Your Questions Answered, Part 2: General Biotechnology

Hi, everyone! Today I have Part 2 of a genetics/biotechnology/general life science post for you. You can check out Part 1 here. Again, thanks to H. Halverstadt for asking these fantastic questions! Let’s get right to it:

How do you think CRISPR and the gene drive will change the future of genetic engineering?

I am of the opinion that CRISPR is one of the most revolutionary advances in biotechnology of our time. The precision with which genes can be edited due to the specificity of the system is just incredible. I would certainly predict that its popularity (with scientists, not necessarily with the general public, especially the uninformed) will soar in the future, although at least for a short time, “conventional” genetic engineering will still be practiced. But given public outcry about GMOs (even if not warranted—a topic for another time), the ability to improve an organism without bringing in genes from another organism could be more popular and, indeed, simply easier, with fewer steps required.

The gene drive is more specific; I think it has a lot fewer potential applications than CRISPR. Whereas CRISPR can be used with most any current genetic engineering application, I really can’t think of an application for the gene drive that is really different from its current uses, combating insect-vector diseases and pesticide/herbicide resistance. They might try to tackle antibiotic resistance with it next, but I don’t think it will have broad-based applications after that. I would predict that CRISPR will be by far the more influential technique in future.

What gradual, irreversible changes to the human genome might happen?

My best idea is that, according to the principles of natural selection, any beneficial-to-survival changes made to a majority of people by genetic engineering (and propagated through the germ line) could eventually become fixed in the population. I’m going to stop there, since I don’t have quite the human or population genetics knowledge to go on.

Can you see cells from certain people being in high demand? What kind of people?

This is a very interesting question. First, instead of cells, I think we’d be talking about DNA sequences; why bother taking the whole cell if you can get just the DNA you want? I also assume here that the question is asking about acquiring copies of someone else’s DNA for non-gene-therapy genetic enhancement. In this case, I expect that genes from athletic people (there are some known genes related to athleticism—I know of one specific case in which a certain allele of one gene is associated with endurance running) and intelligent people (if such genes could be identified—to my knowledge there are none currently) might be popular for making “designer babies” and so forth.

What laws do you think might be passed to regulate genetic engineering?

I’m not as knowledgeable about the legal side of biotech, but currently, I know labeling laws for GMO foods are a big deal. A quick search revealed to me that GMOs are put through testing processes by a few federal agencies before being put on the market to determine their safety. It’s conceivable that a law prohibiting non-gene-therapy engineering of humans could be passed, although presumably not in the kind of society most sci-fi/dystopian writers who read this will be interested in. Besides that, I apologize, but I can’t come up with much.

Is inter-species gene editing something that is possible for humans?

Technically, yes. Ethically, it’s complicated. Personally, I don’t see this as acceptable, but I’m sure some bioethicist out there could make the case that improving human welfare by adding nonhuman genes would be worth the (hypothetical) cost in our humanity.  (A technical note: this seems to me to be less gene editing, and more transgenic expression. Gene editing is messing with a gene that’s already there; transgenics are organisms containing genes from other species.)

Do you see genetic engineering ever being something smart high school students can do in their kitchen?

Absolutely. In fact, this kind of thing is happening today among a DIY biologist or “biohacker” movement that believes science shouldn’t be for academia alone. So far, though, they’re not that scary; national and worldwide organizations like DIY Bio (https://diybio.org/) have been good about organizing events regarding safety and bioethics. It’s not being done to humans, or even vertebrate animals as far as I can tell; there are still too many ethical issues in that area. But yes, as long as you can afford the reagents and equipment, you can genetically engineer a plant or a (nonpathogenic) microbe. I believe even CRISPR is currently accessible for DIY biologists (though it costs about $500—I’m sure the price will go down as it becomes an established part of biotech).

If inter-species gene editing is possible for humans, how about humans and a different category of animals, like birds? 

Again, absolutely; you could put a plant gene in a human cell if you wanted, or vice versa. And I’ve read about glow-in-the-dark animals being created by expressing a jellyfish gene.

Please comment on the feasibility of these fantastical forms of genetic engineering. Winged humans, mermaids, elves, centaurs, giants, dwarves, humans able to breathe lower oxygen air. Do you think any other traits would bleed through? (Like for example, if winged humans had eagle genes, would they have other eagle traits as well?)

