Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Culture Share: Qing Ming and Seventh Month - no, they are not Halloween


This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Joyce Chng discusses Qing Ming and Seventh Month in Singapore.

Qing Ming and Seventh Month - no, they are not Halloween

One distinct memory I have when it comes to Hokkien funeral rites is my grandfather's, back when I was only eight or nine (perhaps, even younger). I have sketchy memories of my Ah Gong, memories of his caring nature and his smile, of being held by him. It was all the way back then when I was looked after by Ah-Ma and Ah-Gong in their Geyland five-foot-way house. When they moved to Bedok, Ah-Gong soon passed away and they held the funeral wake at the void-deck of the housing estate.
Now, the void-deck is a common area designated by the government to be used by everybody, ranging from funeral wakes to wedding celebrations. So, it's not uncommon to have a Chinese funeral wake at one end and a Malay wedding at the other. People are rather civil about this when it comes to using the void-deck.
I didn't get to see Ah-Gong in his coffin. But I was aware that a sense of sadness hung in the air like unspoken words. I was clad in garments made of rough brown sack cloth. Sometimes I even wore a plain white tee shirt, with a colored piece of cloth pinned on the sleeve. I would later learn that the colored piece of cloth signified my relation/connection to the deceased. I was one of the grandchildren.
For the children, the week-long funeral wake was a strange mix of color, noise and (odd) gaiety. To us, it was a party with people visiting every night. There were make-shift round tables, each laden with a plate of peanuts, sweets and tidbits. Strands of red thread mixed with peanut shells. The guests would bring the strands of red threads back and later to discard them. The children laughed and ran about. In the day, we would pretend-hide from the forbidding banners of ancient warriors like Kuan Kong or sit down with the aunts making paper ingots for the ritual burning in the nights. Then, everything accumulated in a burst of theatre, loud gongs and chanting, and crossing a 'bridge' with the rest of the family.
I couldn't remember when we 'sent' Ah-Gong off. I only remember seeing a garishly decorated lorry, replete with florescent phoenixes and a pagoda. This type of hearse is fast becoming rare. Likewise, the hearse was accompanied by a band, mostly comprising of amateurs who blew their trumpets and banged their drums enthusiastically.
Later, when the household settled and we mourned in our own ways, my aunts started talking about the strange occurences at night, when the light started flickering for no reason or that the tap in the bathroom started running in the middle of the night. They said it was Ah-Gong coming back.
~*~
Death rites are interwoven into the Chinese way of life, into the year of festivals and celebrations. We have Qing Ming and Seventh Month (Ghost Month), two festivals related to death and remembering our ancestors. They find their way into my fiction, something I happily welcome. Qin Ming is a period where families re-visit the graves of their relatives. The Mandarin Chinese for these visit is “shao mu”, literally “sweep grave”. There they tidy the grave and tomb-stone, removing weeds and clearing out assorted debris. At the same time, they lit candles and lay out new offerings.
Seventh Month is darker. The spirits of the dead return to visit their living kin and relatives. Families bring out altar tables covered with all sorts of good food. They burn paper money so that their relatives would live in relative comfort in hell. There are paper cars, paper houses, paper dresses and even paper cell phones. I am sure that the enterprising ones would come up with paper iPads (for tech-saavy ghosts). Everyone knows when Seventh Month starts. The streets and pavements are lit by candles. In the twilight and dark, they look beautiful and eerie, guiding the dead. Throughout the month, people make offerings and burn paper money. Stories also proliferate with the urban legends re-surfacing to send chills down spines. “Never walk on burnt ashes,” one story goes. “The ghost will follow you home.” Another one, more to frighten children - “Never go out at night!” (for obvious reasons).
Oddly enough, we have getai concerts with music and singers, or – also getting uncommon – Chinese opera performances by invited travelling troupes. The front seats are always empty for the 'unseen' guests. These days, people watch the getai concerts for visual entertainment and general good fun.
Yet... the more spiritual and paranormal aspect weave in. Larger celebrations would involve mediums (or tang ki) who invite the gods to possess their bodies. They would perform impossible feats of strength or endurance, scarring themselves with cleavers to prove that they are truly blessed by the gods.
It is not a surprise that everyone breathes a sign of relief at the end of Seventh Month.
~*~
For some reason, Southeast Asian ghosts seem more vicious and blood-thirsty. The pontianak. The hantu tetek. The pochong. The flying heads with bloody entrails. The urban legend where the old lady feasts on soiled sanitary pads. The ghost in numerous school toilets. Seventh Month tends to heighten those dark primal fears in us. We tread more carefully, more prudently (since the ghosts seem to be easily offended/angered!).
But hey, it's no Halloween here...
Not at all.


Joyce Chng lives in Singapore.

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Ambiguity and Anchoring in Fantasy Contexts

Welcome to week 12 of the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! This week's entry comes from Lexie. 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 night that Al'sea was found, the journey Priestess Cen'sea had already traveled more than two days in the blistering cold to reach her destination. The fact that she saw Al'sea at all was something of a miracle; the child's pure white skin, bone white hair and white shift blended perfectly with the mounds of snow pushed aside along the path. If a stray beam of moonlight had not glinted off of the strange silver dots above Al'sea's left eyebrow, Cen'sea was sure the child would have stayed in the drift until the spring.

Luck was Al'sea's pup that night however and what Cen'sea thought to be some trader's lost wares turned out to be a lost waif, barely breathing and cold as ice. Praising Cina for her mercy, Cen'sea grabbed her blanket from her traveling pack and hurriedly wrapped the child in it.

"Call me Moon-crossed but you weigh little more than a chick child," Cen'sea murmured, rubbing her back as she hefted her upwards. “Kalyea will see to it that you are put to rights, you shall see,” she continued, naming the Healer conjured images of a warm room and company. “If I do not get us lost that is,” she added wryly.

The wind picked up in ferocity as Cen’sea struggled through the deepening snow and deeper shadows. Where the Northern Citadel lay, dense forest grew all around, eclipsing the moon everywhere but at the Citadel itself. Perfect for protection, less perfect for winter season traveling. Later, when relating the story to the High Priestess Cen’sea would thoughtfully linger on the fact that moonlight had been what guided her to the child in the first place.

As she made her way, certain the Citadel was little more than a few more steps in the right direction, Cen’sea whispered to the child. Lullabies from where she grew up, farther west where the Great Northern River lay. When those ran out, she recited winter season devotionals from her novice years at the Citadel. “Though I find these as boring now as I did then little one,” she said with a sharp bark of laughter.

Occasionally the child stirred, murmuring incomprehensively before burrowing further into the blanket and Cen’sea’s shoulder. Cen’sea would adjust her weight then, and scan the horizon for signs of the Citadel’s gates.

