Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Orienting by marking insiders vs. outsiders

Welcome to week 13 of the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! This week's entry comes from Siri Paulson. Thanks for submitting - it was great to see a couple of new entries come in this week! 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.

***
Athneh shifted position on the carpet where she sat cross-legged. "Herbs from the fish-kin!" she cried. "Healing herbs for all your ills!" Around her on the market quay, City-dwellers hurried on without stopping. It made her edgy.

A Ferrican stopped before her. She raised her eyes past the crenellated hem of his tunic to the bow in his hand. "Expecting trouble, sir?"

"I need a protection charm," he said in accented Kemetian. That wasn't exactly an answer, but it wasn't a denial, either.

Guilt warred with shame. "I...I have none, sir."

"But you're a fish-kin. Or are you an Islander trying to make a profit off fake magic?"

Athneh gasped, the insult rendering her speechless. Her people might live on the Islands too, but they weren't the same as the Islanders. Even Ferricans knew that.

Ruri leaned over from behind the weavings she had spread out next to Athneh's carpet. "She's all out of the charms you want, sir. They've been popular today."

Athneh shot her friend a grateful glance. "That's right," she said to the Ferrican. "But I have herbs to make your mind sharper and your movements faster. Would those tempt you?"

"Fine, but be quick."

Athneh blinked. Ferricans were normally chatty. She took several bunches from the assortment before her and wrapped them in a cloth. "Brew two pinches of this into a tea and drink it. If you're in a hurry, use cold water, but the effect will be less pronounced. Don't use more than two pinches per day or you'll get the shakes. Any questions?" She put the herbs into a small sewn bag and looked up at him.

"How much?"

"Two packets of salt, sir."

The Ferrican dropped the packets into her hand and took the bag. He glanced from Ruri to Athneh and then their husbands in the small boats tied up behind them. "Be careful, fish-kin. The Kemete have cut off negotiations with the City. Everyone's waiting to see what they do next."

Ruri opened her mouth, Athneh went to elbow her, and a horn from the City walls made them both jump. Athneh whipped her head around to see the sentry on the south wall, facing the coast of Kemet across the strait, wind his bronze horn a second time. The Ferrican ran off.

"Quickly!" called Jorlath from the boat he shared with Ruri. "We've got to get out of here!"

Ruri, gone almost as pale as the Ferrican, began to roll up her weavings without a word.

Brin said mildly from the other boat, "Perhaps it would be better to stay within the walls."

Athneh shivered. The very idea made the City seem smaller, despite the whitewashed buildings that rose three or even four storeys. She had always liked the gentle curves of the walls and roofs, the window-boxes overflowing with flowers from the Islands and the river delta of Kemet and beyond, but now all she wanted was to be on the open water that surrounded the City.
***

The first piece of world information we get here is the name, Athneh. Alternate-language names really establish difference fast! One word, and instantly we're not in Kansas any more - probably science fiction or fantasy. We can tell that we're not dealing with aliens or high tech pretty quickly though, because of carpet and cross-legged. The fact that our character is selling herbs and calling out her wares gives me a sense that we're dealing with lower technology, and evidence is building for a fantasy scenario. The term fish-kin also has a fantasy feel to it because if the word "kin," so I'm not surprised when we find that the herbs being sold are healing herbs for all your ills. (I should remark, though, that words like these have been used for unusually flavored sf, notably by Michael Flynn). We get our first sense of physical setting beyond the carpet and the herbs (which suggest climate) with the words market quay and City-dwellers. The word City written with a capital letter gives me some cultural information to add to that provided by the girl calling out her wares on the market quay, indicating that life here centers around a particular city (that I'll be looking to find out more about).

Next comes the word Ferrican. The ending -an suggests this is some kind of affiliation word, most likely a nationality. The crenellated hem of his tunic suggests his culture through fashion. The bow suggests military technology level. Also, Athneh uses sir to be deferential, providing social information. It's not clear how much this indicates that the Ferrican must be revered, however, because using "sir" also is natural between a merchant and customer. We get our first hint of magic with protection charm. Kemetian is clearly a language, though who it naturally belongs to is not clear. Soon the piece starts to indicate social strife between different groups, when the Ferrican accuses Athneh of being an Islander trying to make a profit off fake magic. This at the same time suggests that real magic is possible. We are told that this is a serious insult, and we see some of Athneh's ideas about what people in this world know about each other, something which continues later with Ferricans were normally chatty. The instructions for brewing the tea give hints of culture, and her description of the shakes hints about knowledge of the body in this world. The Ferrican then buys the herbs with two packets of salt, a very distinctively different form of currency.

