Monday, November 11, 2019

Personal Habits

This is something of an underrepresented topic, but it's incredibly useful for world and character.

Do characters brush their teeth? How do they open and close doors? Do they slam them? Turn the handle and un-turn it afterward? How does the door open and with what kind of handle? Does it behave differently in different types of weather? Is it like a car door, where it has to slam? Do your characters make a mistake because they are accustomed to a sticky door when another door is less sticky?

What about going to the bathroom? Do your characters' clothes have zippers? Elastic? Buttons? What does that mean for getting in and out of clothes? Do they have socks with garters? What holds up your hosen? You can cut fabric on the bias if you want it to stretch a little, but how much does that affect the way you wear a garment? Kate notes that we don't thank the universe enough for Lycra.

Do you shut the door behind you or not? On a farm, you should leave a gate how you found it, or you might cause huge problems for livestock. Do you know how to go through a gate with a horse? There's a whole process involved. When you have farm animals involved, one mistake can cause a disaster. Kate asked, what if you need the gate open for the cows to come home, but you don't leave it open?

Morgan lived for a long time with cabinet doors that wouldn't close. Now they do, but people still don't close them.

Does your character close drawers? Why or why not? This will give you an insight into the character's style and thought processes.

My character Nekantor has obsessive-compulsive disorder, so his habits are really important to his character. A lot of our impressions of a character's habits have to do with what our expectations are. Do you expect a small person to have a small car? But what if they need a large car because they have horses and tack to carry?

Morgan says she likes looking over the steering wheel of an SUV to look at the road. Sometimes the advantage of a particular thing will diminish if everyone else has the same thing, as when everyone starts having large cars, or cars with fast acceleration.

Think about the size of the characters and how it affects their habits and interactions. Kate says she always ends up with the biggest horse, and it's ridiculous.

Do your characters shove their hands in their pockets? Do they have pockets? What do they carry in them? Does a character carry string? Or a worry stone? Or a knife?

How do people look at each other? Up or down? Can you see up the person's nose? Can you smell the person's armpits if you're short? Do people lean on a smaller person's head? Do people joke about height? Does a large person have careful habits to minimize size so as not to scare people?

Tall people in a small house will have to duck a lot. What about on a submarine? Or a ship?

Do you carry writing implements or paper with you? Sand, wax, or blotter? Do you have a barrel of sand handy to remove rust from your tools?

Morgan takes her keys and puts them in her purse before she exits the car to prevent herself from locking the keys inside.

Some habits are self-protective.

My character Adon has a lot of clothes-related habits. He changes clothes when upset, and analyzes people's attitudes based on their clothing.

Kate wrote about a bunch of aliens reacting to hearing a human describe how they lie to get laid. Normal-seeming things can become very weird if you step far outside your normal sphere.

Would carnivorous aliens have dental floss? Probably not.

How do people apportion food? Do they have moral reasons or ostensible health reasons why they would do that? How many vegetables do characters eat? Do they have meals at particular times? We have TONS of narratives and habits around food.

We also have habits related to what we talk about, when, and how.

Do you serve food in the kitchen or at the table? Who gets served first? Do you fill plates in an order? Do you eat standing at a counter with your laptop open? Do you eat fast or slow? Mercedes Lackey does a lot of interesting things about how people access food.

If you're hungry, should you offer everyone else food before you get your own?

What are your dietary habits like?

How do you manage permissions for boundary-crossing? In Mazes of Power, the Imbati ask permission before asking a question, and have a gesture specifically intended to get permission to touch someone.

Do we ask other people before we change the heat settings in a car? In the house?

Kate said when she visited Africa, the habit was to grab the forearm with a handshake. French people who are friends give kisses on the cheek, but which side goes first?

Remember that habits often take time. Sometimes they take other people's time.

Thank you so much to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, November 12 at 4pm Pacific.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Designing Voices 1

We had so much fun with this discussion that we thought we should do it again (which is why I added the number 1 to the title). When talking about voices in this context, it is important to note that I mean character voices rather than author voice. Character voices can show in speech/dialogue or in internalization. If you are using character voice for different points of view, the voice of each point of view must be distinct. When it's done well, you can often tell who is speaking even without the dialog tags.

Morgan mentioned that P. N. Elrod's Blood List as an example of a book with very good character voices.

What are the ingredients that go into distinct character voices? There are many. Vocabulary is a big one. Syntax is another. So is slang. You want to be able to sense the character's cultural background in the way that they choose whether or not to speak, as well as how.

When I was writing The Persistence of Blood, I had a two-year-old character, Pelli. I set her at the two word stage of language development so that I would have a clear set of limitations on how she could communicate. Morgan said she used two word tweets! The trick was allowing her to play a small but important role in the plot, so she had to be able to communicate in a way that was limited, plausible for her age, but also meaningful.

We spent some time talking about word choice. The importance of word choice cannot be understated. The difference between "fall ill" and "get sick" can tell you a lot about a character. It can tell you where this person learned language and what kind of education was available.

