Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

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Matthew MacNish
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Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by Matthew MacNish » July 31st, 2010, 8:41 pm

My good friend and CP Ted Cross had a great post on his blog last Thursday. He was discussing originality in Fantasy and made several good points. In my reply I completely forgot to bring up Nathan's amazing post about archetypes. I will link to both here before I continue:

http://tedacross.blogspot.com/2010/07/originality.html
http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/03 ... liche.html

He made the point, as many others have, that Tolkien basically invented modern fantasy and there seems to be a consensus among readers, publishers, writers and agents that it's all been done, and nothing new in the genre will ever really sell.

So, as BOTH a fantasy, AND even more so a Tolkien nerd in general, I would like to hear what others have think about this topic. Let me begin with what I had to said in my comment on Ted's blog:

Personally I don't see nearly enough traditional High Fantasy being published. Tolkien started it all for me but Gary Gygax and TSR/D&D kept it all going, at least when I was a kid. Swords, Spells, Knights in Armor, Dragons and evil creatures have always been like a drug for me.

Tolkien may not have "invented" Elves or Dwarves, but he made them what they are today, and he DID invent Orcs (even if the word is borrowed from Old English). Did he write enough Middle Earth based literature? Hell no, not by a long shot, not for me. Obviously unlike H.P. Lovecraft Tolkien did not encourage writers to borrow from his legendarium but that doesn't mean one can't write a story that has derivatives of his kind of creatures and still have it be amazing.

Simon Larter and I were discussing a lot of the tie in franchises the other day on FB (where is your account Ted) and we agreed that Drizzt, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and many of the others do have their strengths and are sometimes decent reads, but really nothing has come along for decades in the genre that truly puts a reader on their ass, wanting for more.

It is my opinion that while Tolkien may have written the greatest fantasy ever told, he doesn't own the creatures, or at least not all of them. Ents, Balrogs, Nazgul, and Hobbits may be too specific, but Elves, Dwarves and Orcs are very general (along with Trolls, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Dragons and so forth). Also there is the option to borrow from one of these specific races and make it your own. Like the Kender Race in Dragonlance/Krynn novels that were invented by Weiss/Hickman and though probably not quite as awesome as Hobbits, they are new, unique and hilarious as hell.

That was pretty much everything I had to say on Ted's blog, with some specifics removed, but I'm curious to know what others think.

Please mention in your reply whether you are an avid fantasy reader and whether you agree. It doesn't matter, of course, if you're not one but still have an opinion, but I'm interested to see how many feel the same way as I do.

So where do you stand on typical fantasy creatures like Elves, Dwarves, Dragons and Halflings? Does Tolkien own them all for good? Do we have a right as writers to explore these creatures further?

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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by steve » July 31st, 2010, 10:29 pm

I'm not an avid fantasy reader outside of John Crowley; I read all of Tolkien/Lewis when I was a kid.

I think Tolkien's great coup was specifically writing about tiny heroes (taken from German myths) at a time when his own country was collapsing in on itself. The British Empire fell apart and shrank in alarming fashion. Hobbits, dwarves and elves at the "middle" of England might be the best metaphor ever. Tolkien got lucky with tiny. His readership certainly admired the able small types, and ate it up as comfort food. Showed them small was okay.

A question back to you would be Why should you care? Assuming you're American, you are this minute part of a loud, fat, bumbling, warrior nation. There's a ton of stuff to mine here and now for high fantasy, and myths from this soil dating back hundreds years are available.

Lastly, the problem of originality in fantasy is that writers are lazy. Writers sitting down to write fantasy can write about anything in their imagination, so why is so much of it the same?
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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by Holly » July 31st, 2010, 10:43 pm

Tolkien's characters are steeped in English tradition. The hobbits, for example, remind me of English villagers.

Yes, the characters are wonderful, and no, he didn't own most of them -- ents and orcs, yes, elves and dwarves and dragons, of course not.

The characters, though, are secondary. What kind of story do you have to tell?

Look at the world we live in now. Everybody has nuclear technology. Scary, unstable countries like Iran and North Korea have the bomb. We're destroying the environment between the Gulf oil spill and the Great Garbage Patch in the North Pacific and so many other things. A science article in the news this week said that 40% of all the plankton in the ocean have died since the 1950s, and plankton make half the planet's oxygen. We're heading toward extinction. Tolkien wrote about the ring of great power in a story that fit his time. That was then. Look at the perilous cliff we stand on today. Write something for today.

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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by dios4vida » July 31st, 2010, 11:03 pm

First, I am an avid fantasy reader. I am a huge fan of Drizzt and many, many other high fantasy-type novels.