First, let me say that “dwarves” already exist; we know them as “midgets.” There are a variety fo forms of dwarfism, some dominant, some recessive, but none require genetic engineering. By “elves” I assume you mean basically humans with pointed ears. I expect this would most easily be done surgically.

As for “giants,” height is an extremely complex trait. It is quantitative, meaning that it follows a bell-curve distribution in the population, and there are currently thought to be about 700 genes that influence it. So engineering really tall people could be possible, but I suspect it would be inefficient in the incredible amount of effort it would take. Here is my source (http://time.com/4655634/genetics-height-tall-short/) for that, and I recommend you look up more detailed information on that trait if it’s something you’re interested in using in your story. I just don’t know enough about it to be of much help.

The others would be difficult, but theoretically doable in the far future given a masterful understanding of cellular physiology and probably lots of trial and error. For the humans with animal parts (winged, merpeople, centaurs), geneticists would need an almost perfectly complete understanding of development, which, once again, is incredibly complicated and controlled by many, many genes. It is possible that cells could be induced (“programmed”) to differentiate in such a way as to generate animal limbs on a human body, or to replace human limbs with animal ones, but this would also likely require detailed knowledge of the role of epigenetics in development, and complete knowledge of both human and animal development, which would simply take a very long time to achieve. And even then, it’s completely possible that scientists assembling and applying all this knowledge could miss something essential and make some terrible mistakes. Not to mention all the trial and error—what if a limb grew in the wrong place? etc. So, possible, but not probable to begin with, and would need to be masterfully executed.

The “bleeding through” of other traits mentioned in this question is, I would say, almost certainly not realistic. Giving someone wings will not automatically give them, say, sharp eyesight; that would be controlled by other genes (as well as environmental factors). It makes for interesting fiction, but as far as I know, there is no scientific basis for it.

As for the last one on the list, the pertinent process is cellular respiration. You would need to somehow increase the efficiency of this (again) complex process, which is only 39% efficient at capturing the energy in glucose into ATP (look up the basics of the process). I will say tentatively that this could be one of the more feasible things on this list, if only because cellular respiration is already fairly well understood (i.e. it’s not one of the great mysteries of our time) and preliminary studies could be carried out with bacterial or yeast cultures before progressing to human and mouse cultures, mouse trials, and finally human trials.

Here, to make a long answer longer, I want to make a general note about the approval process for human studies. I feel that the “evil scientist does unethical experiments on humans” trope is both overused and inaccurate. Every university, as far as I know, has an Institutional Review Board (IRB) that convenes solely for the purpose of evaluating and approving human-subject studies. This applies not only to clinical trials, but to interviews and surveys in psychology studies, and even to education studies that take class data and use it for research. Even if there is no perceptible risk at all, researchers are absolutely required to provide the subjects with knowledge about risks, so that they can be informed when they sign the form they must sign (even for a harmless survey!). This applies very much more to genetic engineering and so forth. Under this system, it’s very difficult to conduct an unethical study regarding human subjects, and unless social mores shifted in the future, it’s conceivable that the system will stay like this, making it difficult for any of these ideas to get off the ground, due to possible unforeseen consequences of the alterations.

If yes for the above, would reversal be possible, not just for the offspring but for the person in question? For example, if a winged human wanted to be a regular human again, would she be able to be one after extensive surgery and gene therapy?

I would say yes, although it’s completely a guess since I’m not a medical expert. The gene therapy might not even be necessary; though the genes might still be in the rest of her body, if they weren’t being expressed, she could be a “normal” human with nonhuman DNA, as long as her wings were removed. My bet is that the removal could be done with a surgical procedure (albeit complicated, probably, to remove the whole wing skeletal structure).

 

 

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Your Questions Answered, Part 1: Biomedical

Hey, everyone! A couple weeks ago, I put out a call for questions from writers about sci-fi genetics things. Genetics and biotechnology are becoming really popular in science fiction, going right along with the scientific revolution they’re currently undergoing, and as a genetics major, I really like to see these topics accurately portrayed in fiction. Thank you so much to Victoria Howell and H. Halverstadt for asking these questions!

Is it possible in the future that a compound could be invented to speed up healing of all tissues?

The short answer is: anything’s possible, right? Actually, tissue regeneration, which is kind of similar to this question, is becoming a big thing; I knew someone once who was applying to a tissue regeneration master’s program at Brown University. As this article explains, though, speed healing is a tradeoff for accuracy in rebuilding tissues (the article also has some other great thoughts about regeneration, more than I can tell you, if anyone’s interested).

