Building a World? This May Help!

Background photo created by bedneyimages – www.freepik.com

I’ve been at work on the Ungifted series since early 2018. In that time Sneakthief has gone through four drafts (I’m on the fifth) and I have three drafts of Turncoat and lots of ideas for the next two books. But one thing I’d never done was organize all my thoughts about the world. I’d never really built it.

In a sense, I felt like I was discovering a lot as I went, which is kind of the hallmark of a pantser, and I make no secret that I’m a pantser to the highest degree. That worked for general plot, and for the characters, as I got to know them, but didn’t work so well for actually building my world and making it a unique place. The problem I found was that I couldn’t settle on an organizational system.

I have friends who swear by Scrivener. I tried Scriv, and its free counterpart Y Writer, when I was using a primarily Windows-based PC laptop. I just couldn’t seem to figure it out, or make it work for me the way I needed it to. I have friends to use Excel or Google Sheets (and my husband swears by Excel. You could say he excels at it. I’ll see myself out). I got a small binder with dividers and pages, and tried organizing it that way. Helpful, but still not what I needed. Maybe I’d just keep it all in my head and hope for the best.

I was fortunate to receive some amazing beta feedback that told me exactly what I needed to hear, and why it was important to not try to keep track of it all in my head. Around the same time I was fortunate to be getting Facebook ads for Scribe Forge’s Essential Worldbuilding Blueprint and Workbook.

The Essential Worldbuilding Blueprint and Workbook was exactly what I needed to answer the questions my beta reader had posed and the advice they’d given me. The first section of the book discusses the different elements of worlds and worldbuilding, and things that must be considered when doing so. It’s structured to work for most speculative genres, including high fantasy, sci-fi, and urban fantasy. It covers everything from how to develop a planet, down to the legal systems of your world. And the best part is, you can pick and choose what works for you. What do you need to develop?

This is where part two comes in: an extensive collection of worksheets that ask the questions I didn’t even consider, or thought might have obvious answers, but didn’t. Again, you can use the worksheets that you need for your particular project. I spent quite a bit of time going through the worksheet section and filling in the gaps of my world, down to means of production, travel, and trade. And again, the aim of the worksheets isn’t for you to complete everything, but to do what you need for your project.

“But Jay, if you did the worksheets, aren’t you going to have to buy a whole other book when your next project comes up?”

Scribe Forge offers the hard copy book, or digital download, or a combo of the two. In this way you have the ability to work with fresh worksheets for new projects. I personally need to physically write stuff out, and I don’t have printer capabilities right now, so having the book was really helpful. But, I have the digital copy in case I want to find a way to print up fresh sheets. I’m a fan of options, and I’m glad that Scribe Forge had them! Additionally, there was a disclaimer that it could take up to 4-6 weeks to ship, however I think I had my hard copy in a week and a half or so. The digital piece was ready at the time of purchase, however, which was great!

Overall, for me, building my world required having the right tools, and it took me some time to figure out what that meant. In the end, it took Scribe Forge’s product to help me organize the information my beta reader recommended I include. It may not be for everyone, but if you’ve been working on worldbuilding and struggling with where to start, or finding a system to organize your thoughts or even force you to dig deeper into your world, I’d recommend this.

This post is not sponsored by Scribe Forge in any way; I have just really enjoyed using their product and felt it to be extremely helpful, and want to pass on why it’s worked for me.

Beyond the Odyssey: Reviewing the Fate of Atlantis DLC

When I finished Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey’s main quests, I was still very much enjoying the game and thus it made sense to move right into the DLCs. The Fate of Atlantis DLC is a huge expansion that takes place over three mythological realms and expands beyond the main story in ways that focus more on the mythology of the ancient world. This opens up the game for new opportunities and designs. The rest of this post will contain spoilers for the DLC so this is your warning!

This is your last chance….

Okay! So. The Judgment of Atlantis DLC is broken into three parts, and all three are quite large with plenty to do. The overall story is that Kassandra (or Alexios, but I played as Kassandra) must learn to harness the power of the Staff of Hermes Trismegistus and achieve your destiny as the Staff’s Keeper. In order to do that, Kassandra must venture through Elysium, Tartaros, and finally the lost city of Atlantis.

The first arc is the Fields of Elysium. Kassandra must ride through paradise: a perfect world overseen by Persephone, who rules with ironclad order. In Elysium not a blade of grass is out of place, and all is perfectly well.

The screenshots took themselves.