Second, I am a dedicated fantasy writer. High fantasy writer to boot. While I steer clear of elves and dwarves and orcs (I prefer to create my own species and magic) the general feel of my writing is the same that you'll find in Tolkien or any other high fantasy.

I agree that Tolkien's specific species remain his own, but the generics are free for everyone to use. I see no problem with us writing about them.

Steve, I have to say that I strongly disagree with your statement. Yes, we fantasy writers have everything in our imagination to play with. But if we go too far off-world then there's no stability for the reader. A twist on a known entity is comforting to the reader and gives them a sense of familiarity in a foreign place. If I were to create a completely alien world with nothing remotely similar to human kind, or any previously imagined being, how would I get my reader to truly understand the creatures? Building rapport with that kind of alien would be an extremely difficult task. That is even assuming we could come up with something totally original like that (there is nothing new under the sun, after all).

Besides, it might not be that we're only writing "what we've seen before." Some of us are using everything in our imaginations, but we aren't getting published. Maybe the market doesn't like ideas that are that new. Maybe it's just not selling right now. Maybe creating something that foreign is so difficult that none of us are really doing it right. We're still trying, though, and even if we use the Tolkien model in our writing that doesn't mean we're lazy. It means that we're putting new spin on old tricks and making our readers feel like they know at least something in order to have them stick with us for the ride.
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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by polymath » July 31st, 2010, 11:52 pm

Creative originality for fictional purposes involves original invention and inspired reinvention, reimagination, and reclycling. Dragons are part of cultural zeitgeists, different in the East and the West, different in the past and present, but most cultures have dragon myths. And elves and gnomes and goblins and vampires and zombies and ghosts and on and on. Successful dragon writer inventors reinvent and reimagine them for story purposes.

Original fantasy creature inventors create caricatures of existing representations from a collective subconscious. Webster's: caricature; "1: exagegration by means of often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics." Substitute fantastic for ludicrous and behaviors and traits for parts and characteristics and a source for original fantasy creature inventions arises.

Who or what are today's representations of today's natural and societal forces and concepts? What motifs and tropes--metaphors particularly--represent fear, anger, joy, awe, wonder, woe, etc? More complex, the enemies of the people? The wisdom of the ages? The modern-day trickster? The everyman? The goddess? Mother Nature? Sacred Mother? The isolado? Native American cultures have a dragon myth representative of meteorological phenomena, sky spirits. Natural forces, air, water, fire, and earth play large parts in Native zeitgeist. Things animate or inanimate play large parts in fable conventions found in modern fantasy, embued with personifications, like consciousness, speech, movement, personalities.

Once upon a time, one of my acquaintances created a fictional creature to represent repressive government bureaucracy. He was starting a business and every agency, federal, state, and regional, and municipal had a say, it was usually no. He called them kremlins, dome headed city skyline bureaucrats programmed to say no. An artist friend sketched a caricature of a kremlin and the businessman put it above his desk. It sort of looked like a cross between the White House and a huge-nosed munchkin. The east and west wings of the White House were shoulder tabbards, the body a suit of white and gold armor resembling an imposing marble edifice. My contribution was Cleopatra, a dark, whispy, and ephemeral witch, Queen of the De-Nial, empress of the kremlins. Another of my inventions, Andonnoroff Ornot, a cyberspace trickster spirit based on boolean operators And On Nor Off Or Not playing dice with bytes.
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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » August 1st, 2010, 12:06 am

Well, there's power in originality. Tolkien wrote something original and transformative that affected millions of readers, something that is still shaping the genre decades later.

But that sort of originality is also difficult. Difficult for a writer to pull off, and difficult, often, for readers. Newness places a demand on readers - it requires them to work a little, fitting new ideas into new patterns, new mental schemas. Newness is a challenge.

Readers, however, don't always want a challenge -- they don't want difficult. Something new is risky. Something familiar is safe. It's a sure bet.

Why do people love sitcoms? Is that really the best thing they could be doing with their evening? A few canned laughs? No. But it's also not the worst thing. Doing something different is a risk: could be better, could be worse. Watching the sitcom is a safe choice. Why? It's familiar. You watch it every week. Same characters, same place. You know them. It's like bumping into friends. No, it probably won't change your life. But you'll have a few laughs, a good time. And you know what you're getting.

I think a lot of readers crave that familiarity, at least a part of the time. Something that's derivative can be grounding. I mean, they're at the bookstore, and they have their hard earned money to spend. They could try this new book, kind of interesting but unlike anything they've ever seen or read before. Is it good... who knows? And there's this other book, too, and it reminds them of this series they really loved, and also this other book, they really liked that one, too. And look! The blurb on the cover even compares this new book to that old favourite! How fortuitous.