Thus far she had managed to follow the path mostly by feel and by locating each glowing orb that marked the path to the Citadel. The orbs never went out, never faltered or flickered, but burned a dull blueish light all around the clock to guide travelers to their destination no matter the time or season. They were known as the Orbs of Cina and only the High Priestess knew how to make them work.
***

We open with "night", which gives us orientation to the basic fact that we're on a planet, but the biggest opening hint to our location is the name "Al'sea" which speaks instantly of a fantasy world. The reader's job then becomes learning more about that world. "Journey Priestess Cen'sea" appears to be a title, giving us a sense that there is religion here, and that it is associated with a degree of social organization. We get climate and seasonal weather information from "blistering cold." The word "miracle" confirms the presence of religion and also clarifies some of its qualities (i.e. the possibility of a particular type of divine intervention). I also get important information from "child's pure white skin, bone white hair and white shift," though I'm not certain how broadly these characteristics would be seen among the local population. Since Al'sea is being found, not born,we don't know yet if her coloration is bizarre and atypical or relatively normal. "Mounds of snow" fits with the blistering cold, and "path" tells us that we're not dealing with an extensive system of roads (it suggests the possibility of medieval technology). Thereafter we get some further clarification of the world when Cen'sea says "praise Cina for her mercy" and when we see the description of the "Northern Citadel" and the forest around it. Interesting information suggesting culture comes from such phrases as "Moon-crossed" and "put to rights." Also intriguing were the "winter season devotionals" which suggest more about the religion she follows.

At this point I'm going to do my think-aloud read through the piece, marking my comments in brown. I don't intend these to be corrections, though I will point out any places where I was confused.

***
The night that Al'sea **[I think it's good to have fantasy names early, because it gets us looking around for the clues we need to understand the world.] was found, the journey Priestess Cen'sea **[This was the first point where I got confused, and I think it was for two reasons: one, the similarity between Cen'sea's name and Al'sea's name (and the fact that I'm not sure which we're following more closely at this point), and two, the fact that on first read-through I had read "journey" as the subject of the sentence, and not as part of the Priestess' title.] had already traveled more than two days in the blistering cold **[this is nice and tangible!] to reach her destination.**[So has she reached her destination at this point? It's not clear.] The fact that she saw Al'sea at all was something of a miracle**[I wonder if the intervention of gods in this world will be simply referred to, or actually witnessed]; the child's pure white skin, bone white hair and white shift**[I wonder how Cen'sea judges this - is it normal for people? I'm guessing not, but there's no indication of exactly how unusual her coloration is.] blended perfectly with the mounds of snow pushed aside along the path **[ah, so we don't have roads. This pushes me a bit towards a medieval technology model]. If a stray beam of moonlight had not glinted off of the strange silver dots above Al'sea's left eyebrow **[This stands out as a "special mark" and makes me access my "finding the chosen one" plot model.], Cen'sea was sure the child would have stayed in the drift until the spring.**[I was a little unclear on whether this meant the child would actually have survived the experience. Probably not, but when magic is in a world, more things are possible.]

Luck was Al'sea's pup **[This is a really interesting expression, but given that it's not being used directly "luck was my/her pup" I had trouble parsing it when I first read it, and wondered what pups had to do with the scenario in the snow.] that night however and what Cen'sea thought to be some trader's lost wares **[I like this hint of the economy.] turned out to be a lost waif, barely breathing and cold as ice. Praising Cina for her mercy, **[I like that we see reference to Cen'sea's deity here.] Cen'sea grabbed her blanket from her traveling pack **[This is fun because it talks about technology and also how simple a priestess' belongings are.] and hurriedly wrapped the child in it.

"Call me Moon-crossed **[I like this phrase. I wonder how it relates to her beliefs.] but you weigh little more than a chick child,"**[The "chick" suggests this world's animals. The way she talks makes me guess her older instinctively, though I'm not sure how old she is (old, or just mature).] Cen'sea murmured, rubbing her back as she hefted her upwards. “Kalyea will see to it that you are put to rights, you shall see,”**[The lack of contractions stands out here. Perhaps it is priestly formality.] she continued,**[the joining of these two sentences confused me a bit] naming the Healer conjured images of a warm room and company. “If I do not get us lost that is,” she added wryly.**[I didn't realize until this point that there was any danger of being lost. I thought she was all but arrived.]

The wind picked up in ferocity as Cen’sea struggled through the deepening snow and deeper shadows. Where the Northern Citadel lay, dense forest grew all around,**[I like this sense of the area but I'm not sure whether Cen'sea is currently in the forest, since I haven't seen her remark on trees.] eclipsing the moon **[eclipsing is so specific that I wonder if it is really happening; I think more likely the moon is hidden by the trees. Is it hidden to Cen'sea?] everywhere but at the Citadel itself. Perfect for protection, less perfect for winter season traveling. Later, when relating the story to the High Priestess Cen’sea would thoughtfully linger on the fact that moonlight had been what guided her to the child in the first place.**[Oh, so are we leaving the scene of the child's discovery?]

As she made her way, certain the Citadel was little more than a few more steps in the right direction,**[I hadn't had the impression to this point that she was feeling lost.] Cen’sea whispered to the child. Lullabies from where she grew up, farther west where the Great Northern River lay. **[I really like this. It reveals character as well as world culture and geography.] When those ran out, she recited winter season devotionals from her novice years at the Citadel. **[This is lovely too.]“Though I find these as boring now as I did then little one,” she said with a sharp bark of laughter.

Occasionally the child stirred, murmuring incomprehensively before burrowing further into the blanket and Cen’sea’s shoulder. Cen’sea would adjust her weight then, and scan the horizon for signs of the Citadel’s gates.**[I like this hint of the Citadel architecture, but I'm still wondering if she's in the forest or not. Surely if she were, she wouldn't see the horizon?]

Thus far she had managed to follow the path mostly by feel and by locating each glowing orb that marked the path to the Citadel.**[If she's lost, there must not be many of these. I wonder why not.] The orbs never went out, never faltered or flickered, but burned a dull blueish light all around the clock **[this is a nice piece of world information saying that they use clocks as well as magic] to guide travelers to their destination no matter the time or season.**[I like this also because it suggests seasons are meaningful to these people, as well as just time.] They were known as the Orbs of Cina and only the High Priestess knew how to make them work.**[I'd like to have a little hint here of what Cen'sea thinks of them. That they are amazing? That she wants to learn how to make them work? That there are too few?]
***

I really like a lot of what is going on in this piece. I particularly like how much social and other information (like the clocks) is coming in with the language used. What I'm having trouble with is anchoring on the local level because of (very few) points of ambiguity in the text, like the priestess' title, and because I can't be quite certain how Cen'sea's position relates to more general information about the location (like the forest and the orbs). The fantasy context is a lot of fun to work with but has disadvantages for a writer because of the sheer number of possibilities available. Thus, our sense of the fantasy world can come into play very quickly, but from that point on we're looking for specific types of anchors to tell us things like whether magic or deities are actively at work in the world, what kind of technology is being used, etc. The possibility of events outside the normal can create ambiguities about what is going on - ambiguities that would not exist if we had an established real-world context. Thus, part of the challenge of working with fantasy worlds is not just opening doors into possible avenues, but also closing them (usually, closing more than we open!).

Thanks again for submitting, Lexie, and for your patience - I hope you find my comments helpful.

