Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Aligning "Ordinary" Judgment

Welcome to week 11 of the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! This week's entry comes from Megs. Thanks for submitting! As I generally do, I'll begin by highlighting in blue all the words that I use to pick up worldbuilding information, and directly following the excerpt, I'll talk about how those words give me entry into the world.

***
The alchemist was a little old man tottering about his snug, comfortable little house at the edge of the village. It was a mountain cabin, quite ordinary, except of course for the lush foliage growing just outside his front door, come rain or shine, snowy winter or burning summer, and except for the garden back behind his house with the trees that never dropped their leaves or lost their chittering squirrel residents. Aside from these simple, reasonable differences, there was rather nothing out of the ordinary about his cabin and his fireplace and his stacks of wood and his cheerful elderly face, remarkably free from wrinkles, and his white hair and his carved wooden cane and the general way he went about his business among the common folk.

On a rather ordinary autumn day, when the leaves were just beginning to fall throughout the village and up the red and golden slopes of the short balding mountain rising to the north, something extraordinary happened. The village children stopped their play, clutching dolls and small iron horses in their hands, to gape at the real horse stepping now onto their dusty road. The village mothers ceased their chattering gossip and weaving and kneading and general busyness to stare at the magnificent embroidered cloak of the rider. The village fathers set down their mugs of brew and their records and their pounding hammers and warily eyed the noble's disdainful expression. The young men stopped beating the bellows and running about on errands to instead follow the progress of the stranger between their houses and stalls and penned enclosures toward the house of the little old man at the edge of the village with his green trees not turned to gold and his bushy roses and apples still giving off the scent of summer.

This was not an ordinary thing at all. Nobility, especially men, did not show up in little mountain villages supported by ironwork and copper. They did not ride down the center of the village with attention only to spare for the village alchemist. In fact, they did not visit alchemists at all!

Needless to say, the children and mothers and fathers and young men and young women gathered about the old man's house to see what would happen. The young noble with his disdainful look and his fabulous cloak paid them no heed as he dismounted from his fine horse and strode up to the door of the mountain cabin and knocked.

The villagers could hear the puttering of the little man's feet and the tapping of his cane, then the turning of the copper knob on his door. The door opened larger than a crack, but smaller than a welcome, and the alchemist's white head poked around the edge of the door.

"May I help you?"

The noble wasted no time. "I am told you are an alchemist." He paused dramatically. "A successful one."

The alchemist squinted up into the noble's face. "I am."
***

This one sets us in its world rather quickly with the idiosyncratic word, "alchemist." When I hear this word I think of a particular era and type of magic system as well. It's a word so specific it carries a lot of specific baggage. The fact that he is a little old man doesn't surprise me, but the worldbuilding information in this phrase is more about the type of story voice and less about location. Location comes from the snug, comfortable little house and the word village. We get further clarification from the words mountain cabin, and a visual picture that comes from the lush foliage. Climate information is given in the description of the plants, with rain or shine, snowy winter or burning summer. We get even more about the physical locale with the trees that never dropped their leaves and the squirrels. The first social information we get comes from the words common folk, which suggests we're in a world with both common and uncommon folk. Though I find "alchemist" very specific, it's not so specific to an urban environment (which is what first comes up for me) that I don't easily accept the more rural description that follows.

Those are my thoughts on initial world entry. At this point I'm going to do my traditional think-aloud, by going through the excerpt again and this time inserting my comments in brown.

***
The alchemist **[I get a lot right here; now to test it.] was a little old man **[sounds rather fairytale-like] tottering about his snug, comfortable little house at the edge of the village.**[This fits with the fairytale model; interesting that the alchemist is not in a more urban environment.] It was a mountain cabin, quite ordinary**[This sticks out, because since mountain cabins are not ordinary to me, I'm expecting a world-situated evaluation of what is normal and what is not.], except of course for the lush foliage growing just outside his front door, come rain or shine, snowy winter or burning summer,**[so he's using magic to grow plants. This is not normal even for me!] and except for the garden back behind his house with the trees that never dropped their leaves **[this indicates I should expect trees that would ordinarily lose their leaves, so gives me a hint of what I might find in the surrounding area.] or lost their chittering squirrel residents. **[Do the squirrels of the nearby area move away? Hmm...] Aside from these simple, reasonable differences,**[are these reasonable differences? Since they're not reasonable for me, I start wondering who exactly they're reasonable for.] there was rather nothing out of the ordinary about his cabin and his fireplace and his stacks of wood and his cheerful elderly **[this is a more modern expression and surprised me after "little old man" earlier] face, remarkably free from wrinkles, and his white hair and his carved wooden cane **[much personality here] and the general way he went about his business among the common folk.**[Ah, so we have at least two strata of people, common and uncommon. I'll be looking to learn more.]