A character can have a "native register," i.e. the language they learned first, and also be able to use a prestige dialect, and to code-switch between them.

In one of the later books of my Varin series, I have two characters, Meetis and Corbinan. Both are undercaste. They speak two regional varieties of the undercaste dialect, because they are from two different cities. The biggest difference between these two regional varieties is the pronoun usage. (Pronoun usage is a hugely useful tool for differentiating voices). Meetis also knows how to code-switch to her local prestige dialect of Varinin, while Corbinan cannot. This makes an enormous difference in how they are treated by gatekeepers.

It's important to note that people without power often develop an instinct for understanding those with power and how they speak and operate. It's a survival skill. The reverse is much less the case.

In English, use of sir or ma'am is regional.

How people choose their conversation moves as they open talk with another person is also an aspect of voice.

If you ask a classroom full of people to write about what the teacher is doing, you will find they have different voices. One of the elements that often differs is the term of address used for the teacher. Does a student call him Mr. X? Does the student call him by first name? Do they call him "Dad"? How far a person can flout the formal context of the classroom will vary depending on where the class is happening. Our friend in Japan taught her daughter in class for a year and they both used exclusively formal forms of address (Y-san, Y-sensei) while in the classroom context.

We spoke briefly about dialogue tags. Many people these days argue that "____ said" is the only acceptable type of tag. I personally use all sorts. This brought us to the question of repetition.

Repetition is such a critical topic that we really need to spend an hour on it another time. That said, we spent some time talking about it here. It's a powerful tool in writing, and you need to be aware of how you are using it. Very often in edits, I find myself eliminating repetitions of words. The reason for this is that readers will notice if you repeat words, and they will expect there to be some reason why they are being repeated. Is a word being repeated because it's important? If yes, great. If no... ask yourself if it is a marked word or an unmarked word.

"Said," as used in dialog tags, is an unmarked word. You can repeat it as many times as you like and it just fades into the background. Small function words like "the" are also unmarked. Marked words are ones that are more important and draw attention. Those repetitions are the ones that should either be significant or absent. If a character uses a particular word or phrase repeatedly, it can help to make clear that their character is the one speaking.

It's important to think both about the character points of view, and about the potential audience. Thinking about your reader's pattern of language use is critical because a word choice that means one thing to the characters can mean something different to readers. Watch out for things that will hit the reader in a weird or problematic way.

One of the tools I love to use when I'm designing voices is meter. By this I mean "poetic meter," or the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each word, and how they string together. Iambic pentameter, well known as the Shakespearean meter, is five "feet" where each foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (an iamb). You can actually take classes on the linguistics of poetic meter - I have taken one, and I found it fascinating. Shakespearean sonnets and their iambic pentameter (example) are very different from the rhythmically different poems of the Australian Banjo Patterson (example).

A speaker of the Pelismar dialect of Varinin might say "I'm sorry I'm late."
A speaker of the Safe Harbor dialect of Varinin would say "I blame the tides."
Metrically, these two are very different.

"Bless your heart" is an example of a phrase that can mean different things depending on context. It can either be "Wow, this person has no clue and I don't know how to dignify what they said" or it can sometimes be sympathetic, or mean "You're so kind." This isn't always the phrase used for those purposes. Depending on region or time period, someone might say "Isn't that special," or "Thank you for sharing with me."

The House on Mango Street is an example of a book with a very distinct and powerful voice.

When we talk about voice, then, how does that connect with worldbuilding? Basically, a person's identity and background have a lot to do with what they care about and what they notice. Culture, in the sense of how a person was brought up and what they were taught was important, can easily be seen in voice.

In Transgressions of Power, the character Adon tends to judge noble people's attitudes based on what they are wearing. "Lady Selemei's dress looks like it's made of panels of steel so she's obviously taking this seriously."

The voice carries the character. Personality is expressed in language. People also have different contexts in which they speak differently.

Morgan and I had a great conversation. There is so much more here to talk about that I am planning to revisit this topic very soon.

Dive into Worldbuilding will meet this week on Tuesday, November 5 at 4PM Pacific. I hope to see you there!


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Designing pivotal historical events

This topic is about looking at a world you're building and trying to understand the underlying historical conditions that brought it to its current state.

In our world, we see events like the American Civil war that create effects that lasts for hundreds of years. Another event that we discussed was the Genpei war in Japan, which led to the move of the Japanese capital from Kyoto to Kamakura, and can be considered the reason why the current capital of Japan is in the east rather than the west.

LaShawn mentioned that she's working on a short story in a secondary world where people feel "we've always been this way" but the main character goes back and finds her own history and how it was influenced by events that impacted her people.

LaShawn described first sitting down and figuring out the history behind the story. She thought maybe she should set it on a spaceship, but then realized the character couldn't go to the kind of market she was thinking of if she was on a space ship. She observed disparities in how people lived (high tech vs horse and carriage) and thought about how that could happen. Something must have occurred that made it that way. She picked out a fun detail, opened up, and it it led to more.

