Stephen L. Nowland's Blog: The zen of Steve

September 18, 2013

Occasionally someone will make comment on the title of my first novel, and how obscure it is. It's actually quite clear, and makes a lot of sense when you get to reading. The protagonist even explains it at one point to another character within the story! But I figured it could use some clarification, so here's the thought process behind the title.

When you get right down to it, heroes are an odd occurrence. I'm not talking about heroics in general, such as a common person performing extraordinary acts of bravery, but the heroes who populate stories and novels of the fantasy genre. It's not every day that someone decides to risk life and limb for strange, sometimes crazy quests. But more than that is the place they have in a fantasy realm. They often stumble into the situations they find themselves, but how do those situations come about?

The protagonist and his plucky companions wouldn't have even been needed to thwart the machinations of the villains if the authorities were present, doing their job. Therefore, heroes can't function, let alone exist unless there is a vacuum of power for them to fill. I believe heroes only arise to 'save the world' under the following conditions:

1. The authorities are corrupt. Those responsible for protecting civilisation have been paid off, or are under the influence of of a corrupting force (such as an evil entity etc), allowing or perhaps even aiding chaos to spread.

2. The authorities are absent. This is the one I chose for my novels. The army has gone off to fight a war in another country, leaving only a skeleton force to protect the country against lawlessness and the incursion of opposing forces.

3. The authorities are incompetent. For whatever reason, the authorities are too stupid, shortsighted or generally unfit to protect the realm. Nepotism is a common cause of this, where the relative of an important person is placed in charge, despite not having a clue how to do the job.

4. The authorities are overwhelmed. This goes to the idea that the authorities aren't up to the task, either by being undermanned or incompetent (as previously mentioned) or simply outnumbered or outmatched by their opponents. This of course gives rise to heroes who step up to fill the gap.

Any (or all) of these scenarios create an opportunity for competent individuals to fill the vacuum of power. There may be other reasons, but i haven't been able to deduce them myself. If you think of another situation, feel free to let me know!

So that's the reason behind book one's title. I toyed around with some different titles but none of them seemed to fit as well as this one. It really sums up the whole genre, when you think about it!
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Published on September 18, 2013 18:22 • 221 views • Tags: aielund, heroes, theory

August 24, 2013

It's been a while since I've written a blog. I'm not just forgetful, I tend to slow down a lot in winter and the blogging got thrown onto the backburner in favour of work and other important projects (such as writing! And sleep!) Now that things are starting to warm up again, I'm ramping up my creative projects once more, with art as my priority.

Years ago, when I formulated a plan to start writing novels, the idea of creating my own covers greatly appealed to me. At the time, I hadn't yet started painting and wasn't sure what the covers were going to look like. I hadn't painted anything in twenty years, since high school in fact. In early 2010 I'd moved to a new house with a lot of empty picture hooks, and part of me yearned to hang stuff on them - MY stuff.

After some experimentation, I began creating one picture after another, working small at first but growing with confidence at each step as those hooks were occupied. Then, a picture formed in my mind for the cover of my first novel, a picture with swirling snows and mountain views, and a group of bold individuals traveling through the wild conditions - a scene from the story. Unfortunately I didn't have the skill to do anything close to that at the time, so I settled for something which captured the spirit of adventure I wanted.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum

This painting was revised a few times since the initial 'completion', as my abilities evolved.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum

The art for In Defence of the Crown was a real challenge, as I wanted to depict the Redoubtable, a navy vessel in the story. The trouble is, I had trouble finding a decent image to work from. If you search the internet for ancient sailing ships, you'll find plenty of frigates and man-o-wars, but very few carracks, simply because of their age. Nevertheless I tracked down a sketch I could work from, producing a somewhat less dramatic view of the ship than I'd hoped for. Still, it was a step forward in art!
Nature Abhors a Vacuum

With Ruins of Legend, the third novel, I went for something that captured a moody scene. The ruins in question are from an ancient city, long since destroyed, which I was able to capture effectively for the cover art. Those bricks took a surprisingly long time to paint, but it's here I learned that little details are what makes a painting like this work.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Finally, the cover for book 4, Legacies of Fire & Steel, was something of a landmark for me too, as it showcases my first dragon. Again, its from a scene in the book and very nicely illustrates the tension of the moment and the dry heat of the desert.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum

The picture for book 5 is sitting in my mind ready to go, but I have some other paintings to finish first. I'll be having an exhibition at a local gallery early next year, and I'm eager to have another ten paintings done for that.

