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By rath8325 - Posted on 27 May 2009

 

Researching and Writing Ratha's Courage.

Slowly the Named awoke and reclaimed themselves. Gentle, patient Thakur, the herding teacher. Irascible Fessran, the Firekeeper leader. Stubborn little Thistle-chaser. Beautiful, even-tempered Bira, staunch Cherfan. The only one who couldn't return, to my deep regret, was flippant, irreverent Bonechewer, Ratha's UnNamed mate. In the fiery end to Ratha's Creature, I had killed off perhaps the best character I'd ever done, according to some reviewers.

The old themes returned; the struggle for survival, the mystery of the UnNamed, how the Red Tongue (fire) continued to change the Named, the continuing reconciliation with her daughter, Thistle-chaser, Ratha's development as a leader and a visionary, dreaming of extending friendship and help to those outside the clan.

New themes wound themselves into the growing tale, drawn from my experiences in working for various small EV companies. In the pages of an increasingly grubby notebook, I penned a what-if.

What if Ratha, driven by her growing idealism, did everything she thought was right and then had it backfire on her? How would she react, recover, and cope with the resulting disaster? Muttering a bit about being put through the wringer (once again!), the big kitty agreed that I had found the backbone on which to build Courage.

Between bouts of scribbling, I began researching recent big cat paleontology. Courage was to be based, even more strongly than Creature, on up-to-date knowledge of fossil big cats. Alan Turner and Mauricio Anton's wonderful "The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives" became my bible. There were indeed many changes in paleontological research since the mid 1980s. The leopard-like paleofelid Nimravus, on which the Named were originally based, had been thrown out of the Felidae on the basis of differences in inner ear morphology. Nimravus became the titular head of its own family, the Nimravidae. Horrors! Ratha was, according to the scientists, no longer a true cat. Yarrr!

I also realized that during their trail through the wilderness of print, the Named themselves had begun to morph into a more cheetah-like form. This was definitely due to Tomorrow's Sphinx, my stand-alone novel about cheetahs, ancient Egypt and King Tut. Sphinx's cover art influenced the jackets of Thistle-chaser and Challenge. On Challenge, Ratha looked like a blend of puma and cheetah.

I hadn't planned this, but what the hell, I love cheetahs. I think this affection crept into the saga, as the Named, particularly Thakur, the slender, swift herding teacher, already had many cheetah characteristics and behavior. The Named lifestyle of herding three-horned deer demanded a cat who was fast as well as strong.

I learned about Miracinonyx, the American fossil cheetah-like cat who may have been the ancestor of today's mountain lions. But I had already established that the Named world is the Early Miocene of 20-25 million years ago. Miracinynonyx came 10 million years too late, in the Pliocene.

Then, in the pages of "Big Cats" I found ,Dinaelurus crassus, a sister species to Nimravus. There wasn't much known about this nimravid, but certain characteristics of the skull (enlarged nasal passages and shortened face as compared to the leopard-like Nimravus) fueled speculation that this animal may have been "a cheetah-like cursorial predator". A "cheetah" before there were cheetahs.

Dinaelurus crassus became my new armature on which to re-build the Named. And build them, I literally did. "Big Cats" artist Mauricio Anton, when he learned about my project, kindly sent me drawings from the original Eaton (1926) paper about the fossil. (Scroll down on the webpage to see one.)

From those drawings, I built a 3-D model of the fossil skull, with the idea that I could generate my fictional species from D. crassus. A second clay model skull featured an expanded braincase to house the human-equivalent intelligence of the Named, and I now had the skull of Dinaelurus illumina sapiens, Ratha herself. (Scroll to the bottom of the page to see it.)

Photographing each step of the process, I did a facial reconstruction, using Anton's "Big Cats" illustrations as a guide. I began with the second clay skull, added deep muscles, eyes, overlying muscles, tendons, veins, and finally skin and a slight suggestion of fur. Having photographed the bare clay bust, I then used Photoshop to add color and fur texture.

The completed head needed a body. Existing fossils of Dinaelurus crassis have only the skull and neck vertebrae, so I would have to make an educated guess. Using drawings of cheetah and puma skeletons, I put my character together on paper. (Scroll to the middle of the page to see the sketch. Click to enlarge it.)

For a speedy cat with good jumping abilities and the strength to pull down prey, I used a stretched version of the puma skeleton and gave it the rear legs of the cheetah. Once I had the skeleton, I could sketch in muscles and skin.