Tonya told us about her novel in progress, which has links to her time in Trinidad. She told us about the book They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima, which details evidence of Africans in the Caribbean before Columbus' arrival. A fleet disappeared from Mali might have landed in Brazil, for example. Tonya went through the book "with a fine-toothed comb" and used elements of it in her novel.

I talked about how the secondary world of Varin, which has humans but is unrelated to Earth, has an Earthlike environment but a completely different history. Part of this history I designed after looking at what I'd written and asking questions like, "Why would these people have such a uniform single religion?" I developed a lot of the history and details of Varin after studying anthropology and linguistics.

One way to approach the question of designing events is to look at a current-day situation in your world where you find social group A and social group B. Examine it. Is this an ethnic difference? Is it a racial difference? Are they people of the same race but different ethnicity? Then you can ask how this divide came about. Was it colonization that brought the two groups together? Was it invasion? Is one group faith-based and one not? Is there any group that treats science as a religion?

These questions are certainly not only relevant to secondary worlds. If you are working with alternate history, it's really critical to identify the divergence point (or points).

LaShawn told us about her story "Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good." It was alternate history because it introduced an element that hadn't happened in the past. LaShawn's research suggested that both singers had lived in Chicago, but that the real life Rosetta had moved to New York in the early 1920s. So she decided to change it so Rosetta stays in Chicago, and the means she used was a quarantine. Quarantine suggests an illness, so she asked what that would be like. The virus in the story causes people to look dead and also explode. These zombie-like beings are called "stumps." Singers with unique voices are able to get rid of the stumps, so the government conscripts singers.

If Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were conscripted as exterminators, how would that affect history? LaShawn says that big bands would be more popular because singing was restricted. She was able to relate it to Prohibition history. It's our world, but it went down a different path. She got to ask how it would affect World War II.

It's always worth asking where the divergence points are in alternate history.

Tonya has designed a world in which everyone is born with a specific magical ability, but the world is a lot like our own and people's abilities are used for practical things, like rock manipulators being used for construction. She told us about a story where the main character can enter people's dreams and help them with trauma recovery or mental illness. She did ask a historical question in this world: what if Egypt had never stopped being a superpower? What if Egypt remained with its advanced culture and passed it to Greece and Rome? What would the consequences of that be?

I mentioned Beth Cato's trilogy that begins with the book Breath of Earth. That's an alternate history scenario that incorporates a lot of critical changes in geopolitics, and explores their consequences on the political level but also on the personal level.

Thank you to both LaShawn and Tonya for joining me for this discussion! If you are enjoying Dive into Worldbuilding, and would like a more extensive experience, support us on Patreon and join the Dive into Worldbuilding workshop:


Thursday, October 3, 2019

J. M. Frey and the Skylark Saga

It was a real pleasure to have J. M. Frey on the show! The Skylark Saga consists of two books, The Skylark's Song, and The Skylark's Sacrifice, the latter of which just came out, and is Jess' ninth novel. I asked her if the novel was steampunk, as it has something of a steampunk vibe, but she described it more as dieselpunk, and said the historical era it was modeled on was more Edwardian than Victorian - i.e. that it was slightly later, historically. Dieselpunk, Jess says, is about taking account for the impacts of discovery, and looking at colonialism.

The Skylark's Song takes place at the end of a ten-year war, during which two nations have moved into a third nation and forced those people from their homes and ways of life. The Klonn, who use diesel and other fossil fuels and have airplanes, are fighting against the Saskwya, who have gliders and zeppelins, and use solar and wind. The war has left behind ecological devastation and deprivation. Jess told us that while the Klonn, who are romantic and classist, like horse-drawn carriages, everyone else has eaten horses and walks everywhere they go.

Jess explained that she spent a year living in France when she was sixteen. She told us that in high school when they explain World War I and World War II, they don't talk about the "scar left in the planet." She was walking on one of the Normandy beaches when they found unexploded ordnance. There was a rotting American warship in the bay that was too dangerous to move. They don't know how much barbed wire is under the sand.

What gets left behind, she asks. What does ten years of war do to a confined area? What resources would be used up? How would you feed your army?

The world in the Skylark Saga is an invented one. It has influences from our Europe, and is of a similar size, but is not a representation of it. Jess says that she hasn't worked with the rest of this world because she's been focusing on this conflict. War makes you concentrate on the immediate surroundings. As Paul said, it's a focused story.

The main character in the books, Robin, is neither Klonn nor Saskwya, but indigenous to the area where they are fighting. She was seven when the war started, and was conscripted at age 11. She's been promoted several times. Her life is defined by war. She's a member of a population with a different religion from either of the governing parties. Her knowledge of the world all comes from generals. She has a very tightly focused point of view.

Jess says she's "very single-minded." She told us Robin was modeled on Billy Bishop, a Canadian hero who went to war in World War I. He saw people dying and said to himself, "This is not how I'm going to die." He'd been lazy and a grifter, but he went into the airforce and shot down more planes than anyone else. He wanted the war to stop, so he got really good at his job. Jess described herself as using one of his lines, "I refuse to die in the mud," for Robin.