Every six to nine months I've made another cover as my books are completed, applying the techniques I've developed on other art projects along the way to the new covers. Each time I'm adding more flavour, and I've even started to put in people, albeit in tiny silhouette form. One day I might get to the point where I can create the sweeping, majestic style I see inside my head, but it'll have to wait a little longer!

You can see my other art projects on the aielund website; here!
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Published on August 24, 2013 23:16 • 164 views • Tags: aielund, art, covers

July 2, 2013

I saw Man of Steel recently, and afterwards, I thought about the dominance of superhero movies in modern cinema and the lack of fantasy films. Sure, there's the hobbit films, and a decade earlier we were graced by an excellent adaptation of Lord of the Rings. Are superhero movies pushing out more 'traditional' sci-fi and fantasy movies?

We're even seeing more diverse settings and plot from superhero flicks. Captain
America was a WW2 movie. Thor was an intriguing blend of science and fantasy, as was Green Lantern (even though it mostly sucked). The main difference between these films and 'proper' fantasy would be setting, for the most part. Being special and empowered in some way has more impact in the modern world, where we can imagine it happening in
our real lives. Plus, it's easier to film I suppose.

The medieval setting of fantasy adventure might not be as appealing as modern day,
even with greater acceptance of the genre in mainstream. Gritty realism or 'grimdark' styles are more and more common lately, even influencing Man of Steel, whose main character had never been considered a 'dark' character by any measure. Sure, it may be more suitable for a batman movie, but before Tim Burton's take, (the one with Michael Keaton), batman wasn't all that gritty either.

It works well with Game of Thrones, however, a triumph of a show which is garnering huge praise and attention to the genre. There have been quite a few superhero shows over the past two decades (of varying quality) but fantasy shows have been hard to come by (Legend of the Seeker springs to mind, but not much else). The real difference with GoT is it's more of a political/family dystopia as opposed to a more traditional fantasy adventure.

As the story develops, more of those elements come to the forefront (including the best CGI dragons ever!) so perhaps one of the secrets to a successful fantasy show is to start from a more familiar place, and gradually filter in more of the fantastic elements. It makes me wish I'd come up with a different prologue for my first novel, which drops the reader in at the deep end!

Anyway, GoT gives me hope that fantasy settings can become more mainstream, and
judging by the critical acclaim the show has received, I can see the potential for
knock-offs, spin-offs and other such things appearing in the future. When the show is running, hardly a day goes by that someone isn't raving about it online, including people who you wouldn't really expect to be interested in fantasy stuff. I have my fingers crossed this leads to more fantasy adventure projects in future.

Harry Potter deserves a mention here too, for while its definitely in the fantasy
genre, it's very much modern day as well. It's part of a sub-genre of fantasy, the one where the fantastic elements are part of a 'secret society', one that lives amongst us in our modern world, hidden for centuries just below the surface.
Its a good way of bringing together the two worlds, and makes it cheaper to film. Still, it feels like a watered-down version, especially compared to GoT.

But back to the main point - Superheroes vs Fantasy heroes. You can think of one in terms of the other. Gandalf's abilities such as telekinesis, and uh... shining bright lights at things (sorry, he's not the best example!) could be thought of as super powers, while some abilities of superheroes could definitely be thought of as magical in nature.

So while it's intriguing to me that they're basically related genres, and the heroes are practically interchangeable, it does mean that people can get their 'hero fix' from the current wave of superhero flicks without needing the fantasy adventure genre. Except for the hobbit, of course - it may not be a perfect film (padding much?) but I'll take what I can get at this point. Thanks, Peter Jackson, and all who sail with you :D
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Published on July 02, 2013 02:49 • 352 views • Tags: aielund, fantasy, superheroes

June 19, 2013

Hello! It's been a while since I've had time and brain-power to blog, but since I'm waiting for my editors to finish their work on book 4, it's a good time to post something.

As with any creative project, there's a sort of post-creation lull that I'm experiencing. I would compare it to childbirth, but I'm sure there's a large number of mothers out there who would laugh at the association, and the lack of pain involved with writing ;)

Having read through my next book as part of the editing process, I can honestly say its my best work. I delve more deeply into one of the things that motivates me in my writing - power; the getting of it, the use of it, and the price of it. Also, what it can do to someone's soul when it's misused.

Additionally, there's romance, and without going overboard on the topic, I think it adds an appropriate amount of character to the proceedings. Ultimately, it's about people, whether or not those people are actually human or not. Everyone's a person in their own way, if you know what I mean.

It's also interesting to note that this was the original end of the saga on the very first draft I did, many years ago. It could quite happily be the ending, except for a suggestion from a friend of mine to 'take it to the next level'. So, there are another 2 books after this one, and things get pretty wild, kids!

