Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Psychogeography? What's that? An enormously rich worldbuilding topic

I attended a fascinating panel at WorldCon in Reno about Psychogeography, featuring David Cake, Cory Doctorow, Ian McDonald, and Renée Sieber - and I was amazed at how well it fit my worldbuilding interests, so I thought I'd share a few thoughts about it. Here's a (rather daunting) quote from the convention program: "Psychogeography is variously defined as 'the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals' or where psychology and geography meet in assessing the emotional and behavioral impact of urban space."

Think about it this way. What kind of physical spaces do you move through as you go through your day? How many of them have been planned by you? If it's the furniture in your home, you've probably been able to decide where it went on your own. But how about the layout of your house? How about the layout of your neighborhood, or the neighborhood where you work? The public spaces in your town, or in the towns you've visited as a guest? Each of these physical layouts will influence the way you move and potentially the way you think.

Here's an example from my local area. I have a mall nearby - within walking distance of my house, if I care to take the twenty minutes required. But do I walk there? No... not unless it's Christmas season and I don't want to get involved in the traffic (in which case I have walked there on principle). The way the place has been laid out is inimical to pedestrians. It's an indoor mall surrounded on all sides by broad parking lots which add a full five minutes to the walk even when I'm going quickly. There are no pedestrian entrances to the lots, and no pedestrian walkways leading across them. You have to walk right through all the car aisles to get to the main entrances. Is it any wonder that nobody walks there?

In the typical medieval town, there was always a market square. This was a central open space where people could gather to sell their goods, and gather they did. Those squares could also potentially be a place where unhappy people could gather to protest. If there were a ruler who didn't want unrest, he might crack down on the people, but it would still be hard to get rid of that central gathering space.

One interesting example mentioned by Cory Doctorow about London was that a lot of the London buildings had been destroyed by bombing after the second world war, and the planners of the city had to rebuild them, so they were thinking about making the streets easier to navigate by straightening them and making the streets rectilinear. However, the people refused to go along with this, and insisted on moving markers and traveling the paths they remembered of the old tangled road system, and in fact in the end the old roads were restored almost precisely as they had been.

Think about the cities you know, and how different they "feel" based on the way they're laid out. I think of Kyoto, Japan, where the north-south-east-west grid layout meant I never felt entirely lost even when I didn't know where I was, and where I learned my cardinal directions in a way I never had comprehended at any previous point in my life. I compare that with Tokyo, where you have to follow directions with absolute precision because the streets are not on a grid and a single wrong turn can diverge you into a totally different neighborhood where side connecting streets are not certain to deliver you back to your previous path. I compare each of those cities, with their narrow streets and tightly packed neighborhoods, with the wide-streeted towns of California where the lack of density means it takes twice as long to get anywhere and walking to the grocery store is an impractical neighborhoods are larger and people who live near one another are less likely to encounter one another in the street unless they happen to be walking to the local school (the local school being a very interesting "meeting point" and a huge creator of solidarity across the surrounding neighborhoods).

I'm sure you can already see the worldbuilding opportunities bursting out of this topic at every seam. What are your spaces like in your world? How wide are streets? Where do people gather? How easy is it to travel using various modes of transportation? My underground city of Pelismara is five levels deep and organized on a radial system, which means that it's actually rather compact and easy to traverse, especially at the deeper levels. People who use vehicles can cross it very quickly. People who walk have to be in excellent shape (for all the stair-climbing), but can get across town in relatively short order.

The panel at the convention also talked about technology and how it influences the use of space. Surveillance was one of the major discussion points here. The sense that one is being watched and recorded in any given public area can totally change behavior... but won't always do it the same way. During the discussion we also talked about the perceived "space" of the internet, Twitterverse, etc. Clearly, as seen in many instances of unrest across the world including China, the Arab world, and other places, the texting arena, and the Twitterverse, have become hotly contested virtual spaces where people can "gather" and their governments in response try to exert control over them by controlling the "space." In a city, these real and virtual environments lie side by side, and augmented reality can potentially blur the boundaries between them so that two different people can experience the physical spaces in entirely different ways. Mind you, our own subjective judgments of spaces can already cause us to experience spaces in vastly different ways, as I have previously discussed, but the possibility of augmented reality will only magnify that effect.

This is an enormously rich opportunity for worldbuilders, as you can see. I hope this very brief and cursory introduction gives you plenty of ideas for going back and considering the links between spaces and thought in your own stories. Have fun with it!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cultural expectations about food

Food is very cultural. Our overall menu and sense of what is edible have built up over thousands of years, during which we've learned things like, "Gee, tomatoes actually aren't poisonous." A good thing to know. We've had massive changes in world food culture, such as those that came about after trade began between the Americas and the other continents of the world (chocolate!). What we eat and do not eat may seem "natural" but it is mostly the product of learning. It can become very extreme, and it is subject to fads, as are most other aspects of culture.

