<![CDATA[The Voyages of the Merry Mariner | Free Illustrated Online Adventure Fantasy Stories for Kids - Captain\'s Log]]>Sun, 21 Feb 2016 04:00:42 -0700EditMySite<![CDATA[New story, new book, new . . . ethnicities?]]>Sat, 14 Nov 2015 10:56:55 GMThttp://www.themerrymariner.com/captains-log/new-story-new-book-new-ethnicitiesThe latest Merry Mariner adventure, Mamma Troubles the Trolls, is finally finished! It's the shortest short story yet, taking place in the fantastic canal-city of Poort Van Winkle, and features an amphibious motor-car, breadclogs (freshly baked footwear) and, of course, a troll.

​Read it for free on the site right now!
However . . . are you tired of reading these things off your various screens and computing devices? Wouldn't you prefer the granular, tactile sensation of real ink printed on real paper held in your real hands? 

The Merry Mariner stories feel they should be read on print, and printed books have always been the endgame for me concerning the final, full-length stories which I'm working up to. But for these short tales I always just assumed I'd publish them online for free and that would be that. However, I realized it would be nice to have a printed book of the stories done so far, if for no other reason than as a prototype. A PDF and online site doesn't really get across what I'm going for. A real, printed book? That's something else.

So I made this:
Using Amazon's CreateSpace service, I designed and self-published the first three stories. They're not available on Amazon, and I'm not selling them for a profit. As I said, they're prototypes. I intend to give them to friends and family, potential agents or publishers, and most importantly, to kids! I need their feedback, and they need to read an actual book, not a PDF off an iPad. It's just not the same otherwise.

If you're reading this and thinking, "gee, I'd like to get my hands on that pretty book," then by all means order yourself up a copy right here:

​I put the price a low as it would possibly go, $3, which means I don't make anything off the books - but if you know some kids that might enjoy stories of adventure and fantasy aboard a windmill-ship, it's worth it to me. Hook 'em early, that's what I say!

Now, if you looked closely at the cover above, or at the site's main page, or at the banner above every page on this site, you might have noticed that Verona Wicklow is no longer the pasty-white-skinned girl she used to be.
In fact, the whole family looks a lot less caucasian and a lot more multi-culti:
Basically, here's what happened.

I was trying to think of ways in which the Merry Mariner stories, for promotional and marketing purposes, were different than other stories of the same genre. In other words, why would someone pick the Merry Mariner off the bookshelf as opposed to any other book? Adventure-fantasy? Not particularly unique. A traveling family? Closer, but again, not particularly "different." In fact, the whole adventure-fantasy-serial-starring-world-traveling-family thing has already been done with the Wild Thornberrys!

What if I changed something drastic? It was worth a thought experiment. I started trying to think of ways to upend the current formula. Which fundamental aspects of the stories were I willing to change, or at least look at differently? The windmill-ship? That stays. The title? Could be catchier. Do they have to be white?


This, honestly, had always tugged at the back of my mind. Why does the family Wicklow have to be all-white? Originally, it was because Verona and her four siblings were based (very) loosely on my own mother and her four brothers, who grew up in County Wicklow, Ireland. The Wicklow family then naturally hail from the Seven Seas' Ireland-equivalent, the Foglands. It just seemed natural.

But do they have to be white?

This got me thinking more about something that's bothered me for a long time. White is the default, especially in kids' stories. Tintin, Captain Haddock and their compatriots are all white, except again for a friend here or there that is either untrustworthy or must constantly be rescued. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Famous Five - all white. Sure, these are all old-fashioned examples, but even the main cast of Harry Potter are all pure pasty British white, save for a few side characters in the periphery. The kids in the Magic Treehouse, even the Wild Thornberrys - all white, unless specifically written otherwise. White is the default, and that kind of sucks.

Why should the family Wicklow be white? Is it only whites that get to travel the world in big, fanciful ships? Is it only whites that get to explore an alternate-fantasy 1900s-era globe, visiting new and strange places and people? The family Wicklow didn't have to be all-white. There were a number of good reasons I could think of as to why I should change their ethnicity, but the main one was that maybe, if this series became successful, I could contribute to the next generation of kids caring just a tiny bit less about the color of someone's skin. 

And once I had that thought, I couldn't very well go back, could I?

Going back to an all-white Wicklow family means making the conscious decision to paint them white, and were there any good reasons to do that? There were lots of terrible reasons, such as avoiding the label of being overly politically correct (who cares? That's not what this is about), or that most if not all of the great 19th-century explorers were white (yes, and windmill-ships are also unrealistic), or that the Wicklows had already spent so much time in my head as a white family that it would change the way I thought about them (good! Isn't the point to prove that it doesn't matter?).

I decided that changing it was for the best. As a friend of mine pointed out, most people would probably either be happy about it or not care at all, and those that did care about it enough to refuse to do business with me were obviously not the kind of people I wanted hanging around anyway.

So you'll notice I've gone through and changed their skin color on the site and in the illustrations for all the stories. I decided to have the kids be half-half. Fritz and Felix stayed white for two reasons - first, kids in mixed-ethnic families often have a dramatic variation in skin tones, so they don't all need to be "middle brown." Second, I'm toying with the idea that the twins were adopted (specifically, dropped out of an airplane during a hurricane. But that's another story). Of the parents, I decided it should be Pappa who is black (or dark brown - it's not really important whether he's "African" or "Indian" or "Caribbean." He's still from the Foglands), not just because if Mamma were black she'd be your classic borderline-racist Mammy stereotype, but because Pappa was already such a distinct character in my head - bumbling, absent-minded professor type - that I didn't risk changing the way he talked or acted based on some latent, subconscious prejudice I might be carrying around in the back of my head. That would defy the whole point. Their personalities should stay exactly the same, I love the family Wicklow just the way they are.

I have to admit, this is tough to talk about. I feel like I'm either risking sounding too precious and politically correct, affirmative-actioning my characters just so they'll be more popular, or that by speaking openly about racial prejudice I'm somehow opening myself up to accusations of racism or reverse-racism or some other nonsense.

In the end, I didn't solve the problem I set out to solve. I don't think having a multi-ethnic family makes the Merry Mariner stories any more marketable, and anyway that's a pretty weak place to market from if my reason for doing it is to demonstrate that skin color isn't important. So a lot as changed, and yet nothing really has changed. And I guess that's the point.