Jess told us she didn't model the war in this series on a specific war, though it draws inspiration from real history. She uses the series to consider the impact of colonialism, industrialism, etc. on indigenous populations. She looks at how they push back. She drew our attention to historical events in our world between about 1880 and the 1920s as her main source of ingredients.

As an author, she says, when inviting people into fantasy places, you need touchpoints. You need to recognize a place you already know. This is why Star Trek has things like bars, restaurants, and Shakespeare.

She was pulling in WWI material, diesel technology, and a rocket pack in the style of The Rocketeer. A rocket pack that was not working was given to the Klonn as an insulting gift, and Robin is expected at one point to try to repair it. The areas depicted in the story are intended to evoke the Black Forest, and No Man's Land. Saskwya has some elements of Spain, while the Klonn are a bit like a 17th century fairy tale.

I told Jess that Robin's people reminded me of the Roma because of the way they had moved from place to place. She allowed that comparison, but also said there was a parallel in the Trail of Tears and residential schools. Identity is stolen from you. You are not able to practice your religion or use your idiom.

Jess told us that the place she started when figuring out the peoples in this story was to figure out how they swear. If you can figure out how they swear, you can figure out what it means to blaspheme, and then find what the people hold holy, and from there you can work into their ideals and what they aspire to.

Robin's people, the Sealies, worship multiple small gods and say, "Omens!" when they swear. Their gods must be bargained with. The Benne aristocracy of Saskwya worship the All-Mother. The Klonn worship the Seven Arts. Jess told us that the Greeks held out their hands while praying to receive the favor of the gods. Sealies hold their hands up so that gods can land there. Gods of ill luck, by contrast, will land on your shoulder, so you should brush your shoulder with crossed fingers to discourage them. The Sealies believe that bees are messengers of the gods. They eat honey and keep hives, and a lot of their phrases are built on the theme of bees. They also move around, so honey is much easier to acquire than refined sugar. You need clothes you can roll up and stick on your back. They feed food into the fire for the gods. Refined sugar is important for the Benne, who are stationary and have walk-in closets.

The plot of the saga involves an Enemies to Lovers storyline, and there's an interesting story behind it. Jess told us she'd never written UA before, though she's friends with a number of other Canadian YA writers. Jess says YA is much harder to write than you think. She wrote this story initially on a drunken dare when she was at the Canadian National exhibition. After she'd finished telling it to a group of friends they told her it was a good idea and she should make a book. The first time she wrote it, there was no love interest. She felt that as narrow-minded as Robin was, she would not try to have a romance while in a war. But after she got an agent for the book, he said that it needed a love interest. Jess disagreed, so she made a point of having the characters clash. These characters come from wildly different backgrounds and have very different views of the war and of religion. Eventually she started to appreciate the storyline when she was able to have Robin keep her emotional intelligence and her "don't come near me with those lips" attitude but find ways for her to fall in love anyway.

Jess says she always trusts her reader to be intelligent enough to understand. She felt that the prose in Dune was condescending. She says "the more complexity I can add to my story, the happier a duck I am!" The idea of the opposing pilots coming together was never something she liked in the book until she leaned into it harder and made it more complex.

Jess has an entire wall of whiteboard in the room where she writes, and she uses it to keep track of all kinds of world elements, including notes on people's eye color and how they take their tea.

Jess told us about her background in theater school, which gave her skills she uses in character building. She has a lot of awareness of physical traits and verbal tics. She has played both Annie and Anne of Green Gables, and though they are both technically named Ann, they have totally different physicality. She says she admires Martin Freeman's work because his portrayals of Everett Ross and Dr. Watson are so different. How does a character stand? How does he hold his hands? Does he lean? Does he cross his ankles? Does he have language habits? Whenever she discovers something good about a character, she writes it on the wall. She has done acting exercises, talking to the character of The Coyote while vacuuming. She explains that improv classes are a powerful tool for writers and recommends them to everyone. They help you let characters inside your body.

When she meets a character, she considers how many times she's going to use them, whether they're a recurring extra or a principal. How much life do they require? Characters can always grow to serve a scene or narrative.

One thing that's nice about writing is that you don't get just one go at it. Jess described having tons and tons of drafts of her different works, so I asked her what she considered a "draft." She said a draft is anything where she has to rethink something, add or delete something "where I might regret it in the morning."

She told us everybody makes writing sound so magical, like it's not six hours at a keyboard. "It's boring. It's labor." People will ask her if she meant to do some clever thing in the manuscript, and she'll think, "I'm so happy you found that because that took me six days to do."

Her Accidental Turn series was supposed to be one book, but when she signed with a publisher, they wanted the next two books. The publisher's argument was "it's about [literary] tropes, so it has to be a trilogy." By that time, she'd already erased The Wall, and she had to reconstruct it. She had no map, so she had to go back and reconstruct it. She hired her former roommate to help her, and they had to do things like change the location of towns on the map based on how she'd described traveling between them. It was a "crunchy process" in a pub for three days.