Here is an example that has been in my face lately with all our travel adventures. When I was little, a children's menu was a relatively new thing. I suppose it was the effect of the social "promotion" of children from people who should not be seen or heard to people who should be included at restaurants (a development I approve of). I remember that the children's menu typically featured smaller portions of adult meals. This was nice for those adults who didn't want to eat as much food (though some restaurants didn't allow adults to order from the children's menu). These days, though, the children's menu doesn't have smaller versions of adult dishes. It has what our culture expects children to enjoy eating. Chicken nuggets. Fries. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Pizza. Macaroni and cheese. Hamburger/cheeseburger. And that's about it. Can you think of anything else you've seen on a kids' menu? Fish and chips I suppose, at a stretch. I've given up looking at the children's menu these days because my children don't really like anything on that list except pizza and burgers, and they can't be eating pizza and burgers every time they go out.

The funny thing is, this kind of expectation is self-enforcing. Parents worry that their kids won't like vegetables and so they act all scared around vegetables and don't feed them to their children. Parents worry that their kids won't like spicy food, so they don't feed it to them - not even in mild doses. Suddenly the routine centers around bland non-vegetable food - so should we be surprised when that's what kids tend to ask for? I'm actually not here to talk about parenting and food, but you can see that this is an important piece of the entire food culture of a society. There is also science and health and how those relate to food choices... it's definitely a complex mix.

If you're creating a society, imagine what its people will eat, as a start. But consider also the food culture of that society. How food is grown, and where, will affect its value and availability. Then there is how important food is as a social activity, and as a ceremonial activity. I mean, how would anyone ever go on a serious date if not for food? Some societies place a special value on regional foods, while others have one big staple that rules the diet surrounded by other smaller ingredients. Some societies have tons of available spices and others do not. Would your people flavor their food predominantly with herbs? Or would they prefer the bland?

There are a thousand questions that can be asked, and if you can spend some time thinking about them, your world will become much more interesting.

P.S. This could easily become an entire dissertation or more, if I started talking about the quantity one is expected to eat, and how, and when, and eating disorders, etc. Suffice it to say that I encourage you to explore food culture to the extent that you can as you are creating your world!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Should I meet writers, or write (or blog)? The writer's dual identity

This is a trick question, of course. It's never an either-or prospect. Of course we writers should go out and take the opportunity to meet other writers in person. Of course we should seek out agents and editors and introduce ourselves. But we can't ever forget about the writing. It's the writing that makes us writers.

This issue is at the top of my mind because I've been in a place for the last little while where I haven't had time to write. That while will soon be ending, fortunately. Janice Hardy this morning told me that I shouldn't feel bad because I have been very productive, just not productive in the writing part of my life.

I think I'm at peace with it at this point. However, I'm the kind of writer who feels a sense of loss if she can't write. If this were not the case, I don't think I would have chosen to be a writer, but the Muse is usually rather demanding for me. In a few days I'll be sitting down beside her, shaking her shoulder and saying, "I'm back. You can wake up again - sorry about that."

There are two parts to a writer's professional identity. For this post, I'll call them "Face" and "Voice."

My trip to WorldCon last week was all about "face." Of course, it was also about raising my spirits, getting me to feel connected to the community, and all of that. But I was achieving that by enacting my face as a writer. I don't see this as something controlled or disingenuous. I'm calling it "face" from an anthropologist's point of view, which is to say that this is something we do with limited conscious control, just by being ourselves. When I meet writers and get to know them, I want to know what they look like, and what they sound like, and what they are interested in talking about, and what they are working on, and how they think about what they are working on. All of this together - the verbal and social aspects of the writer - are the "face."

When you're working with face, however, you get very little sense of "Voice." Your voice as a writer is your work. It's not what you say about your writing, but the writing itself. When I was at WorldCon I kept saying to myself, "Wow, after this I have to go home and write some awesome stuff, just so I can continue to deserve these fabulous people." The writing is the part of you that endures. It's the part of you that people experience when you're not standing in front of them. Because of what a writer does, it's as much "you" as your face - and in fact, it's more you than your face most of the time.

Both of these sides are worth working on.

You should go to conventions and be on panels and meet people. It's very important. But you should never stop writing completely, because if you stop writing, you're not a writer. I'm not talking about those crazy hiatuses due to life and stress and everything. I mean, don't ever shake your Muse's hand and say "it didn't work out" if you want to be a writer.

Similarly, your voice is indispensable to your writer's identity, but it doesn't have that many chances to speak. It depends on the generosity of an editor who sees you story and can be inspired. Thus, it's critical for you to use your face to help create your public identity as a writer.

Okay, so at this point I ask, "Where does the writer's online presence fit in?"