Don't forget to read Mamma Troubles the Trolls! It's got the best illustrations yet. I'm really proud of it.

Until next time,

​M. Ray

<![CDATA[How to Cheat at Drawing]]>Fri, 04 Sep 2015 15:08:16 GMThttp://www.themerrymariner.com/captains-log/how-to-cheat-at-drawingI'm currently in the middle of doing the illustrations for the third short story, Mamma Troubles the Trolls. I ran into a bit of difficulty in that I'm not that good at drawing perspective. Seeing as the story takes place in a fantastical Amsterdam-like city, perspective is gonna be important in showing it off a little bit.

For example, here's the rough sketch for an illustration I wanted to do:
The perspective on the hut itself isn't awful, but it's supposed to be built on the side of a bridge, and curves are infuriatingly difficult to draw at an angle. 

This frustrated me. Isn't there an easier way, short of me spending years training in perspective and curves and drawing bridges?!

The answer is...yes, with SketchUp. This is a totally free 3D modeling program that used to be owned and developed by Google (thank you, Google! Please don't be evil). There's an entire warehouse of thousands of downloadable models by people from all over the world (here is their selection of just old bridges), but it's also fairly easy to do your own modeling, especially if what you're doing is simple. I just needed help with the skeleton, the basic lines of the bridge and hut, and I could fill in the rest. 

I whipped this up in no time flat:
Before I continue, I should admit that this kind of feels like cheating to me. I don't know why, but I always figured that tracing or drawing from life was somehow "faking" it. I kind of assumed it was off-limits. I've made this silly assumption for a really long time.

When I started doing Merry Mariner drawings, in particular the characters, I realized I had a hard time getting human poses and proportions to look right. You can tell from early illustrations of mine that the people didn't have any kind of skeleton underneath them:
Even though I penciled first and then inked over these, they're not any more impressive than a rough sketch. That's because the characters are missing a skeleton underneath, they've no armature "holding" them up. That's a fine style if that's what you're going for (a sketchy style is what made Quentin Blake famous), but I wanted something more grounded for the Merry Mariner. I wanted the characters and places to feel just a little bit more real.

So I decided I had to study poses and armatures. I did page after page of sketches, just copying figures out of magazines and online photos, trying to pin down their skeletons. Nothing complicated - just a head, torso, hips, arms, hands, legs and feet. It's amazing how expressive such simple stick figures can be.
After that, I applied these skeletons to the family Wicklow. Suddenly, imbued with an armature, they came to life in a whole new way.
I was thrilled learning this not-so-secret secret. Why, by just copying from reality, my cartoons take on new life! What a shock! Since then, all my drawings of people have come directly from real-life reference photos. Usually I'll pose for them myself.
Examples of photo pose references I did for the story Waldo and the Spider's Sting.
I'm very happy with the results. The characters look real, like they're actually inhabiting these drawings. So now, for the first time, I'm taking the idea of armatures to its logical next step, and applying it to scenery.

As you saw above, I used SketchUp to build the scene I wanted to draw. I then literally printed out the 3D image, taped it to the back of a sketchbook page, and traced the important lines. Here's how the sketch turned out, and the final inked drawing below:
As I said, I'm tickled pink by this. It really gives a dimension of life and "realism" to the drawing that would have taken years for me to develop all by myself. Great painters throughout history draw from real-life references. So why can't I do it for my kid's book illustrations?

Now I'm applying this in all sorts of ways. Here's another example.

This is a sketch for another drawing from the same story, Mamma Troubles the Trolls:
I got so bored halfway through I couldn't even finish it. It's so flat and uninteresting. But as I said, perspective is not my strong point, and this is a shop. It's going to have all kinds of counters and shelves and things, so doing it right off the top of my head is not an option - not if I want to finish this project before I'm 80 years old.

But looking through the various photos I was using for reference, one photo in particular stood out to me.
I started thinking, "now what if..." and before I could feel guilty about it, I started doing it anyway.
Used Photoshop to trace thick lines over the photo.
The lines without the photo.
Lines printed out and taped to the sketch sheet.
Lines traced.
Final inked illustration.
Now that is a much more interesting drawing! All thanks to perspective, and to ripping off a photograph.

Keep in mind - it's not a total cheat. If I didn't know and understand a lot of things about perspective, I'd never be able to turn that photo into a new, unique drawing. I'm still relying heavily on decades of doodling and drawing experience to get to be able to rip off the photograph in a way that makes it my own.

If you're wondering why I didn't just print out the photograph and trace directly on that, it's because I didn't think the photo would be easy enough to see through the sketch page. I did the thick black lines so I could see them more easily. I could have used tracing paper, but for this drawing I wanted the warm, soothing texture of real paper. 

On the next drawing, I solved this double-tracing inefficiency. Here's the scene I built in SketchUp:
Lot of dark grays in that image. I knew I wasn't going to be able to see through a thick sheet of sketchpad paper to all the little the nuances I needed to see. 

Usually for this sort of thing artists use this wonderful contraption:
Photo from www.skullandbonesskateboards.com
It's called a light box, and it's made specifically for this purpose. They're very easy to build yourself, but I just needed a quick sketch. I didn't want to spend all day making a light box. I was pretty sure I could accomplish the same thing with what I had in the room. 

I was right! Turns out all I needed was two chairs, a picture frame, and a desk lamp:
The picture was taken out of the frame and I drew directly on the glass.
The printed-out 3D scene is taped to the back of the page - as you can see, it's quite clear. The fuzziness disappears when you push down on the paper.
...three poses to help me draw the characters (yes, I draw in my underwear)...
The final inked illustration.
So there you have it - my way of cheating at drawing. It still takes a lot of work - each of these drawings took between six and eight hours from sketch to final scan and shading in photoshop (you'll have to wait to read the story to see the final, final illustrations!) - but it's a great shortcut, and I'm always a fan of shortcuts when they help accomplish your goal. My goal is to have all the drawings for Mamma Troubles the Trolls done in the next two weeks.

Until next time, keep drawing!

- M. Ray
<![CDATA[Building the World Pt. II . . . and New Story]]>Tue, 18 Aug 2015 03:22:20 GMThttp://www.themerrymariner.com/captains-log/building-the-world-pt-ii-and-new-storyI didn't think there was going to be a Part Two to my post about building the world of the Seven Seas. I thought the world was pretty much built. I just had to fill it in with cultures and peoples and cities and such, which I'd do as I went along writing the stories themselves.