Another tool to visualize the Named was 3-D animation, done with Anim8tor. I had great fun putting together a Ratha model, which I could then animate. Using photos of lions, cougars and cheetahs galloping, I did a run cycle. First I had her galloping in place, then crossing the screen, then bounding in from the background in a feline grand jete'.

I settled into a steady schedule; the morning and early afternoon were for writing and story development; the late afternoon for chores, exercise and art/animation.

Early in the novel's development came a crucial question; should I continue the story of True-of-Voice and the Song-hearing(collectively dreaming group-think) face-tail hunters from Ratha's Challenge? Some readers thought that plot line; wandered too far away from the spirit of the series; others thought it enhanced the saga and wanted to know more about True-of-voice and his people. I decided that the face-tail hunters had to be in Courage, but I would focus on the effects they had on the Named and not stray off too far into the mysticism of the Song.

Courage could also help answer another question often asked by readers. What happened to Thistle-chaser's brothers, the other cubs in Ratha's litter by Bonechewer? It was time to return one to the stage.

But he had to be unusual in some respects, not just a male version of Thistle, or a re-run of Bonechewer. When I was researching mutant and hybrid big cats on the net, I ran into a description of a cobweb panther , (there is also a photo here) which is a black leopard with white markings so faint that the cat appears draped with spiderwebs. The white also tends to appear and disappear in the fur as the animal moves. Voila! I had the idea for Night-who-eats-stars.

The various threads began to weave themselves together. Ratha needed an interesting disaster in order to test her mettle. Who would cause the disaster? True-of-voice's people. Why would it happen? Because Ratha, in following her best intentions, set off a cascade of events that killed many of the face-tail hunters. What was the agent of that catastrophe? The Red Tongue, Ratha's own creature.

Then came another idea. I didn't want True-of-voice's people to attack the Named because they were angry about the deaths. They are not conscious in the way that the Named are, and would not react in that way. I wanted a more "biologically-based" reason. Suppose the face-tail hunters who died were all females? An imbalance in the number of males to females among lions causes fighting over who gets to mate, and often the exile of younger and/or weaker males. Suppose a group of younger males split off from True-of-voice's group with their own leader. Where would they get mates? By capturing Named females, including Ratha herself.

For one of the climax scenes, I used a cheetah behavior, namely the "courting circle" where a female is courted by a group of males. I enlarged and intensified it to include more than one female and a large group of males. Ratha, her daughter Thistle-chaser and her friends Bira, Fessran and others prowled uneasily in the midst of a crowd of yowling eager males. Tense, exciting, unusual, dangerous! It worked.

The story, not the writer, assigned the characters essential roles. Ratha would follow her altruism by sharing fire with the face-tail hunters, setting up a situation that made it easy for the renegade Night-who-eats-stars to steal some coals and accidentally ignite the blaze that kills the face-tail-hunting females. Thakur would counsel caution and later help Ratha cope with the results of her mistake. Bira would ask for kindness toward the other tribe; Thistle would push her mother to look beyond the needs of the clan. Cherfan would handle the heavy and dirty jobs, fight like a lion, but show an unexpected flair for nursing orphaned cubs, while young Mondir would jump at any excuse to show off his newly-gained strength in a tussle with an enemy.

Fessran would be—well, Fessran, but a fiercely loyal friend to Ratha, offering to take on the worst tasks so that Ratha would not have to suffer them.

A lighter element came in with Mishanti (from Ratha and Thistle-chaser) and Bundi (from Clan Ground). Their adventures with their huge tamed "rumblers" (Indricoptheres) Grunt and Belch not only created a scene that showcased the irascible Fessran, they also unexpectedly provided the Named (and the author) with an unusual way of resolving the book's climax.

The young male Ashon, based in coloration on my silver-gray (perhaps) part-Korat kitty, Athena,joined the ranks of the male clan herders. Drani, the nursery helper from Clan Ground, leaped in to defend the Named cubs when the face-tail hunter males attacked the nursery. Quiet Hunter, Thistle's face-tail hunter mate from Ratha's Challenge, would be an intriguing link to his former tribe through his sensitivity to the Song.

The book grew, sent some characters hurtling in unexpected directions, made loops, twists and turns before the dust settled on the words "The End." A thorough edit, copyedit, then onto multiple CDs for backup, then away over the Internet to Richard Curtis and thence to Sharyn November.

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Clan Ground Firebird cover

Join other Named Series fans on the Ratha Series Forum.  Hunt up information in the Fire Den, read the new Twitter creation, "Ratha's Island", or strut before the clan to introduce yourself in the Fire Dance.

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