I see it as somewhere in between the face and the voice. It's not really your "face" unless you're actively on a Google Plus hangout somewhere. But it's not really your voice unless it's actually your fiction. It's a go-between environment, where both face and voice can be maintained, with limitations. Your blog about yourself can establish an identity for you and contribute to face; your blog about writing can hint to readers about your writing style and contribute to voice. It all depends on what you do with it. A hangout can contribute a little to face and allow you to represent yourself as someone who writes (and help your productivity, in the case of writing hangouts). Online fiction contributes to your voice but may not reach as many people as you hoped if you're posting it yourself without pay. An online identity must be constantly and consistently maintained and grows only very slowly - but it's worth doing if you can make it work within the constraints of your life, because it can help bind face and voice together and strengthen both.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Link: Ceremony and Fantastika: Watching the Hugo Awards

I highly recommend this insightful and thought-provoking article by John H. Stevens over at SFSignal. It will certainly get you looking at awards ceremonies in a different way... and may even give you ideas for your own writing!

Link: Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor

I thought you might enjoy the beautiful art on this site. Check it out if you like science fiction and fantasy art and self-respecting women!

Culture Share: England - The Routemaster

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: London Monsters discusses "The Routemaster," also known as the London double-decker bus.

The trusted red Routemaster with its rounded corners and open rear platform was for many city dwellers their preferred way of getting around London. As a youngster, I could travel from Leafy Barnes to Liverpool St Station for 60p and would spend an hour or so people watching as the streets passed by. Every inch of the ‘red elephant’ was carefully hand crafted with purpose, from the solid oak upper floor to the yellow bell cord summoning the driver your intention that you were about to vacate the bus at the next stop. The chord was truly democratic device, leaving passengers a way of communicating to the unseen driver in the cab at the front. The windows had chromed knobs that rotated and wound down the window slots for added ventilation, unlike the sealed Metro monsters of today.

Designed by Londoners for Londoners who travelled by bus, its oncoming growl summoned millions from their newspapers and novels as it approached. The wide front grinning grill and the bulky engine purring like a cat as people hopped on and off. Passengers were so close together that they were obliged to talk as though they were friends, usually about shared experience on topics that they shared: the state of the roads, the traffic and that ever-popular British subject, The Great British Weather.

The conductor, usually a cheerful Jamaican, would whistle a tune as we creaked and bounced our way along London’s famous landmarks: ‘Olympia, ‘Barkers’, ‘The Albert’, ‘Knighty Barracks’, ‘The Ritz’ and the ‘Dilly’, all names that rolled off the lips of the cheerful conductor as he rolled out tickets on the steel roller ticket dispenser, strapped around his hips and shoulders like one of those modern baby carriers.

The Routemaster was a really intimate space bringing people closer together than would be allowed today. The favoured seats were upstairs at the front, giving panoramic views of London’s streets as it weaved through traffic in a pre bus-lane era. Many boys (and a few girls) played ‘Bus Driver’ games on early trips around town. Other favourite spots were the back seat above the curved stairs at the rear, just the right size for an intimate couple with wandering hands and a taste for a hint of privacy. The rear window provided surreal framed images of legs and arms passing diagonally as passengers squeezed past each other in the confined intimacy of the rear steps.

Passengers were squeezed together on tartan benches who swayed in unison as the bus turned this way and that, stitching together the villages of London from Archway to Peckham Rye. Some of the Routemaster bus routes weaved their way right across the capital and took several hours. It was, for some cross-London travellers, a home from home.

This piece appeared in London Monsters (copyright 2011) and appears thanks to Simon Rogers, who lives in London. Any comments good or bad are welcome at:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Article: How zoo animals responded to the DC earthquake

I found this fascinating link thanks to NPR. Animals at the National Smithsonian Zoo responded to the earthquake in widely varying ways, some even before the shaking started.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

WorldCon, The Rest

Well, the excitement of WorldCon was such that I have been unable to blog for a few days! Now that I'm back and somewhat recovered, I thought I'd start by telling you the rest of it.

