Jilly: Rocks In My Head

I know it’s a holiday weekend and the sun’s shining, but is anyone up for a quick game of world-building “what if”?

As regular readers of this blog know, I write fantasy. Stories of chivalry, rivalry, power, and love, set in a fantastic pre-industrial landscape. I love my weird, crazy world, but I’m currently working through developmental edits, and after some good discussions with my editor and beta readers (thanks, Jeanne and Kay!) I’m looking for ways to make my stories stronger. In particular, I’d like to find a few well-chosen details to amplify the fantastic feel of my world.

I write a very practical kind of fantasy. My stories have powerful jewels, miraculous golden beans, sinister talking rocks and uncanny, mystical monks, but all my otherworldly elements are solidly rooted in the everyday. I don’t have dragons or spells or magical woo-woo. What I need is to identify ordinary things that would be natural and useful in my world, but which would not be found in a regular historical story. Small details that don’t drive the plot but that would support and enrich the world of jewels, beans, rocks, monks etc.

This week, I think I found something useful hiding in plain sight. Do you know what apotropaic marks are? Me neither. Apparently they’re symbols or patterns scratched into the fabric of a building to keep witches out. They’re most commonly found in places that witches were thought likely to be able to enter a building, such as doors, windows, or chimneys.

I read this week that hundreds of witches’ marks have recently been identified at Creswell Crags, a system of caves in Nottinghamshire. I know those caves. I first went there as a child, around fifty years ago, and I’ve probably seen the marks. They were assumed to be graffiti until recently, when members of a charity called Subterranea Britannica recognized them during a tour of the caves. The marks are intended to keep evil spirits from coming through to earth from the underworld.

Click here to read the BBC report on the Creswell caves and see pictures of the apotropaic marks.

Told you about Creswell Crags to tell you this. In my fantasy world, local legends say the rocks beneath and surrounding the city of Caldermor can move, and talk, and do scary stuff if they get angry. As you might imagine, there’s more to it than that, though only a very few people know the truth behind the legend. I’m thinking that in Caldermor ordinary people would have any number of  superstitions or tricks to protect themselves or propitiate the rocks. Especially (say) the ones on which their homes were built.

Probably they wouldn’t use witches’ marks. If you think a rock might be alive and cranky, the last thing you’d do would be to take your chisel to it 😉 . But I think you’d do something to keep it quiet.

So what people would do to keep the rocks happy, or what other rock-related superstitions might they have? Would they build their houses out of wood or brick? Would they avoid walking over any place where the rocks broke through to the surface? Would they leave offerings at those places, or leave a safe space around them? Would the local women take turns to keep the rocks clean of all debris?

I think I’m on to something, though I’m not sure what. Still cogitating. Any and all (helpful) suggestions would be much appreciated!

21 thoughts on “Jilly: Rocks In My Head

  1. Hmmm, there are a lot of mountain-worship religions, but I don’t think that’s quite the same thing.

    A few things popped into mind. One, I really don’t think they’d use them to make foundation stones with, if they thought they were living. There’d be strong superstitions against that, I would think, although, of course, some “modern” people would ignore the old superstitions.

    The Standing Rock Lore (like you find in Pratchett) may apply. Men may cut the grass around them, while women decorate with flowers, or wash the stones with water or wine. There may be dancing involved. There may be porn . . . er, fertility rituals. (And I think that’s hilarious — if the ancient peoples were REALLY providing porn to the gods, instead of hoping for fertility.)

    Some rocks are quite musical when struck by other stones. Hitting the rocks with a stone and singing?

    How about painting the rocks with sigils? Or knitting them some sort of net with sigils in it? Or building sheds over them to shelter them from the elements? None of this is going to last as long as the rocks themselves, but maybe that’s part of the story. Maybe people are forgetting the old ways, and letting the rocks wake up?

    Oh, you might have people gild the rocks or offer them beautifully wrought rocks products (like jewels, or gold, or silver, or bronze . . . anything mineral, really). Mica would also chip well, and could be formed into glittering “robes”.

    Offerings could also include sand paintings. (The mineral theme.)

    Sounds like things are shaping up well! How exciting!

    • Some great food for thought here, Michaeline, thank you! I think these rocks may turn out to be treasure, not so much for the first book (that’s set in a neighboring country, not Caldermor) but definitely for the rest of the series. I’m thinking rocks would crop up in all kinds of ways–oaths and pithy saws, imagery, names–people, places, maybe food on feast days, definitely as part of…um, fertility rituals. So many possibilities 🙂

      Yes, things are shaping up well! It’s such a big story I’ll probably be working away at it for years, but I hope and expect to publish the first book, The Seeds of Power, later this year. Fingers crossed. Am trying to keep my nose to the grindstone and not get too excited. Watch this space in the summer, after RWA!

    • I’ve been to the ringing rocks in Pennsylvania with my sister. You bring a hammer and hit the rocks and they make a beautiful ringing sound. I’m sure if you searched YouTube, you’d find something. Perhaps that’s what people do to see whether the rock gods are happy? Singing = happy. No singing (just a “thwack”) means angry?