How do you think people in the future would respond physiologically to bacterial and viral infections?

I would say essentially the same way they do today, and presumably the same way they’ve been responding for thousands of years. Evolution (or adaptation, if you prefer) is a really slow process. It’s very difficult to imagine that, even in a thousand years, humans will have evolved something radically different from the current immune system; think of the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” (But if a really aggressive disease swept through and wiped out everyone who couldn’t cope with it . . . who knows?)

In a society where human genetic engineering is commonplace, how do you think sickness would be affected? What kind of diseases can’t be eradicated by genetic engineering or vaccines?

This is a difficult question. In theory, humans could master the incredibly complex immune system and ramp it up somehow by genetic engineering, but that’s a far-off possibility. I don’t think genetic engineering would impact infectious diseases so much as terminal illnesses, and certainly genetic diseases. (Sure, if someone had a genetic predisposition to an infectious disease, someone could use gene therapy to reduce their risk of that disease, but I’ve actually never heard of a case like that.)

As far as eradication, some kinds of diseases are easier to eradicate than others. Smallpox was a good candidate for eradication for a couple reasons: 1) it has no animal vector (i.e. doesn’t spend part of its life cycle in an animal or an insect somewhere, which makes diseases very difficult to control—think malaria), and 2) when you’ve had smallpox once, you don’t get it again. Anything that doesn’t fit these criteria (which is a lot of diseases!) is difficult to eradicate, although the gene drive is being tested against malaria and other mosquito-vector diseases (see this post). Any kind of parasite (think tapeworm) could probably be eradicated with good living conditions (you don’t hear about Americans getting parasitic worms, do you? But they’re all over third-world countries). So bottom line, it’s hard to say, but it really depends on the kind of disease, what resources are available, and how much time is available to develop those resources.

What are the possibilities of a pandemic happening?

So a “pandemic” is defined as a disease outbreak that becomes prevalent over an entire country or internationally. This actually has happened and will probably happen again; H1N1 (swine flu), Ebola, HIV, and (I believe) Zika all count as pandemics. What I think this question is actually getting at is the probability of a world-decimating pandemic, and that’s hard for me to say with my limited medical knowledge. My guess is that it could happen, and if it did, it would devastate third-world countries with few public health efforts first, and unless it was an extraordinarily fast-spreading pathogen, advanced countries like the US would have plenty of time to prepare vaccines and minimize cases.

Cyber limbs are becoming more common every day. What limitations might someone with cyber technology face?

This is really more a computer science thing, as far as I can tell, but I’ll do my best to give thoughts from the biology side—just take everything I say here with a grain of salt. J So my guess is that cyber limbs would require some kind of wiring into the brain, for starters, and that would require some really tough, non-rustable wires (they would have to be metal coated in nontoxic plastic or something). Also, the body often rejects foreign objects, like nonsimilar organ transplants, as being “nonself,” causing the immune system to go on full attack mode and eventually making the person very sick. I expect this would happen with cyber technology as well. (I’ve actually heard of research projects dealing with the difficulty of creating bioadhesives compatible with the body, for transplants and what have you.) So my guess is most of the problems would be during the implantation phase.

Do you see new disease mutations happening to replace any that are eradicated? What kind of diseases do you think they would be, and how do you think people in this future world would physiologically respond to them?

To the first part of the question, I say absolutely. Disease organisms, like all organisms, mutate all the time. To give some background information, the average error rate per DNA replication cycle (which is all the mutation rate is, really) is one error per 106-108 nucleotide base pairs. That’s one error per 1 million-100 million bases, which is pretty low, really, but when you consider how large the genome is, and how many copies of the genome are present in multicellular organisms, it’s staggering. Taking the 100 million number for the human body, 37.2 trillion cells in the body, and a genome of about 3 billion bases, that comes out to about 1.1 quadrillion mutations in the human body every cell cycle, which is staggering! The moral of the story is, mutations happen in every organism, all the time, so yes, new disease mutations could certainly happen, whether in bacteria, viruses, or fungi.

With regards to human disease response physiology, humans aren’t exactly my specialty, but I expect it would be much the same as today. Evolution is a really slow process, unless humans sped it up by somehow engineering themselves with better immune systems, which is theoretically possible, but I’ve heard the immune system is so complex that I doubt this would be feasible without a technological breakthrough similar to that of next-generation sequencing (which revolutionized genetics and actually created the whole new field of genomics).

