokinetic) means

Faith-Fate Controlling — providing (or taking away) general “luck” i.e. good (bad) fortune by the miraculous laying of hands

Spellcrafting Genethialogy — predicting the future loves of a new born and then providing him/her/it with the necessary spells/charms to protect against, invite or capture that predicted love/romance in the future

Haemonic Entrapment — to magically entrap or enslave a person using herbcraft

marked ones

Runic Harusipication — interpreting omens and signs by deciphering runes

Metamorphic Perceptionism — gaining or using supernormal, otherworldly or magical senses by becoming an entity from one’s own dreamscape and then travelling through time and space as that dream-creature

Predestinic Necromanticism — to improve one’s own opportunities (or, conversely, to debilitate another’s opportunities) inside “death” (the otherworld) by altering one’s “death” fortunes whilst still alive

Psychoscopic Teleportation — moving back and forth in time (temporarily) by inhabiting an almost eternal substance i.e. space rock, star dust, a meteorite, etc.

Psychokinetic Materialization / de-materialization — making things appear or disappear using the power of astral thought (i.e. by psychokinetic creation)

Prophetic jinxing and hexing — employing curses or hexes that launch or activate at a foreordained or pre-postulated time in a victim’s future

Got your own? Don’t forget to send them to me and I’ll add them to the list and credit you! Tweet @neilmach

If you’re not sure whether the magic already exists, check against the alpha list of pre-existing magical abilities HERE

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

Useful alpha list of scientific words for magical abilities

Alpha list of scientific words for magical abilities

Agathodemoning – asking good spirits to do our magical bidding

Alchemy – changing the fundamental substance of elements (or matter)

Angelspeak  – communicating with lesser deities and messengers (angels)

Apotropaism & countercharms – defense against demons, ghosts, and evil sorcerers using magic

Apportation or bilocation (psychic ability to be in two places or more at once)

Astral projection – to travel beyond the living realm and into other dimensions

Astral travel – to leave a mortal body and enter the universe as a free spirit

Astrology – charting or plotting future events by studying signs in the heavens (star signs)

Cacodaemoning – appeasing bad spirits / provoking or invoking good spirits

Chaldean Meteorology – to change or improve the weather by magic (done in World War 2)

Hamingjan Fortuning – changing or improving ones chances using magic (i.e. blowing on a dice)

Chronomancy – choosing the right time (or day) to do something, using magic

Enchantment – to trigger desired effects in others through trances or spells

Enochian Communication – talking with demons, elementals, aliens or angelic beings

Exorcism – healing demonic possession 

Faith healing – miraculous healing (by the laying of hands)

Fate control – to provide (or take away) general “luck” or good (bad) fortune, using magic or charms

Genethlialogy – predicting the future of a new born using magic

Glossolalia – speaking in tongues (or translating tongues)

Haemony – to heal, cure or perform wonders with magical herbs

Haruspication – interpreting omens and signs

Invisibility – to disappear or use cloaks or make a vanished person or entity appear/disappear

teleportation


Psychokinetic control – to subvert a dominant worldly power using supernatural means

Jinxing and hexing – placing curses / removing curses

Levitation – to use holy (or witch)  flight or levitation

Magical entrapment – freeing a person (or entity) or trapping a person (or entity) using magic

Magical exoticness – to gain or use supernormal powers

Metamorphosis – turning from human archetype to superhero or even angel (or demon) and perhaps back again

Necromantic projection- to travel into death

Oneirocriticism – to decipher or interpret dreams

Perceptionism – to gain or use supernormal, otherworldly or magical & exotic senses

Postcognition – perceiving past events as if one was actually there (by astral travel ‘back’ to an earlier time)

Predestination- to improve wealth & opportunity / remove wealth & opportunity using magic

Prophesy – reading the future

Psychokinesis – influencing or moving solid objects (matter) without any physical interaction

Psychokinetic teleportation – moving or displacing objects (matter) by mind control

Psychoscopy – The ability to obtain information about a person or object purely by touch

Purification – making or using spells to purify or cleanse a sinful heart (or soul)

Pyrokinesis – controlling (or commanding) flames with thoughts or magic

Revenge magic – win fights, provide strength to a weaker side or sap the strength of enemies with magic

