Everything you don’t know is a mystery. You know that, of course, but seldom do we consider the mystery that exists in the commonplace. No matter your genre, it’s a powerful force and shouldn’t be ignored. This, again, isn’t huge news, but it requires a shifted perspective to see it. And if we see it?
Ah, the possibilities.
Mystery is about discovery and epitomizes “show, don’t tell.” It’s also about having restraint, especially if you write fantasy and have spent years working on your world. Now you’re writing and you’re brimming with knowledge others don’t possess. You’re ready to burst. You can barely contain that knowledge for the first chapter, page, or paragraph. Sweat is pouring off your brow and threatening to short-out your keyboard.
Don’t do it.
Don’t spill your worldly knowledge in an epic monologue that would leave Shakespeare weeping, not because it’s epic, but because it’s boring for the reader. Don’t squander the power your knowledge controls. Don’t let inherent mystery become the spark that dies rather then the slow burn that heats the reader’s curiosity.
This week I’m addressing history (not including a character’s backstory).
History is a mystery looking for a place to happen. It whispers. It moves with ghostly stealth. It hides in old tomes, ancient artifacts, and crumbling structures. Often it’s tied to location, for they work well together, but often it’s more abstract. Perhaps when you think of Ancient Greece you think of the Parthenon, or the Acropolis, or Athens, but the knowledge, art, and myths the period left us aren’t contained in one place.
This week I’ll showcase three brief examples from my fantasy writing (that are difficult to share without creating spoilers). Each scene shares a reference to Ringland Dremm, the man who led the ill-fated rebellion against the government and the Ministry of Magic. While Asbray, the old college located in northern Hartise, is a common focal point in two scenes, it isn’t mentioned in one.
The first example is from Last Word Before Dying, the online story that I’m editing for publication as a free ebook. Tiding Veils is relating his life’s story to his secretary, Shayleen Rilden…
“Eventually Dremm visited the infirmary. He was tall, had red hair that caught your eye, and was built like a mammoth. And when he walked into the room I had the desire to retrieve my blade and ride with him to Transgamete to take on the King.”
“Later, in 4145, he took men north to Asbray.”
“My apologies, Shayleen; I forgot your age. In the days before King Credulus and the Ministry when magic was legal there were colleges for those possessing the gift, possessing magic. Not for wizards, mind you, but for the senses like healers or, as in Asbray’s case, sirens, those possessing the gift of song. Anyway, he took men there to work on the college.”
“So they rebuilt it?”
“That’s my assumption. The truth is, Asbray represented magic and arty pursuits, which interested me little when Thain had ale and women.” Still writing, she noted his deep inhale. “I never saw any of those who accompanied Dremm again.”
Like Shayleen, the reader learns a little more about Dremm, the war, and magic. There are a few answers here, but also questions. Why was Dremm so inspirational? What happened to those at Asbray?
In Where Light Devours, my novel in the editing stage (too much editing!), the topic is raised again. Early in the story Ergain is talked into a meeting in a Baris tavern with a visiting Keeper leader (the Keepers oppose the government and the Ministry)…
He lowered his voice further. “Not only do you know the right people, but you’re also respected. As for your, well, uh…I’ve seen wizards heal worse—”
“You must be desperate indeed, Paran. I’m but a slight woman who transports messages. Ringland Dremm, on the other hand, was a tall, broad-shouldered man who commanded respect. People listened to him, followed him willingly.”
“It’s long been rumored Dremm possessed magic.” His conspiratorial tone, meant as bait, instead elicited a raised brow that signaled her impatience. “Well, besides, Dremm is long dead and I need someone from his generation.”
“His gen…?” Already choking on his words, Ergain choked on her own as her hand strayed to her face before she could suppress the act. Although his twenty-year miscalculation was understandable given her appearance, she still cringed, for she’d thought such vanity buried. “The, uh, fear of partials remains,” was her weak substitution. She diverted her eyes.
Again, another rumor concerning Dremm, the man’s legacy having become, in part, a means to frighten, inspire, or entice. Though a larger-than-life leader, for those recalling his memory many years later his life is more conjecture and rumor than facts.
Later, accompanied by a man who delights and irritates her with his historical knowledge, Ergain passes within sight of Asbray…
He responded with a casual shrug and brought Eyyse to a halt where the road’s left fork wound through the trees heading southwest. “The diversion for Asbray…”
Ergain spurred Doppla to a break in the trees where she stood in the saddle. “I can see it,” she called out, her rushed words climbing louder than intended. “A long building…”
“Asbray Hall. It spans the Brook of Song.”
“I don’t understand…it appears undamaged.” She returned herself to the saddle and looked at him. “You don’t appear surprised?”
“There’ve been rumors that Dremm rebuilt the college during the Ministry’s War. Some also claim there was fighting here at the end.”
“Really?” She glanced southwest again where a towering cliff formed a backdrop for the college.
“There are whispers that deadly ghosts haunt the campus. That, coupled with the possibility the Ministry watches the college, are good reasons to stay away.”
“I still don’t understand…” Ergain looked back at the seer. “Why rebuild the College for Sirens?”
He leaned on the pommel. “It’s difficult to say. The past is often rife with vague, confusing, and contradictory facts that often aren’t facts at all. Many swear Dremm never shed his wildness while others insist he became a determined leader.”
The cool mountain air wound around Ergain’s neck and down her spine. She shivered and hurried Doppla ahead. “I wish only to quicken our pace. There’s nothing good here and I want to return home.”
H’m, so now we have possible ghosts and a man who was either a leader or a drunk, and why rebuild a college when a rebellion hung in the balance? Ergain’s traveling companion is right, history “is often rife with vague, confusing, and contradictory facts that often aren’t facts at all.” Living history isn’t contained in a date. Instead, it’s in that tree someone planted, in that old tower, and in that mountain.
You don’t know about them because what you don’t know is a mystery.
It’s important to note that these tidbits about Dremm don’t arise in these stories for the lone reason that they’re fun to plant, but because they constitute a long arc that spans several books. Like similar arcs it wouldn’t be an arc at all if I’d waited until a later book and then spilled his entire past all at once.
That’s the difference between imparting world building facts and storytelling.