But there was always something that bugged me about the original Seven Seas map of the Merry Mariner world:
Map of the Sevens Seas | The Merry Mariner
(Click to enlarge)
Where's "North America" and "South America"? It's clear that it's an inverted map of our world, but why only just the half? 

I never really had a good answer for this, but I didn't think it was all that important until some real, actual kids saw the map and asked me this precise question. In that moment, I realized two things: first, kids are smarter than I am, and second, the fact that it was only half a map was distracting. The map needed another hemisphere.

Easier said than done.

The world I'd made was already pretty well laid out - I knew where the rough equivalent to nearly all the real-world countries and cultures were situated, I had my own, personal, fully fleshed-out world map with names of regions, cities, towns, coasts, bays, rivers, mountains, each with their own peoples, cultures, resources and wildlife. All that would have to be re-configured. I had the Seven Seas! Adding the "Americas" would make it Nine Seas, and I'm sorry, but that just doesn't have the same ring to it. Moreover, adding this new hemisphere would require a lot of time, a lot of work, and a lot of energy which could be spent elsewhere - like actually writing stories, perhaps. Is that really worth it?

The final and possibly most important reason why I didn't want to add the "Americas" went back to why I never included them in the first place...and that's because, well, it's because I'm from the Americas. I am an American. The Merry Mariner is supposed to be a series of stories about exploring wild, exotic, far-off lands, not the Chicago suburbs or Route 66. Yes, the Americas also includes the Yukon, the Caribbean and Central and South America, but if I included those, I'd have to also include a Merry Mariner equivalent to the US of A. These stories are written in large part so that I can travel to faraway places; they're about adventure out there. I'm already here! If I wanted to travel in the USA, I'd just walk out my front door. Where's the fantasy in that?

But then...I started mulling. And once I get mulling, it's not easy to get me un-mulled. 

I began to daydream. If I included the "America Seas" in my world map, I could include an Amazon-like rain forest with ancient, towering stone temple-towers and cities of gold overgrown with man-eating vines and quicksand traps. I might explore the Caribbean, with floating coconut pirate fortresses, mysterious Easter Island-ish giant stone people and poisonous lagoon sharks. I could even visit a fantastical USA that never existed - I could explore an alternate-universe Wild West with lawless towns built into the sides of humungous saguaro cacti, gold miners blasting through rivers with dynamite and New Orleans-esque gambling cities sinking into willowy swamps.
Maybe that wouldn't be so bad after all. 

It would settle the "where's America?" question once and for all, and I'd have a full new hemisphere to explore if I wished. Maybe I didn't want to write a story that took place there - that's fine, too. It would simply be a richer, fuller world, informing the backgrounds of stories to coming, and allowing anyone who set eyes on the full world map to let their imagination roam free.

So I did it. 

First, I updated my personal, detailed map of the Seven Seas - which I only use for my reference, not for public eyes (but you can have a peek at it if you like).
I got to pull apart the world I'd created and reorganize it. It was like spring cleaning. I moved the Mosquito Sea to "South America" (it was always named after the Mosquito Coast in Central America anyway), gave "North America" the obvious New Sea title (get it? New World? Obviously you get it), and began figuring out how the regions would break down. Luckily, "Central America" broke the Monda Nova (New World? Huh? Huh??) landmass into eastern and western halves, so it was no stretch to place the vast, raw wilderness of the Saguaro Desert and the cultured plains and farmlands of West Atlantica on the east (so named for being on the western side of the Atlantic Range which separates the "USA" from "Europe"). I needed a way for the Dragonlands not to crash into Monda Nova in the middle of the "Pacific", so I created the Continental Divide - a humungous, impassible gorge running from north to south, which cuts the cultures off from one another. 

The only thing I really lost, when the dust settled, was Australia as the mysterious "Seventh Sea," an idea I'd dreamed up a while back, that it was an unexplored wilderness, just a rumored sea, perhaps even some kind of afterlife-like paradise. The previous rationale was that the Silk Seas might be counted as one sea or two, and if counted as one, there remained a Seventh to be found. But after adding the New Sea, moving the Mosquito Sea and giving the Ivory Sea to all of "Africa," I was already counting the Silk Seas as one if I wanted there to be Seven Seas in all. So that was that. Perhaps I can recycle this mystery paradise idea somewhere else. And as for Australia, although it's not yet marked above, it's been renamed Antaustrila, and downgraded from a Sea to a mere Giant Lake...but I have some great ideas in store for it.

Yes, it took me a lot of time and energy. But it was also really fun

Next up: to design the simplified, more artistically creative version for the site and future publication. I looked at several old world map designs, and settled on this one, which I like quite a lot:
I tried a variety of styles and ideas, trying at the same time to take the opportunity to improve upon the old design. One of the weaknesses of the original world map is that it's not high enough contrast. While it's obvious that black and white drawings should employ light and shadow to make images pop, I didn't think to apply it to color art, as well - but it does. See for yourself:
Notice how the water and land are basically the same shade of grey, making the overall image muddy. This muddy contrast affects clarity in the color image, even if it's not as obvious. So this is one thing I aimed to fix.

Early on in my experimenting, I stumbled on a style that I really liked:
Clean, pretty, stylish, high-contrast, unique...what more could you ask for? I find it really lovely. 

Sadly, it simply won't do.

This style, with the gradients and color washes, is much more indicative of graphic design from the 1940s and 50s. Adventure serials, Indiana Jones and the like. At least, that's what it makes me think of. The Merry Mariner series is firmly turn of the century - late 1800s to early 1900s, or even older if the need arises. I want the series to feel timeless, not "modern" (even if we're talking about 1950s modern). Lovely as this style is, it just doesn't jive with the fat black Hergé lines and 1900s aesthetic of the rest of the Merry Mariner art. I'll have to save it for some future project (or you can steal it!). 

In the end, this is what I settled upon:

I have to say, I'm quite fond of it. I'm glad I took the time to expand the world. And, I solved the contrast problem.
The map is far from finished--what you see now is simply the grand overview, but it's very much a work in progress. My personal, much more detailed map - the one with cities, towns, etc - has just doubled in size and requires filling in. I need names for the "New Orleans" and "New York / Boston" cities, as well as a nice and detailed history and culture. What does the USA look like in this alternate universe? Is it a land of Paul Bunyans and Johnny Appleseeds? What's south-east of the Mosquito Sea, or north of the Great Smoky River? What's the relationship between Indians and settlers in this world, and should they even be called Indians if there's no India

I've got my work cut out for me. And that suits me just fine.