Friday I began with a reading by members of Broad Universe, which was very enjoyable. I also attended a panel about the nature of Consciousness, featuring Mary Turzillo, Nancy Kress, Jack Skillingstead, Daryl Gregory, and M. J. Locke. I had an amazing encounter with Greg Bear in the dealer's room where we started out discussing worldbuilding (since I'd attended the panel with him the night before) and I ended up offering him a copy of "At Cross Purposes" which he - to my astonishment - asked me to sign. This was the moment when I would have loved to have a copy of a Greg Bear novel on me to ask him to sign in return, but I'd been "traveling light" and didn't even have my program! Sigh. I learned that my friend Alan Smale had won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History for his story "A Clash of Eagles" in Panverse 1 - super exciting! At lunch on Friday I headed over to the Peppermill hotel for lunch with Stan Schmidt, my editor at Analog, his wife Joyce, and fellow Analog author Paul Carlson. We chatted about stories and about life in general, and though I tried to leave early the shuttle was terribly late, so I was late for my first panel of the day. This one was a bit depressing, entitled "Anticipatory Anthropology" with Margaret McGaffey Fisk, Pat McEwen, and Irene Radford. It was mostly about how people would live and how society would develop in a relatively near future where resources were very scarce - but everyone there had interesting things to say! At four I had a panel called "Neologism and Linguicide" which I had expected to be depressing (needless to say I was steeling myself after the previous one!). But though we were discussing the extinction of world languages, the panel was very upbeat - I was up there with Sheila Finch, David J. Peterson, and Lawrence Schoen. All of them are practical linguists and so between the four of us we took a pragmatic approach which I'll have to go into in more depth in a separate post. Much time was spent talking about how wonderful it was to learn a language very different from one's own, a cause I can get behind any time. All the panels I saw (during the whole convention) were very well-attended. After the panels I rejoined my family for dinner. We ate at the Claim Jumper with Margaret McGaffey Fisk and her husband, Pat McEwen and Rebecca Partridge, which was wonderful fun. Contrary to my usual pattern, I decided to dress up and go out to a party thereafter - I headed up to the SFWA suite for a party hosted by Dell Magazines. I saw so many people there that it would be impossible to list them all, but they included Nayad Monroe, Sheila Williams (who the next evening won the Hugo for best editor!), Bud Sparhawk, Brad Torgerson, Ann Crispin, Joan D. Vinge, Jerry Oltion (who gave me an Analog MAFIA pin!), Traci Morganfield, Aliette de Bodard, and many others. Traci and Aliette are both members of my online writer's group, Written in Blood, but this was only the second time I'd met Aliette, and the first time I'd ever laid eyes on Traci!

After getting to bed late on Friday, I started Saturday attending a panel about common myths that Science Fiction has caused the general public to hold as truths (rather inadvertently!) the one that stands out is the idea that anything scientific can happen quickly. On the panel were Greg Benford, Mike Flynn, Joe Haldeman, Corry L. Lee, and Alastair Reynolds. It was a terrific discussion and often quite amusing. Between that and my noon panel I tried hanging out and socializing, and met Gardner Dozois, who is an interesting man and very fond of jokes (I mentioned that he had reviewed me and he feigned fear of reprisal!). At noon I was on a panel called "Designing Believable Languages" with Peadar Ó Guilín, David J. Peterson, and S.M. Stirling. That was wonderful fun. We began by addressing the rather odd question put forward by the description of the panel, which was how factors like biology and population density affect language (they do). Then we took turns discussing how we start going about creating a believable alien language. I was particularly taken with David's model, in which he designed the language and then "aged" it to give rise to irregularities and sound changes. After lunch with my family I joined Mary Turzillo, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and Stanley Schmidt for a discussion of the woman writers of Analog. That was a very interesting panel, as we were able to discuss Analog and our own stories, and also to address some of the myths surrounding Analog and its taste for "hard" science fiction. I found it heartening that the number of women appearing in Analog has gone up steadily in recent years, though many fewer submit to Analog than do men. According to Rick Lovett, the number of women appearing in Biologs (biographical pieces for people who have had three stories in the magazine) is about one in three, with a total of 40% in pending biologs. After that panel I had my reading at 4:30. I read from "Cold Words" to a small audience which included my children and my husband (yay!). That evening we went to pizza with friends, and then at their request I finished reading the story to them afterward. Unfortunately, I was too exhausted after that to make an appearance at the Hugo award banquet.

Sunday we had a pretty slow morning, but I finished the convention with an autographing session. I sat beside Jack Skillingstead, who is quite a wonderful person to chat with. He introduced me to Daryl Gregory, who was standing by and took advantage of this opportunity to autograph some things too. I had been concerned (as you might imagine) that nobody would come and see me, but to my pleasant surprise I was visited by a good number of people during the hour. I watched the lines of people cycling through for Nancy Kress and Gail Carriger, sitting down the table from me. Many of the people in Gail Carriger's line carried parasols, which was delightful. The most incongruous moment of the hour was when Gail, looking gorgeous in complete Victorian garb, started talking on her cell phone.

We had a very long drive home, which due to traffic was about five and a half hours rather than the four it had taken us to drive to Reno from California. However, we are home safe and sound, and as an added bonus, the termites had been killed while we were gone from our house (whew!). Of course, this did mean that there was no food in the house - and by that I mean literally, NO FOOD. But a quick trip to the store got us through and we have a few days to resume our routine before school starts.