Jess, thank you so much for coming on the show and talking about The Skylark and your writing process! It was a really interesting chat. Dive into Worldbuilding meets today, October 3, 2019 at 4pm Pacific to discuss Designing Pivotal Historical Events. I hope you can join us! The link to the meeting is:


Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Story Elements and Worldbuilding

This was a delightful discussion that went to a lot of different places. The question we looked at was "How many things are affected by worldbuilding in your story?"

Of course, the simplified answer is "everything." Worldbuilding and story are not separate, but there are people who are inclined to think about worldbuilding as a separate activity from storytelling, where you have a world bible you can look at to one side of your story. This discussion explored some of the many, many different ways that story and world are interconnected.

Kate says it's easy to miss good worldbuilding if you're not paying attention. She wants to see a background moment in a story that involves briefcase-sized kits for making insulin. Not the focus of the story,  just a moment to show that gatekeeping in medicine has fundamentally changed.

Morgan thought about cell phones. The technology of communication is incredibly important in suspense films and basically any other story where you have to anticipate how easily a message can travel. There has even been a line, "How did we ever fight crime without cell phones?"

Worldbuilding is like a gigantic continuum that stretches from planetary location and structure to geography and climate, and onward into architecture and food and social practices. It goes all the way from the macro- to the micro-scale.

Morgan observed that some stories can't be told in some worlds. Building on the cell phone idea, some stories depend on constrictions in communication. If you have cell phones, you can't cut the phone wires. On the other hand, you can find creative reasons why cell phones might not work.

Older people have different stories, because they have experienced different kinds of cultural and technological changes. Characters of different ages may not use certain items, or might use them in distinctly different ways. We talked about the character of Dot on Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, who starts out terrified of the telephone because she's been told by a priest that it's dangerous.

When you have different point of view characters, there isn't just one world; different characters have personal worlds. You can tell a story about moving out of your personal world into a larger shared world, or clashing with it, understanding or not understanding it.

Worldbuilding is all about taking advantage of exciting opportunities. It's a holistic process that links the large scale with the small scale.

Paul rightly pointed out that because everything in the world is connected, your point of entry can be anything.

I explained how I went about designing the Varin cities and expanding the variability of the cave systems in which they were built using models in our world: the Gouffre de Padirac, Derinkuyu, and the Skocjanske Jame.

Kate said she can steer any conversation to the topic of plate tectonics in five moves or fewer.

We also talked about the unrealistic geography in The Lord of the Rings. At that time, much less was broadly known about geography, and you could make things up, but now you have so many more resources on the topic that you don't have to.

Remember, when you are not making things up, it's less work!

It's also really important to think about the social part of worldbuilding, the part that builds the people and supports your characters. Character psychology is also tied to worldbuilding.

A lot of the time, you should not feel like you are wondering what is in a particular place; you should be trying to figure out what has to be there based on the principles you have set up.

In Varin, I set up a situation where all young noble women have personal bodyguards. This has significant implications for their social relationships, and for the social relationships of boys.

Always ask about implications. Stick a pin in a spot, and the implications of that choice will spread out and go everywhere.

Phenomena that appear to be incompatible may exist in different social groups within the same country or region.

Kate asked, "How hard is physics to deal with?" She suggests that convergent evolution is stronger than we think. Maybe alien worlds would be more similar to ours than we speculate.

Paul remarked that eyes have evolved several times in different genuses on Earth. Bats and birds both fly. Penguins fly, but in a different medium.

Oceanic creatures have some similarities because the medium they inhabit is "Hard to deal with." Some have emerged from the ocean but retain signs of their past presence there.

Models of bipedalism on Earth include the human model and the kangaroo model (and others). Kate called kangaroos "the T-rexes of deer."

It's worth thinking about neurology, too. This includes the neurology of dinosaurs and of everyone else.

Organisms and the ways they relate to their world offer a lot of cool worldbuilding opportunities. What if there were color-blind aliens? Kate said, "Punchy shrimp see sixteen extra colors, so they say, 'no, you're the colorblind one.'"

That said, we have one electromagnetic spectrum. This leads to commonalities in color words across Earth culture, for example.

Language is an enormous opportunity in worldbuilding that people don't often take sufficient advantage of. Each language is going to have to try to solve some of the same communication problems, but it might not do so in the same way. Japanese expresses the manner in which an activity is done via adverbs, when English uses a proliferation of verbs.

Morgan notes that the scope of possible worldbuilding can be daunting. The world is huge, and lots of things can happen at once. We need to understand the major influences that are most relevant to the story.

Some historical events can have a significant influence on culture and language. The American Civil War was one such period. The Genpei War in Japan had a significant influence on warfare, and also indirectly led to the naming of certain kinds of crabs.

Any time you have social groups like cliques or castes, etc. you can ask yourself where these groups came from. How did they form? Why did they form?