But… all is not well. Hermes pines for Persephone, who detests her husband, Hades (I think the internet has spoiled me with the trope of Persephone and Hades actually loving each other and caring deeply for each other). Persephone also longs for Adonis, a human who is trapped in Elysium and is planning a rebellion against Persephone. While the scenery was beautiful, I wasn’t really taken by the story. I wasn’t entirely sure whose side I should be on, if anyone’s; I found the missions kind of tedious, and the world of Elysium, though beautiful, dull to play in. In all fairness, the week I was playing it was really hot and I had fans going all the time, plus the Smol Human redoubled his efforts to cling to me at all times, so I wasn’t paying as close attention as I could or should have. It was interesting enough, but not particularly gripping. I think the best part was riding my sparkly rainbow-trailing unicorn through the fields and taking screenshots! I did appreciate that, unlike the main game, Elysium as a realm had to be created, rather than recreated. I love the attention to detail in the AC games, but really appreciated what they did to create a version of a mythological realm.

A different Afterlife requires a different horse.

The Torment of Hades was the middle chapter of this DLC, and really, I felt, the strongest and most interesting. Now, when I was teaching and had mythology classes, they enjoyed the afterlife unit quite a bit, and especially the bits about Tartarus and Dante’s Inferno. And really, in The Divine Comedy, Inferno is the most interesting bit, so it made sense that the Torment of Hades was such an interesting game experience.

For starters, story-wise it played a lot more emotional than Fields of Elysium. Fields of Elysium had a great sequence with Kassandra and her grandfather and I appreciated that, but it didn’t pack the emotional punch that Torment of Hades did. Torment of Hades had several quests and characters that had me near tears (I admit I get emotional pretty easily anyway). But there were sequences with Phoibe and Brasidas, and one section called the Cradle of the Underworld that just gutted me as a mother. Kassandra experienced regret, and myself through her based on the choices I’d had her make throughout the game.

Restless Nekropolis. Appropriate name is appropriate.

Level design also shone here. The Pits of Tartaros were suitably creepy and haunting, and Hades’s reign of chaos was made evident through the constant gloomy gloaming that made up the realm of the dead. Sections varied from the fiery pits of punishment you’d expect, to night-dark temples of dead kings. Here also we had the gods, tricky as always. Charon the ferryman was harried and darkly humorous. Hades was a contrast to his surroundings: rather than being chaotic and ugly, he was smooth with finely crafted features and a silky, almost musical voice. The fight against Hades was challenging until I picked up on his attack patterns. Medusa still remains the most difficult fight in the game so far in my experience.

Persephone was methodically precise; Hades was tricky and smug. The third segment of the DLC, the Judgment of Atlantis, introduces Poseidon as the ruler of Atlantis. This segment brings in more of the fantastic lore of the AC series, painting the Greek Pantheon as the Isu: technologically advanced beings who left behind remnants of their society, which Assassins and Templars now fight over in order to control or liberate humanity. In this case the monsters of mythology are Isu experiments gone wrong, which makes for a nice way to blend the game’s myth with Greco-Roman myth. In terms of design, Elysium and Tartaros are much what we’d expect from the Greek mythological influence, but the designers for the game had a lot of fun with the lost city of Atlantis.

In this installment, Kassandra is tasked by Poseidon to preside over Atlantis as a dikastes, or judge. At first I found the missions kind of dull and wasn’t really sure what was at stake. Poseidon’s sons rule different areas of the city and fight with one another and with their lovers and the humans they rule. Atlantis is unique in this case because it is where humans and Isu coexist. It’s a technological marvel, full of scientific research and advances, but it’s far from perfect.

One of the key elements of this installment’s story is the idea of hubris, or reaching for more than one should; it’s confidence transcended to arrogance, and takes many forms. Once I got further in the story and started doing more than just making judgments for fighting families, the insidiousness below Atlantis’s gleaming surface came out. In trying to make Atlantis perfect, Poseidon has ignored what goes on, and how his decrees are disregarded. Humans are disappearing and being used as lab rats by Isu researchers. And when all is said and done, it’s up to Kassandra, as dikastes, to determine if the gods have gone too far.

Of all three areas, Atlantis had the most liberty for design, and the level is a mix of technological advancement with clean, angular architecture in bright white, gold, and soft aquas that evoke the feeling of the sea realm without being expressly nautical. It’s layout is orderly, its aesthetic clean and linear and bright. When the true horrors of what’s going on come to light, it’s a nice contrast to the overall level design.