After such an awesome time I'm feeling newly energized for my writing, and I'm very excited about what will happen when I suddenly have six hours a day to work. Watch out, works-in-progress!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

At WorldCon, Day 2

I was wall-to-wall busy today. I had breakfast with my family and then went out for the "Strolling with the Stars" walk, which was a leisurely walk around the neighborhood with all kinds of people. We must have had about 100 people confusing the traffic during this time. I met Ellen Datlow in person for the first time after having been on a Twitter greeting group with her (I thank Charles Tan for placing me there). She just happened to be chatting with Kay Kenyon and Cory Doctorow, so I met them too. Also on the walk were Lawrence Schoen and Margaret McGaffey Fisk. Our stroll ended right around 10, whereupon I changed out of my walk-in-hot-weather clothes and into my air-conditioned-convention gear, and headed into the convention.

I met lots of people today. I reconnected with Wendy Shaffer who was in a past writing group, and met Traci Morganfield for the first time - she's been in my writing group for years now, but I had never met her in person. I also crossed paths with Aliette de Bodard and her husband. I saw Alistair Mayer, Paul Carlson, and Rick Lovett, and met Brad Torgerson - all of them Analog folk.

The panels have been varied and quite interesting. Stan Schmidt spoke about upcoming things at Analog, and there was a really great panel about how architecture and the construction of physical spaces influence our thinking. I'm going to have to post in more depth on that one in the future. There was a great panel, ostensibly about Linguistics, which ended up taking on the issue of variation in world languages. That one featured Stan Schmidt, Michael Capobianco, Peadar Ó Guilín, Lawrence Schoen, and David Peterson. It was fun hearing so many of them attempt difficult phonemes, and try to elicit strange sounds from audience members! I also attended a great worldbuilding panel featuring Greg Bear and others.

My own event for the day was a KaffeeKlatsch, which basically involved me sitting at a table with a cup of coffee and talking about myself with anybody who cared to come. This was lovely, and people came to speak with me! I saw familiar faces Gregg Castro and Margaret McGaffey Fisk, and Brad Torgerson actually came to pick my brain a bit on the topic of language. There were three others whom I had not previously met, and we had a good time (though I wish they'd served everyone coffee and not just me!).

By the end of the day (that being now) I was exhausted. So I'll sign out and tell you more as it happens!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

At WorldCon, Day 1

We drove to Reno today; it took just over four hours. The hotel is enormous and the room is comfortable. The convention center is similarly enormous, but I'm starting to find my way around. I met Alan Smale near the registration desk - he's one of nearly twenty people I'm hoping to run into while I'm here. It's taken me hours to begin processing all the sessions I might be interested to attend. Today I went to a session about classic sf movies. Bob Eggleton was one of the people on the panel, and so I was able to meet him in person. He is a huge fan of classic sf, particularly monster, movies. I learned all kinds of things (especially since this isn't my area of expertise!).

I'll try to keep reporting each day that I'm here. It will be very busy and fun!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

TTYU Retro: Cultural Diversity in the Future

I've always loved Star Trek for the way it bucked trends on race, and even species, for the way it could have an entire episode about whether Data could be considered his own being with rights or not. It has a certain sense of undying optimism as it portrays human beings in an era beyond racial discrimination, after poverty has been eliminated from our civilization.

It makes me wonder.

My husband, who always looks at America with a certain degree of humorous distance (being a self-professed Aussie descendant of convicts), has been talking a bit about a post-racial generation, ever since the election of Obama. I think in a sense that America may be moving toward this, or at least, that in a couple more generations race may not mean the same thing it always has.

But what will it mean? And furthermore, what will it mean in the far, far future?

I've seen lots of science fiction where alien invasion or at least the appearance of aliens on the scene brings squabbling humans together against a common enemy. But on the other hand, the persistence of human divisions, such as those in the middle east and even in Ireland, continues to amaze me. The other thing I noticed when I was in college was the way that certain racial groups which received public recognition proceeded to splinter further into subgroups. The particular example I'm thinking of from my past was the Asian student union, which began to break up into multiple groups by nation.

I admire the authors, C.J. Cherryh and C.S. Friedman being only two of them, who have portrayed a cultural difference between planet-dwellers and non-planet-dwellers in their science fiction. I encourage all of you writers out there to consider what kinds of distinctions between people would have staying power in a future universe.

Where are the barriers? What kind of people might be hidden from public sight, even by purely logistical factors such as jobs servicing the innards of a ship, or long hauls between stars, such that others might be inclined to fabricate perceptions of them?

Ask yourself also: where are the points of pride? Who feels indispensable, and why? Who feels superior, and why? And how do those people mark themselves, whether it be physically, linguistically, behaviorally, or all three?

History shows us that when people stop separating themselves in one way, they will often separate themselves in another, often based on new categories that take on new meaning for those who experience them. The richness of diversity will never be lost, but only shift. It's worth seeking out those places so that your universe will thrive with depth and difference like our own.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Develop your Antagonist

Do you have a great antagonist?

I've been seeing a lot of posts recently about antagonists, and they've been making me think (I love to think).