Runecraft – reading or translating mystical runes

Sciomancy – talking with ghosts

Spellcrafting – making or brewing love spells & protecting self or others from love spells

Suffumigation – sending messages into heaven using holy smoke or holy flames

Talismanism – to create and or use magical signs, cures (and amulets)

Telepathy – vicarious communication without any physical interaction

Therianthropy  – the ability to shapeshift  from human to animal form (or vice versa)

Do you have any more? Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

Cats

Let’s talk therianthropy + Otherkin and the roots of Furry Fandom

Therianthropy is the shifting of:

theríon = wild beast

into anthrōpos i.e human

For many fantasy fiction authors, therianthropy means raging werewolves, murderous human/beast hybrids (similar to Mr Hyde as shown above) or magical shape-shifting creatures, malformed humanoids, or transformations from frog into prince.

But the voluntary change from human to beast has been an exciting & enticing means of escape, exploration, and liberation for humans since the earliest stone age societies. Plus, it’s a great way for a fantasy author to connect to amazing otherworlds without having to enter phantasmagorical or fanciful rabbit-holes of delusion. In fact, therianthropy can (and is) performed by most of us (if not all… I’ll explain this in a moment) — and it’s a natural part of our shared human experience. So what precisely is it?

The word, at least in ancient Greek terms, meant to become a human beast or, interchangeably, to become a beastly human. But the word also implied a metamorphic transformation (i.e. a morphing) from one “state” to another. 

The earliest known depiction of a Siberian shaman, by the Dutch Nicolaes Witsen, 17th century

The earliest example of human transformation into bestial form comes to us from a cave painting created at least 13,000 years ago in a cave in south-western France (the Three Brothers). This special cave contains several engravings of human beasts, but perhaps the most famous is the so-called “Dancing Sorcerer” — which is a portrayal of a half-man + half-deer (it might be a bison or an antelope, the jury is still out). When you examine this ancient engraving (see below) it will remind you of what a neo-pagan shaman might do in tribal ceremonies: because we know that a shaman will adopt and dramatise the “guise” of a wild creature to commune with the spirit world, to communicate with demons, angels or deities, to treat disease, to go on a vision-seeking quest, or to undertake some other form of divination (predicting the future.)

Dancing Sorcerer

You will have seen, for example, images of a tribal “witch doctor” dressed in furs (and perhaps with a head adorned with antlers or wings) and this type of shaman is frequently enlisted by those tribes that hunt & follow a particular animal species (some tribes rely upon just one animal for their food, tools, clothing, etc. for example the Sámi people rely on reindeer, and the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains once relied upon bison.) If the tribe’s beast became scarce… there was a belief that “releasing” the souls of dead animals would also free the herds of living and breathing animals..so they might be hunted again. And that is why the shaman was generally seen “dressed up” as the favourite game animal of the tribe (bison, antelope or deer). More disturbing, though, the shaman might “dress up as” (and therefore take-on the aggressive role) of a fierce alpha predator (perhaps a wolf, a leopard, or a lion) — to claim supremacy over the hunted game (or, sometimes, conquest over a rival tribe.)

eagle head

In some cultures there’s a belief that “invisible stories” can only be seen when a person assumes an animal body. The shamans who see these invisible stories are frequently called “skin walkers” — they are the people with a supernatural ability to turn into any animal they wish, as long as they first use the skin of the chosen animal, worn in most cases over human skin. This is a perspective that will interest you as a writer of fantasy fiction and is an idea that shapes modern ideas around animal cos-play.

“If it were necessary to counter a dangerous dominant spirit, the shaman could take the form of a wolf or jaguar…”

Some animals, even in their earthly & physical forms, are seen as enlightened spirits: and this is especially true in the eagle’s case, and also the snake, the jaguar, the wolf, the cat, and the rat. So, for example, if a tribe asks their shaman to see beyond a mountain range and into a remote valley, the shaman might “take the shape” of an eagle (usually in an ecstatic trance, and frequently after taking a shed-load of mood-enhancing psychoactive substances and putting on a head-dress of feathers) so he’d be able to “fly” into the valley to see the hidden things for himself, and report back to the tribe. If it was necessary to infiltrate a small place, perhaps a warehouse or a grain barn owned by an enemy tribe, the shaman could take the form of a rat to climb into holes and search for treasure in confined spaces. If it were necessary to counter a dangerous dominant spirit, the shaman could take the form of a wolf or a jaguar to “fight” an invisible threat, because such animals are fearless even in the face of terrible danger. As a snake, the shaman could move between dimensions (because a snake swims in water, climbs trees, lives in the utter darkness of caves, wriggles across fire, and moves smoothly through deadly swamps, etc.) As a cat, a shaman might be able pass beyond the boundaries of unseen dimensions (because cats are believed to pass through walls) and “view” intangibles that are too subtle for the human eye.