I like the number 6, in terms of a saga's length, so I'll be sticking to that for my future series, of which the second is in an advanced stage of preparation, and a third is actually more documented in terms of plot, at this point. That'll be 18 books in total. :)

Anyway, you'll be able to check out the next title for yourself soon enough, hopefully before the end of the month. It's been only a few years to get to this point, and in some ways, the story of Feydwiir is only just getting started.
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Published on June 19, 2013 22:38 • 147 views • Tags: aielund, creative, fantasy, novel

May 16, 2013

I love making maps! I was always sketching out places through high school, and performed well at both Cartography and Orienteering. I just want to get that fact out of the way up front.

Down to business! Having just completed a high resolution map of my fantasy realm of Feydwiir, I thought about how far the project has come over the years.

The Kingdom of Aielund had not yet been named when I first sketched out a quick map for a D&D session back in the mid 90's.

ancient sketch of Aielund

The plot was pretty straightforward - the town comes under attack at night and the Princess is kidnapped, and being the bold adventurers that they were, the party would go to the caves in the northeast and rescue her. It took twenty minutes to plan, but I never had a chance to run it.

When NWN came out, I dusted off that crappy sketch and started to base a more elaborate plot around that concept. What was she doing in a small farming town in the first place? What sort of Kingdom is this anyway?

The plot was developed more and more and Aielund was born along with it. I eventually created a new map to go along with the module, showing off more and more of the country itself. I had some good feedback about the map when I started to write the novelisation of the first story, specifically to expand upon the world with more detail and towns, which resulted in this updated version:


That map served well enough for a time, but there was still very little information about the surrounding lands - after all, Aielund was just one Kingdom on a large island. They had neighbors whom they were at war with (Tulsone) which was a major driver of the plot, but what about the rest of the country? Why was there a desert right on the southern border, when Aielund itself was a cold climate?

Furthermore, as the story continued to develop, it was becoming obvious that there were many ancient civilisations that had fallen over the centuries, and their legacies were still evident on the landscape. All of that had to be accounted for as well, and being able to see it on a map before me would greatly assist in teh formulation of future stories.

This led to a rough sketch of the coastline, which I used to base a computer-generated map on. It took a while to put it together, especially when it came to the smaller details (as you'd expect). Eventually, a land was created and I had to wrack my brain to come up with a name for the place. Naming things was always a weak spot for me, but I've put a lot of effort in over the past few years to overcome this problem.


I came up with the name 'Falentihr' for the place, but it never sat well with me. Probably because it sounded very close to another name from a D&D game from the 90's, so I took another crack at it.

And Feydwiir was born! I chose that name as the entire countryside has a celtic/english feel to it, and I wanted to explore more of the history with that in mind. The map slowly evolved over time, with more detail emerging as I fleshed it out. I learned a lot about the languages I wanted to use, particularly german and latin, for much of the south used those languages.

This map was sufficient for a time, but a friend of mine really wanted to see a colour version. I suspected that this was going to be far too involved, and put off such a project more and more as I focused on writing and painting.

A few weeks ago, however, it struck me that I could use other map images blended together to create this new map, and so I spent a solid week working hard to come up with something special. Something worthy of hanging on a wall. And lo, it happened!

feydwiir colour

There's something about a full colour map that makes the place seem more... real. The result was glorious, and has added a level of polish to the entire project I never conceived of before. It was well worth the effort!

So that's a brief history of Feydwiir in map form, from simple sketch through to the magnificent HD version, which you can see in full detail on my website should you so desire at this link.
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Published on May 16, 2013 19:17 • 118 views • Tags: aielund, map, style

April 27, 2013

Religion can be a touchy subject at the best of times, and my approach to writing about priests, clerics and theology within my novels has been a little 'hands-off', as it were. Permit me to explain!

The first novel I wrote back in the late 90's had a holy knight as the protagonist (his name was Aiden, strangely enough). The church was dominant in the daily affairs of the cities and towns of this place, and it was corrupt. When our young hero discovered this, he broke away from the church and joined a rebellion as a figurehead.

One of the reasons I decided to put that world aside was that religion was a primary motivator for the story, and while I am a spiritual person, I haven't studied religion in any great detail. I wanted to focus on things I was more familiar with, resulting in a story which has a dash of sci-fi to it in places.

As it turns out, I evidently can't seem to stop myself commenting on the role of religion in civilised society, for the character of Nellise is undertaking a journey through the various aspects of the Church of Aielund, and her role within it. She deals with the role of a priest in a time of war, hard-headed inquisitors with too much authority, and the shadow of a militant order that had
taken over the country a century ago, leading to the deaths of many innocents in their self-righteous vigour.