One of the things that makes a great baddie is the sense that this person might have been a good guy if not for certain small details of backstory. Some prime motivating event, perhaps, or a key element of character. This I find plausible because it makes sense for the antagonist to have quite a lot of strengths.

Another key element for an antagonist is a sense of vulnerability. I always loved that the dragon Smaug had a single scale missing in the middle of his chest - and was in denial about it. I mean, hey, that little flaw is awfully convenient for the good guys, right? But a good vulnerable point for an antagonist can be more than just convenient. It can be a major driver for that person's evil deeds: I know that I have this flaw, and that it may end me (whether a soothsayer has detected this depends on the story!) so I have to protect myself in whatever unethical way I can! Another possibility is to give your antagonist a flaw that also gives them strength. My character Nekantor is obsessive compulsive, and this is a real problem for him, but it also makes him very good at certain things like pattern detection (something of a bad guy version of Adrian Monk's situation).

But say you've got all this. Say your antagonist rocks in the evil, backstory, and vulnerability departments. Don't just set her loose in the story and let that be it! Not when you could be doing so much more.

This is what I mean by develop your antagonist.

Your antagonist deserves to have a fully developed character arc, as much as anyone else. Don't let her, or him, sit back in a corner and just do the same thing over and over to cause everyone trouble. Let your antagonist learn from mistakes. You've designed a creature of great power. Let it grow.

One way to grow an antagonist is the more common one: to let your antagonist react to ongoing events and have that change their attitude, their level of desperation, etc. We watched Kung Fu Panda 2 yesterday and it was a lot of fun to see Shen get more frustrated, angry and desperate as time went by, because that made his reactions more extreme and exposed his not-so-noble side. This is a great way to raise the stakes, because the antagonist will go farther and father in the attempt to prevail, making the task of the protagonists more and more difficult.

Lately though, I've been exploring another way to develop my antagonist - by letting story events increase his propensity for evil. This opportunity has come up because I'm working with a prequel-like situation, which is part of a much much larger story arc. So I'm actually in the middle of what was once my antagonist's backstory, and what it's teaching me is that antagonists don't need to be entirely reactive. They should be proactive, and they should be flexible in developing their strategies.

After all, how would the bad guys get to be so powerful if they couldn't grow and learn? Do they simply get to have other older bad guys willing to set them up in positions of power (how convenient for them)? But why in the world would big bad guys with power be interested in a new bad guy who could potentially cause trouble for them? There must be something awfully compelling about this small shark's characteristics that would make the bigger ones feel ready to risk meeting its teeth themselves. Why, and how, does an antagonist develop his skills at deception? Is it easy for him, or is it difficult?

If you can consider these questions, you may be able to bring an entirely new and exciting dimension to your antagonist.

It's something to think about.

A very cool creature art link

Jelena M put me onto this link, showcasing the work of three creature illustrators. I really enjoyed looking at their work, and if you have time, you can read about their latest collaborative project.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Great link about Okonomiyaki

Just in case you ever wondered what this fantastic Japanese food was, here's a great article about okonomiyaki coming to the San Francisco Bay Area. If you already know it and love it, you might enjoy the pictures and descriptions!

Culture Share: Serbia - Slava, the Celebration of the Family Saint

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Alma Alexander discusses Slava, the celebration of the family saint.

Where I come from, under the wing of the Orthodox Christian church, birthdays (the actual date of one’s birth) have long been secondary in importance to one’s so-called “Imendan”, name-day, which is celebrated on the day that belongs to the saint after whom one is named – it is in some ways akin to the naming rules of some religious more Western countries where it’s the Catholic faith that holds sway and whatever the actual name given to a baby might be there has to be an honest-to-goodness saint’s name embedded in there somewhere. (That’s why so many Irish girls are Mary Something, and so many French babies struggle with unwieldy middle names.) In Serbia, where I was born, the “Imendan” was the important personal celebration – but more than that, there is another custom which hinges on a saint’s identity and which is I believe unique to the Serbian Orthodox faith. This is something that we know as “Slava”.

The word literally means “Celebration” – or maybe “Thanksgiving”. It is not an individual but rather a family celebration, and it is kept on the feast day of the patron saint of the entire family. The identity of this saint depends on the day on which the family celebrating the Slava first became Christians. If you consider the idea of this more closely you will realize that the Slava of a family is something that unites the entire family under the banner of this commemoration of their first acceptance of their faith, and the same saint has been celebrated by individual families for centuries, for generations. Even during the most suppressive of the Communist years, when the church was not popular and the people were hardly church-going on a regular basis, the Slava was kept – because in a lot of ways it is embedded in a secular as well as a religious bedrock. A Slava day defines you, as a Serb, in much the same way that keeping Seder would identify you as a Jew. There are celebrations and traditions which are passed down from generation to generation together with the icon of the family saint which is a treasured heirloom from the old to the young over the passage of decades and centuries.