Overthrow the Government

Often, the shapeshifting experience will occur at a festival (or a special ceremonial time of the year) and will be attended by fasting followed by feasting, vigils followed by parties, rapturous dancing, ceremonial singing, and (often) plenty of mayhem and crazy antics. It will involve the entire tribe and the tribe will witness the shapeshift as the magic “happens.” It is an important shared event because it strengthens and fosters faith in the shaman’s powers, and intensifies & enhances tribal traditions and doctrines.

Think abut using this type of ritualistic temporary therianthropy in your next fantasy tale, and please let me know if you’ve used a shaman in your project. Tweet me @neilmach

Otherkin

A few words about Otherkin and the roots of furry fandom


Some ancient cultures believe there is an animal counterpart to every human person. We often say things like: “don’t be such a greedy pig” or “he’s such a stubborn ass” or “she can be a real bitch” — so the concept is not as far-fetched as you might imagine. While an experienced shaman will acquire the spiritual attributes of various beasts (through ceremonies, dances, trances, and the use of psychoactive substances) — there is a suggestion that everyone (yes, everyone) might be able harness and “tap into” their animal counterpart. We find stories of humans descending from animals in many oral traditions (they often form an important part of tribal and clan histories) and even “modern” societies are distinguished (perhaps caricatured, though not always in a flattering way) by animal counterparts i.e. the bulldog represents the British, the bear represents the Russians, and so on ) — so it might be possible for each of us to transform into the animal of our clan. For example, indigenous North American traditions suggest that some tribes might have bears as ancestors (so tribe members would “tap into” their bear) and in Turkic mythology, some tribes claim wolf ancestry (so tribe members would “tap into” their wolf.) 

Wolf/Man Man/Wolf

The otherkin are these same types of people: they are a subculture that identifies as not wholly human because they access their animal inner-selves. Some otherkin believe their beast-identity is derived from reincarnation, while others claim direct ancestry (such as the Turkic peoples that I just mentioned), while others simply claim a metaphorical connection (hidden similarities) or enjoy the role-playing aspect of “becoming” their chosen animal because they feel a special affinity with it (for some, the sense of confinement and restraint when bound inside an animal entity is an exciting turn-on.)

If you ever compared yourself to the traits of your astrological zodiac sign (a lion, a ram, a crab, etc.) or you thought your Chinese Lunar Animal perfectly describes you (a tiger, a rabbit, a dragon etc) you will have (unknowingly) placed yourself in this group because you invoked an anthropomorphic avatar that you connected or sympathised with. Though, I ought to add that some Otherkin folk self-identify with entirely mythical creatures such as angels, demons, elves, fairies, extra-terrestrials, and even cartoon characters. 

Some members of Otherkin communities claim to shapeshift mentally and/or astrally into their chosen beast, and this suggests they experience a “sense of alternate being” whilst shifted into their chosen form: even though they haven’t actually changed physicality (they might wear a mask or a very simple costume, perhaps stick-on ears, for example).

This light role-playing version of the Otherkin phenomena is known as furry fandom. Catgirls and catboys are the most prolific identities in the furry fandom subculture, although we’ve seen bunny girls too (they are becoming promoted after an long absence) and foxfolk, dogfolk and wolf-folk are quite common sights on social networks.

This is yet another perspective on therianthropy (shapeshifting) that you might want to explore further in your fantasy writing. Let me know if you have any tips, advice, or suggestions…

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

Senses

Chrono-perception and other exotic senses + how to create your own unique senses

My dad used to complain that my mother had “no sense of time…” And I understood. I was forever waiting for my dinner while my mum “just finished” a sewing project, a painting, or some crafting. My wife is the same.

Craft-orientated people like my old Mum, and my wife, get preoccupied by the creative project they are working on. It seems that they don’t have any “sense of time.”