You can obviously create simple distinctions without interrogating them. If you simplify, you can give the impression of a culture that is like an animated film versus a live action film. This can be done well, but it's worth being careful.

Ask how people's places of origin affect their characters, and how they affect their relationships. Morgan noted that assumptions like whether someone will be college-bound or not, while seemingly simple, can have enormous influence on people's lives.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 4pm Pacific to talk with guest author J. M. Frey about her Skylark Saga. I hope you can join us! The link to the Zoom meeting is:


Monday, September 16, 2019

Predictability and Unpredictability

If you're reading this, thank you so much for continuing to seek out Dive into Worldbuilding! After some exploration of technology options, the show is back. We're using Zoom meetings and streaming them live to YouTube. This past week we spoke about predictability and unpredictability.

What makes stories predictable?

First, it's useful to ask how we predict things in the first place. We use our observations of patterns in the world to speculate about what will happen next. Many of these patterns are culturally influenced. We also create narratives to make sense of events in our lives.

After you've read a lot of books or watched a lot of shows, you can become very good at guessing what will happen next. This can be a good or bad thing.

Kat observed that culturally, writers are trained into using act structure. We are trained to try to create a page-turning narrative of a particular type, with beats, etc. We participate in a shared storytelling culture, which uses template stories and variations on those. Storytelling cultures across history have had particular patterns they follow when telling stories. Following tropes and breaking them becomes part of this process, based on the kind of tropes that exist in a particular storytelling culture. There is a particular rhythm to narrative structure.

Unfamiliarity with a storytelling tradition from a different culture can make it unpredictable.

Storytelling is not always a straight line, but can be a winding ball of narrative.

If you are retelling a Cinderella story, readers who know the myth allow you to play more with the story. If you have unfamiliar readers, you will generally need to hew closer to the original.

The stories we tell generally maintain a balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. This brings us back to Jed Hartman's idea of "author points," which are a kind of trust credit between the reader and the writer. You need to keep a minimum level of points so that the reader won't give up on you. Keeping some things realistic can allow you to make other things less so.

Of course, we then run into the problem of dragons versus people of color in a fantasy scenario. People seem to have an easy time spending their points on dragons, and much harder time spending them on people of color (because of racism). So the use of such points is not as straightforward as it might seem, but is also culturally influenced.

People who mention potatoes and chocolate in fantasy settings are generally not thinking about whether there was a Columbian exchange or similar event in their world. People in fantasy often have spices but don't necessarily think about the countries those spices came from.

Reality is less predictable than the narratives we tell about it.

We can play with reader expectations, but doing simple flips on discrimination (what N.K. Jemisin calls discrimiflip) is generally problematic because simple flips tend to leave out a lot of underlying pieces, and implications are often under-explored.

Ann Leckie asks the question "what if hands were the thing you weren't supposed to expose?" This defeats our expectation that bare hands are unremarkable, and is a subtle way to play around with those expectations.

When you are accustomed to a homogeneous culture, you can imagine that some things are unusual when they might be much less so. Look further afield to other cultures to help expand your ideas.

People tend not to appreciate it when they are called predictable. Why might that be?

We really, REALLY want something like gravity to be predictable, because it causes enormous problems in our lives if it is not.

Unpredictability is stressful.

Grounding in a story is something we expect and don't want to change. Then there are gray areas, and then there are the things we want to be new.

Paul talked about it in terms of wonder and novelty vs. comfort.

Character behavior is one place where readers often prefer consistency and comfort. If Superman starts doing bad things, it's jarring.

Bertie Botts unpredictable jelly beans are great if you chose to eat them, but much less so if you have them handed to you.

What do we do to set expectations in a story? Very often we can make use of point of view and a character's judgment to set up guidelines about what we want readers to learn and to expect. Why is something familiar or different to the character?

The same story can be comforting or uncomfortable depending on the context. What if your shoes fit? It could be normal, or it could be wildly weird and suggest that shoe gnomes had come to your house.

Morgan noted that predictability varies depending on the scale you are looking at. We can predict a child will grow, and make some predictions about the final result of that growth, but we have very little ability to predict that growth on the shorter term.

Paul remarked that we have good modeling to predict the weather in the next few days, but far less to predict it on the long term. Chaos and unpredictability should be built into a world on some level. Climate change is bringing stressful unpredictability.

People find all sorts of reasons to throw over phenomena they find upsetting, and may deny the actual causes of events in favor of comforting narratives.

We then talked about how we feel about spoilers. I prefer hearing spoilers because I like to pay close attention to a narrative without feeling anxiety about the outcome. Paul says he thinks spoilers sometimes get you excited for the book. But is it robbing you of the chance for wonder, or is it prepping you for what you want? Depending on how you feel about it, you may love or hate spoilers.

What about in your writing process? Do you need to know where the story is going? Morgan said she likes to have a place for it to go, but she doesn't necessarily know how it will get there. Some people have told me they get shut down if they know where the story is going because they feel like they have already written it and are no longer motivated. Sometimes you can wrestle the story into where you need it to go; sometimes you can follow.