I welcome any constructive comments.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

TTYU Retro: Honesty and Politeness

I'm going to begin this post with a hypothetical situation:

You're at High Tea at a nice tea shop with friends and family. Everyone is enjoying eating scones, and giggling about drinking with pinkies raised, etc. The tea sandwiches come out, and someone recommends the cucumber triangles to you. You take one bite and really don't like the sandwich. What do you do?

Okay, I will allow for the assumption that you're not going to break your "tea character," fling the sandwich to the floor and stomp on it before storming out of the place, never to return. But what do you do when you don't want anyone ever to give you another cucumber tea sandwich?

a. Don't say anything, and put the sandwich back on the plate with a bite taken out of it.
b. Don't say anything, and leave the sandwich on your plate without eating it.
c. Say, "That's good," but leave the sandwich on your plate without eating it.
d. Say, "I don't like it."
e. Say, "I'm sorry, but I don't like it."
f. Say, "I'm sorry, but it's not my favorite."
g. Say, "I liked the chicken salad sandwich better."
h. Say, "May I try the mushroom turnover instead?"

There are possible complications to each of these options, if (as you may have guessed) you're one of my kids at the table in this situation. Option a will probably get you yelled at. Option b won't get you yelled at, but it's also possible that no one will notice how much you dislike it, or that Mom will conclude you were full and didn't want anything else. Option c, in my family at least, is considered a lie, and even if you don't get called for dishonesty, you'll probably get asked why you didn't eat it if you actually liked it.

Option d was the one my daughter chose (she was 4 when this happened). Option e was the one my son chose (he was 6). At the time I accepted these without comment and got them different food, but I did wince a little internally. Mind you, we weren't eating High Tea with the queen, but my impolite radar did go off.

On the way home, I tried to think about how to deal with similar situations in the future. This involved running some more options through my head.

Option f is a fancier version of option e. My sense of this one is that it might work, but it still expresses a negative opinion that might be hurtful to someone's feelings (the cook's?). So I kept thinking until I came up with options g and h. The first of these is more direct, since it provides a comparison with something that you like better. The second leaves the disliking incident entirely behind and focuses on a future, and (we hope) better, outcome.

If you've ever lived through a situation resembling this, then you may notice the way that politeness and honesty appear to be at odds a lot of the time. This is true across every culture that I've encountered personally, and is in fact an enormous resource for me of situations that cause misunderstanding and friction.

Which makes you more of a bad person - to be a social disgrace, or to be a liar?

I have a real aversion to dishonesty. To me this means not that I must say precisely what I mean on every topic, but that I should not say what I do not mean - a different kind of criterion in its practical application. Of all the options I outlined above, only option c involves actual dishonesty from my point of view. This aversion of mine has gotten me into social trouble before, particularly when I was living in Japan - a very instructive experience.

I've discussed H.P. Grice's Cooperative Principle before on this blog. Politeness is one of the things that we study in the linguistic discipline of Pragmatics. It's relevant here because avoiding the topic of one's dislike completely, and yet talking about something else that one would like to eat, depends for its understanding on the cooperative assumption that one will not say untrue things, and that one will not say less than one needs to. Obviously if I mention that I want something else to eat, that implies that I needed to say that (for some reason) and thus the astute listener can conclude that the reason is a dislike of cucumber sandwiches.

I always find it fascinating how strong our gut reactions are to perceived impoliteness. Funny as it may sound to a child learning it, I really am much happier to comply with a request that is made politely. It's easy for bad syntax, morphology, phonology, or semantics to be interpreted as the mistake of a language learner, but make a mistake of politeness and you're suddenly no longer just making a learner's mistake - you're a bad person. Students of the Japanese language struggle with this all the time, particularly since in Japanese you can't really say anything at all without putting some kind of politeness marker on it - but it's not restricted to Japanese. It happens in English all the time.

One of the places I see it happening a lot is on online forums, where there aren't a lot of external social cues to help people judge one another's verbal behavior. It's hard to know, in a lot of cases. Where is the fine line between politeness and plain dishonesty? Where is the line between honesty and incitement to flame war? I'm not going to say there's one real answer, because there isn't one - online, there isn't even a single culture to establish the rules of behavior. Most "communities" form their own through habit rather than through a written manifesto.

We all live, speak and act on this borderline, every day. It's a fascinating source of stories for me - and something I'd encourage writers to think about.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Never "just description": making description subjective

Description is never just description.

It took me quite a long while to figure that out. I suppose when one first starts writing, one begins by exercising one's access to words and images, and thinking of the most beautiful, or the most visceral, or the most fill-in-the blank way to describe what one imagines. When you're using your own voice as an omniscient storytelling narrator, that can work just fine. However, once I started writing in close points of view, I started to realize that every time I went into a "description," I'd lose the sense of closeness. And that was a problem I had to fix.

The fact is that description is always subjective in some way. It is literally impossible to capture every detail about something in the real world. Every time we notice and name an object, that is a subjective choice. Every time we put an adjective on something, that is also a subjective choice. Subjectively, we decide what is noticeable and what is too normal to draw anyone's attention to.

If you keep this in mind, then it becomes possible to discover just how subjective your descriptions can be. Particularly if you work with close point of view, the identity of your character is going to change the way that things are described. Every word you choose is an opportunity to show something about your character.

To make this more concrete, let's play with it a little. I have a room in my work-in-progress, and I just had my main character walk into it. That means I had to describe it. But before I show you how I described it for him, I'll describe it in a few different ways (all third person, just for the sake of consistency).

As myself:

The Hall of the Eminence is a long, rectangular room with stone walls, columns and ceiling arches in the style of a European cathedral. The arches are decorated with mosaic tiles of variegated blue with occasional tiles in gold. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The floor is covered in a white silk carpet patterned with the green swirling insignia of the Grobal caste. There are embroidered hangings on the walls, and there is a wooden dais at the end where sits the carved wooden throne of the Eminence.

This description is very informational and makes reference to the real world. It shows no positioning words to indicate any physical point of view. I might as well be hovering above it, or nowhere near it at all. I'm certainly not interacting with it in any way. It reads like a blueprint - good for my personal notes or outline, but useless for the story.

As a member of the merchant caste walking in alone, having never seen the place before:

The room made him want to shrink and retreat. Its arches stretched probably two stories high, and with every step of these ordinary shoes, he risked defiling a symbol of nobility. The chandeliers above and the embroidered hangings on the walls all around would have fetched a pretty price at the Exchange, but nothing compared to the wood of the stage at the far end. Not to mention the throne itself - a single piece of wood so large it would bring more than the worth of his entire family.

This description has a lot more to it. There's an emotional reaction to the sight of the room, and the person assesses its size ("probably two stories"). There's positional information ("the far end"). He draws a contrast between ordinary and noble. His actions have social consequences (defiling). He also shows his own idiosyncratic knowledge base and his personal priorities as he assesses the worth of various objects in the room.

As a fugitive:

She whipped around a corner and burst through the first door she found. Damn - just her luck she'd find the one room in this place where there was nowhere to hide. The place was bright and open, and even the wall-hangings were too flat, too high off the floor to give any cover. Maybe that stage with the big throne? She sprinted toward it, but it was worse - wooden boards that thudded under her feet, sure to announce her presence to any pursuers. With so many doors all around, they could come from anywhere!