Does this mean, though, that creative-people cannot “feel” the passage of time? Or does it merely mean that they are absorbed and distracted by their imagination and just want to get on with their project?

Sense in hand

And, anyway, sorry Dad, but is chrono-perception (the sense of time passing) a real “sense”? Or is it just a pseudo-sense like humor and fairplay. If it is a sense, what organ does it use? Would an alien from another planet require time perception? If an entity existed outside earthly time & space (for example, a floating spirit or a deity), would it require time perception? If an organism counts eons instead of hours to develop and grow (for example, endoliths that live for thousands of years on the ocean floor or huge inter-connected colonies of fungi) — do they need time perception or, indeed, any “sense of time” at all? And what might all these things have, if they don’t have a sense of time? What other senses do such things possess?

If you’re a fantasy fiction writer, these are exactly the type of questions you are expected to ask. Because these are the kind of questions that spark new stories and facilitate fruitful imaginings!

Sense of smell

I spoke about fear on the Myth & Magic Podcast, Episode 73 (aired 17th March 2021) and how you should use the hormonal cascade to impart fear in your story. On that show I mentioned that our animal brains are capable of “slowing down time…” when we face deadly danger. Although this phenomenon (known as “chronostasis” — the immobilization of time) is actually a disconnect between normal visual sensations and perceptions rather than any special new ability or sense, nevertheless, chronostasis is interesting, because it requires us to focus on how we perceive our surroundings, using our most important sensory organs: eye, ear, skin, nose and mouth. But what if there are other receptors? What if we unconsciously use other organs to perceive “other” mysterious things? 

Well, it just so happens that we humans (most of us) do possess other receptors, and through these lesser known receptors, we do perceive other mysterious things! For example, most of us, if healthy, have a sense of balance. This is known as equilibrioception and, as in other animals, it prevents us from toppling over. The vestibular system (it’s a labyrinth inside your ear, so you can’t see it) does the work for us. When the sense of balance is disrupted, it causes dizziness, disorientation and nausea, which is why we feel queasy in a rocking boat, woozy after getting off a spinning roundabout, and why astronauts must be trained to deal with the sick feeling of weightlessness in space

common sense

We also have a number of other interoceptions (these are sense receptors located within the body, mostly organ-based and, like the vestibular system in the ear, they cannot be seen). For example, most of us can sense when we are “full up” after a big meal, conversely most of us can sense when we’re hungry. Also, most of us sense pain. We also have a vomeronasal organ V.N.O. for short that (weirdly) is also present in snakes and lizards and which we think (though nobody knows for certain) is used to sense chemical cues (pheromones) and might explain some of our curious mating behaviors.

Other animals have “exotic senses” and these are quite exciting: for instance, some snakes can “see” the body-heat of their prey, some bats can sense infrared light, and some birds can sense ultraviolet light. Some shrimp can perceive polarized light and multispectral images (it’s quite possible they see colours we humans wouldn’t recognise!)

Magnetoreception is the ability to use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate and some birds and herding animals possess this sense. While echolocation (used by bats and whales) allows an animal to interpret reflected sounds (in the same way that sonar works in submarines).

Sharks and rays (some whales as well) detect electric fields (electroception) though their skin and, as far as we know, the platypus does this as well. These creatures are likely to use the sense of electroception to hunt in very dark waters. Hygroreception is the ability to detect changes in humidity in the atmosphere and some insects use this sense before constructing shelters.

Head Sense

Your responsibility, as an ingenious fantasy fiction writer, is to mingle, merge or just “think up” new exotic senses for your human-like characters or, even better (in my opinion) dream-up fabled creatures that come equipped with extraordinary & fantastical senses.  

To steer you in the right direction, I suggest the following approaches:

1: Think about why your fantasy creature needs such “power” in the first place. Is it going to be used for hunting? Will it be used to escape or camouflage itself? Will it be used to communicate with others of its kind? Is it used for mating rituals? Does it require the exotic sense so it can successfully achieve some other super-normal talent (for example, dragons might require some sense of altimetry (so they can judge how high to fly) and maybe they’ll need some sort of ion-detection sense (like an in-built smoke-alarm) so they will wake-up if they accidentally spit fire in their sleep!