There's no right or wrong. Just personal taste and personal choice. And a lot of readers, probably, will swing back and forth -- sometimes they'll want something familiar, sometimes they'll want to try something strange and new.

The trick, though, is trying to walk the fine line between familiar and cliche. When is something familiar and interesting (engaging our acquired tastes), and when is it simply dull and repetitive? Done and flat? In the end I think it's going to come down to the execution, to finding newness in the familiarity. If using something derivative, can you make it familiar enough to evoke that sense of connection and shared history and yet new enough to excite?
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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by ryanznock » August 1st, 2010, 12:30 am

My first workshopped piece in college creative writing class was basically a retooling of an event from my middle school Dungeons & Dragons game. My professor, Jim Grimsley, has written enough fantasy to know his cliches, and he called me out on it. The way he put it was that, while there's nothing bad about using setting bits derived from 'classic fantasy,' there's also nothing particularly noteworthy in doing so. Putting gnomes and drow in your novel won't make it bad, but if you're using ideas you've seen dozens of times before, it's all too easy to settle into familiar patterns with your writing.

Do you want to write because you enjoy it and want to make a few bucks giving people some fun? Then by all means, produce vaguely-medieval fantasy novel #3720*. People don't bitch when a 17th-season Law & Order episode is set in modern New York and involves a murder, because the familiar - when well done - is comfortable.

But if you've got a nasty ego like me, and you want to produce stories that will stand out (and avoid underwhelmed stares from your professor), you've got to do something new. When you deny yourself easy answers, your creativity blossoms.

I read tons of shared-universe novels up through high school, but when I started college in 2000 I had figured out that I was basically ingesting the literary equivalent of McDonald's. Sometimes something new might crop up, but if I kept going to the same restaurant I'd be missing out on so many flavors. (It helped that I moved from a medium Texas city to multicultural metro Atlanta, where I'm within walking distance of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Ethiopian, Greek, Japanese, and Brazilian.) Now, McDonald's is a hell of a lot more successful than any of these other restaurants I so adore, just like R.A. Salvatore could probably afford a car made of solid gold d20s, but I've decided that - for me - Big Macs and dual-wielding dark elves no longer hold any great appeal.

I might skim a 'classic fantasy' book if I've got nothing else to read, or if a friend tells me it's something special -- like if Drizzt and Entreri became an unlikely buddy cop duo humorously solving murders in Menzoberranzan. And just having 'unoriginal' creatures and races isn't automatically a deal-breaker. But it's a slight black mark because, if an author is using very familiar setting elements, it's not a huge leap to assume he'll probably also have a very familiar plot.

Bottom line, if your plot, characters, and storytelling are something I haven't seen before, I'll give even a Law & Order knock-off a try. And if you want to write a formula fantasy, people will probably dig it, and I could even appreciate the craft it took to tell the tale. But I probably won't buy the book.


*3720 (to 1), which happens to be the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field.

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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by Notamonkey » August 1st, 2010, 1:21 am

I probably won't answer your questions exactly, but fantasy is my genre, so I'll chime in.

I began with medieval fantasy in both my writing and reading and this has transitioned to more modern/urban fantasy. I like putting fantasy elements into present day. To say what others have said slightly differently, who are the ogres of today? No, don't time travel a knight from the middle ages and turn him loose in New York. That's fun once, if at all. But, what are the knights of today like? Give them style and uniqueness and flair, but they're still a product of our modern times. More so, they're a response to it.

True, changing the time of the setting doesn't mean you're escaping into originality, but it gives it difference. We've seen the fantasy creatures of the past, but what about those of the present and future? They're there. Don't think they aren't.

You don't need to make it completely modern either. My favorite author, Steven Brust, has his fantasy set somewhere around near-industrial revolution time (not earth though). It's got magic and elves and dragons and great weapons, but that's not the focus. It's the decoration. It's more about crime, assassination, and people. Each book can be said to be a character study of all the different types of people that make up mankind. If you're wondering, there are 17 of them :P (inside joke).

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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by knight_tour » August 1st, 2010, 5:37 am

I have a load of opinions on this, naturally. I completly disagree with Steve's idea that it is laziness on the part of a writer. We are told to write what we love most, what triggers out true passions, and for some of us it was growing up heavily involved in the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons. If it was only Tolkien then I would agree that it is just silly, but D&D was huge during my teen years. I read there were about 5 million active players then. So, loads of readers were not involved with D&D and don't get it, but that doesn't mean they should so easily dismiss those of us who grew up crazy about this particular kind of fantasy world. It is this that makes games such as Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights so popular, and what makes the few decent stories that do get published (Sword of Shannara, Iron Tower trilogy) best-sellers.