How do you think aging would be affected by genetic engineering and advanced medicine?

This is an intriguing and highly relevant question. Aging is one of the great scientific mysteries of our time, and as you can imagine, there are many scientists out there who are devoted to conquering it. To give some background, there are several current hypotheses about how aging happens. First, and perhaps most prevalently, the telomere theory: telomeres are the ends of our chromosomes, which shorten with each successive DNA replication. There is an enzyme called telomerase which re-lengthens them, but eventually, as we age, our telomeres shorten further and further, and the theory is that this contributes to the decline of our cells as we age. (This hypothesis is supported by the fact that cancer cells’ and germ-line cells’ telomeres don’t shrink at all.) Another hypothesis is called “antagonistic pleiotropy,” the idea of mutations accumulating in body cells (see above question), eventually reaching a detrimental level. Of course, one’s environment also plays into aging; people who eat healthy and so forth “age better” than those who don’t.

With that very long background discussion, we can get to some of my educated guesses. Perhaps humans would be able to engineer some kind of hyperactive telomerase to prevent the degradation of telomeres, or an extra-corrective DNA polymerase that could go back and fix its mistakes at a higher rate than normal DNA pol. And it might eventually be considered a form of gene therapy to go back and “fix” a person’s aged genes and try to make them younger again (although it’s a long shot that this would work, in my opinion). Environmental factors, of course, can always be improved; good diets, for example, might become more prevalent in the future.

***

That’s it for me today!

What do you think? Does this apply to any of your writing? Have you thought about these questions before? Do you have any follow-up questions? (I might not be able to answer them all, but I’ll give it my best shot!) Tell me in the comments!

The Science of Storytelling: Guest Post by Olivia Hofer

Anna here! As it’s a five-Saturday month, today I have a wonderful treat for you: a guest post about story psychology and neurology by Olivia Hofer, who blogs at Story Matters. I’ll be back next week with another science post, but for now, let’s all read what Olivia has to say!

Those of us who read know the wonder of stories. They transport us to places and times and cultures and customs beyond our own, so vivid we can hear and touch and taste them. They transform us into people we are not, drawing on our common human traits to allow us to feel things we’ve never felt before. They enable us to experience, in a sense, things that can be understood only through experience, so that we may both make sense of the world for our own sakes and empathize with others who have undergone trials we haven’t. It’s magic.

It’s also science.

Let’s look at a few of the ways fiction demonstrably impacts us — and what that means to writers.

Increased empathy

Empathy — the ability to understand and feel the emotions of another — is an essential social skill, and arguably one of the major factors that distinguishes human beings from other creatures. And fiction has the capacity to nourish that ability.

According to studies, literary fiction in particular develops emotional literacy. Rich with subtext and nuance, it forces us to try our minds and sort out for ourselves what various characters are thinking and feeling. With so much unsaid, we must fill in the blanks. It’s a bit of an emotional logic puzzle.

And perhaps because of this, when researchers tested one thousand participants in theory of mind, by asking them to identify the emotions of strangers based solely on photos of eyes, those with greater familiarity with literary works scored higher than those exposed primarily to genre fiction. Previous studies measured the theory of mind of participants who read either a literary or genre fiction excerpt. Those who were given the literary sample were better able to read others’ emotions afterward.

Genre fiction, in its defense, has virtues in its own right. Studies suggest that reading books such as the Harry Potter series may alter attitudes toward marginalized people groups. The potential for societal impact is enormous.

As we write, we should consider the value of subtlety, and the impact that our portrayal of different groups might have. The power of fiction, on the individual and the societal level, cannot be overestimated. We as storytellers have a unique potential for influence. Let us use it wisely.

Further reading:

Literary fiction readers understand others’ emotions better, study finds

“Did you feel as if you hated people?”: emotional literacy through fiction

Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy

The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice

Sensory and motor activation

Spanish researchers found that when participants read words associated with distinct scents—like the Spanish words for coffee and perfume—they showed activity in the primary olfactory cortex that didn’t occur when they read “neutral” words such as the term for chair. In another study, reading metaphors that drew tactile analogies—phrases like “velvet voice” and “leathery hands”—activated the sensory cortex. This didn’t happen when the participants read descriptions such as “pleasing voice” and “strong hands”, which didn’t evoke tactile imagery.