Unlike the last person, this person has an urgent purpose in the room. She doesn't care about the richness of the room, but swears about finding a place so large and open. I can let her assess possible hiding spots, and thereby get in a little about the room, but really she doesn't care much about what's in it. She judges what she encounters, and pays no attention to the value of anything except as it serves her goal.

As my protagonist:

Tagret straightened up fast. The Hall of the Eminence was packed with potential enemies. To be on guard, he needed his eyes open. And to be the man Mother wanted everyone to see, he had to stand gracefully, making the high mosaic arches of the ceiling his portrait-frames, and the crystal chandeliers his spotlights. Father's hand stayed on his arm as the rest of their party came in. From the wall-hangings all the way to the dais with the wooden throne, the crowd glittered in ostentatious clothing, muted somewhat by the grieving yellow of mourning scarves. More and more eyes watched him as people entered through the doors around the Hall, clustering by Family. From this vantage point he couldn't see anyone he could clearly identify as either Sixth Family, or Ninth. Eleventh seemed like it might be in the far corner.

Tagret cares far more about people and the interaction he's entering than he does about the place, which is very familiar to him. Therefore, all the information about the room itself is backgrounded to his other concerns. In this scene, the conflict all comes from the interaction, so there's no reason for him to give any direct attention to the physical location at all. However, it's important for readers to know what the place looks like, so I let Tagret use the room's features incidentally to serve his own focus. He's also taller than most people in the room, so he has a pretty good view across the crowd, which affects how he describes it.

I hope these examples give you a sense of how widely descriptions of the same thing can differ from one another. In your own writing, as you approach a description of a place, an object, or a situation, here are some things to think about:
  • Does this place/object/situation have a special social significance to my character?
  • Is it unexpected, abnormal, or otherwise unusual (will appear in description)? Or is it normal (less likely to appear; more likely to be backgrounded)?
  • What is the current mood of my character?
  • What is my character's goal and primary focus as he/she encounters this place/object/situation?
  • Does the physical position and/or size of my character affect how he/she would describe it?
By thinking through these things before you start to describe, you'll discover many more opportunities to make your description subjective, and thereby to make it unique.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Deaf puppy learning sign language commands

This is a heartwarming link. A deaf puppy abandoned by its breeder was adopted to a deaf couple who are now teaching her to respond to sign language commands. Just awesome.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Introducing: The Writer's International Culture Share

The more writing I do, the more I find myself searching around the internet looking for information and inspiration. One of the sources I have come to appreciate a lot is the Folkroots column at Realms of Fantasy (here's a wonderful example by Theodora Goss). I've also been following the discussion of World SF with great interest. Thus, I was very intrigued and inspired when my friend Harry Markov started posting information and stories about his native country of Bulgaria. I was struck by the conviction that his posts had a lot in common with my own articles about my experiences in Japan, and that somehow they belonged together in a set. When I spoke about this with Harry, a new idea started to come together:

What if there were a place on the web where writers from all over the world - including the US - could share folklore, local culture, religious stories and details of daily life that would be difficult or nearly impossible to discover through ordinary web research avenues?

Thus was born the idea for The Writer's International Culture Share.

The culture share will start small at first, but with your help I'm hoping it can grow much bigger. I have received much positive feedback on the idea and already offers for posts are coming in (for example, for the Netherlands, Singapore, and England). I'm deeply grateful to these writers for offering to share their native cultures, and I'll be posting Culture Share posts here at TalkToYoUniverse every Thursday, compiling an index in three categories: folklore, religion, and daily cultural practices.

Here is the beginning of the index, with a sample post of each type so you can see what I'm thinking of. I invite you to take a look and consider whether you'd like to share something of your own.

Folklore
Religion
Daily Cultural Practices

If you would like to contribute or learn more about the project, please contact me at info at juliettewade dot com .

Culture Share: Saint Haralampi, patron of Plague and Beekeepers

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Harry Markov discusses Saint Haralampi, patron of Plague and Beekeepers.

Saint Haralampi, patron of Plague and Beekeepers
---

Saint Haralampi [sometimes referred to as Haralambos or Haralampii]

Here I want to tackle my Names Day, St. Haralampi. First, let me explain the concept of the Names Days. I’m not aware if any other Eastern Orthodox Christian countries celebrate these, but the concept is simple. Bulgaria has a vast religious calendar that hosts all holidays, many of which are Names Days. I’m having hard time keeping this formal, because it looks as if I’m dumbing it down.

Yesterday was St. Haralampi, during which all the people who have this name or a variation of it celebrate. I’m Haralambi, so I celebrate, but so far haven’t heard of a female version of my name, because Haralambi is essentially a Greek name [because I’m ¼ Greek]. Mandatory for all Names Days is to wish the ‘name bearer’ [I invented this term, because I don’t want to type up ‘people who celebrate their Names Day’ all the time] health and prosperity. I don’t get many, because my Names Day is obscure. Not many are named after the saint, due to his Greek origin.

Now that I’ve covered the basics, I want to talk more about my saint. Saint Haralambi isn’t a well known historical figure. What is known about his life is that he died defending his faith, which automatically listed him as a martyr and thereafter as a saint. Legends say that he was a Miracle Worker and a great healer. Because of his healing, he was named a patron of diseases [icons portray him chaining all personifications of diseases and in particular, the plague itself] and beekeepers [because of honey’s healing properties].

As legends go, on February 10th Saint Haralampi captured the Plague [an ugly, old woman] and chained her. Celebrations during this day are meant to keep the plague outside the house. To protect themselves from this terrible disease, people fenced houses with hawthorn and briers [if my translation is correct], sewed garlic cloves to the headscarf for women and shirts for men. Some even dressed with special “pestilential shirts” sewn of nine widows.

The ritual bread.

Women are forbidden to work on this day, lest the plague enters their home. What they do is to bake a special bread [shown above]. Here the facts become rather meshed up. One source says that women coat the bread with blessed honey from the church and nuts. Then they cut it into four pieces that correspond with the four directions of the world. One is kept at home and the other three are given to neighbors and relatives as a token of health. But before any of this goes down, the house must be scrubbed clean.

There is another custom. Only the “pure” women [no idea whether by “pure” the text refers to virgins or healthy women] to bake bread and bring it outside the village at the crossroads to appease the plague. Alternatives to this suggest to leave food and water on the ceiling or to hang bread wrapped in cloth on an abandoned wall along with a wooden vessel of wine. To be on the safe side and drive away the plague, it’s called diminutive names: "sweet and honey", "good", "aunt". I’d go for a bit more mystical and call her “honeyed one.”

The most interesting custom so far has to do with the use of twins. The whole village has to be ritualistically plowed by two twin brothers. They have to do so using a plow made from a twin tree [or twin wood, I’m not sure about the translation here] and twin oxen.

If St. Haralampi’s Day is not celebrated, he will grow furious and will release the plague and other terrible diseases from their chains down on the ungrateful ones. Yes, my saint is not as benevolent as you thought. No wonder people commit to so many customs and rituals in his honor.