These people have an absolute right to want originality in the stories they want to read, but they are wrong to look down upon a very large fan-base that wants the beloved tropes of our D&D youth. I love all kinds of fantasy (just finished The Name of the Wind and loved it), but I love NOTHING more than good D&D style stories, and I'm not alone in this. Too bad the publishing world (that is supposedly about making money) doesn't recognize the fact that every time a decent story is published along these lines it sells big. I don't count the official D&D books in this, because to me personally I don't think they were written so well. Where are the writers with George R.R. Martin-like talent writing in a D&D style fantasy world? We had Brooks and McKiernan, then who else? None that I can see.

Do I want the exact same story told as Tolkien did? Of course not. But to suggest that using the familar style of world that he and D&D gave us means that a story is unoriginal is like suggesting that only a single story could be written about New York City. That's insane. I could write within such a world setting for the rest of my life and never tell the same story twice.

Basically, I feel that the people who dislike any more stories with Tolkienesque stylings should hold their noses and look elsewhere, but the publishers (and agents) should indeed cater to the very large audience who does want more of such stories.

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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by Simon Larter » August 1st, 2010, 9:46 am

See, I don't classify most of the TSR trilogy-driven stuff as high fantasy. The worlds are built off the page, in manuals and campaign settings, the rules were (usually) created by someone else, and the author is charged simply with bringing to life a particular segment of that world, perhaps extending and refining and putting their own twist on it in the meantime.

Series like Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire would more approach true high fantasy, in my mind. David Eddings' early work classifies also. (Note: I'm not a scholar of the genre, just a longtime reader, fan, and opinionated type.)

Whatever the case, though, I think the conventional wisdom in writing applies: use the elements you need to to tell your story, but put your own unique spin on them. Elves? Sure. But maybe they're mildly telepathic, or allergic to rosemary, or something.

(Also--and this is simply my own prejudice here--I think to write high fantasy requires a certain level of prose; not just anyone can do it, and it's rare for beginning authors to have the chops. I know I don't. And since this comment is in parentheses, I'm assuming no one can will see it. Who pays attention to asides, anyway?)

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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by Falen » August 1st, 2010, 10:04 am

Yeah I think Steve's idea that writers are lazy has a touch of BS to it. I agree with what Ted said, in that, I DO write what is in my imagination (and to be fair to Steve, I don't write high fantasy. Well not since High School anyway) and to suggest that fantasy authors, as a whole, just copy what's been done in the past instead of doing something new, makes it completely clear that what he said is true, that he doesn't read fantasy.
Also, there are limits within the genre. Just because it's "fantasy" doesn't mean I can write whatever I want and it counts towards the genre.

Regarding about why there isn't much high fantasy any more, I have 2 theories. The first is that it's just a trend. And there are two things I know about trends: they will changes, and they will repeat.
My second thought, and I have no real research or evidence to back this up, it's just a thought, is that it's due to changing technology.
20 years ago, you only had a few options if you wanted your fantasy hit: playing D&D and reading. Sure there were a few movies as well, but they were hit and miss.

Now, though, we have videogames. Wonderful wonderful video games. So if I don't want to read about elves, I can instead go play some warcraft for a gajillion hours. And whereas you might put in four hours of D&D a week, videogames you can play every stinking day for as long as you want (or you job allows), which doesn't leave a lot of room, or really even desire, to read a lot of high fantasy.

Is it true? I have no idea. But it sounds like it could be.
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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » August 1st, 2010, 10:37 am

Good discussion.

I just thought I should add to what I said previously by saying that I think a number of agents and editors would still be open to such stories, but it would be a little more difficult. First, agents will have preconceptions, say, about something that is directly using all Tolkien's tropes. The thing is, though, that they'll have those preconceptions for a very good reason: they've probably been getting thousands of bad knockoffs every year. Read a few thousand cheesy knockoffs and your going to get a little jaded.

Second, it's harder to sell. You want to be able to say something different and catchy about a story. Something that catches the ear. "Oh, a ghost city? Hmmmm...." Whatever it is, it's much easier to have something with a hook. Stephen King, say, has lots of striking ideas (or twists on traditional ideas) that are easy to sell. A haunted car? Check. And then twist it even further - a haunted spaceship. Check. The idea is there, bang. Now, it could be a terrible story or it could be a great story, but the idea is easy to get across and sell.