Overall I enjoyed the DLC and it brought a nice element to the more historical and reality-based main game. As a former mythology teacher, I really enjoyed playing through and seeing these versions of the Greco-Roman afterlife, the gods, and the myths of Atlantis. Fields of Elysium was definitely the weakest installment, and not a great opener in my opinion, but still creative, and I liked the lead-in to the next installments. Each segment had new things to learn to keep the gameplay fresh and interesting. The enemies provided good, suitable fights and challenges, to the point that going back to the world of the main game feels a little too easy now… well, until I tried taking on a level 75 mercenary. That put me in my place!

I still have Lost Tales of Greece I can play, as well as the other paid DLC, so I’m not finished exploring Kassandra’s world. Until I get to that though, check out my gallery of in-game screenshots here! Thanks, and chaire!

Musings of a Little Woman

I’ve read a lot of books in my life. I’ve had to–I was an English major, an English teacher, and now I’m an adjunct professor. Plus, I just enjoy reading! Of course there are a lot of books I haven’t read, which isn’t surprising; but there are some books I haven’t read that surprise people, given my background. “What do you mean, you’ve never read The Great Gatsby?” they ask in shock. I just… never had to. It was never on the syllabi for any classes I took, and I never taught it. Maybe I’ll give it a go next year, the whole 2020 thing and all. But another such book is Little Women.

This one tended to surprise people; I’m also a New Englander born and raised not far from the heart of early American literature and the cradle of Transcendentalism. “J, you’d love Jo!” they told me. “It’s so good! Didn’t you at least see the movie?” I didn’t doubt it, and no, I hadn’t. And I hadn’t given it much thought until a series of events that may or may not involve Timothee Chalamet *ahem* led me to decide to read it this year.

Columbia/Sony

With the official trailer dropping yesterday, it got me thinking about my experiences reading the book earlier this year. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and maybe not for the reasons I would have if I’d read it when I was younger. I was closing in on 40 when I read it for the first time, and I’m actually glad I hadn’t read it before then!

My experiences have shaped me; the people I’ve known, the things I’ve done, the choices I’ve made, all have molded me into who I am now. If I’d approached Little Women when I was younger, I wouldn’t have appreciated the different characters the way did this time. I went into the book expecting to like Jo: stubborn, willful, determined, a writer who doesn’t like to be told what to do. She reminded me of me; my very first library day as a child, some little girl told me I couldn’t take out a book about dinosaurs, because “those are boy books”. I took out that book, and every other dinosaur book I could find every library day thereafter–mostly out of interest, and partly out of spite.

But the more I read of the other sisters, I saw other parts of myself. While I initially viewed Meg as the responsible and dutiful eldest sister, trying to set a good example and sometimes quashing Jo’s free spirit, I realized that yes, she’s the eldest. She has a natural sense of duty, but that’s tempered by her occasional dreams of finer things that lead her to sometimes make poor choices. She’s able to grow from those times. Also, I saw a lot of myself in Meg’s struggles as a wife and new mother. She wants to do right by her husband and make a cozy home, but she still struggles and gets overwhelmed. She loves her family and the life she’s made, but she still gets tired and struggles. I mean, she ended up with twins, so yeah–I struggle with my one (who has the energy of two!). I don’t think I’d have appreciated Meg’s story arc had I read it earlier in my life.

While I definitely identified with Meg and Jo, I didn’t think I would identify with Amy at all; she’s young, and I spent a lot of the early part of the book more annoyed with her and reading her arcs quickly so I could move back to Jo and Meg. However, overall I appreciated her growth the most; I think she shows the most out of them, though I would say that’s because she starts off so much younger and has a lot of room for it, while Meg and Jo are older and working and pretty set in what they want out of life. When I think back on reading Amy’s storyline, it’s more than just her growth and maturation that makes her character great: it’s the fact that she doesn’t settle. She tries, because she thinks it’s what she should do, but realizes that she wants more, from then on doesn’t settle.