For all of the negative aspects of religion I write about, there is a core of simple faith and love that lies at the heart of it. A pure truth surrounded by red tape and politics, as it were. I guess that reflects how I think of religion, now that I think about it. It's funny how the book writes itself sometimes, and I don't quite fathom what comes out until afterward!

'Pagan' religions still have their place within the story, too. A theme I'm moving towards for the next saga (after book 6) is that of the old and the new. The fading old religions and traditions that face extinction in the face of new faiths, energetic ideas or simply better ways of doing things. So while many of the characters I write speak of 'god', I'm writing of a fantasy religion and not anything from the real world, even if there are a few similarities.

The same goes for the other fantasy religions present between the covers of my books. They're a bit more traditional in terms of fantasy settings, and I find the blend of something similar to our world mixed with the sometimes odd faiths of the dwarves or raelani to add a
welcome layer of philosophy to the story.

In future books, I delve further into the core of the faith that drives Nellise, the Church of Aielund, and even take it all to a more cosmological scale as well.
Before that happens, however, I'm going to tackle the separation of religion and politics, and what happens when they intertwine. It's not going to be pretty - do stick around!
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Published on April 27, 2013 05:57 • 158 views • Tags: aielund, fantasy, religion, sci-fi

April 4, 2013

Forgive my tardiness, for I haven't blogged in nearly a month now. Time flies, especially when things are moving apace in one's life. In addition to writing my novels, I'm also moving ahead with my art projects, and have a number of them on display for the first time over the course of march/april.

You see, a few years ago I decided that it was time to focus on a profession and become good at it, as a career sort of thing. I'm sort of a jack-of-all-trades, with decent knowledge of a wide range of skills, but I'm hardly a master of any of them.

That is, until I figured that I should focus on the two things I've always had a knack for, above everything else; writing and painting. Both fields allow me to tap into my creativity, and I'm pleased with the results thus far. I've even started sketching again, something I haven't done since the late 90's, and to tie it all together, I'm sketching the characters from my novels, which is eating into my blogging time ;)

The trouble is, there's a huge lead time with these areas, as the art field needs an exhibition, and an exhibition needs at least a dozen paintings to hang. The same is sort of true with the novels, as one novel by itself is 'cute', and garners a little interest out of curiosity for a first-time author. But a saga? Well, people I've talked to like to grab a whole completed set at once, knowing that there's an end in place. Obviously, George R.R. Martin's 'Song of Ice & Fire' series is the exception to this ;)

So I'm constantly working to increase my portfolio for both fields, as the more books of the series that are completed, the more interest it generates. I found this to be true when book 3 was completed, so book 4, due out before September (I hope!) should stoke the fires of interest once more! But it won't compare to the day when book 6 is completed, and my 1st saga is done. Mmm, satisfaction guaranteed.

All of this goes towards building a legacy for myself, leaving my mark on the world, and contributing to the collective knowledge of humanity. It's a powerful drive for artists, who are often unrecognised in their own time. Toiling away for years in obscurity is challenging, I've found, but I'm hoping the end result will be worth it ;)

You can check out my ever-expanding collection of art on my website;
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Published on April 04, 2013 17:00 • 157 views • Tags: aielund, art, fantasy, legacy

March 9, 2013

You might think I'd be referring to MY age, but you'd be wrong! I actually want to go a little deeper into the concept I wrote of last time, with world building as its focus. Specifically, the creating of historical backstory that gives a fictional world such depth and seasoning.

The most prominent series of fantasy novels I can think of in this context if the Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan (and that guy who took over after he passed on.) Putting aside the general feeling of malaise that overcomes me when thinking about his characters and plot, the world Jordan created was breath-taking in its scope and both far-reaching and hyphen-ated in my descriptions of it.

It's an important component of any story, but applies to the fantasy genre with particular relevance. Uncovering the remnants of ancient things that hint at great events long past stir the mind to wonder at what might have transpired. I'm sure its a primary motivator for real-world archaeologists, excitedly uncovering the remains of lost civilisations and stitching together the puzzle of pre-history.

So, I've found it extremely helpful to go to the effort of detailing civilisations that existed in my own world. The kind of people that lived, the technology they had access too, and of course, what brought about their downfall. It's all great flavour for the protagonist when he or she stumbles across the remnants from one of those lost cities, and ponders the implications.

The fun thing about fantasy (and indeed sci-fi) writing is those ancient relics can be a little more flavourful; instead of a chunk of a ceramic pot, it might be a sword made from a rare material that doesn't exist any more. In our created worlds, there can often be societies far more advanced than in the modern setting of the story, leading to the uncovering of things beyond the imagination of the people that live in that time.