More social information keeps coming. Soon we get husbands in the small boats tied up behind them, a glimpse of daily practices. Then politics ensues with the Kemete cutting off negotiations with the City. Toward the end of the excerpt we get a physical description of the the walls of the city, its whitewashed buildings and window-boxes, and an indication of the larger surround with river delta of Kemet.

All right. At this point I'm going to shift gears and go into my brown-marked think aloud commentary. I don't intend these to be any kind of corrections, but I'll share my thoughts and any confusion I might have.

***
Athneh **[I'm thinking fantasy here, though the language pattern isn't so traditional that I can immediately rule out sf or some world language I don't know] shifted position on the carpet where she sat cross-legged.**[Clearly she's human; if she weren't, I'd expect some hint here.] "Herbs from the fish-kin!" she cried. "Healing herbs for all your ills!" **[Calling out and selling healing herbs gives me another fantasy nudge. I'm not sure whether I'm looking at real magic yet or not.] Around her on the market quay,**[interesting location.] City-dwellers **[I think the quay is in or near the City, but I'm not sure about their precise relation] hurried on without stopping. It made her edgy.

A Ferrican **[this seems either like a nationality (first guess) or social affiliation like a monastic or military affiliation] stopped before her. She raised her eyes past the crenellated hem of his tunic **[I see him quite clearly] to the bow **[is this a fashion, or a weapon? It's not clear for another few words; an adjective might clarify this] in his hand. "Expecting trouble, sir?"**[She treats him deferentially, but this could just be because of her job, not his]

"I need a protection charm," **[so there's magic here.] he said in accented Kemetian. **[A language - but whose language? Not native for him, apparently, but it comes a bit out of the blue and makes me shift gears when I'm busy on the lookout for what "Ferrican" means.] That wasn't exactly an answer, but it wasn't a denial, either.

Guilt warred with shame. **[wow, a pretty extreme reaction to just not having what he wants. What did she do? Who could be is holding her to this standard?] "I...I have none, sir."

"But you're a fish-kin.**[oh okay. I thought she might be fish-kin, but she could just have been a merchant selling their stuff.] Or are you an Islander **[yet another social group. It's starting to give me difficulty orienting myself.] trying to make a profit off fake magic?"**[fake magic implies that real magic is possible, and interesting confirmation of the hint earlier.]

Athneh gasped, the insult rendering her speechless.**[Another extreme reaction. Athneh seems very sensitive, and I wish I had some hint, from her judgment, of why this was such an insult. Otherwise it feels like we're being handed the information that this should be offensive.] Her people might live on the Islands too, but they weren't the same as the Islanders. Even Ferricans knew that.**[This goes a little way toward fixing my sense of who the Islanders are, but I still know nothing about them to back up her sense of insult. I do get the hint that she doesn't think too highly of Ferricans, though.]

Ruri leaned over from behind the weavings she had spread out next to Athneh's carpet. **[Oh, so she's not alone here. Is this a friend, or just a fellow merchant? It's not clear.] "She's all out of the charms you want, sir. They've been popular today." **[I'm not sure if she's telling the truth, because of the way Athneh reacted.]

Athneh shot her friend **[oh, a friend.] a grateful glance. "That's right," she said to the Ferrican. "But I have herbs to make your mind sharper and your movements faster. Would those tempt you?"**[I wonder why she didn't go straight to this, rather than admitting she didn't have what he wanted. It makes her come across as less experienced as an herb-seller. Is she very young?]

"Fine, but be quick."

Athneh blinked. Ferricans were normally chatty. **[This one has already been established as rude, so I'm not sure why she'd be surprised here.] She took several bunches from the assortment before her and wrapped them in a cloth. "Brew two pinches of this into a tea and drink it. If you're in a hurry, use cold water, but the effect will be less pronounced. Don't use more than two pinches per day or you'll get the shakes. **[I like the sense of medical knowledge she's showing here. That is a nice, and unusual, addition to the world.] Any questions?" She put the herbs into a small sewn bag and looked up at him.

"How much?"

"Two packets of salt, sir."**[hm, alternate currency - cool. I'm not sure how far we are from the sea, since only "quay" has told me anything about the possible nearness of water to this location. I'd be surprised to see salt as currency so close to the sea where people could make their own, but maybe there's a larger political group in the area which has established the use of this currency.]

The Ferrican dropped the packets into her hand and took the bag. He glanced from Ruri to Athneh and then their husbands in the small boats tied up behind them.**[wow, I'm revising my sense of Athneh's age here, and also my sense of the nearness of water! I really like the gender-relations and culture information in this though.] "Be careful, fish-kin. The Kemete have cut off negotiations with the City. **[I link this with Kemetian, the language he spoke, through grammar, but I have little sense of who these people are, or where.] Everyone's waiting to see what they do next."