      • Ooh! Win! I just spent a happy hour noodling around the internet and have learned that Ringing Rocks are a Thing. As well as Pennsylvania, they are to be found a handful of other places–Montana, the UK, Australia, Mexico. Nobody knows exactly what makes them ring. Only some of the rocks do it. And if you put one in your pocket and take it away, it won’t ring any more. SO much good material to choose from I feel like somebody just handed me a box of Belgian chocolates.

        Singing rock emoticon 😀

        Thank you, Justine!

      • That sounds so cool! There’s a British Museum video (maybe several) about musical rocks. In this one, they had a professional drummer play around with the rock and add his insights. Fascinating stuff!

        When the rock has been played for decades/centuries, you can tell where the “good” sound is by the shape of the rock, and where it is worn by the other instrument.

  2. Just checking: The rocks are either quiet or grouchy, right? They don’t have other emotions or personality quirks. They can’t be made helpful and jolly or do you a favor, so they won’t rain down on your enemies even if you ask nicely, for example. All you can do is keep them quiet. Like Michaeline, I think that they like music. They like to be sung to, and they like the sound of a harp. I think if you could have happy rocks, they would welcome being built into the foundation of a house, providing shelter and keeping people and themselves warm. But I don’t see your rocks as falling into that profile.

    When I read Alexis, I liked the concept that the rocks were alive and enemies of your protagonist(s), and the apotropaic marks would support that. But I have to confess that among all alive things, I don’t see rocks functioning well as a constant, significant part of the story arc because characters have to spend so much time appeasing them since they’re more or less one-note wonders. They played a big part in Alexis, but now what? Where do you go from there?

    If you’re looking for other magical elements found in the natural world besides rocks, I vote for trees. They tie in with Christal, the cultivator, and they tie in with Alexis, who can so thoroughly hide in one that she’s invisible to the outside world. Also, they sway and bend; they grow; they can shelter, hide, and protect you; many people say that they can hear them cry if they’re cut down; they bleed if they’re slashed; they’re a food source; and so on. I think you could add trees. They could even have apotropaic marks.

    Now that I’ve finished my comment, I see how negative it is. I don’t mean to be negative; I’m just not sure enough about your overall story arc to see how those rocks can fit in, generally speaking.

    Good luck and happy writing, Jilly! Any time you want me to omit a major character from one of your books, just let me know. 🙂

    • Thank you for playing along, Kay, and thank you again for pushing me to think hard about the choices I’m making. I don’t think you’re being negative.

      Not sure whether this makes a difference to your comments, but I’m not after major plot points here–my rocks do their thing, and I’m happy with that. I’m not trying to amp up their contribution to the story. I’m trying to find a few small details that would seem likely and natural and instinctive to characters in a world where the local folklore is dominated by the idea of living rocks. Oaths or names or small pieces of superstition that you’d expect to find in that world. Like Icelandic culture (say) is heavily influenced by the idea of elves in nature, even today. I read recently that somewhere in Iceland they wanted to build a new road but a rock formation that was said to be an elf church was in the way, so the road building ministry carefully relocated the elf church rock before they built the road. I don’t think the people in the ministry really believe in elves, but all the same they spent time and money to move that elf-church, they didn’t just run a bulldozer through it. That kind of idea.

      • Ah, I see. Yeah, that makes sense. Then I definitely think your characters should stroll through the boulder-dotted hills singing and strumming a harp. Or maybe, if a harp is too big and heavy, a harmonica. And then the rocks in vexation or despair or fury will not throw themselves down the mountain and crush the villagers.

  3. Apropos of nothing you talked about here, I read an article in The Atlantic about dentistry (and it’s terrifying lack of evidence based treatment therapies) and they talked about the precursors to modern dentists:

    “Itinerant dentists moved from town to town by carriage with carts of dreaded tools in tow, temporarily setting up shop in a tavern or town square. They yanked teeth or bored into them with hand drills, filling cavities with mercury, tin, gold, or molten lead(!). For anesthetic, they used arsenic, nutgalls, mustard seed, leeches.”

    Now there’s a spot where a little medicinal magic would come in handy.

    In the 1700’s, they used something called a “dental key”–the writer described it a “a chimera of a hook, a hammer and forceps.”

    It seems to me that some foolhardy military type might try to create a weapon to go to work against the rocks that would be much like that dental key. And might try to add in some elan for good measure, with disastrous results.

    (I’ll think more about your rock quandary. Which makes me think of “rock quarry” and what that might mean in a world of living rocks…)

    • Yikes to the dentistry info. Typing one-handed, with the other over my mouth. Any more thoughts about my rocky quandary, I’d love to hear ’em. I can tell you for sure there is absolutely no quarrying in Caldermor 😉

      • One of the things we talked about after I read The Seeds of Power was that I’d like to have a better sense of the larger world around Caldermor and Larroch. Perhaps the further you get from Caldermor, the more that mining/quarrying occurs. Also, jewels play a large part in your stories. Those had to have been minded from somewhere. Or maybe in your world they’re laid, like eggs?

    • Also thinking of Lord of Scoundrels, when Jessica says that getting Dain into the marital bed was more difficult than getting Bertie to the tooth-drawers. I thought that was funny before, but I’ll laugh even harder next time I read it. Love Loretta Chase!

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