Put on your pith helmet and shoulder your saddlebags: today’s story is an expedition into rarely explored corners of the literary map, teasing out stories of ancient lives from lifeless artifacts and crumbling structures.

lost-citiesLost Cities
[Slice-of-Life] • 6,859 words

North of Canterlot, in the far marches of the Equestrian lands near the border with the Griffon tribes, there is a mountain that flies.

West of Canterlot, beyond the Galloping Mountains and a desert painted in the pastel hues of a faded rainbow, a tower sits at the edge of the world.

South of Canterlot, past the Everfree forest and the desolate badlands, a city of gardens waits to be born.

FROM THE CURATORS: If you’ve never had the chance for tourism at ancient ruins — staring at fragments of walls reclaimed from nature’s grasp while a tour guide weaves you tales of the people who built them — this does a remarkable job of drawing you into that experience.  Its four chapters are nothing but bones of the past, presented with archaeological-style commentary and some hints toward the greater sweep of history, but are remarkable reading nonetheless.

“I really admired how Gardez was able to create a compelling story without a single character present in the work,” Vimbert said.  “I don’t usually go for stories that employ such writing gimmicks, but there’s a rich tapestry of suggested history in these words. A lesser author would f**k it all up.”

Horizon agreed: “This is the Spoon River Anthology of MLP scenery-porn.”

Read on for our interview, in which Cold in Gardez discusses recursive inspiration, Rarity’s difference from the other Mane Six, and the essential humanity of ponies.

Give us the standard biography.

I’m a mid-grade member of the US military. I joined the fandom around the middle of 2011, when it really started to catch on in popular culture. I’ve been a writer for years, but it wasn’t until I started writing for the MLP fandom that it really became a passion for me. I love the creativity in this fandom, I love the opportunities it has opened for so many people to express themselves, and I love being a part of this community.

I’m mostly known for a few comedies, but I try to write across the spectrum of genres. The most important part of a story is the morally significant choice or sacrifice the protagonist makes at the climax. The more wrenching the choice, the more potential the story has to explore our experience as humans.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

It stems from one of my deployments to Afghanistan. There’s a city in the east called Gardez, and I spent a year on a team there providing assistance to the local government and security forces. Winters in Gardez were brutally cold, and we didn’t exactly have the nicest facilities on our forward operating base. I spent many nights shivering myself to sleep, and I guess I never really forgot that experience.

Who’s your favorite pony?

It’s something of a toss-up between Rarity and Twilight Sparkle. Twilight is the more complex character, but Rarity has a depth that the other main characters lack. Most of the six embody what we consider virtuous archetypes — the sportster, the academic, the shy & compassionate one, the hard-worker, the fun-loving party girl. Those five (and you should be able to guess who they are) are given character by their flaws. Rarity, on the other hand, is the vain, stuck-up princess, who is given character by her virtues. I think that sets her apart, and ultimately makes her more interesting to write.

What’s your favorite episode?

I would have to say Winter Wrap-up or The Grand Galloping Gala. They focus on well-intentioned disasters, which are the best kind of disaster.

What do you get from the show?

From the show? Not too much, to be honest. I think the fandom, on the other hand, has vastly outpaced both the creative content and the scope of the show. I would much rather read an excellent story by any of the outstanding authors I admire than watch a new episode.

What do you want from life?

I’m older than most of the other authors on this site, so I’m a bit more settled on my life’s path. I have a career I enjoy, skills I am working to develop, and friends whose company I enjoy. If fate would be kind enough to give me more of the same, I’ll be content.

Why do you write?

I get ideas that bang around in my head until I let them out. I also firmly believe that if you have a talent for something, you should use it and try to develop it.

What advice do you have for the authors out there?

Study and practice. Writing is like any other skill — it does not come naturally; it must be developed. The best authors are usually the ones who put the most effort into their writing.

If you want to be a serious writer, you need to study the craft of writing. Know the difference between a participial and a gerund. Understand the differences between limited third-person and omniscient third-person perspectives, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Be able to explain the differences between Showing and Telling. Read up on conflict, characters, decisions, dilemmas, and all the things that go into telling a story. Writing is one of the most complex arts, for it attempts to model real life. It has multiple levels, from the word to the sentence to the paragraph to the scene, and must incorporate pacing, characters, environments, conflicts, themes and motifs, and readers’ expectations. It is complex.

Practice is simpler. Every day, write something. Use a prompt, or work on your story, or scribble down some ideas you had. Just keep using those mental muscles, and they’ll develop with time.

Each of the cities in this piece is quite varied. Are there any real-world inspirations for their art, architecture or societies?

I was more influenced by other authors, actually. The unicorn city, the Heartspire, was inspired by a few lines from Ponydora Prancypants (though he says that he got the idea from a story of mine, so the whole thing is recursive). Derecho was inspired by the many depictions of pegasi as the most spartan and warlike of the tribes. Lith, the earth pony city, was entirely my creation, though I’m sure I unintentionally cribbed parts of it from my betters.

Throughout the four chapters, we get little snatches of a young Celestia and Luna leaving their marks on the world, but otherwise this work features no characters. Why include them and only them?

A few other characters are mentioned off-hand, but they all lack agency. Celestia and Luna are the only ones depicted as actually doing anything, and even those references are oblique.

One of the themes of Lost Cities is the line connecting past to present. Celestia and Luna, as immortals, physically embody that connection. Everyone else in the story is transient, alive and then gone, just like the cities they inhabited.

What are the benefits of solitude?

It gives you time to think, presumably about the mistakes you made that have left you alone.

If they’re not blueberries, then what are they?

Something delicious that fills your belly and lulls you to a gentle slumber from which you never wake.

The fourth chapter was a bit of a challenge, in that it really told the story of two environments – the Everfree Forest itself, and then the ancient city at the forest’s heart. In the show, the forest seems to vacillate between a benign oddity and a supernatural horrorfest. In my writing I usually lean toward the latter, as it’s more interesting to depict the extremes of a world, rather than the mundanity.

What’s the one thing you’d like readers to take away from reading Lost Cities?

Lost Cities started as an experiment in telling a story without characters, action or dialogue, and I think it succeeded. It simply describes four sets of ruins, and implies each of those things instead.

For the readers, I’d simply like them to consider that life in Equestria is not a static utopia. Thousands of years have passed between the events described in the show, and during those thousands of years, something must have happened. The stories of these four ruined cities are a suggestion for what some of those years must have been like.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Stories about ponies are stories about people. They may be pastel colored and have weird bodies, but they are as human as we are. They are complex creatures with hopes, dreams and fears, and when we write about them we should never forget that in the end we are writing about humans. We are incapable of writing about anything else, no matter how alien or monstrous it may be, for ultimately our writing reflects some hidden aspect of our own humanity.

So if you want to write something interesting, write about humanity. Dress it up with ponies, certainly, but your characters should all be human at heart.

You can read Lost Cities at FIMFiction.net.