And something similar happens as we read about the characters’ exploits. The motor regions of the brain that we use when performing physical activities and observing others’ movement are also activated when we read about characters doing the same things.

It seems there really is science behind “show, don’t tell”. Evocative imagery immerses readers in the storyworld.

Further reading:

Metaphors activate sensory areas of brain

The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction

Neurological changes

And these effects may last well after we close the cover. One study found that reading the thriller Pompeii by Robert Harris heightened connectivity in language and sensory motor regions of the brain that remained hours after reading assigned passages and at least five days after finishing the book. The researchers believe the changes may last much longer, especially when we’ve read one of our favorite novels.

Our writing will likely stay with our readers, consciously or subconsciously, for some time to come. Consider the emotional as well as the thematic takeaways you hope to impart to your readers.

Further reading:

A novel look at how stories may change the brain

And that’s not to mention the stress relief reading provides, as well as the enormous impact it has on young minds.

Stories, it would seem, are entwined with our very human nature. At last we are beginning to understand how they so move us. And if these are the effects we can see, how much greater those yet unseen?

Thank you, Olivia, for that wonderful post! It was absolutely fascinating. What do you think of these impacts of storytelling? Did you know about any of them beforehand? Does this change how you think about writing? Share in the comments (and be sure to thank Olivia)!

What’s in a Name? How Linguistics Helps Your Story World–Guest Post by Brennan D.K. Corrigan

Good morning, friends! Anna here. July is a fifth-Saturday month, and you know what that means: an extra-special Fifth Saturday Post here on The Story Scientist. Today, I have a guest post by my good friend, author and conlanger (if you don’t know what that means, read on to find out) Brennan D.K. Corrigan. Enjoy!

Asengae! Num Perènen Koringgan noth, neh num jaenoryu Anno rinaafal naysiÿenafe (iÿenafe anaysa ja) vana šathu. Rikunind šef hato ngeleoval!

            Hello! I am Brennan Corrigan, and I am writing this article for my friend Anna as her conlanger (creator of languages). Many thanks to her for this honor!

What is written and translated above is in the Toriqayse language, which I created for the serial Nations of Tiynalta. Linguistics has been a passion of mine for six years, and in that time I have studied Spanish, Latin, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Quechua, Esperanto, Korean, Klingon, Na’vi, and Trigedasleng. My novel, Winter’s Corruption, features several of my constructed languages. I am also the conlanger for Anna’s novels.

As much as I love language, and as much as I would love to see an immense, full-grammar, thousand-word-dictionary conlang in every speculative fiction work, I have to respect that this isn’t always possible or necessary. Many people only need some suitably foreign-sounding names to differentiate aliens and elves from the average Joe. But what makes a language sound foreign? Just as importantly, what makes that foreignness consistent and realistic? It comes down to three principles of linguistics. What you need to know are phonology, phonotactics, and Romanization.

Phonology: What sounds are you using?

Every language has a unique set of sounds that sets it apart from any other. Certainly, common sounds overlap between languages, but others are more specific, giving that language a special auditory “flavor.”

Adding and subtracting sounds from your English inventory is a good way to make a foreign phonology. English lacks any front rounded vowels, but German does have two, written as ü and ö. Welsh has several consonants that are foreign to English, such as the alveolar lateral fricative, written as ll, and a trilled r. Removing English consonants is just as important as adding foreign ones. English’s th sounds, as in thin and this, are extremely rare in other languages, which is why many foreign accents change them to z or s. Without having practiced them for their whole lives, foreigners easily mispronounce them.

How, though, to choose which sounds should stay or go? As it turns out, linguists have been very careful to classify every sound that the human mouth can make into a handy chart, the International Phonetic Alphabet. Every consonant and vowel has a neat little place on the table, which describes how exactly your mouth pronounces it. (These descriptions are the names used above to describe ü, ö, and ll. Don’t worry about them immediately; that will come as you get familiar with the table.) The easiest realistic way to add or subtract consonants is to take out particular rows or columns, for example, the voiced plosives, or the labial consonants. (N.B.: In natural languages, the voiced consonants hardly ever occur unless their unvoiced partners are also there.) With vowels, I go for a small number (5-6) that are far away from each other on the table, so no two get confused with each other. The table may look very foreign to begin with, but type “IPA for English” (or any other language) into Google and some nice pronunciation guides will come up.

Phonotactics: Where are you using that sound?

