Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

Category: writing (Page 2 of 7)

Of music and magic

Entrance to Fingal's Cave

Fingal’s Cave, the Isle of Staffa : Karl Gruber

One of my earliest memories is of listening to music. On Sunday evenings, to lull me off to sleep, my parents used to leave the radio playing just outside my bedroom door, tuned in to a programme called “Your Hundred Best Tunes”. It featured popular classics, like Morning from The Peer Gynt Suite, and the largo from the New World Symphony, forever to be known in the UK as “the Hovis music” after an inspired television commercial for bread.

That radio programme was my introduction to classical music. Long before I knew the names of the composers, I recognized the pieces by the pictures they painted in my head: the surging surf of Fingal’s Cave, Night on a Bare Mountain with its witches’ sabbat, and the gilded curlicues of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. Through music I began to explore the landscapes of my imagination, as the pictures prompted questions of who and where and why, and from those seeds, stories grow.

When I’m writing, I almost always have music playing. There are sound practical reasons for this: it blocks out ambient noise that would otherwise distract me, such as the school playground across the road, and creates an aural bubble in which I can focus utterly on what I’m working on, but there are other reasons too; reasons which are equally practical, if a little more ephemeral.

On those days when the creative fires prove difficult to ignite, music provides an extra spark. Whether it’s a mood or a mountain range I’m trying to invoke, the right piece of music can serve as a prompt – and sometimes takes me somewhere I wasn’t expecting. It doesn’t always have to be a classical piece, either: sweeping movie soundtracks, rock, country, any genre you like. If you put my mp3 player on random, it’s entirely possible to segue from AC/DC to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon via Thomas Tallis and Nina Simone, and I’ve found a use for all of them at different times as my stories unfold.

Certain pieces of music also have the power to evoke profound emotional responses, which I can use when I’m tackling a scene that goes beyond my own experience. It’s all very well saying “But you’re a writer, surely you just use your imagination?” but if I want the reader to feel what my character’s feeling, the words have to come not from dispassionate choices made in my head, but from deep inside.

Waterlily in the rain

Waterlily in the rain

I’ve never knelt in the rain with my first love dying in front of me, but start playing the adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez and I’m there, in that moment, and yes, I’m sobbing my eyes out.

Music has power. Music, to me, is very close to magic. Standing in my garden one summer’s morning, with the sun barely up and the dew still sparkling on the plants, I thought for a second that I could hear the flowers grow. In that moment of whimsy, I heard the songs of the earth, and learned the name of the music Gair heard in the dark as he waited for his sentence to be handed down. With that, another story took flight.

And if that’s not magic, I’m not sure what is.


This piece was originally written for my German publisher to promote me as a new writer. I stumbled over it when doing some housekeeping on my PC, and thought it deserved another airing.


Traditional fantasy: what does that mean to you?

People keep telling me I write traditional fantasy. They’re usually being nice when they say that, otherwise they probably would have called it derivative, so don’t get me wrong, I’m totally happy with the label. But to be honest with you, I’m not sure I know what ‘traditional fantasy’ even means. Or rather, I’m not sure what it means to them, the people using the term. Their perceptions may not be the same as mine.

That’s the thing with labels like ‘traditional’: I want to know whose traditions are being referenced. Y’know, just so we’re clear. There’s nothing worse than having a debate that isn’t actually a debate at all, because we’re talking about the same things, just using different terms to describe them.

Cover of David Eddings' Pawn of ProphecyWhen I think of traditional fantasy, I default to the likes of David Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy: a Chosen One raised in obscurity to keep him safe, who goes off on a quest with a motley band of adventurers (including a feisty girl that the bewildered, nice-if-a-bit-dim protagonist hates at first but will ultimately marry) leading to a glorious destiny at the end. Probably involving a throne. Black hats and white hats are readily identifiable, motives are rarely murky, and it’s a pretty good bet you know how it’s going to end.

Another trope that I closely associate with ‘traditional’ is the protagonist being somebody’s heir, descendant or a hero reborn. Their destiny is pre-determined and thus their agency is limited because of who they are, so I would put the Shannara books in that category too (although I gather that in later volumes the story tries to get ‘bigger’ and move beyond this). I’d likely throw The Wheel of Time in there too: it certainly started out that way, before Rand got over being a whiny brat, accepted his fate and owned it.