Which of course brings me to Laurie. Laurie holds his own really well with the sisters, and they each have a unique relationship with him. He needled Meg like a younger brother, and appreciated Beth’s gentle ways. And of course there’s his ill-fated love for Jo, and initially, I was upset when she turned him down. They were perfect for each other! Both intelligent, energetic, headstrong… and then because they were so much alike it made sense that it would never work out. Which was why I was pleasantly surprised to find myself rooting for Laurie and Amy! Amy won’t settle; Laurie is prone to a good fit of pique every so often, and she’s quick to call him out on it. I think because she always saw Laurie as ending up with Jo, she felt she had nothing to lose by being honest with him. And because he hadn’t ever considered her romantically, he had no pretenses around Amy. As a result, their relationship builds organically, and it becomes a really lovely partnership. His proposal in the boat, where they agree to row through life together, was simple and beautiful, and it makes for a great metaphor for their relationship.

Columbia/Sony

What strikes me the most about the sisters and the way Alcott writes about them is that they each have a unique pathway and make their own choices, and Alcott doesn’t promote one over the other. Jo’s headstrong determination to become published isn’t any worthier than Meg’s desire to marry and start a family. Amy’s ambitions as an artist aren’t silly, and Beth’s generosity and compassion and empathy are strengths; she’s not a martyr or a tragic figure or cautionary tale–she’s Beth, who loves everyone and wants to help. No one sister is any better than the other, and all choices suit them all just right. In the trailer Meg tells Jo, “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” I feel like that’s the overall theme of Little Women: everyone has different dreams, and those differences don’t invalidate the dreams.

I don’t think I’d have appreciated this as much as I do now, if I’d read the book or seen the movie when I was younger. I think I’d have focused so much on Jo, because, at that age, that’s who I was. And before that, maybe I’d have seen more to identify with in Amy. And now, I see both, but also Meg, and even Marmee. Marmee is #goals–she doesn’t judge, she knows when to stand back and let her daughters figure it out, but when to step forward and let them know she’s still there for them. And I don’t think I’d have seen that about Marmee without being older and a parent myself, figuring out when to back off and let the Smol Human explore and experiment, and when to swoop in and make it all better.

I learned a lot from Little Women. I’m glad I finally read it, but glad it took me so long. Perhaps this fall I’ll take a trip down to the Alcott House; I’ll definitely be seeing the movie (with box of tissues in hand) over the holidays, and who knows: maybe eventually I’ll read Alcott’s other works. I do know that the March sisters and their lessons won’t be leaving me any time soon, and for that, I’m glad.

A Journey Like No Other: A Review of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Journeying through the ancient world

So, I’m close to a year late to the party. But I picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey last October, after being absolutely enthralled with the trailers at 2018’s E3. I hadn’t played any other AC games, though I liked the premise and the historical settings. But the trailer for this one promised branching dialog choices, a huge open world, and the chance to explore ancient Greece. In my former life as an English teacher, I taught mythology for 11 of my 12 years, so the chance to move all over the ancient world fascinated me.

I did pick the game up when it dropped… so why am I only writing about it 10 months later? The biggest reason is life: I’m a toddler mom, which keeps things interesting to say the least! Also, that fall I had two classes I was teaching in addition to my full time job. And I was writing, obsessively revising Sneakthief and drafting Turncoat (I’m still revising and drafting the latter). And I also played through Dishonored yet again (went through a no-fatalities run, yay!) and then Assassin’s Creed: Unity this spring. I’ll probably review that one later, because I liked it a lot!

But lately it’s been all Odyssey, all the time, and I don’t mind that one bit!

This is the first game to ever make me seasick. That was a new one.

I chose to play as Kassandra, and I like her voice acting and her personality. She’s tough but compassionate; she makes tough decisions and fights tough battles. She’s a lover and a fighter on a quest to find herself as well as her destiny. There are many NPCs throughout her world to befriend, or to woo. While the romances are often pretty surface-level, I chalk it up to my experiences playing BioWare romances, so I didn’t mind too much. Kassandra has had many lovers; sometimes it’s any port in a storm (Alkibiades, I’m looking at you), and sometimes it’s genuine, mutual respect and affection (ah, Roxana, you fierce fighter).

Many of the other characters are interesting as well, and sailing around Greece meeting some of the Big Names of the ancient world was fun. Herodotus joins in and Sokrates lends a hand. Kassandra’s search for her mother, brother, and father is at times heartbreaking, and at other times frustrating. I felt like I lucked out with the dialog choices I made, and was able to get the “good” ending for Kassandra and her family; my best friend got a different outcome, and she said it was hideously underwhelming, to the point she isn’t interested in progressing any further in the game.

Certainly there is some unfinished business of the emotional sort with all of that, even if you do get the good ending. I don’t think that’s necessarily a shortcoming of the game, it’s just something that isn’t dealt with and something I’ve found in the other choice-heavy games I’ve played. And that, friends, is what fanfiction is for. But more on that later. Ahem.