2: Think of how the new sense might be contained within the physical body of the entity (within a highly specialized organ, perhaps, or a part of the brain? ) How will the animal/entity maintain the good health of the sense? Will it require a specialized diet? Will using the sense require practice? (Humans need to learn balance, for example, before using a surf-board or riding a bicycle, don’t they?) Does the sense grow stronger (or weaker) over time? We know, in humans, that sight fails as we age and taste buds are never replaced. Perhaps all exotic senses diminish through a lifetime? But what if some senses develop and grow as an entity ages? What if the animal develops a strange new sense later in life?

3: Think of synonyms for existing and better known senses. For example, see = distinguish, hear = understand, taste = acquire, smell = inhale, and feel = calibrate. Compile your own set of synonyms for better-known senses because you’ll need them for component 4 of this exercise…

4: Now for the fun part! Add your synonym (the word you came up with in component 3 above) to something that’s weird and either magical or scientific (don’t forget all the other main points though: your imagined creature/entity must require the new sense for a tangible purpose and it must somehow be contained within a body). Here’s my list of ideas:

Neil Mach’s list of exotic senses:

  • electrostatic distinction : an entity “sees” electrical charges
  • baryon comprehension : an entity “hears” interactions between atoms
  • ectoplasmic acquisition : an entity “tastes” spiritual energy
  • crystallographic inhalation : an entity “smells” crystal structures in solids
  • hydrothermal gauging : an entity “feels” the onset of hydrothermal activity
covid senses

Hooray! it’s now time to think up your own exotic senses!

Work out how they might be used in your creature/entity (or your human like character). Consider the positives / negatives of possessing such exotic senses and how your narrative might alter if your protagonist (or antagonist) possessed such an amazing skill! Good luck. Let me know how it goes!

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

What is the fluxus?

What is the fluxus? How fluxperiments can help revitalize writing + Writers Tips to Encourage a Creative Mindset

FLUXUS was an important international and interdisciplinary community of artists, composers, designers and poets who participated in experimental artistic performances during the 1960s and 1970s. The key was to emphasize the artistic process over any finished product.

Fluxus artists tended to engage in interdisciplinary artistic activities (they used the term “intermedia” to explain these activities — for instance, a combination of drawing and poetry, or a combination of painting and theater). A great example of an interdisciplinary artistic activity could be the Japanese poems known as Haiga which are typically lines of poetry painted alongside images, with the same brush and ink.

Maybe it needs a caption

Simple “comic book” stories combine works of art with lines of dialogue in much the same way. If you were (are) a fan of the Illuminae Archives (by authors Jay Kristoff & Amie Kaufman) — the 2015 space opera that used photocopied documents, emails, and interview transcripts (as well as diagrams and other non-textual material) — to tell an otherwise fairly straightforward retro space-adventure in a bold and graphic way for novel, then you’ll understand the remarkable oomph that an interdisciplinary approach can bring to fiction. I don’t expect you to be able to produce a graphic novel or illustrate your next story book, but you might be able to add a piece of contextual art to your next poem or a doodle to your short story, huh?

Illuminae

Fluxus is all about interpretation, explication and visualization:

So, if you can:

  • Express your thoughts using some ‘other’ (non text-based) artistic language that helps make sense of ideas (or helps clarify ideas for your audience)… you’ll be using the fluxus!
  • Elaborate your thoughts, making them simple to understand to your audience, with diagrams, maps, spoken word, songs, crafts, or some other non-text-based art form… you’ll be using the fluxus!
  • Summarize your thoughts in an interpretive way that provides a mental picture to your audience of something that is otherwise invisible or abstract to them … you’ll be using the fluxus!

There are (loose) rules for fluxus:

  • Fluxus is an attitude (not a style)
  • Fluxus is about intermedia (seeing how common or everyday objects might intersect with each other to illustrate our work)
  • Fluxus is simple (the work ought to be short, brief, and just a small digression)
  • Fluxus is fun — it’s meant to get your imagination bubbling — it should be a lighthearted pursuit and can be as silly as you like
  • Fluxus works best when it is childlike, so be guileless, be unselfconscious and be playful when you fluxperiment

But how inventive can you be with your fluxperiments?