How honey is consecrated.

Also, on this day consecrated honey is believed to have especially strong healing properties as it can cure rashes, measles, wounds on the body. If you smear it on children’s foreheads, they remain healthy.

Harry Markov lives in Varna, Bulgaria on the shores of the Black Sea. This post originally appeared at his blog, linked above.

Culture Share: Personification of Spring in Bulgarian Culture by Harry Markov

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Harry Markov discusses how spring, and the month of march, are personified in Bulgarian culture.

Personification of Spring in Bulgarian Culture

It's March, the most bipolar month in Bulgaria [to be honest December surpassed it with days, I had to walk with short sleeves OUTSIDE]. It's the month that catches the death of winter and the birth of spring, so from a meteorological standpoint, March can be as cold as January, as rainy as February and as mildly tempered as April.

Baba Marta in her sunny mood

Of course, such erratic weather patterns panicked did a lot to panic Bulgarians back in the time, to the point that we personified March as Baba Marta [or Grandma March for the curious ones] and March is a time, when we honor Baba Marta in hopes for good weather. In olden times, shepherds would freeze up in the mountains with their flocks, because the sunny weather would easily turn to a snowstorm and the people along with the animals would be trapped there. Naturally, no one had the desire to lose their loved ones as well as their livestock to bad weather and this naturally led to the conception of Baba Marta and the month-long series of rituals that are performed in her name. Baba Marta is not only the embodiment of March, but also the very personification of spring, which for Bulgaria is a tough and unpredictable season. Often cold and with rain showers while it's sunny outside.

In this post, I will touch upon the mythological reasoning as to why Baba Marta suffers from her violent mood swings. The most popular belief is that Baba Marta has two brothers: January and February [they are named Golyam Sechko and Maluk Sechko, which I fail to translate], who have anger management issue, hence why it's cold during these months. Basically, both brothers always do something to displease their sister, either drink all the wine or leave their house in an utter mess. This angers Baba Marta, who as their sister is depicted as an old crone with a cane, and snow covers the land. Otherwise, when not provoked, Baba Marta is happy and loving, thus prompting the sun to shine.

Baba Marta during a fit

Sometimes, Baba Marta's said to be the brothers' bride [yes, there's polygamy at work here] and I actually know some inappropriate jokes about why she is always throwing fits. They involve cold feet and ill-endowed spouses.

It's interesting to note that while nowadays March and spring are female in Bulgarian folklore, once Baba Marta was actually a man, who had two wives. One was loving and beautiful, while the other is described as always scowling and cold. When March looked at the first, the sun shone and the weather cleared. When he looked at the other, winter would creep back in. However, it's a rather unpopular version.

The patriarchal structure of Bulgarian society reinforced the idea that March is a female and that her mood swings are unrelated to anything. Today, the tale of Baba Marta and her brothers or spouses, while known, is not central as to why Baba Marta angers as easily as she does. It's just accepted that she is as easy to laugh as she is to cry. Anything can anger her. If she sees old men on the streets, she might anger. Seeing children and young women might better her mood.

With this ends the mythological roots of Baba Marta and a very brief 'psychological' profile of her emotional instability.

Harry Markov lives in Varna, Bulgaria on the shores of the Black Sea. This post originally appeared at his blog, linked above.

Culture Share: Unexpected Differences - Japanese Taxis

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette Wade discusses Japanese Taxis and how they might inspire fictional worlds.

Unexpected Differences - Japanese Taxis

Sometimes a simple object can provide an example of unexpected differences across societies. The other day I got thinking about the day I arrived in Tokyo as a Monbusho exchange student, and the craziest taxi ride of my life - and I realized I'd found one of those objects.

The taxi.

Say you're writing a story, and your character has to get from here to there, so you need a way to move him or her. One way is to stick this person in a public paid conveyance of some sort. Give it a non-Earth appearance, an alien driver, pay in the local currency, and you might think you're done.

But the fun has just begun. There's a possibility for difference at every step, even in something so seemingly ordinary.

Let's start with the way you find a taxi. In Japan it's not all that different from large cities in America, where many taxis are on the road. The only thing you have to remember as you approach the curb is that the cars are driving on the left-hand side of the road, not the right, and that will influence which direction the taxi will be able to take you. So you stand at the side of the road, and raise your hand. (Of course, there's also the calling-ahead option, which was what we had when we arrived in Tokyo; the government had sponsored our scholarship for us, so they called us the taxis.) For story purposes, I could imagine possible alien variations on the curbside stance - do you hold up two fingers or five? Does it matter, or should you really be waving your tail instead?

Anyway. For now, assume you're on a street with a sidewalk, standing at the curb. Do you yell "Taxi" at this point? The Japanese word for "taxi" is "takushii" which sounds almost the same, but yelling in the middle of the street is generally frowned upon, and let's face it, the taxi driver probably won't hear you.

Next comes the first major sticking point of taxis in Japan - or, it was, when I lived there. If you're a foreigner, the taxi may choose to ignore you completely. In your story world, think about what kinds of qualities might be used to justify excluding your character from service. Pure foreignness? Possibly. Or maybe a particular feature that the hosts find alarming. Or maybe when this transportation is sponsored by individuals with diplomatic clout, there's no overt objection, which could set your character up for an unfortunate surprise later (when he tries to procure his own ride).

Let's say the taxi stops for you. Great. In the US, you reach out and open the back door on the passenger side. If you do this in Japan, you might end up with skinned knuckles or possibly a major bruise. Japanese taxis are equipped with a special mechanism that allows the driver to open and close the door, and this is part of their job. They don't want you moving the door. This for me is interesting because it's a difference in the construction of the vehicle, but also a difference in the way that you are supposed to interact with the vehicle - which functions of the interaction are your job, and which belong to others.

Once you're in, you discover that in most Japanese taxis, the headrests and seats are covered with white doily material. It's a weird but charming touch. Also, the drivers generally wear white gloves. These aren't just signs of charm, though - they're also evidence of Japanese concepts of hygiene.

Next, you ask for your destination. If you're working in a fantasy or science fiction setting, do think through how your people organize their cities. Japanese streets are generally not named unless they are quite large, and blocks are numbered, and houses numbered based on their position on the block - so houses across the street from one another aren't consecutively numbered, but in fact dictated by the separate numbering sequences of the blocks they are on. In the city of Kyoto, streets generally run North-South or East-West, so it's easy to navigate, but the addresses almost sound like walking directions. In Tokyo, things are wacky and a single missed turn can get you lost in seconds, but their addresses are pretty reliably tuned to the block numbering system.

Once you're moving, consider whether you want to worry about road rules or street signs. Road manners are a question as well. In Japan we'd sometimes see people stop their cars in the middle of the road and leave them running while they ran into 7-11 to buy an ice cream or a drink (because there is no parking to be had anywhere). Our general response to this was "whaaaaa?" But it happened often, and often when we were in cars our hosts or taxi drivers had to navigate around stopped vehicles.