In terms of gameplay I found it pretty smooth to play and control on the One, especially in comparison to when I played Unity; I was so used to how nicely Odyssey played that Unity felt downright buggy. The fights run the gamut of very easy to super challenging–if you’re not leveled properly and haven’t upgraded your gear. Then those fights are just challenging, but once you figure out the pattern of the attacks then it’s just patience. I think the toughest fight in the game was the Medusa fight; I tried her when I was a few levels below, and got my backside kicked. Hard. When I went back appropriately leveled and upgraded it took a few tries, but then I found her pattern and just settled in for the long haul. In some games discovering the patterns and repetition can make things dull, but in this case it’s helpful and the fight can still be a challenge. Patience is a virtue, and is rewarded.

The game story overall is vast and interconnecting, and brings in the intricacies of politics; as a misthios, or mercenary, Kassandra is often tasked with doing the dirty work. There are many ways to accomplish this, including diplomacy or just the old-fashioned high body count. It also brings in mythology (to us in the present), which I enjoyed. In the main game the mythological appearances are peppered in carefully for effect, and used well. I’m in the DLCs now, and those make excellent use of the ancient Greek pantheon, but I’ll review those separately later on. Suffice to say, just part one is HUGE.

One reason that I haven’t written a review since finishing the main game was… well, I wasn’t sure exactly when I’d finished, and that may be my biggest gripe with the game. And then, I think it’s because I like resolution. I’m a storyteller; I like stories and I like the happy ending, but happy in the sense of being resolved. I finished one major arc, and it was kind of a downer–like, I fought all those cultists for… what? That one felt really unresolved, and still kind of irks me. The other plot arc I know continues in the DLCs, which is fine… but there was no sense of it being completed. It lead right into the prologue-ish mission to tempt you into buying the DLC (I see what you did with that, Ubisoft!), but even after completing that there was no sense that I was done. It was kind of like when I finished Skyrim the first time. I beat Alduin, I won the civil war, I ruled every faction… now what?

This isn’t a metaphor for the gameplay. I just liked the shot.

I know there are other Lost Tales of Greece to play through and more DLC to get, and then the My Stories mode to try out, but as for the main game I felt unresolved. I’m not sure what I wanted to see; I mean, the credits? Something to show me it was over? I got the New Game+ option a lot earlier on, well before either of the main arcs was completed, which was odd to me as well.

That aside, I love this game; the pacing is good, the characters are fun, and the world is lush and beautiful and a joy to explore! I love the option to take screenshots and save them. I love how even the seas are populated with life… and death. My Kassandra has sunk ships and swam with dolphins and whales. She’s explored shipwrecks and hidden grottoes. On land she’s climbed mountains, cleared ruins, and galloped across fields of flowers in one moment, and charred and bloody battlegrounds the next. The experience is wondrous, and I’ve enjoyed traversing the ancient world. I think I need to add Greece to my travel list for the future. I always did want to go, particularly where I taught mythology as long as I did, but now, seeing the reenvisioned ancient world in this game, I really need to go.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is absolutely worth what I paid for it, given the sheer amount of things to do in the main game alone. I think I had close to 100 hours logged in the main game, and that’s only ticking upwards with the DLC missions. The game is rich and well developed, and definitely worth your time, especially if you love open world games and making choices that will shape the future of the world.

Okay, that last part is a little dramatic. But this game will take you on a journey that you will enjoy. In the words of Kassandra, χαίρε: chaire.

Review: The Firebird

The Firebird

The Firebird by Nerine Dorman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


When it comes to worldbuilding original fantasy, it often takes a sprawling narrative covering a few hundred pages and usually multiple volumes for the world to come alive. The Firebird is able to convey a fully realized fantasy world in the span of a novella. Much of that is owed to the author’s tightly controlled prose and heavy reliance on grounding the reader in the setting. The use of first person narration helps with this, as Lada, the narrator, shares her experiences and feelings within the setting in a way that feels organic and natural, and not at all contrived or bordering on monotonous telling. The setting provides a perfect stage for character and theme to shine. Good, evil, betrayal, and forgiveness are at the center of this story, and the emotions are immediate and raw. The plot is deceptively simple, because the complexity of character and emotion are truly the focus of this book.

This was a quick read, but not at all disappointing–the precision storytelling makes this not only a study in the craft, but also packs a powerful punch.



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