You don’t have to be totally bonkers or totally avante-garde, or revolutionary or countercultural-transgressive to take on the fluxus. You don’t have to be pretentious or “uppity” to be in this group of free-thinkers either! This isn’t about making arty-farty creations that nobody wants to see or hear (ha ha!). Instead, it’s about blurring boundaries between art forms. And, let’s be clear, we do it every day, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to most of us! This is the key to understanding the fluxus: remembering that all you’re doing is blurring boundaries between art forms.

Have you ever used an emoji at the end of a sentence? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever scribbled a doodle on a napkin and pinned it to your cork board? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever chosen a picture postcard for a mood-board that, in a way, “says” everything you want to say about your protagonist? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever chosen a pop song that encourages the progress of your main character through the quest? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever admired the thoughts behind a funny meme and thought it summed-up your opinions?   Yes? that’s the fluxus. These are all examples of using everyday fluxus because they all blur the boundaries between art forms

calligram

concrete poetry / calligram

Tip 1: Try creating concrete poetry. For example, if you are writing a poem about an egg, the words you use will form an oval shape on the page. If you are writing a poem about your heroine, the words could form a set of angel wings on the page. A poem about a villain could form a set of terrifying bat wings! Try experimenting too… perhaps (when you set out) you don’t know what shape your words will create… so just put your words into a “form” (shape) and turn the paper upside-down once you’re done, to alter your perspective! What does the shape remind you of?

Tip 2: Try creating a coloring calligram. Use a phrase that you’ve written before and that you’re quite proud of, or a piece of text (a paragraph you’ve written, perhaps) and then present those words inside a related thematic image. It will be like “coloring in” but instead of crayons or paints, you’ll be using words. For example, if your antagonist is described as a demonic being with horns and hooves, try presenting those words within the image of a fanged werewolf. You can “make” the outline image yourself by sketching it out before you try “filling it in” with words. But please limit yourself to old words (be strict with yourself, you can only use the words from your excerpt … not any new words… this isn’t about writing something new, it’s about blurring boundaries between sketching & writing.) if you can’t sketch, you can find an outline of the image you want to use (search online or get an adult coloring book) and then “fill in” the chosen image with your carefully chosen words.

Found Poem

Tip 3: Create free-form sound art. Grab your smartphone or gadget for this one. Recall a moment (a scene) from the fiction you’re currently writing and press record. Say (out loud) a batch of single words (not sentences, it’s important that these words don’t ‘join up’ to form sentences… or you’ll not get a “free flow” of ideas.) This is not about cohesiveness, grammar or punctuation, but about sounds. If your words have a connectedness and an interdependence, that’s fine… but if they don’t… that’s fine too! This is also about encouraging free thought. What you’re aiming for here is vitality, aliveness and richness of sounds. Don’t record more than twenty seconds though. In fact, keep it shorter if you possibly can. Have a few goes. Allow your subconscious creativity to do all the work! If you feel like it, you can share your sound-art on your socials and explain to your readers that you’ve been doing a bit of fluxus! I’m sure they’ll be very impressed! Ha ha! 

Tip 4: Try finding some publication poetry. I have been doing this once-a-week, every week, since Christmas. I like to use glossy magazines for this fluxus (the brighter and the glossier the better, and I am especially fond of the food & cooking pages.) First, I find a word (or sometimes a phrase) that says something about the work that I am currently doing. You would think it would be impossible to find a word or phrase related to fantasy fiction in a magazine article written about cooking, wouldn’t you? But it’s not… it’s surprisingly easy. Once I have found what I call the “hook” word, maybe the word “angel” from an angel-cake recipe… I pick up a thick pen (a sharpie) or a highlighter (there are two approaches to this) but the general idea is to find the rest of the words that have been “hidden” within the text by the original author (unknown to him or her, of course!) and link them all up to create your own work. So, with your marker-pen you reveal a poem. And it’s a “found poem.” You will either: a) highlight the “correct” words or b) disguise the “incorrect” words or c) a bit of both. But, whichever technique you choose, you will recover a lost poem that has been hidden on the page. (see the illustration below) It is a bit like the archaeology of words. When you do this, I am sure you will discover rewarding and quite extraordinary passages that will magically unfold in front of your very eyes. You will be presented with new thoughts that will help you hone, enable and even facilitate meanings that you had not considered before. Give it a go!

Found Poem

Let me know about your fluxperiments and fluxperiences by tweeting me @neilmach

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.