Every language has rules that govern where sounds can appear inside syllables. English would never have names like Nguyen (Vietnamese), Mbanta (Igbo), or Tsuda (Japanese), because English doesn’t allow those consonants or consonant clusters to be at the beginning of a syllable. However, any of those clusters could come at the end of an English syllable. Play around with the beginnings and endings of your syllables, and find clusters that you like that aren’t native to English. Or, go the other way: Restrict the creation of syllables so that English’s clusters aren’t possible in your language.

Romanization: How do you spell it?

The big difference for conlangs between written and spoken media is the fact that in writing, every word has to be seen and spelled out. Thus, I take time to make sure my spellings look really, really cool… but not without some restrictions.

First, your spellings should be regular. Each sound should be spelled the same way everywhere, because if your readers do end up trying to pronounce your names, you should be kind to them. English’s radical and unpredictable spellings are the product of thousands of years of history, and unless you want to map out every historical spelling change for your fictional world, go easy on the reader.

Second, be careful with accent marks. I love the exotic look of them as much as the next conlanger, but they must have purpose. Otherwise, they’re just a fancy-looking distraction. Do some research into accent marks that you think look cool, in order to learn why they’re there.

As with accent marks, research digraphs or trigraphs that you think will make an aesthetic impact on your work. I personally love the Welsh and Old English systems for representing consonants. I learned about them so recently that they have yet to be added to any new conlang, but soon they will be!

Conclusion: Have Fun With It!

 Conlanging is a big, amazing pool of linguistics fun madness obsession general nerdery stuff, and this article is only the very shallow end. Okay, maybe more of an ocean. There are big syntax whales down there somewhere. Whatever it is, I hope this introduction has given you a good starting point. Ašetyuves tilariy na! (Good travels!)

Thank you so much, Brennan, for posting here today! Well, readers, what do you think? Have you ever invented names, or even a full-blown language? Do you think you might in the future? Do you have any questions for Brennan? (If so, I will relay them to him and try to get them answered as soon as possible for you!) Tell me (and Brennan, haha, he’ll probably be watching this) in the comments!

Welcome to My World

Good morning! I bring to you today a rather enigmatically titled post, which turns out to be about a major part of my life: my current work-in-progress. I say that it’s a major part of my life because I have been working on it in various forms for roughly seven and a half years, and because its characters quite simply will not leave me alone. They are always in my head, and I love them a great deal.

But I digress.

Since I have been working on this thing so long, there is a lot to talk about. Lots of room for rambling.

Bear with me here.

I digress . . . again. I suppose I should begin with what the story is about. Then we can get to characters and storyworld and other fun things like that.

The Story

Sixteen-year-old Crow has lived alone in the forest ever since he escaped from slavery. When, while evading capture, he runs into a strange girl named Mirage Windsong and she turns out to be his long-lost twin sister, his control over his life suddenly vanishes. He is swept into a quest for the family he never knew he had, and he and Mirage must find them before war breaks out or their mysterious enemy hunts them down. And Crow must decide what freedom and family mean to him.

This is a YA fantasy novel (something between epic and sword-and-sorcery), just to give you an idea of the genre. It is set in another world, which we’ll get to under “setting” below.

The Characters

Crow--face, intense look. Hair needs to be flatter and darker. :): Mirage--hair, eyebrows, facial structure to some extent:

Krina: Kela (when he gets a little older)--face, hair color, hair length:

These are my four point-of-view characters. The Windsong twins, Mirage and Crow, are on top. They meet Krina and Kelastër (Kela for short), who are below (left to right). (By the way, I really need to find better pictures for Crow and Kela. The ones I put in are really not even close, and it’s driving me nuts. Just realize those are rough images.)

Crow is the main character and my favorite. He and Mirage were separated at the age of four (I will say no more here–that would be giving away spoilers), and he ended up as a slave. When he was ten, he suffered an injury that left an ugly red scar down his right cheek and onto his torso. At sixteen, he still has nightmares and doesn’t like to talk about it. He is an introvert who gets along best by himself, so it’s a bit of a shock to his system when other people come along.

Physically, Crow is around five and a half feet tall (he grows later on), with black hair (flatter than the picture!) and gray eyes. He’s very tough and strong from having to survive on his own. And I could probably ramble much longer about him, but for the sake of keeping this post from becoming a behemoth, I will stop here.