On a rather ordinary autumn day**[we have "ordinary" again, so I immediately expect something to happen which is not ordinary.], when the leaves were just beginning to fall throughout the village and up the red and golden slopes of the short balding mountain**[Is it balding because leaves are falling?] rising to the north, something extraordinary happened. The village children **[ah, we have people] stopped their play, clutching dolls and small iron horses **[nice indicators of common technology] in their hands, to gape at the real horse **[this is interesting. Are horses rare? Or is it the type of horse that would stand out?] stepping now onto their dusty road. **[I conclude that the village is unpaved, not even with stones.] The village mothers ceased their chattering gossip and weaving and kneading and general busyness **[This expresses what is normal behavior for women in this place] to stare at the magnificent embroidered cloak of the rider.**[The cloak suggests technology and art and also the rarity of such skills, so it does a lot here.] The village fathers set down their mugs of brew and their records**[what does this mean?] and their pounding hammers and warily eyed the noble's **[So there are noblemen, not just rich men. This is interesting social information, and clarifies the earlier reference to "common folk."] disdainful expression. The young men stopped beating the bellows and running about on errands **[so this is what is normal for young men] to instead follow the progress of the stranger between their houses and stalls and penned enclosures **[more details of what is in the village.] toward the house of the little old man at the edge of the village with his green trees not turned to gold and his bushy roses and apples **[this world is obviously linked to our own because of these, and because of the earlier squirrels.] still giving off the scent of summer.

This was not an ordinary thing at all.**[There is the word ordinary again!] Nobility, especially men, **[this makes me wonder if noble women would be more expected in a village like this. I also wonder why that would be the case.] did not show up in little mountain villages supported by ironwork and copper. **[You're giving us a heck of a lot of information about the village, using an omniscient narrator, or at least someone who doesn't give a special slant to the things they describe.] They did not ride down the center of the village with attention only to spare for the village alchemist. **[is this what he was doing? or not?] In fact, they did not visit alchemists at all!

Needless to say,**[another flag for what is normal] the children and mothers and fathers and young men and young women gathered about the old man's house to see what would happen. The young noble with his disdainful look and his fabulous cloak paid them no heed as he dismounted from his fine horse **[you have a rhythmic repetition here, three adj+noun combinations in what the noble has] and strode up to the door of the mountain cabin and knocked.

The villagers could hear the puttering of the little man's feet and the tapping of his cane, then the turning of the copper knob on his door.**[Interesting architectural detail. Definitely omnsicient, since the narrator knows what everyone heard] The door opened larger than a crack, but smaller than a welcome, **[this holds a lot of cultural information. I wonder if these are the same values I would have for this.] and the alchemist's white head poked around the edge of the door.

"May I help you?"**[He does not know this man, and furthermore, he has no respect for nobility; there's no recognition here of the nobleman's stature. I would expect such recognition in his speech even if the alchemist were noble himself.]

The noble wasted no time. "I am told you are an alchemist." He paused dramatically. "A successful one." **[I suspect lack of intelligence in this nobleman, or at least, he's not very observant. Otherwise he would have concluded the alchemist was successful from the look of the preternatural plants.]

The alchemist squinted up into the noble's face. "I am." **[This makes me wonder about the manners surrounding modesty in this culture, because this fellow has none.]
***

There's a lot of description of the physical setting here, and you're using an external omniscient narrator. The people who appear are, for the most part, part of the scenery. The thing that stands out for me is the repeated use of the word "ordinary" (4 times) alongside "simple," "reasonable," and "Needless to say." That word serves as a red flag because it's occurring in a relatively ungrounded narrator voice. I have a hard time being sure who the narrator is based on the judgments expressed here - and judgments are being expressed, because using ordinary/simple/reasonable/etc. suggests judgment by the narrator. If I were to suggest anything to improve the worldbuilding, it would be alignment. By that I mean, make sure all your world clues are pointing in the same direction. One example of contrast would be the early use of "little old man" and the later use of "elderly." Would a single individual use both of these to describe the same person? I can accept the idea of the village being "ordinary" to someone, but to whom would magical plants be "reasonable"? A person who has resided in the village since birth?

I'm not suggesting that you switch to a more limited narrator here. However, if you can come up with a basic identity for your narrator, you can get all the details of the description working to point readers in a single direction: the one you choose. That way you may find it easier to give readers an early sense of what conflict they'll be signing up to follow.

I welcome any constructive comments.