So even if most of the facts that one comes up with for the ancient times of a genre setting are never fully revealed, tiny hints of the once-great past add so much to a story of this nature that it's worth going to that extra effort. And who knows, maybe some day one will release all that information and back-story in a separate work, for prof- I mean to enlighten and entertain the reader!
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Published on March 09, 2013 23:18 • 96 views • Tags: aielund, fantasy, time, world

February 21, 2013

Good stories need a proper world to be told in. For those that take place in the real world, the writer has access to the entire scope and depth of human history to draw from. For people such as myself, writing in a made-up world requires some effort to give the place a sense of 'realism', even if it's not real. I love the process behind crafting a world, and for my Aielund Saga novels, it's my third and most successful attempt.

Writers can also create stories for other people's worlds, but typically they must run their ideas past the IP owners, because they don't want their world broken by some upstart! Such stories tend to put everything back the way it was before the end of the book, which I find a tad annoying - I wants to break things, precious! I want stories to have lasting impacts that shape the fantasy world, and the only way to do it is to make your own.

One trap to fall into, however, is to shape one's world around a story to the extent that once that story is told, the world is a drab and lifeless place, ill-suited to further stories - especially if the Grand Scheme was so huge that all other tales tend to pale into insignificance.

Three such worlds come to mind; the TV show Babylon 5, and the original Dragonlance saga, and the world of Edding's Belgariad. They were crafted around a huge central plot, and after they were done, anything else created in that world was a pale shadow of the original. Yes, the 'time of the twins' trilogy kinda rocked, but time travel has
a way of getting around this little problem ;)

I fell into this trap with the first two worlds I created, wherein I created a story first, and the world was shaped to its needs. I still have the first novel I wrote in that 2nd world, but I plan on taking it to my grave :P Not that it's badly written (for the most part), but considering how much revising I had to perform on Nature Abhors a Vacuum to give it the quality it now has, I shudder to think how that first novel would be received. It was also quite derivative, hence the reason for abandoning the project. It made for good practice though!

Aielund (and the UK-sized island it is part of, Feydwiir) is the culmination of those efforts, and even though there is a large 'campaign' style story going on, there is enough detail, back-story and drama to tell a hundred tales of adventure before it's done. I've written brief notes on major events in the past, the ramifications of said events as they relate to the current story, years later. In this respect, no story can 'break' the world, because I allow it to flow organically into the results of those events and go from there.

After this saga there shall be another of the same size (6 books), which I'm slowly
piecing together on the side, as ideas pop into my head. It follows on from the aftermath of events in this current series in many ways, but takes things in a new direction. After all, there's an entire world of my devising to explore :)
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Published on February 21, 2013 17:42 • 213 views • Tags: aielund, campaign, world

January 30, 2013

Not long ago a friend asked if I’d perhaps consider writing in a different genre. I assume she said this because she liked that I was writing, but not *what* I was writing, if you get my drift. Fantasy stuff just isn't her cup of tea!

My answer to this was that I like writing in the fantasy genre because I can make up my own rules. If one is writing a detective novel, knowledge of police procedure and the like is sure to come in handy. Science fiction, although requiring a good imagination, also needs a strong grounding in proper science for it to be successful sci-fi.

It has been said that an author should write from his or her own experiences, and although I've never personally fought a dragon, neither has anyone else – my own rules will apply! There are limits to the extent that I can make things up though. Sword fighting is a skill that is used even today, so I need to be careful about how I write out the fighting sequences. A couple of contacts who are familiar with sword fighting assure me that what I've written is pretty good (for an amateur, I’m guessing!)

I've always had a vivid imagination, so in a way, fantasy stuff *is* my field of expertise. All that time daydreaming in school is finally starting to pay off! I doubt I could ever write any other genre with the passion and fervour that fuels me when dealing with fantasy. Painting my inner storyboard into words, connecting the moments of *awesomeness* together in a rising crescendo of interweaving plot lines just doesn't look as cool without swords and magic flying around. Each to his or her own, I guess!

So, if something seems a little weird in my writing, rest assured it’s absolutely supposed to be like that, and is totally not a mistake at all.
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Published on January 30, 2013 04:46 • 130 views • Tags: aielund, fantasy, style

The zen of Steve

Stephen L. Nowland
A random assortment of mostly-coherent ramblings, from a handsomely gutsy writer/artist, with a head full of ideas and too much time on his hands. Warning! Author will write as if nobody is reading, l ...more
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