In the traditional religious sense, on the day of the family Slava the family home is literally considered consecrated, if just for the day – it becomes a church, and the family within its congregation. It is a day for the family to gather from near and far, traditionally at the home of the oldest living member of the family – the holder of the family icon – and the gathered people, from great-grandparents to babes in arms, gather together to celebrate the existence of that family, to pray for the shining futures of the young ones, and to remember the ones who have passed from the family circle. This is perhaps one of the most poignant and moving aspects of this tradition – the dead, the beloved ancestors, are not forgotten. The Slava has been called a “spiritual family reunion” by some, and while some may recoil from that I think it is beautiful – in this church, in this culture, death has no dominion, and the grave does not sunder loved ones. Those of us who have gone ahead are as present at these family celebrations as the noisiest of toddlers being kept a solicitous eye on by young parents. We are all one, we are family, we exist in a timeless place where there is always a memory. My own grandparents, two decades and more dead now, are as present to me on Slava days as if they were still sitting across the table from me at the family feast. I have loved them; they loved me; they live within me, always, under the blessing of the Slava.

The religious aspects of the celebration are – perhaps inevitably, given the identity of the celebrants – wrapped up and embedded in that feast. The family gathering generally culminates in a shared smorgasbord which the women of the family labour for days to produce – but there are two things on the menu that have deep religious and spiritual significance. One of them is the so-called “Slavski Kolac” (it’s pronounced “slavsky kolach”, and literally means Slava cake) which is a sort of bread baked specially for the occasion. It bears on its crust the sign of the cross. But before you even get to the table you are greeted with a bowl of a special dish known as “Koljivo” (pronounced “kolyivo”) which is a dish made from wheat, nuts, sugar, and cloves. It is offered to visitors at the door in a bowl, and a spoonful is taken almost as a ritual greeting with “Sretna Slava!” (Happy Slava!) offered in return. The wheat has deep ecclesiastical meanings of its own – symbolizing such things as the Resurrection of Christ – but this is… a remembrance dish, made and offered and consumed in remembrance of all those who are only here with the family in spirit. Every morsel of koljivo I take on November 11, my own Slava day, serves to take my mind back to those vanished and beloved grandparents whom I carry in my heart.

Another of the Slava traditions is the candle – one that is supposed to have been purchased at the Church, or at least blessed by a priest, and which, once lit, is not permitted to be snuffed out. It must be allowed to burn down naturally until it gutters out of its own accord. To do otherwise invites death into the family. (In practice, this has often meant that somebody has to sit up with the candle until the wee small hours, until the moment it dies – leaving unattended open flames in a household, particularly one with (for instance) pets, is not a good idea and it needs to be supervised; I have resorted, on occasion, to having the guttering candle tucked away in a metal foil nest in the bathtub in a bathroom firmly closed to unauthorized entry, if it persisted in still burning at two or three in the morning – but nothing on earth would induce me to be practical and just snuff it out and go to bed. It must be allowed to burn down in God’s time, not my own.

Slava is passed on through the generations – but it gets complicated by intermarriage and the lineages of the families which celebrate different saints. It is usually the husband’s patron saint that the family takes on when a newly-wed couple choose their Slava – but the family icon is kept and treasured by the eldest member of the family and that only gets passed down to the next heir after he inherits the mantle of Eldest. In my own family it was an interesting wrinkle that my grandmother and grandfather proved to have the same Slava day. This is very unusual, especially if the saint is a relatively minor one, and in this case the saint in question was St Avram, or Avramije – which translates into Abraham in the more westernized versions – and when I was younger I was extremely puzzled for a long time as to what the Jewish biblical patriarch Abraham had done to deserve being turned into a Christian saint. But this was a different Avram, whose feast day fell on November 11, and my grandparents both held allegiance to him as their families’ patron saint –and thus he became ours. This particular family, mine, has almost disintegrated in some respects – my grandparents had no sons, only two daughters, and each daughter produced a daughter in her turn, and one of those (my cousin) married a Jewish man, and so out of faith, and has only daughters herself in any event and the other (myself) married a relatively atheist American and has no children at all. The two cousins, myself and my aunt’s daughter, both still keep Slava anyway, and our husbands have been trained to accept this and even to partake in it, being “adopted” into the family and the faith. But after us, the branch grinds into dust because there is no son to inherit, no more generations to carry it further.

This “adoption” is partly possible because of the dual religious/secular nature of the celebration – because a big part of the family Slava is, well, family. And food. Traditionally anyone who calls at the door wishing the family a happy Slava must be fed; the women make appetisers and entrees, roast beasts of every stripe, and soups, and salads, and sweets of every description from tea cookies to rich cakes, and it’s all brought out and set out around the icon of the family saint, for the nourishment of the living and the souls of the dead. There is so much light, and love, and laughter, and remembrance. It is truly a celebration, a celebration of life and of living, and it is a protection and a shelter against the onslaught of a world that does not care. FAMILY cares, and you will always have family – and the family will always have their Slava.