You may recognize Mirage from her Beautiful People post last month. For those who don’t know, she is a changeling and mërnevna (enchanter) and basically a genius. She lives in a hut in the woods with her elderly mentor, and while she loves him, she longs to go out and see the world and its many libraries. She prizes intelligence and knowledge, and tends to roll her eyes at people who think changelings were exterminated 400 years ago.

Mirage looks much like her brother, but her hair is curly and she has blue eyes instead of gray. She is initially slightly taller than him, but this changes with time. She also has various powers that he does not, such as shooting lighting out the tips of her fingers and shapeshifting into different animals. Another fun fact about the twins is that they are telepathic with each other, which makes it really interesting to watch them talk.

Krina is a farmer’s daughter from a country village. She was the fifth girl in a family with six children, so when she was young, her father sent her to be “adopted” into a smaller family that needed a woman. She has missed her real family all her life, though she doesn’t remember them well, and she secretly dreads an arranged marriage to her master’s son. She doesn’t really have friends, so she talks to God a lot. Her private dream is to be a healer or a midwife; she is very caring and loves helping people.

Krina is a little shorter than five and a half feet. As in the picture, she has wavy blonde hair and blue eyes. She attracts the attentions of a lot of boys in the village and might (or might not. . . .) end up being a love interest in the book.

Kela is . . . where do I begin? To flip my character descriptions up to now in reverse, he has bright red hair and blue eyes, and is in fact a member of a red-haired race. He is a fisherman’s apprentice in a coastal village, but having been abused by his master, he runs away at the beginning of the book. He loves to play the fiddle and sing at festivals, and he’s afraid of heights, which is fitting, since he’s barely more than five feet tall. He also talks a lot (a lot), and spouts witty comments left and right, both of which drive his companions insane. I can always count on him for comic relief. (Can you tell I love him, too?)

These are the four principal characters for the first book. There are many and various others, but the ones described above are the most important, and, I think, the only ones I need to post about for now.

The Setting

I wish I had a decent map to show you all. Unfortunately, the current version is covered in numbers because of the lack of space for writing the names of duchies and lordships. (If a bunch of people comment wanting to see the map, I shall try to put it up in this post.)

As I mentioned earlier, my book is set in a fantasy world. The continent is called Terylia. (The whole world used to be called Terylia, but I changed that when I realized that the characters in my country hadn’t explored their whole world, or even their whole continent. The southeast part of the continent is the world to them.) The country in which the first book takes place (did I mention this is a four-book series? Probably not. It’s a four-book series) is called Rāianor, and it is based loosely off medieval Europe. It has five borders, four with other countries and one, the longest, with the sea to the south. Some of the significant landmarks for my story are the D’ormien River, the Sālāki Kevenār (a large and largely unexplored forest), the Riāsan (a smaller, more tropical forest to the north), and the Selfir River (which runs within the Riāsan). Some important cities are Selfir, which sits on the hot springs near the headwaters of the Selfir River, and Ryneli, the capital and seat of government.

That was a very long paragraph. Hopefully you didn’t find it too abstract. (As I said, I can try to post the map if people want, but it has no labels, so it probably wouldn’t be too helpful.)

There are also a number of important and interesting countries that surround Rāianor. Fyliārn (or Falarnkh in its own language), to the north, is the most important for the first book because its people are the ones invading Rāianor. Jezmia (Jezamh), to the east, is the country where Crow was enslaved for much of his life. Dāiamir, to the west, used to rule the entire area before its empire broke up. Due in part to its large size, it still suffers copious amounts of civil unrest. It is populated entirely by red-haired people (this is the red-haired race I was talking about earlier). And I think I will leave everywhere else for another time.

Writing Progress

This is my longest- and steadiest-running writing project. I pick up other books, drop them, and come back to this one. I’ve been working on it since I was eleven, in one form or another. I have ripped it apart and stitched it back together with a new plot so many times I can’t even count.

Fortunately, I have finally reached the point where I am working on the second draft with the same plot lines (though I am still very much a character-driven writer and have numerous issues with the current plot which still need to be resolved). I am trying to edit it into a sort of polished form by next January. So, yeah, that’s my progress.

Well, I guess that wraps up this very long-winded post! Whew. Tell me, did you enjoy reading about my work-in-progress? Would you like to see a map? What is your current work-in-progress? Have you ever worked on one project for seven years or longer, or are you better at finishing quickly than I am?

Thanks for reading!