Check out the World page if you want to get tantalizing descriptions of the new and improved Seven Seas!

In other news, today I published the first two pages of Waldo and the Spider's Sting! Check it out below:

And guess what? The first page is a map! That's always great fun. You might have guessed by now that I like maps.

Waldo and the Spider's Sting will update right here on the site with a new page every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. As with all Merry Mariner stories, it's fully illustrated and guarantees a fantastic good time. And stay tuned until the end - this story is jam-packed with appendices and extras.

'til next time,

M. Ray

<![CDATA[Goodbye PDFs, hello online stories - to Wattpad, Jukepop, WriteOn and beyond!]]>Mon, 08 Jun 2015 12:49:28 GMThttp://www.themerrymariner.com/captains-log/goodbye-pdfs-hello-online-stories-to-wattpad-jukepop-writeon-and-beyondVerona vs. the Doldrums has been published - again! Click here to read the first page now, with new pages released Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays!
Wait . . . what?

If this sounds like some kind of cruel d
éjà vu, you're not mistaken. Yes, Verona vs. the Doldrums was first published over six months ago, in full, as a PDF, right here on this very site. Yes, now it is gone, as is Waldo and the Spider's Sting.

Why the release rerun? The short answer is - because PDFs are terrible.

Now, I love PDFs. They're stable, widely adaptable, and I was able to design them exactly the way I wanted. One thing that drives me nuts about formatting ebooks for Kindles and iPads (and part of the reason why I haven't released these stories for those platforms yet) is that the platforms are fluid. Not only do they have to work on a variety of screen sizes, they allow readers to adjust font size, which does all kinds of wacky things to the way a book looks. As a proud obsessive perfectionist, particularly when it comes to a reader's experience, I hate that my book might look like amateur hour just because of the platform on which it's displayed.

PDFs solved those problems perfectly. It's a flat, uniform layout, close to the old-fashioned bookish aesthetic, yet still available on nearly any device - in theory.

In practice, nobody reads PDFs. At least, not PDFs of children's books.

It surprised me how few visitors to the site actually went through with downloading the stories. Part of that can no doubt be chalked up to the simple fact that very few people actually go through with internet transactions - be they free or not. But after listening to comments by families reading these stories to their kids, every single one said that the PDF format was clumsy and difficult to deal with. It's hard to figure out how to get it to display on your iPad, it's not really readable on a Kindle, and printing it out page by page is certainly possible, but kind of dumb. PDFs are simply not used for this sort of thing. We use PDFs to read instruction manuals and terms of service, not children's books.

Faced with the terrifying prospect of trying once more to format for e-readers, a good friend instead suggested I simply publish the stories as a blog.

At first I scoffed. A blog? How crude! How distastefully modern! These stories are meant to emulate a bygone age, to bring readers into a nostalgic turn of the century. What could I possibly gain by sharing the same medium as tech tips and cookware reviews?

But the more I heard out my wise friend, the more I began to see the light. Blogs can be formatted such that they don't actually look anything like a blog - much like a PDF. It can be viewed on iPads and even mobile phones without trouble, if you're not one for reading off a computer screen. Since it's just another page on the site, one click and you're there - none of this mucking around with Gumroad or Selz and popup windows and multiple clicks and filling out information - no wonder readers didn't actually get to the download part! I can track analytics simply and efficiently, and best of all, I can serialize the content.

Serialized content is one of the keys to success on the internet, for obvious reasons. If visitors to your website find that there is reason to come back, they will come back. And that's exactly what you want. By posting the stories as a blog, I can hook readers with the first page, end on a small cliffhanger, and make them look forward to updates, ideally by signing up for the email newsletter. I can sprinkle in the illustrations right where I want them, and breaking the story up into short, digestible bits might actually make the experience more like that of reading a book, in that you sort of "turn the page" to find out what happens next. Before you know it, you've clicked through to the very end.

But first, I'm releasing bit by bit, on a schedule. And I'm not doing it alone.
Another benefit to publishing the stories as serialized online content is that this is already a proven, successful platform for young people. Two years ago Wattpad, a site offering exactly this sort of content, had 20 million users per month. Yes, the vast majority of them are tween girls reading and writing about vampire romance, but even if just 0.5% are younger and/or into fantasy adventure, that's a million potential readers. Count me in.

Attempting to compete with Wattpad are Jukepop and Amazon's own WriteOn, both using the same formula of serialized, democratized written content. They don't have anywhere near the readership that Wattpad has, but Jukepop is curated (they've accepted Verona vs. the Doldrums, woohoo!) and WriteOn is . . . well, currently it's not much, but it's Amazon. If I were a betting man, I'd say they'll probably figure it out.

Anyway, none of them ask for exclusivity and these short stories were always intended to be released for free, so I am losing absolutely nothing by publishing on these platforms.

My plan is to release new pages here on this site Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and to release on Wattpad, Jukepop and WriteOn Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with a note at the bottom of each page saying they can come here to read new pages a day early. Hopefully that'll entice a few to stick around. The only downside to these platforms is that they don't really support images - at least, not as many as I like to include in these stories - but again, one more reason to read the stories right here!

Just one last problem. I desperately needed a new cover design.
This might well be the textbook example of an awful cover. It's ugly, unreadable at a small size, and boring. It looks like a prospectus or job application or some other horrifying kind of paperwork, not a whimsical children's tale. A good cover should be legible even when tiny (since that's where the majority of users will see it - on some page listing tens or even hundreds of books at a time), stand out from the crowd to a cover-judging audience, and give a sense of the tone and content of the book.

Inspired by some covers I saw on the aforementioned sites, I did some re-jiggering.
I think it's fair to say it's a marked improvement. This cover art ticks all the boxes: readable when small, interesting and colorful, unique. It actually looks like something you might see on a bookshelf. Here's hoping it works to draw in readers.

My plan for these Merry Mariner short stories has always been as a training ground. Through them I will teach myself how to write simple, delightful stories for this age group, get to know the characters and the world, and learn how to gather up and market to an online audience. All of this will lead to the writing and publishing of the first Merry Mariner book, where I will make use of all that I've learned while creating and distributing these short stories. It might get messy, but I always remind myself that this is just the very, very beginning, and I've got big plans for things to come.