I couldn't actually tell you whether it's standard for Japanese people to talk to their taxi drivers. Taxi drivers generally seemed to like talking to me, but that could have been because I was something of an oddity there: a light-haired foreign girl who spoke Japanese fluently. That would be another place where manners might differ in a fantasy or science fictional environment.

When you get where you're going, you have to pay. Money is a great source of potential strife. Taxis in Japan are expensive - usually 1000 yen or so base, just for getting in, and it meters up from there. On my crazy ride from Narita Airport to Setagaya-ku, the meter kept going up so far that the guy I was riding with and I were incredulous, praying that we wouldn't be asked to pay when we finally arrived. Just a tip? Never try to take a taxi from the Narita Airport to anywhere in central Tokyo. It will cost about $300. We were lucky, because it turned out that the price didn't have to come out of our arrival stipends. A standard taxi ride costs more like 1850 yen, and don't ever try to pay with a 10,000 yen bill. The one time I found I didn't have enough smaller change, the guy wouldn't even take what small change I had - he yelled at me to get out, slammed the door and drove off. A free taxi ride, I guess, but I felt awful. And of course, in Japan, you don't tip, but in America, a taxi driver who hasn't been tipped may actually leave his vehicle and pursue you on foot.

Now, I'm not trying to say that when you get your character from one place to another, you have to include every one of these details. No way. Maybe the trip itself is unremarkable in the context of your story; in that case you should put as few words on it as possible. But paying close attention to the physical and social details of transportation can give you ideas for unusual elements to change, or especially pertinent details to include. And even one or two of those can be enough to make your reader think, "Wow, this place really isn't like Earth. It's a whole new world."

Juliette Wade lived in Japan for a total of three+ years, spending a year with a host family in Kyoto, a year in a dormitory for foreign students in Tokyo, and a year and a half in an apartment in the Tokyo suburbs.

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.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

TTYU Retro: Sleep - Tidbits for Characters and Writers

I don't think I know a single writer who doesn't struggle with sleep. Maybe it's because we so rarely can support ourselves sufficiently to "give up the day job." There always has to be a way to squeeze writing in alongside everything else, and sleep suffers. On the other hand, American society generally seems to be out of touch with the need for sleep - why else would coffee shops be cropping up in so many places?

So I thought I'd share some tidbits on sleep that I've picked up from my own experience. You can apply these to writing your characters' experience... and you may recognize them from your own.
  • Different people need different amounts of sleep. Some are fine on five hours; others have to catch up if they get only eight. Children typically need more than adults. Newborn babies spend most of their time sleeping, even if they don't sleep at the hours when we'd like them to.
  • It's easier to stay awake when your body would rather sleep than to sleep when your body wants to stay awake. This is something useful to remember when dealing with time changes like jet lag.
  • If you feel anxiety about sleep, that only makes it harder to sleep (sigh). This affects lots of people with insomnia and anxiety. Sometimes if you assume you won't be able to sleep, then you feel better when you get some, whereas if you hope that you can sleep, you feel really disappointed and depressed when you can't. My husband used to criticize my "negative thinking," but especially when my children were infants it was the only way I could get through the night without hating life.
  • If you are relatively rested, then you can push through a wave of sleepiness and get a second wind.
  • If you are somewhat sleep deprived, you can develop the ability to nap almost any time - if anxiety or stimulants don't interfere.
  • If you are sufficiently sleep deprived, you can enter a state in which you become incredibly clumsy. This is when walls leap out of nowhere to intercept you and you bang yourself on every available object.
  • If you are extremely sleep deprived and running on hysterical or anxious energy, you may not be able to sleep when you lie down to rest - but this doesn't mean you shouldn't. Just lying still for an hour, though it seems like a waste, can get you closer to a point where your body will actually accept rest and let you sleep.
  • If you are pregnant (I realize this typically applies to females, but guys, keep this in mind for pregnant characters!) then you may feel an intense, irresistible urge to sleep. When I was pregnant with my first child, I used to call this the "ten seconds to lie down" phenomenon. When I was pregnant with my second child, my first child used to take advantage of these intervals to do things like teach himself how to use the CD player.
  • If you have been sleep deprived for a long time (and stimulant use may be involved in this), you tend to go into a very very low gear that keeps you functioning somehow but has very little resilience. Once you've reached this place, having a good night's sleep will make you feel worse before it makes you feel better. I tend to think about it as the sleep bank collecting interest. Your body will seize its opportunity and demand more. It took me months to get over the unpredictable sleep schedule I had when my kids were tiny - and now a sleepless night or two will hit me harder than it used to when it was doing it all the time. At the same time, a good night's sleep will restore me instead of making me feel more desperate for sleep.
I think any of these things could be useful for writing characters realistically. Keep in mind as you write how long it's been since your character last got some rest. It's easy to get caught up in the action and forget that they'd be basically dead on their feet at a certain point.

Watch out, too, for any time when you end a scene or chapter with someone falling asleep. Unless you work hard to build in tension, like them being in danger because of their lack of wakefulness, or them being in danger of having bizarre prophetic dreams, then readers are likely to take this as an opportunity to put the story down.

If you're working with aliens, sleep is one of the things you can play around with. I haven't often seen characters who have highly variable sleep patterns, but I always find them enjoyable when I do. Hibernating creatures, or nocturnal creatures, could add both interest and twists to a story.

And now, on the reality front...

I'm a big advocate of sleep, for writers in particular. I don't use coffee or tea to keep me awake, or to wake me up - which makes me pretty unusual. I try not to blame myself when I'm too tired to work during my "work times" and sleep instead - taking it as a sign that I really needed the sleep. It's hard. But I notice a huge difference in my mental and physical resources depending on the amount of sleep I've had. I like to exercise to keep myself in shape, but it's basically impossible to keep the exercise up if I'm exhausted. At the same time, lack of sleep makes me lethargic and also makes me overeat trying to keep up my energy. Sleep for me is the foundation on which my other general body-health activities rests. And being rested also helps me to avoid mental exhaustion, one of my major sources of writer's block. So on a personal note, I encourage everyone to think through the balance of sleep and other activities in their lives. Small adjustments could make a big difference.

It's something worth thinking about.

I'll add here that my original post had a lot of really great comments, so if you're interested to see them, look here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Character-driven Approach to Kissing Scenes and Sex Scenes

The day I tried to write my first sex scene was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I'd avoided it for a long time, and then I realized that the story I was writing demanded it (not the first time I'd changed what I felt I was capable of due to the demands of a story). I had this idea of what had to happen, and I tried to write it. When I got through I realized it had devolved into a succession of meaningless generic actions and disconnected body parts.

It was awful. And, I realized, it was "sex-driven" in a bad way, the same way that stories can seem pointless and over-wrought when they are too heavily driven by plot.

Something changed for me at that point. I realized that that the point of a sex scene was not the sex.

Why do we need sex scenes? I suppose for erotica that they would be part of the point, but in my stories that's not it at all. In my stories, I have two people developing a relationship, and what is most important is what that relationship means to them, and how it changes them. I had already figured that out for kissing scenes, so that was where I went when I had to re-think the sex scenes.