A story contains lots of incidental details. Sometimes those details are important and sometimes not. You may realize, after you've written a lot more of the story, that some of those details are more important than you thought they were.

If you come to a story with genre expectations, you will tend to have a set of trained expectations that a non-genre reader might not have.

When you approach a door, what is your expectation? That it will pull open? That it will push open? That it will slide aside, or go up, or dilate?

Working in the kitchen can be predictable or unpredictable. Planned recipes are generally predictable, while working with leftovers is unpredictable. Working just by taste has a whole new dimension of unpredictability.

Predictability and unpredictability are localized in the individual's expectations.

Kat noted that when we watch mimes or clowns we have an assumption that they won't get hurt, which is important to their success. In the real world, we'd have much more fear of injury.

Children often don't share an adult's sense of the ordinary or normal.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! Dive into Worldbuilding will meet tomorrow, September 17th, 2019 at 4pm Pacific to discuss Story Elements and Worldbuilding. How thorough and interconnected should our worldbuilding aim to be, and how many things does it influence?


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Julie Czerneda and The Gossamer Mage

We had a delightful visit today from author Julie Czerneda, who came on the show to talk about The Gossamer Mage, her twentieth (20th!!!) novel, which is coming out on August 6, 2019.

I asked her where the idea for the book started, and she said it started with a pen - and proceeded to show us the pen in question! She brought a lot of cool props to show us, so I encourage you all to check out the video if you're curious about them.

One of the things that Julie explored while writing this was the history of ink. Battles were fought over areas of the world that provided good ink ingredients, and pirates stole ink as well as other things.

I've always found constrained magic systems very interesting, so I asked her to tell us about the magic system she used in The Gossamer Mage. Julie said she agreed with me that she liked constrained systems. She said she liked it when everyone knows how to use the magic, but wait, it's not so simple. This particular magic system is constrained in part because it requires writing, which means it requires a particular type of scholarship. You have to be able to write words that are not human words, and to intend them. Further, this magic can only be done in the one place in the world where magic remains. One important ingredient here is that magic used to be in more of the world, but is no longer present except in one region, ringed with mountains.

Thus, magic is constrained physically, and it is constrained to scholars. The other important ingredient here is that you almost feel sorry for the mages. Every time you use magic, the Deathless Goddess (source of magic) takes a part of your life. If you meet a very old mage, it doesn't mean that person is necessarily particularly old, but will depend on how much magic that person has used. Each time you use magic, you get a bell that you can put in your hair or on a wig or hat. Julie told us the bells are "good advertising." If you have twenty bells, you're a student. If you have 100, you know what you're doing. If you have 300, why are you still alive? I asked Julie if mages lived to a hypothetical fated life length, or just as long as the Deathless Goddess wanted them around, but her answer was more interesting: "You are around as long as you have the will power to be around."

One of the very tricky aspects of being a mage is that if you have this power, you have a lust to use it, so it's difficult - particularly for young mages - to stop themselves from using it again and again. The mage school is "a home for those who are helpless against magic." It sends its students out to do magic and earn money for the school.

I really appreciate when authors consider social implications of their systems, and Julie is doing a great job of this in this book. She told us about families whose sons become mages, and what it means to them. One family is just really happy and sends their son off, but another considers this a family loss, because it means their son will die so much earlier.

Julie told us about how much she likes to describe real objects. She showed us a Murano glass pen that was the inspiration for one of the important pens in the book. She also showed us a 100 year old ink pot that was designed so it could be screwed down and attached to a surface.

I asked Julie how she reconciled working with objects from our world in the context of a created world. She says she wants to create a world that is seamless for readers. The world of The Gossamer Mage has some medieval aspects, but is more like 18th century England.  The Murano glass comes from a place that is foreign, a nearby island. The ink pot also plays a critical role in the story. Julie says tying real things into the fantasy makes it more concrete.

Julie told us that this book is a bit unusual in that it has no chapters. It started as a series of novellas. Before each of the novellas is something called a Fundamental Lexicon, a 1-2 page history that gives context for the piece that follows it.

The Lady (the Deathless Goddess) does not allow travel.

Once, non-humans ruled the magical land of Tananen. When humans came, they interpreted what they found. What would we do if we came across a fount of magic?

Many people in Tananen live in Holds. Though each hold is ruled by a Holder, the land is held by the Hold Daughter, and she has the power to eradicate the entire population of the Hold if she feels like it.

The use of magic is gendered in a really interesting way. Men become mages, and women become Hold Daughters. Julie told us she looked to matriarchal societies from Earth history, where women owned and controlled property. In the society of Tananen, women are the tenders of magic, and men are the users.

Cliff mentioned that it seems as though Julie often visits themes of longevity and gender in her work. He asked if this was a conscious decision on her part. Julie said "It's more that they've collided." She described herself as always being an educator, and wanting to portray strong women. She's also a biologist, so she uses the definition "if it reproduces, it's a female." She says that she doesn't pull punches in The Gossamer Mage.