Ruri opened her mouth, Athneh went to elbow her, and a horn from the City walls **[I am guessing they are outside the City at this time.] made them both jump. Athneh whipped her head around to see the sentry on the south wall, facing the coast of Kemet across the strait,**[oh, so Kemet is not far away. I still can't figure out where they are relative to the walls, though this seems to indicate they're probably inside.] wind his bronze horn a second time. The Ferrican ran off. **[Does she have a guess as to his purpose or where he might go?]

"Quickly!" called Jorlath from the boat he shared with Ruri. "We've got to get out of here!"**[I see his fear. It might be nice to have a sense of what kind of place he thinks is safer.]

Ruri, gone almost as pale as the Ferrican, began to roll up her weavings without a word.

Brin said mildly from the other boat,**[Is it not Athneh's boat?] "Perhaps it would be better to stay within the walls."**[Oh, so they are inside the walls?]

Athneh shivered. The very idea made the City seem smaller, despite the whitewashed buildings that rose three or even four storeys. **[I wish I'd seen some of this earlier, because it's hard for me to orient to her idea of changing locations when I don't have the location firmly established already.] She had always liked the gentle curves of the walls and roofs, the window-boxes overflowing with flowers from the Islands and the river delta of Kemet**[Is this where the flowers are from? Somehow I put it as something she liked (i.e. I guessed it was in the main clause not the subordinate clause] and beyond, but now all she wanted was to be on the open water that surrounded the City. **[This makes me wonder how far it is, and why it would be better to be there than within the walls. Potentially cool insight into her thinking, but I'm not quite able to tie it down.]
***

First of all, let me thank Siri for submitting - thanks, Siri! I liked a lot of things about this piece, as you can see. You're ambitious here, giving us a lot of social groups, affiliations, potential strife, insult, etc. all of which is good. What I did find, though, was that I was doing a lot of hopping about from one piece of new information to the next, wishing for more orientation, more description, more detail (I felt disoriented quite early, certainly by the time the Ferrican spoke in Kemetian). I don't think that it's a question of just adding more, however, because it would be easy for the storyline of a potential attack on the city to be lost in a flood of details. What I'd like to see is a stronger sense of alignment with Athneh. So that her reactions don't seem extreme and so that your explanations don't feel external to her, I'd like to see you get closer to her, and try to put things in terms of her awareness of insiders and outsiders. Okay, so she's sitting on a quay calling out her wares, herbs from the fish-kin. But is the quay her home territory? Is it familiar to her? And are the fish-kin her people? Just placing an adjective or two, giving us a detail about the nearness of the water being comforting to her, though the walls make her feel hemmed in, for example - that would do a whole lot to show her identity and ground her judgments of the things around her.

She would react to the Ferrican in accordance with how her people view Ferricans - I'd like to know whether a Ferrican is a type of City-dweller, such as a member of the military, or a traveler from a foreign land which might have an independent reputation in the eyes of fish-kin. The language Kemetian threw me off - why would he be speaking it? Because it's a lingua franca? Because he's been sent by Kemetians? What would Athneh guess about him? She'd certainly have a strong emotional reaction if she's hearing the language of the enemy, particularly if speaking Kemetian is unusual. The reference to Islanders comes out of the blue, since there are no Islanders here and I'm not sure how they are relevant to the larger conflict; I'm thinking the whole insult sequence might be left out of this piece and saved for sometime later. We aren't grounded enough in Athneh's worldview at this point for her sense of insult to strike us naturally; instead I'm feeling like I'm being informed of the value of the insult. It could be very effective, though, if used later when I have more knowledge of the complex relations in this world.

It can often be helpful to go through and categorize everything in a scene in terms of whether it is an insider object/concept or an outsider object/concept. Particularly in an interesting situation like this where there are lots of conflicting social groups. Athneh's judgments of "mine" and "yours," of "homelike" and "foreign" can then serve as valuable signposts for the reader. You can also explore a me/you/they relation, such as having fish-kin be "we," City-dwellers "you" and Kemetians "they" (I'm not sure where the Ferrican fits into this, but you might have a better sense of that).

Please don't feel any pressure to reveal the whole picture of social complexity so early in the story. The longer the list of players, the more valuable it is to start with as few as possible, and let the main character slowly introduce us. I've dealt with this a lot, because of having a society with seven caste levels. You should have seen my readers' heads spinning when I tried to introduce them all at once! I think you've got a lot of really cool stuff here, and tons of social information to impart, so I'd really encourage you to start by orienting us to a very basic insider/outsider sense when we first meet Athneh, (I'd probably begin with fish-kin vs. City and use her judgment of physical details to help ground the location as well) and then slowly complicate it each time another person or event enters her life.

I hope you find my comments helpful. Readers, you are welcome to comment constructively below.