Speaking of prophecy, characters getting pushed around by one is yet another hallmark of what I’d class as traditional. After all, prophecy is a common motif in the myths and religious traditions that fuel much of our storytelling: Ragnarök, Achilles’ heel, auguries etc. As an indiscriminate and voracious teen reader I gobbled up fantasy like that, but these days it chafes a bit. I like to see more characters figuring stuff out as they go and getting thrown off track by their mistakes, rather than just following signposts.

A more general definition of traditional fantasy encompasses those stories which draw on a particular mythic heritage, usually European, usually set in a pseudo-medieval* secondary world, with non-urbanised, non-industrial feudal societies, before the invention of firearms. In other words, a society in which the existence of magic can’t be argued away by actual science. I can see why people would apply that definition to The Wild Hunt, although personally I don’t think the shoe quite fits. It’s pinching my toes and there’s a blister on my heel.

Balliol College Quadrangle (5647597466)

Balliol College, Oxford – founded in 1263

The Empire I wrote about has a state press (at least in the capital), mass-printed books, accurate clocks, mechanised weaving, quite widespread literacy, numerous universities, and some indoor plumbing, all referenced in the text, and none of it dependent on magic, only human ingenuity. By those lights, I wouldn’t call it ‘pseudo-medieval’ at all – it’s more ‘pseudo-early modern’.**

I’ve tried to portray it as a society on the verge of a technological leap: they already import fireworks, so it’s only a matter of time before someone starts looking closely at their explosive properties, and the military applications thereof.***

The Empire is also only a titular monarchy, and the Emperor does not have absolute power. He requires a consensus in his privy council, whose members are regional governors for each of the provinces in the Empire (which were once kingdoms in their own right) and if they chose to revolt, they could vote for the appointment of a new Emperor. Yes, really. No divine right of kings here.

There’s no band of plucky adventurers either. Most of the time Gair’s alone, or with one or two people, who are not constant companions but move in and out of the action as needed – and the feisty girl is an older woman who makes no secret of the way she feels.

I will cop to the wandering magus trope, however, and the fact that there is some mystery over Gair’s parentage, although I tried to poke fun at that a little:

‘You know, that has the ring of a story to it,’ Alderan said. ‘The orphaned boy with the crown-shaped birthmark that identifies him as the lost heir to the kingdom, and so forth.’

Gair shook his head. ‘No crowns. No kingdoms. Just a soldier’s brat put out to charity.’

— Songs of the Earth

The truth is exactly what Gair believes it to be: his mother couldn’t keep him and his foster family didn’t want to, so he ended up raised by the Church. But when the music stops and the story ends, he will not be the king of anything.

I used those tropes deliberately, knowing I would get flak for them, because they fitted the story I was telling. I’ll use whatever tools are available to me to build what I want. Besides, I’m nowhere near well-enough read in the genre to know the minutiae of everything that’s been done before and therefore attempt to create something entirely new; the story came first and the world evolved around it. If all this makes me a writer of traditional fantasy, then so be it.

So I circle back to the original question: what does traditional fantasy mean for you? Is it the setting, the plot, the protagonist’s origin story? Is it the archetypes the author uses, the mythos they chose to draw from? Does it even matter to you, as a reader, as long as the characters are engaging and the story’s fun?

Is a bit of tradition really a bad thing?


* A personal grumble of mine: I get a tad irritated when folk use the term ‘medieval’, which refers to the Middle Ages, as some kind of lazy catch-all for any pre-industrial society. The Middle Ages were on their way out by the time Gutenberg produced his folio Bible in 1455. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and his anatomical sketches were maybe fifty years away,  and both Oxford and Cambridge had colleges that were by then already almost 200 years old.

** I studied early modern history, so I drew on that in building my world. The Tudor era, the dissolution of the monasteries, the Reformation, the whole nine yards.