Until next time,

M. Ray
<![CDATA[Building the World of the Seven Seas]]>Sun, 19 Apr 2015 22:00:02 GMThttp://www.themerrymariner.com/captains-log/building-the-world-of-the-seven-seas
Often times, when I'm supposed to be doing something more important, I'll sneak away into my maps and notes on the world of the Merry Mariner. I might tweak the culture of this city or fiddle with the history that region, or I might just zoom way in and imagine myself on the ship's deck, ringing the bell and sailing into some bustling harbor or cruising past high, forbidding cliffside villages or drifting through murky brown waters in a dark and feral jungle. Wandering around in the vast world I'm creating is one of my favorite things about working on this project. In a way, writing the stories is just an excuse to do exactly that!

But world-building isn't all daydreaming. A convincing, airtight universe is crucial to storytelling, particularly fantasy, where so much depends on exploration and wonder. As I see it, building up the world of the Seven Seas has two main purposes. First, it ensures that each story feels a part of a larger whole. The characters refer to places, objects, people and historical events beyond the pages of the current story, but which you might encounter first-hand in another tale; it makes for an intricate background tapestry from which details may be plucked at any point to enrich and deepen the reader's journey. Mamma doesn't just use sausages in her stew, for example, she uses sausages from the White Woods, a place that exists in this world, to which you can point on a map, and where you might very well find yourself in the next story.
pappa regards a map
A very early sketch of Pappa inspecting a map
The second purpose of world-building is to create wonder and mystery--not for the reader, necessarily, but for myself. The driving force of the Merry Mariner series is the joy of exploration and discovery. That means I have to create a world that just begs to be explored and discovered. I need a map that, when I look at it, I'm dying to see up close and personal. That burning desire to visit these new and fantastical places fuels the stories, chiefly through Verona, who is a personification of this emotion of mine. If successful, that feeling will soak into the words on the page and into the minds and hearts of the readers.

So how do I do it?

Here is a map which resembles the map on the World page, but which you'll notice is visually more simple and at the same time labeled in much more detail. This is my personal master map. 
I'm not going to let you look closer at it because it's riddled with such names as [Amazonian-ish River Tribes Here] and [Everest-esque Mountain Here]. It's not meant to ever be seen by the reader. It's my god's-eye-view of the Seven Seas, my sandbox where I can create or destroy entire civilizations with a single click, and as any work in progress, it's full of [Insert City Here].

You've probably noticed that the world of the Seven Seas is simply the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia, with water and land mass inverted. None of those names, however, appear on the map. That's because the idea is that Merry Mariner stories walk a fine line between reality and fantasy, not falling completely into either camp. The world should feel familiar but distant, like a child's daydream in geography class or a naive nostalgic memory from youth. The reader should know precisely where they are and simultaneously have no idea what could appear around the bend. The inverted map serves this purpose perfectly--familiar, yet wholly strange.

The names of people and places must follow this convention, reminding readers of a specific place and culture, yet unspecific enough to feel fantastical. This is harder than you might think, not least because I am only one perspective on the world, and what sounds exotic and interesting to me will undoubtedly feel contrived to someone else.

So we have names such as the Silk Seas (to remind one of the ancient Silk Road), the Monsoon River (bringing to mind torrential downpours in the jungle), and Medimarinea ("Mediterranean Sea" derives from the Latin words medius and terra, meaning "in the middle of the land," so the logical inversion is simply medius + mare, or "in the middle of the sea"). Sometimes I'll name places after objects known to derive from that area of the world (Ivory Sea), or mythological commonalities between cultures in the area (The Dragonlands). I try to avoid cliché as much as possible ("Jade Sea"? Really, George R. R. Martin?), and I especially try to avoid just making up nonsense. There's not much worse than opening a fantasy book set in the Land of Boffle, where the Good Folk of Quimbly are under siege by the cruel Flarps from Porlax. How is anyone supposed to relate to that?
From the very beginning, the idea with the Merry Mariner books was to set each one in a different climate environment. The first book, The Merry Mariner Sails the Sands, will clearly be set in the desert. Then there will be books in the bog/swamp, snow/ice, sky, jungle, and, of course, the open sea. Each of the main regions on the map represents one of these biomes: the Red Desert (desert), the Foglands (bog), Arctica (snow), the Dragonlands (sky), and the Monsoon River (jungle), corresponding very roughly to the Middle East, northern Europe, the North and South Poles, East Asia, and Southeast Asia/the Amazon, respectively. Then there are the other regions in between which won't necessarily feature in their own book, but which are important to fill out the world - Medimarinea (the Mediterranean, as mentioned), the Ramayana Mountains (the Himalayas), and Monda Nova (the Americas), the latter two of which haven't yet been added to the world map (I'm not sure I like "Monda Nova." It's a bit on the nose). These places will be mentioned, or perhaps visited in a short story.
This is from a very old version of my master map. Pretty ugly, but you can clearly see the different biomes.
I've recently fleshed out each region with its own capital city, other major and minor cities, geographical features, and a bit about the culture, leadership, and products which the people of the regions and provinces produce. By blurring real-life cultures together, mixing them up and swapping features between them, I hope to achieve that balance of fantasy and reality, of familiar and strange. 

In early drafts of The Merry Mariner Sails the Sands, for example, the capital of the Red Desert region was Fig, a swirling sandy mix of Istanbul, Cairo, Baghdad, and Marrakech. The name came from the fruit, native to the Middle East, and from Figuig, a lovely little oasis-town on Morocco's border with Algeria. I recently decided I don't like it, however. It's too North Africa and not enough Arabia; it's too simple and understated for such a mighty and important city. It needed a new name, one which would capture the Arabic grandeur without being too specific to any one culture. 
Part of an old sketch done by my brother Erik for a very early draft of The Merry Mariner Sails the Sands
After much hemming and hawing, I finally settled on "Ishtar." She was the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility, love, and war, but the name is most well-known from the Ishtar Gate, eighth gate of the ancient city of Babylon, which has been brilliantly reconstructed in Berlin. Also, there was a 1987 film by that name featuring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty wandering around Morocco. The word "Ishtar" is just sort of floating around in the public subconscious as vaguely associated with the Middle East and the Sahara Desert, and that makes it the perfect name.