As I see it, a first kiss is a form of communication between the characters. Tension may be building - and this is something I do by having the characters become more aware of one another physically, say, noticing for the first time the way the other person's throat moves when he drinks - but somebody starts it. The other person then has to decide whether to permit the kiss, and whether to return it. Internalization is critical here. Too little internalization and it will seem like I've slapped the kiss on from my position as author. More internalization may make it seem like the poor character is in agony trying to make the decision (which he or she may be!). Occasionally, since this is a big turning point in a story, I'll switch points of view and place the kiss itself at a chapter break so I can then move into the recipient's head and gauge the reaction.

What is important is not the movements. Yes, we can say "oh, this is how far they went this time." But what is important for me in a kiss is the nature of the communication - the psychological conditions that permit someone to take the chance, and the experience of the other person in response.

A sex scene is the same for me. The question is much less "how far did they go" but "what did they decide to do and why, and how did it affect the way they will interact in the future?"

I therefore place my focus on the characters. I start by asking, "What significance does this scene have for the characters, and for the story as a whole?" That will help me gauge what is necessary. If the scene is incidental, like a scene demonstrating that a character has sex as part of his everyday life and doesn't think much of it, then it will get a lot less attention. You'll see where the couple make their decision, and follow through with little detail, the critical ingredient being what the act means, and what it does for the characters, rather than what they do. I have one scene where a character makes love with his girlfriend because this is something relatively normal that they do often, and it helps him to release anxiety from the earlier part of his day.

The buildup for a first sex act is usually much longer. This I think is natural because, compared to kissing, the first occasion of such intimacy has far greater significance - and much greater possible disasters associated with it. Romance novels, after all, spend almost the entire book getting there! What I have found, though, is that in this case the physical act itself is far less important. I can build up the psychological conditions necessary, and once the two characters have made the decision to act, I can end the scene. The only reason I might include physical details is if there is some consequence of the act itself that must be experienced in order for readers to understand the characters as they carry forward.

All of this is to say that I recommend including only the most character-relevant details in a story, either when you're dealing with a kissing scene or with a sex scene (or anything else, for that matter!). Keep the motivations, the decisions, the justifications, whatever it is. Keep the mental states that matter in the front of your lens, and let all physical details follow directly from them. It's the best way I have found to create a scene of intimacy that actually fits the characters I'm working with, and matters to the story, without letting things fall into clichéd motions and lists of body parts.

Because of the subject of this post, I'm going to be moderating comments, but I am interested to hear what you think on the topic.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A great link that suggests, "Tell, Don't Show"

I really enjoyed this post called Tell, Don't Show from Cristin Terrill on Incidents and Accidents. It discusses why it's a good thing to tell sometimes, particularly if you handle it right. I hope you enjoy it too.

A great link discussing language in Science Fiction and Fantasy

I really enjoyed these reflections from Beth at The League of Extraordinary Writers about the place of language in science fiction and fantasy. Thanks to Elizabeth S. Craig for the link.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Combating Writer's Envy

I was inspired today by this post that I found through Elizabeth Craig on Twitter, a fantastic one called "When Going Green's Not So Cool: A Writer's Antidotes for Envy". My favorite antidotes were: enjoying the things you love, and exercising. I highly recommend those for all writers, especially since a lot of us (including me) need to exercise more.

I personally find that I'm not immune to jealousy, but that my jealousy is rather limited in scope. My jealousy will make me feel upset at myself, but not angry with others (I feel lucky about this). Even when I notice a bestseller whose work I don't particularly like, I figure that person has found something that a lot of people like - I just may not have grasped what that thing is.

The other thing I continue to believe is that writing is not a competition. It's not about whether my writing is better than someone else's. It's not about two writers with similar styles trying to fit into the same too-small market niche. It's simply about whether I find an editor who finds that my work speaks to him/her, and whether readers then are willing to pay for what I do. Honestly - why should I worry about whether I'm similar to my favorite authors? When I read, I don't say, "Ursula LeGuin is my sf author, and there isn't room for anyone else." The more someone's work is like hers, the more likely I will enjoy it too. Reading appetite is not finite. Reading quality work does not satiate; it only makes you hungrier for more brilliance.

The last thing I hope writers will remember is that statistics only operate effectively on large numbers. The fact that 99% of submissions get rejected at a particular magazine should not deter you; whether your story succeeds is about your story, and that editor, and it has nothing to do with anyone else.

Keep up hope, and keep submitting. So long as there are readers hungry for stories, there is room for more authors.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Interesting link about writers' egos

I thought you might enjoy this post by author Jamie Rubin, an author with stories published at Apex magazine and IGMS, and with his first Analog story coming out in the June issue. He talks about the writers he has met, and the welcoming, accepting qualities that can be found in the science fiction community. I have encountered this as well, and I enjoyed reading his thoughts.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Managing Information and Surprises

Welcome to Week 10 of the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! Goodness, has it been that long already? Today's excerpt comes from Suzi McGowen. Thanks so much for submitting, Suzi! As I generally do, I'll start by marking up the excerpt with blue for the words that give me worldbuilding information.

***
I took stock of my injuries. I hadn't even been on the job a month and I had 14 bruises, a concussion, multiple cuts and abrasions, a broken arm, and now, a gunshot wound. Being a Tooth Fairy shouldn't be this hard.

It wasn't like I always wanted to be a Tooth Fairy. In fact, if I hadn't seen that poster, I probably would have lived my entire life without that thought ever crossing my mind. But sometimes Fate is like that. You're walking down the street in the early evening and you see something that changes your life.

For me, that fateful night had started out as a typical evening. Once the sun had set and it was safe for me to leave the library, I headed over to Shangri-La for my nightly cuppa tea.
I walked in and out of the pools of light from the streetlights, the silver charms on my pockets jingling softly with each step. Sometimes car headlights would pick me out of the darkness, but I wasn't concerned. My glamour was up and I could pass for human. Tall, but human.

The telephone pole on the street corner was littered with signs and posters. Ads for weight loss, garage sales, a local band. The normal dross of human society. But the scent of magic caught my attention.

My nose twitched and I stopped to give the posters a more thorough look. There was one that was dusted with glamour. Humans probably only saw a sign for a lost pet, or something. What I saw was the flier that changed my life. It said simply, "Job opening: Night Hours. Any fae may apply."

Matchmaking jobs had been slim lately, and while I wasn't hurting, I was always on the lookout for more work. But I didn't feel a burst of hope when I saw this poster. I felt a flash of anger. The last line got me, "any fae may apply". I snorted. Yeah, right. Because I know darn well my kind is not welcome in most situations. I knew the sign should have said, "Any elf or dwarf may apply, brownies, pookahs, and gnomes may be considered, but trolls are asked to please stay home."
***

The first cues we get to world here are in the voice, not in tangible setting elements. I get a feeling of the modern real world from the phrases "took stock" and "on the job." This is further supported by the way the injuries are described, with modern medical terms: "concussion," "abrasions," and "gunshot wound." We then take a quick sidestep from that real world when we hit "Being a Tooth Fairy." The tone of voice and modern world elements continue through the next paragraph, but so does the presence of the fairy existence. Then we hit the intriguing word "Fate." This word seems to link back to older mythologies. We first get a sense of physical setting with the flashback, seeing the sun set and the main character leave a library. The precise location is still unfixed, not much helped by Shangri-La which is mythological but quite commonly used by businesses; however, "cuppa" suggests a British or Australian location. The first explicit mention of technology comes with streetlights and car headlights, but these only fit with the terminology used for the injuries earlier. The word "glamour" evokes traditional fairy stories, as does "fae". So my conclusion is that this is a humorous urban fantasy setting (humorous because of the use of quick contrast between the injuries and the images associated with the tooth fairy).