*** Consider the proliferation of firearms in our world, spreading westwards from China into Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the evolution of personal rather than battlefield weapons. Yes, considering the timelines of other technological developments I appropriated from European history, the Empire should probably have at least prototype mortars by now, but this was one area I deliberately chose not to explore in these books. I had plenty else to deal with. Besides, the trade routes up from the lands beyond Arkadie are risky, so it’s hard to bring new ideas home. Ships are lost all the time to storms and piracy. It’s entirely possible there are cast bronze cannon already languishing at the bottom of the Inner Sea with the Empire’s equivalent of the Mary Rose.


More than just vanilla

I had a review a little while back from a lady who hadn’t enjoyed my second book, Trinity Rising. She’d had a bit of a problem with the sexual aspects of Songs, but soldiered on because she liked my prose. The opening chapters of Trinity, however, had defeated her: there’s a couple of aggressive, non-consensual encounters that occur early on, and she hadn’t been able to finish the book.



I said I was sorry it hadn’t been her cup of tea, but thanked her for trying and taking the time to write her review. She seemed impressed that I’d bothered to comment on the opinions of a self-confessed prude, and that got me thinking.

As a writer, I expect negative reviews. I have to: they come with the territory. And guess what, they’re exactly as valid as good ones. No two storytellers will make the same tale from the same ingredients, and so no two readers will form the same impression of the results. And frankly, it’d be daft to expect them to.

Yes, I’ve lavished months or years of work on my books, made them the best I could, and I’m so proud of them I’ll take any excuse to talk about them or show pictures of the covers to random strangers in the queue at the supermarket (they’re my kids, after all) but I’m not entitled to a damn thing in return.

Sure, undiluted praise would be nice, and send me back into my office with a smile on my face, but it’s a vastly unrealistic expectation. People are individuals and that means we don’t all like the same things. This is why ice-cream comes in more flavours than just vanilla. Believe it or not, some people can’t abide chocolate. Others are freaked out by ickle fwuffy kittens, in which case they’d probably best not be reading this post. And so it goes with books, too – as the recent SF Signal Mind Meld: The Books We Didn’t Love reminded me.

I am not entitled to be adulated by all and sundry – nor is any writer. I’m not entitled to anything. I choose to put my work out there; I don’t get to choose how it will be received. About the best I can hope for from a reviewer is their honest opinion, and if that means they didn’t like my book, then that’s fine. People being what they are, somebody else is gonna love it.

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net


The Next Big Thing: THE RAVEN’S SHADOW

Ruins and ravens

Ruins and ravens…

Urban fantasy author Suzanne McLeod – of Spellcrackers fame – tagged me to be part of The Next Big Thing blogfest meme – you can read her post here.

Unable as I am to pass up any opportunity to waffle on about my books, I naturally said yes. There’s ten questions to answer, so without further ado . . .

What is the working title of your next book?

It’s called The Raven’s Shadow, and that’ll probably be the final title too. It’s the third instalment of The Wild Hunt Quartet. Sorry, I’ve no cover art yet!

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s part of a series, so it’s hard to separate the genesis of this volume from the Quartet as a whole. It brings together the events set into motion in the preceding volume, Trinity Rising, and leaves our protagonists scattered across an Empire teetering on the brink of disintegration, ready for The Dragon House which will, if the stars align and nothing untoward happens, conclude the series.

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Same again?

Waiter with bottle of wineSecond books are tricksy things, as I’m sure any writer will agree.

No longer can you meander along at your own pace, letting your story take shape as it will; you’re on a contract now, and you have deadlines – you know, those things that Douglas Adams loved for the whooshing noise they made as they flew by. People are Counting On You.

So you deliver the script, and in due course a book happens and is launched upon the world, and feedback starts to come in. This is not nearly so daunting as it was for your precious-baby debut, but is oftentimes more perplexing.

For instance, you get the reader who adored your first book, but is lukewarm about the second one. It isn’t anything to do with the prose, they say, or the plot, or even middle-book-in-a-series-itis. It’s more that you took their beloved characters and put them through the wringer, and they came out the other side a different shape. You broadened the scope of the story, so it wasn’t so tightly focused on one individual, and these other characters are now perceived as some kind of distraction from the main event. Even though the reader doesn’t actually say it in so many words, you can’t help but feel that they’re not so keen on Book 2 because it wasn’t the first book all over again.

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