Less ideal is the name I'd come up with for the capital of the Foglands, which must be the seat of the Queen and a mix of turn-of-the-century Paris, London, and other big European cities. Despite their proximity, there's actually very little that Paris and London have in common, culturally speaking. So I tried combining the names (Londris? Pardon? Lonpardonis?), I tried using the English Channel (which the French call La Manche - Manchel? Chanche?), and I searched desperately for something historical in common (Norman? Bretanis? Franglo?), all in vain. What I currently have is "Ville." It's short, vaguely French but also used somewhat in English. What I don't like is that it sounds like a small town, when it should sound like a bustling metropolis. We'll see what I can do about it.

So that's a bit about world-building! Happy travels...

- M. Ray
<![CDATA[New short story release, and why black & white is better]]>Thu, 29 Jan 2015 11:27:10 GMThttp://www.themerrymariner.com/captains-log/new-short-story-release-and-why-black-white-is-betterThe second Merry Mariner short story is out, and man, it's a good one! Click below to get it now, for pay-whatever-you-feel-like:

Download Waldo and the Spider's Sting

I'm really excited about this story, and the reason is that Waldo and the Spider's Sting is the most representative of what you can expect from the upcoming full Merry Mariner chapter books. Verona vs. the Doldrums was written as a sort of prologue, an introduction to the family and the ship, but with this story we get our first look at the colorful peoples and cultures on the Seven Seas. We'll travel to Marjoram, the City of Spires, visit the locals there and get a literal taste of their unique way of life, all while Waldo tries to chase down his escaped poisonous flying tarantula. That's what the chapter books will be - thrilling adventures in exotic, fantastic places.

But that's only the half of it. 

The other reason this story is representative of the full books is that it's chock-full of fun extra stuff. There's a map of Marjoram at the beginning, and at the end there's an Appendices section, including detailed scientific information on the story's infamous insects, schematics and blueprints of the machines Waldo builds, and even one of Mamma's recipes, all fully illustrated and as whimsical as the story itself.
Waldo's Pistachio-Bug Shell-Press Schematic - the Merry Mariner
Sneak peek at one of the appendices
This is also how the chapter books will be - full to bursting with all kinds of great bonus stuff. As a kid I used to love books like Dinotopia and the various Star Wars encyclopedias, which felt so much more real because they filled out the world in incredible detail, delving into the minutiae of life in these fantasy places. Maybe I can inspire other kids (or kids-at-heart like me) to dream up their own universes for me to travel to.

Another reason I'm excited about this story (what am I not excited about, really?) is that I'm visibly getting better at drawing, and illustrating for books, specifically. I'm still no Hergé, but I'm learning, and it shows. 

Here's an example of what I mean. Below is one of the illustrations from Verona vs. the Doldrums.
It looks more like a frame from an animated cartoon than an illustration from a book, doesn't it? That's not a good thing. Why does it look like a movie?

After getting really lovely feedback on the story and illustrations over the holidays, I settled on two reasons. First, it's a rectangle, with squared edges abruptly cutting off the background, and it even exhibits the same aspect ratio (length-width dimensions) as a film or television show. It looks like it could fit right on your TV.
Maybe one day...
This is fine if you're looking at the drawings on a big plasma television or computer screen, but not when you're reading it in the context of the story. Book pages are portrait, not landscape-oriented rectangles. This drawing and many others like it in the book get scrunched up on the page, and it hurts immersion. It feels wrong somehow.
Clearly my background as a filmmaker is to blame - I'm used to thinking in landscape rectangles. 

But there's another reason this doesn't look like a page out of a book: it's in color. One of the more interesting bits of feedback I received came from an elementary school teacher, who said that she much preferred the black and white version of Verona vs. the Doldrums because it actually felt less childish. The desire to be seen and treated as an adult is very important among my target age group, 6-12-year-olds. They don't want to be seen reading "kid's stuff," and brightly-colored drawings are like goofy saturday morning cartoons. Black and white, however, is more classic, more timeless, more adult, which is exactly what I'm going for. It's critical to me that the Merry Mariner stories don't feel like "children's books;" my golden ideal is Pixar, who manage to make films that truly appeal to All Ages.

I make a concerted effort not to "talk down" to kids in my writing - I just didn't know I could be doing it with my illustrating.

So when starting the drawings for Waldo and the Spider's Sting, I kept in mind these two points: 1) portrait orientation, 2) black and white. Here's a final full-page one from the story:
Now that's more like it! That, to me, feels much more like a classic, literary illustration. I've still got a lot to learn, but this is a big improvement. Even the drawings that aren't full page are designed to flow better with the text and bring you into the world:
So if you've already wandered over to the Stories page, you'll notice there's no color version available for Waldo and the Spider's Sting, and I've taken down the color version of Verona vs. the Doldrums (if you still want it, you can get it here). You can still pay what you want.

I think it's the right choice. Black and white, in a book anyway, feels both timeless and ageless.

Enjoy your trip to Marjoram, and watch out for flying tarantulas!

- M. Ray
<![CDATA[From Pirates to Spooky Isles, and How Stories Change]]>Tue, 13 Jan 2015 15:39:39 GMThttp://www.themerrymariner.com/captains-log/from-pirates-to-spooky-isles-and-how-stories-changeI'm always amazed at how much stories can change from the time you come up with the idea to the final piece. Sometimes the change is quite drastic, and can be for unexpected reasons.

Last week I finished the treatment for the Fritz & Felix short story. Each of the short stories will be from the perspective of a different member of the family Wicklow (the twins counting as one character, since they're pretty much the same). Treatment is a term I borrowed from screenwriting - not sure if they use it in books as well - which is the thing between the outline and the actual first draft. I like to describe it as a kind of written explanation of what happens in the story from beginning to end, as though I were telling it to you in person. "This happens, and because of that this happens, but then this happens..." and so on.
Treatment for Verona vs. The Doldrums by M. Ray Rempen
First page of the treatment for Verona vs. the Doldrums (click to expand). The title and various details have changed since then.
I haven't written all the stories yet, but I came up with what I thought would be good story ideas for each character short story so that when I launched the website you'd get a peek at what's coming up next. I'm actually writing and illustrating them on a rolling basis (currently at this moment I'm illustrating the Waldo story, editing the Mamma story, writing the Fritz & Felix story, and plotting the Pappa story. Whew!).