Now I'll go back through the excerpt and insert my thoughts marked in brown. These comments are mostly a think-aloud for me, and are not intended to be corrections, but I will note any points at which I was confused.

***
I took stock of my injuries. **[Is this the beginning of the story, or the middle? I get a modern feeling from taking stock, which evokes stores for me.] I hadn't even been on the job **[more evidence of modern mindset] a month and I had 14 bruises, a concussion, multiple cuts and abrasions, a broken arm, and now, a gunshot wound. **[These fit, being very modern medical descriptions for the injuries.] Being a Tooth Fairy shouldn't be this hard.**[That's a surprise! Now I'm curious how in the world these injuries could have been sustained by a tooth fairy. They do seem awfully extreme given my gut feel for the tooth fairy lifestyle. Is there a missing connection?]

It wasn't like I always wanted to be a Tooth Fairy. **[This signals a shift in the narration and I'm expecting a flashback. It's less clear to me where we are flashing back from.] In fact, if I hadn't seen that poster,**[My mind gives me an image of a kiosk at a university, covered with papers, but I'm not sure if I'm right about this.] I probably would have lived my entire life without that thought ever crossing my mind. But sometimes Fate is like that. **[The existing juxtaposition of gritty real life with tooth fairy magic makes me wonder if this is referring to an intangible force, as it would be for a human, or an identifiable person, as it might be for a supernatural creature.] You're walking down the street in the early evening and you see something that changes your life.

For me, that fateful night had started out as a typical evening. **[Since I don't know who she is, I'm not sure what "typical" will mean.] Once the sun had set and it was safe for me to leave the library, **[I'm seeing she's nocturnal, which brings many supernatural types to mind - vampires first, though I somewhat doubt that is where you're going. I don't quite understand how the library could be her home.] I headed over to Shangri-La **[is this a fae place or a human business?] for my nightly cuppa tea. **[Maybe we're in England or Australia?]
I walked in and out of the pools of light from the streetlights,**[I think we're in a city] the silver charms on my pockets **[not sure if these are a fashion statement or something fae] jingling softly with each step. Sometimes car headlights would pick me out of the darkness, but I wasn't concerned. My glamour was up **[interesting: we're working with classic fairy mythology too] and I could pass for human. Tall, but human.**[I like "tall" as a hint of her actual identity. She's obviously not microscopic; makes the tooth fairy connection more intriguing.]

The telephone pole on the street corner was littered with signs and posters.**[We've returned to the poster and this revises what I previously imagined.] Ads for weight loss,**[weight loss gives me both a modern feeling and a pop-culture feeling] garage sales,**[maybe we're in a suburb rather than a city] a local band. The normal dross of human society.**[If she is fae, how much does she know about "normal" in human society? How does she know it? Dross suggests she feels negatively about it - how does this play into a tooth fairy role?] But the scent of magic caught my attention.**[Interesting that magic has a scent - and that she would use smell to recognize it. A hint of her identity?]

My nose twitched and I stopped to give the posters a more thorough look. There was one that was dusted with glamour. **[This image of dust contrasts a little with how I'd conceived of glamour when it first appeared.] Humans probably only saw a sign for a lost pet, or something. What I saw was the flier that changed my life. It said simply, "Job opening: Night Hours. Any fae may apply."**[Now we see that there is a larger fae world involved.]

Matchmaking jobs **[I'm not sure what this means in this context.] had been slim lately, and while I wasn't hurting, I was always on the lookout for more work. But I didn't feel a burst of hope when I saw this poster. I felt a flash of anger.**[Not sure you need to lay out the hope/anger contrast explicitly since you're already showing that she wants work.] The last line got me, "any fae may apply". I snorted. Yeah, right. Because I know darn well my kind**[I like this; I always enjoy a sense that individuals have social self-identification] is not welcome in most situations. I knew the sign should have said, "Any elf or dwarf may apply, brownies, pookahs, and gnomes may be considered, but trolls are asked to please stay home."**[This list gives us some options of whom we might meet on the street, and also a social hierarchy.]
***

This is an interesting excerpt, with quite a bit going on in it. I do find that I'm having a lot of "maybe" assessments, not always knowing where I am and having to revise my vision as I go. I suspect that the worldbuilding in this piece may be more difficult because of the fact that there are two surprises built in: first, the idea that we're dealing with a tooth fairy in a gritty world, and second, the idea that our protagonist is a female troll.

Surprises are often difficult to manage, because they tend to give us very specific ideas about the kind of information we will need to hide from readers. However, in order for a surprise to work, we actually need to provide a lot of key information. Think about it in terms of grounding: if you want to make your reader jump, they first have to be standing somewhere they can jump from. My personal recommendation in these cases is to put in a lot of evidence that points to the conclusion I want, but keep the touch light enough that the conclusion isn't given away. In this particular excerpt, the opening doesn't give us enough specific grounding to allow us to leap easily, and we've got the "tooth fairy surprise" and the "flashback jump" coming in very close succession.

We don't need a big place to stand at first, as I discussed in my post last week. The voice suggests modern world, which is good, so I would expect to find a progression of world information that leads more or less directly to the current physical location of the protagonist. Since more of the actual location information is in the flashback section, I wonder if that might not be the better place to start. Sliding forward from there would be easier than it currently is to slide back, and I don't think the tooth fairy surprise would be at all diminished.

When managing worldbuilding information, I often find it's good to visualize worldbuilding as taking a fan-shape. There's no point in doing too much too early. We need one point where we can rest a foot (as it were) while building our curiosity; the next point needs to connect to that point, and as we go each piece of information should push our sense outward bit by bit. If the world expands slowly then any quick change will strike readers as a surprise. Don't try to hold back too much. In the case of our troll protagonist, I'd love to know more about the details of her life and how she got her job. Maybe something about the library to suggest how it is she is safe there, and what that means. The stronger sense we get of her identity without having it explicitly revealed, the more tension there will be, and the release we feel when the surprise is divulged will be more intense. I think in fact that there is an enormous potential for tension in the idea of a troll becoming a tooth fairy, because trolls are traditionally menacing to children and not the other way around. The surprise of how difficult the job is might become stronger if you were to set up that tension - would a troll tooth fairy be a risk to children? - and then break it with "shoot, how did I get all these injuries?"

Keep in mind that I don't know much about where the story is going, and that may influence how you choose to manage it. In any case, I hope these comments are helpful to you. Thanks so much for submitting!

I welcome any constructive discussion.