A derivative story, on the other hand, doesn't have that. "Oh, it's like this other stuff that's already been done. No twist." Now, the story might be great... and it will have to be, because it's all going to come down to the execution. Characters, writing and story are going to have to be superb to counter that lack of hook, that lack of twist. I think a story with a fantastic and easy-to-sell idea can get by sometimes with just good writing and storytelling. A derivative story will have to be great, most likely. Good woon't be good enough.

Are there some out there? Probably. But I'm also guessing that a lot of great writers, the kind who are good enough to pull this off, want to be like Tolkien in his originality and impact more than they want to be great merely in imitation.

I think such stories can still sell. The writing has to be strong, has to balance out the lack of newness. Or a writer can find that twist and torque it for all it's worth.
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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by polymath » August 1st, 2010, 11:27 am

What are successful fantasy writers' sources for inspiration? is a question I ask. Rowling's Potter saga closely fits many definitions of high fantasy. It's closer to high fantasy than many other subgenre definitions. In my view, a lot of fantasy's traditions and conventions are worn out, but appeal to younger readers because they're coming to fantasy from untarnished, untainted outlooks and lookouts.

One of my peeves with attempts at high fantasy is how much author surrogacy shows through. Author surrogacy jeopardizes my reading comfort zone for its self-efficacy and self-idealization. A seven-foot tall uber being laying waste to mighty foes and always getting the love interest and the wealth is a little too much wish fulfillment for my tastes. Where's the complications, the insurmountable obstacles, the crippling setbacks, the crushing letdowns, the potent reversals? A subtle but big part of tension comes from keeping a final outcome in doubt until a bitter end. My biggest issue with a lot of high fantasy projects wanting publication I've read is their predictableness caused by telegraphed outcomes. But, again, author surrogacy appeals to younger readers.

Secondary settings are a mainstay of high fantasy, whether beta realities, parallel realities, or covert realities within the mundane alpha reality, regardless, exotic proxy realities. Metaphysical settings as opposed to mundane settings. And by mundane I mean the real alpha world, no matter how fantastic it can sometimes be.

Plots of high fantasy often involve MacGuffins and plot coupons and quests to acquire same and generally follow Romanticism traditions and conventions of poetic justice and favorable outcomes and favoring predistination over free will. Romanticism traditions and conventions reflecting the predictableness of telegraphed outcomes, again. However, again, Romanticism appeals to younger readers.

Ideas of high fantasy generally involve discovering or forging one's true self-identity by the challenges settings, plot, characters, and events create. Questism looms large, so, of course, an external journey to self-discovery plays a central role.

Characters of high fantasy don't vary by much from ancient folklore traditions. Their issues and personality aesthetics though adapt to and reflect the times.

Events of high fantasy don't vary by much from ancient folklore traditions. I believe the backward in time looking nature of fantasy settings, plots, ideas, and characters subtly influences event depiction to the point originality suffers. It's like the anthropologist who digs up ancient remains and finds it in static repose then concludes the culture was stagnant.

Like science fiction, fantasy heavily favors the literature of escapism, which is neither strong nor weak, per se, but for an original escape I want original and novel perspectives.
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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by knight_tour » August 1st, 2010, 12:04 pm

That's just it -- YOU want new and different things. You shouldn't dismiss the quite large group of people out here who don't want new things when it comes to this sort of fantasy. I don't want to read about an elf with a twist. I want to read about elves who are elves. People always go on about there being so many such stories out there, but it isn't true. Besides the first couple of Shannara books and the Iron Tower trilogy and Silver Call duology, the only one I can think of is Quag Keep. The official D&D books all played to a certain audience and did fine by them, but those books are not satisfying in the least to a great many of us. I'd say that is a pretty tiny number of books published for those of us who want more D&D-type stories. It is only the type of setting that I want to be like this; the story itself does need to be original. Realistic twists are fantastic, but not ones that turn the various creatures into something else. I don't need dwarves on skateboards.

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Re: Orignality in Fantasy (specifiaclly re: Creatures and Races)

Post by steve » August 1st, 2010, 12:18 pm

Accusation of lazy merits lazy responses. I'm shocked.

I hoped for one "I reference the work of brilliant people like _____________ (Frances Yates, Giorgio de Santillana, Joseph Campbell, Charles C. Mann, etc.) who inform my work."

I am not a fan of Tolkien but he was an avid historian. If you can't see that works of historians are key to writing well about "other worlds" then you likely have no business writing about them. Reimagining might be more important than imagining.

And there's this test, which rocks.
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