Two weeks ago was my deadline for the Fritz & Felix outline and treatment. When I sat down to write it, I had every intention of doing my original idea: Fritz & Felix: Pirate Kings! It would be about the rowdy twins joining a pirate gang and learning that actually, pirating isn't all that great. Perfect, right? A high seas adventure, the ideal counter to the more intimate, personal story that comes before it. 
The original cover drawing for Fritz & Felix: Pirate Kings!
So I did it. I wrote the outline and treatment over the week, only to realize at the end that it was simply too much. I had a pirate crew on a steam-powered lighthouse-barge pirate ship, a mean pirate leader named Captain Azimuth who carries a whip and has a screw for an eye, and a huge pirate fortress, made out of bone, hidden inside a sea-cave. These aren't your usual clichéd swashbuckling 1700s pirates, either, these are steam-and-steel pirates in the age of electricity. The story took place over several weeks, as the twins impress Azimuth with their pirating skills and boundless energy for excitement, even eventually becoming "kings" of their own ship and crew. But the more they raid and steal from innocent sailors, the guiltier they feel, and pirating loses its adventurous sheen. Eventually they turn on Azimuth and undo his entire operation.

That's a lot for a short story.

I saw two options. I could throw it all out and start fresh, or try to squeeze it down into a short story. I didn't want to do either. It's a fun idea, and different than the usual kid's book pirate claptrap - not worth tossing away, but it also didn't seem possible to chip it down to short story length, either. 

There was a third option - I could start fresh, but save it for later. It might be just perfect for an upcoming book. Each of the longer, proper books will be based in another climate - the first one in the desert, then in the jungle, then the snow, and there will be one all at sea, as well. This Fritz and Felix pirate story would make a great part of a larger book. I could scale it up, rather than trying to pare it down.

So I shelved it, and started fresh. My mind still on high seas adventure, I mulled over various scenarios until I came back to an idea I had originally wanted to use for Verona's short story - stranded on a small rocky island with a lighthouse. Throw in a hidden treasure and a monster, and now I'm writing Fritz & Felix on St. Spooky's Isle
The new cover drawing for Fritz & Felix on St. Spooky's Isle
Each of the short stories so far written underwent changes. Verona vs. the Doldrums originally featured Verona abandoning the family in search of wind, but I wanted the story to feature all the characters, to introduce everyone, and to take place completely aboard the Merry Mariner, so she stayed put. 

Waldo and the Spider's Sting was originally Waldo and the Ivory Ark, about Waldo searching for his missing albino tarantula and meeting a collector of albino animals aboard a huge ship made of ivory. It was too complicated, and I felt I was losing the narrative thread, so I stripped away everything but the problem (poisonous tarantula has gone missing in a populated area) and went from there. The ivory ark is a neat idea though, so that'll be shelved for a future story.

Mamma Troubles the Trolls dogged me for some time. It started out as Mamma and the Miniature Megalomaniacs, about a colony of thieving gnomes living between the walls of the Merry Mariner. That turned into Mamma and the Missing Everyone, about the family mysteriously disappearing one by one (an idea which made it into the Fritz & Felix story, incidentally), and then became The Missing Voice & Mamma, about Mamma trying to organize a mass renovation of the ship without the use of her powerful voice. All of these somehow fell flat, like I didn't understand her character.

Why? Why couldn't I spin just one good yarn about Mamma?

After a bit of navel-gazing, I realized that Mamma is the only member of the family Wicklow who isn't somehow a mirror reflection of myself. Verona is my own impatience and adventurous spirit, Pappa is my inner bookworm and absent-mindedness, Waldo is my interest in all things mechanical and touchiness, the twins are my sense of humor, and Pip is my wide-eyed naiveté. Mamma, however, is everything I wish I was. She's strong, both in muscle and will, she's self-confident, decisive, no-nonsense, and everybody loves her. She's also extremely stubborn, unlike myself. I usually go with whatever, but I admire in others the ability to stand their ground against any onslaught. Stubbornness can also be a flaw, of course, so I made her butt heads with a troll, the only thing more stubborn than herself. What happens when an unmovable objects meets another unmovable object? Find out in Mamma Troubles the Trolls.

Looking back at it, as I write, each story changes more drastically than the last. I'm not sure what that means, but considering that old adage, "the best writing is rewriting," I'll take it to mean that I'm getting a little bit better each time.

See you on the next adventure...

M. Ray

<![CDATA[Passing the sketchbook from Berlin to Bangkok and back]]>Fri, 26 Dec 2014 15:08:51 GMThttp://www.themerrymariner.com/captains-log/passing-the-sketchbook-from-berlin-to-bangkok-and-backFor those of you who know me from my web comic, Itchy Feet, you might know I'm definitely able to draw a bug-eyed bean-like man with stick arms and legs:
But that fellow doesn't exactly fit into the world of the Merry Mariner. I worked a lot over the past year to improve my skills drawing people, and I'm getting much better. I'm no Bill Watterson, but it's enough. What I'm still not really good at is drawing perspective, landscapes, and cities (somewhat critical when building a world like the Seven Seas, full of wondrous places).

Luckily, I know someone who is good at drawing those things: my brother Erik.
From Erik's great illustrated travel blog, Compelled to Wander
In August, Erik and I were both back home visiting family, so I asked him to help me with a drawing of the Merry Mariner at sea. Drawing perspective is tricky enough, but drawing perspective with boats is even harder. Boats are a weird shape; from every angle they look completely different. So doing a three-quarters angle on the Merry Mariner - not just a ship, but a windmill as well - was frustrating me. But I recruited Erik, and together we drew the picture on the main page of the website:
It was great, because I could do a rough sketch of the idea I had, then he could hash out how he thought it should look. Then he'd hand the pad to me and I'd make the lines a little finer or adjust this or that, and give it back to him to fill in some more details. We'd pass the sketchbook back and forth until it was more or less done. Finally, I inked it in, scanned it, and colored it. 

I'm really very happy with that drawing, and proud because it was fun to work with my brother on it. I feel he's really part of this world now. It would be a cinch to draw these fantastic places I'd dreamed up, so long as I could pass my brother the sketchbook whenever I got stuck.

But then summer ended, and we went home. I returned to Berlin, and Erik went back to Bangkok, Thailand. Now what?