This book has a gorgeous cover, in a different style from those of her previous books. DAW was looking to produce more iconic covers. Julie said her husband made the original concept art using the pen that they had. Once he turned in that art, the art department came back with the cover art in less than a day!

I asked Julie about what she'd previously said about how the people of Tananen don't travel. Tananen is ringed by mountains referred to as Her Fist, and has one port, and a waterfall known as Her Veil. Any animal created by magic within Tananen turns to dust if it passes through Her Veil, and strangers who try to enter exhale, and then can't inhale again. This is a pretty effective deterrent to travel, especially given that the people of Tananen aren't sure they won't also turn to dust if they leave their home.

Julie then announced she couldn't go on without talking about the beards. The beards in the story are an example of the trivial use of magic (thus, the trivial use of people's lives). People put ornaments in their beards that sing, or have a smell, or have other magical properties. Women will glue beards to their faces in order to be able to participate in this fashion. It's a fashion of the rich, since most people in the country are working people who don't bother with much ornament. It's a fascinating view on how magic and its users are trivialized in some contexts.

I asked Julie about the language she uses in the story. She told me first about the different dialects of Tananen. In the lowlands is where you find people who are wealthier and speak a high-class "civilized" dialect. Up nearer to the ring of mountains, you find a different dialect. Then, in the mountains themselves, you have still another dialect. Sometimes people in the story use their native dialect to be obscure, even to insult someone without them entirely understanding and being able to take offense. Julie said she wanted a sense of the difference in how we speak when we travel vs. when we speak with our families. I always love to see code-switching in a book!

In fantasy, language is very important. Julie said it's important to recognize how quickly language changes for isolated groups.

I then asked her about the name suffixes. These are fascinating pieces of language that acknowledge a mage or Hold Daughter's relationship to the Deathless Goddess. The suffix -eonarial is for mages, and means "Debtor to the Lady."  The suffix -ealyon is for Hold Daughters and means "Promised to the Lady."

Julie told us that when she was working on the three main Tananen dialects, she consulted with her son, who is a linguist. Mostly people throw in different words, or drop letters. As for the untranslated pieces of language, these she termed "echoes of the past." A lot of these names are names that were already there when people first arrived in Tananen. She said it would be like calling a place Thor's Hammer if you didn't know what a hammer was, or who Thor was.

One of the really interesting pieces of the story is a character who believes that they can't have the magic continue, because he doesn't want to see young men's lives sacrificed to fashion and horses with night vision.

I asked Julie about the "made animals," and she said one of the things that people do with magic is create horses who don't have the limitations of real horses, i.e. they function like machines and can go without eating or doing all the normal things horses do. Another interesting made creature is called a "maul." It looks like a dog, but stands like a man, and mauls often serve as guards. Magic can also be used for subtle things, like changing the seeds of a crop so that it will be immune in the next generation to a disease it is currently suffering from.

The language of magic is only spoken by Hold Daughters, but even for them it's painful, because it's not really being spoken by them; instead, they are being spoken through by the Deathless Goddess herself.

Julie offered to show us "something else that's real," and showed us a picture of buildings in the Cotswolds region of England. This was the architectural inspiration for the Mage school. Julie also showed us the original map of the Mage school. I asked her for a moment about the hedges at the mage school. She said they were useful because they were cheap, sturdy fencing, and had wildlife in them. They also allow for eavesdropping or peeking through. In the story they have a key role as wind breaks to stop the students at the school while they fish for carp!

Julie told us she likes practical things.

The main door of the Mage school is a made swan whose wings are the doors. (Such a cool image!)

She said that most of her research was into ink and pens, particularly into the question of how to make in. She also researched the speed of barges so she could gauge the scale of her map on the basis of how long it took people to travel from one place to another.

I asked her about whether her training as a biologist had applied directly to this book. She said that mostly, it influenced the way she observes the natural world. As an example, she told us about a scene in which there are rings of ice around the base of the cattails, suggesting that there was a freeze the night before. This kind of detail is a wonderful way of simply conveying that this is a climate with extremes. She also has a character who travels from the sea coast to the interior, finds gulls there, and considers them inferior because they are smaller and have other slight differences. It is quite common to find gulls inland, however!

She says this book stands alone, because "there can't be" further books. Julie described it saying that in this book, "I ask a question, and I answer it to my satisfaction." The book is meant to linger with a reader.

Julie also showed us the original version of the map of Tananen, both right side-up and upside-down.

Morgan passed on a question from her daughter, which was "Why do you keep making me cry?" Julie couldn't answer that, but did tell us that she considers emotional catharsis important. She never sets out to manipulate people. As she describes it, "My emotions go through the wringer first."

This was a delightful and fascinating conversation. Thank you so much, Julie, for coming on the show!

Please be aware that Dive into Worldbuilding is going into its summer hiatus between now and August 20th. I will let you know on August 19th whether we will start meeting again on the 20th or the 27th. Thank you so much for your support, and please visit my Patreon to support the show more directly!