For Verona vs. the Doldrums it was okay, because most of the drawings in that story are of people or a corner of a room. I could manage by myself. But the next story, Waldo and the Spider's Sting, takes place in the city of Marjoram - a city carved out of huge stone spires, with swinging bridges, catwalks, and ancient ruins in the hills beyond. I was definitely going to need Erik's help. I couldn't just have him do the entire drawing, because I needed to populate it with the characters.

So how to "pass the sketchbook" halfway across the world?

My original idea was to mail the drawings to each other, but that would take forever, and you'd risk losing original artwork in the mail. Next I thought I would just do the foreground, and he would do the background. We tried this for the story's title picture:
First, I sketched out how I saw it, but I thought my city looked too much like a bunch of Christmas trees, and Erik agreed. So I inked the foreground and sent him a scan of it, and he drew up a background with a much more interesting cityscape. The idea was that I'd just combine the two in Photoshop. Background, foreground. Easy, right?
Waldo and the Spider's Sting - sketch by M. Ray Rempen
My original sketch with dumb-looking city in background
Waldo and the Spider's Sting - Inked sketch by M. Ray Rempen
Inked foreground, sent to Erik
Waldo and the Spider's Sting - Marjoram city drawing by Erik Rempen
Background by Erik, sent to me
Waldo and the Spider's Sting - Merry Mariner Short Story by M. Ray Rempen
Final drawing, combined and colored
It worked...okay. The perspective is a bit weird - it looks like they're on something raised way high into the air, or flying, not down in the city's port where they're supposed to be. You can't even tell there is a port. Also, now that you're looking at it, you can see our drawing styles are quite different. This is not Erik's fault, he did his job. It's just the nature of trying to combine two separate images into one. They don't really fit together.

It's actually a great image for the story's cover, because a Merry Mariner cover should tell you three things: 1) what the problem is, 2) whose story it is, and 3) where it's taking place. This one covers all three pretty well, so if the perspective's a bit off, who cares?

But for the drawings in the book itself, I knew we needed to refine our method. By now some of you may be thinking, why not just do it digitally? Draw it with a digital pen, and collaborate on the same document in the computer. Trouble is, I don't like using the stylus pen tablet thing. Everything I do these days, I do on the computer. I like that drawing is the one thing I still do with actual pen and paper. I get to look away from a computer screen for a little while. I do it for Itchy Feet, and I'm going to do it for the Merry Mariner. Erik feels the same way.

Anyway, the final drawing should look like we just sat down and did it together, in the same room. Today, I believe we accomplished that:
Here's how we did it. 

First, I sent him a photo of my very rough sketch, and told him what I didn't like about it - for example, that I didn't want the ruins to be clichéd Greek ruins with columns and triangular roofs (despite drawing exactly that in my sketch). I wanted it to look more Turkish/Levantine (Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, etc). Erik did his version of the drawing, inked it, and scanned it over to me.
The Wild Man in the ruins - sketch by M. Ray Rempen
My original sketch
The Wild Man in the ruins - drawing by Erik Rempen
What Erik sent me
I printed out Erik's drawing and taped it to the backside of a piece of tracing paper. Then I sketched over the entire thing with a pencil, detailing it a bit, and adding the Wild Man on top based on my character sketches. Finally, I inked the whole thing and brought it into Photoshop for final line work and shading.
The Wild Man in the ruins - tracing paper and tape
Erik's drawing printed out and taped to a piece of tracing paper
Sketching over Erik's drawing
Tracing over Erik's drawing with a pencil, adding little details along the way
Inking Erik's drawing
Erik's drawing removed from the back, and I ink over it like usual
The Wild Man in the ruins - drawing by Erik Rempen and M. Ray Rempen
Final drawing, before Photoshop
I'm quite happy with this one. It seamlessly combines both our styles, looks compelling, and works visually. It's not one of the more complicated drawings we have coming up, but I think this established a viable method to follow. It doesn't beat passing the sketchbook to Erik in person, but considering how many thousands of miles are between us, it's not bad at all.

- M. Ray Rempen
<![CDATA[Website launch & free short story]]>Sun, 21 Dec 2014 21:23:14 GMThttp://www.themerrymariner.com/captains-log/website-launch-free-short-storyWell...it's finally up!


In 2011 I first had the notion of an inkling of a spark of an idea to write a series of all-ages stories about a family of adventurers who travel around the globe in their windmill-ship. I've always loved to travel, to soak in a local culture and wander the streets and markets of foreign cities, but I've never really liked the tourism part of it. I've always wished I could tramp through exotic, faraway lands, untouched by modernity or war, where around any corner there might be mystery or adventure. I want to visit Ottoman Istanbul and Qing dynasty China, be the first to explore the pyramids or scale Mt. Everest, to buy a talisman in Sri Lanka which will transport me to a colony of natives dwelling in huts in the jungle canopy.

So I dreamt up Verona Wicklow and the Merry Mariner, to visit this non-existent, nostalgic world in their shoes. They can take me - and you - with them on the impossible adventures on which I've always wanted to embark.
The doodle that started it all for me
That was 2011. It's now nearly 2015! Over the past few years I've been building up this world, getting to know the characters that inhabit it, and fine-tuning my own skills as a writer and illustrator so that when you sit down to read a Merry Mariner yarn, you're drawn into the world like you're seeing it on the silver screen. Whether I've succeeded or not is for you to judge. 

In fact, you can do that right now! The very first short story in the series, Verona vs. the Doldrums, is available to you, for free, right this very moment:

Download Verona vs. the Doldrums

Verona vs. the Doldrums was written to be an introduction to the ship and the family. We'll spend the entire story aboard the ship itself, familiarizing ourselves with the Merry Mariner and the Wicklows. Starting with the next short story, next month, we'll start weighing anchor in some of the wild and fascinating locales on the Seven Seas. 

As with every Merry Mariner story, Verona vs. the Doldrums is self-contained, so you don't have to read it in order to understand the next one. You'll be able to read all the short stories and books in any order you please.

As you'll see on the "Stories" page of the site, my plan is to write six short stories, each from the perspective of one of the members of the family Wicklow. There'll be one per month from now until May, and they'll all be free. Next summer I'll release the first full chapter book, The Merry Mariner Sails the Sands. There will be at least seven books in the series, and probably a number of other short stories sprinkled about as well.

This is just the beginning. I can't wait for you to see what's coming up. 

Welcome aboard!