I will be celebrating once again, with the koljivo and the candle and the icon, come November 11. In honor of that St Avram on whose feast day, once, a long time ago, the distant ancestors whose blood now flows in my veins laid down their pagan beliefs and embraced Christianity. In memory of their blood and their bones, and the laughter and the loving arms of the grandparents who once loved me.

Happy Slava.

Alma Alexander is a writer of both YA and not-so-YA literature, published in 14 languages worldwide. Born in a country which no longer exists, she's made a career of living all over the world - and currently resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

TTYU Retro: Insiders and Outsiders (in Worldbuilding Cultures)

This is a post that I originally wrote in the context of the furor surrounding Norman Spinrad's article entitled "Third World Worlds" (the original text of which can be found here if you're curious what it was about, and a compiled list of responses can be found here). My article doesn't deal with those arguments directly, but with an aspect of anthropology, linguistics and writing that I felt was relevant to that discussion, namely the question of cultural insiders and outsiders.

I'm talking about the difference in perspective between someone on the inside of a cultural group, and someone on the outside. This is an issue I've given a great deal of thought to when working with my fictional societies, but it seems clear to me that it's relevant beyond just fiction, applying also to any time you're working with a real life social group, or speculated future group.

I think there would be little debate over the idea that in order to portray a social situation vividly, a writer needs to do research. If that situation happens to be fictional, the writer would do well to think through all the things they might discover if they did research. If we're talking about Japan, you'll want to know about the genkan where people take their shoes off before entering a house, and you'll want to know about manga and about the large number of convenience stores and vending machines, about enka singing and about Japanese-English pop rock, etc... all kinds of things that might go into creating a sense of the environment.

Research on its own, though, isn't enough. There's also point of view, which differs critically if you're a person who has grown up in this environment as opposed to being someone who visits it. Insiders versus outsiders.

In some cases the distinction may not even be as simple as just insiders and outsiders. In Japan, there is a very interesting cultural phenomenon I've noticed, of foreigners who live in Japan but who interact primarily with Japanese people who love to hang out with foreigners. Between the two groups a new group culture has been created: one that's uniquely Japanese and yet doesn't actually capture what someone would encounter if they lived with a host family. It's a "foreigner-Japanese" culture, or perhaps it's similar to the sort of mixing environment that has given rise to pidgins across the world. It was in this sort of context that I encountered Japanese people who told me that I spoke Japanese "too well." For whatever reason, my ability to understand Japanese was threatening to someone who wanted the different social contract that existed between the Japanese and non-Japanese participants in this social group. So being an "insider" in that specially defined cultural group is entirely different from being an "insider" or an "outsider" to Japanese society in a more general sense.

For writing purposes, I think it's important to ask the question: what makes the difference between an insider and an outsider perspective? We can feel the difference when we read it, but where does it actually arise?

It arises in language - specifically, the words and usages we choose when we write our stories.

If we're trying to achieve the sense of an insider perspective, either for a world culture or for a fictional culture, it's important to extend our research into the sensitive area of listening to language. It's easy to think of language as a tool for delivering messages, but it's easy to underestimate the sheer number of messages that it can deliver at once. The way that I ask someone to lend me a pen does more than just ask someone to lend me a pen. It conveys other messages about my perceived social relationship to the person I'm speaking to; it conveys the perceived importance of pens; it conveys the fact that in my society, pens exist; it conveys how I feel about being caught without one, etc. Sentences carry messages about judgment and emotion, and about how reality is divided into objects, concepts and categories.

I think the history of Anthropology is somewhat relevant to this question. The early anthropologists weren't exactly like Indiana Jones, but they typically considered the societies they visited, described and judged them from the perspective of their own cultural viewpoint (s). This was a context in which casting aspersions of savagery was far easier than it is today. More modern anthropology draws a distinction between "etic perspectives" and "emic perspectives," that is, outsider perspectives and insider perspectives. Modern anthropologists strive to understand how a group of people defines itself, rather than contenting themselves with observing details of its behavior and judging them from the outside.

Listening to language - i.e. listening to the group members talk about themselves and about outsiders - is critical to the process of understanding the group and how it defines itself. The listener (writer or anthropologist) can listen for overarching cultural metaphors and values, categories that are widely applied, how words are used to label people and objects and how that influences people's perception of them. Words that seem familiar can be applied to things in an unfamiliar way.

This is the kind of thing that we as writers can take advantage of as we write stories. We can tap into our understanding (from literature or personal experience) of the cultural metaphors of a group and bring those to bear when writing a character from that group. I remember discovering Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman and being impressed not just with the settings and objects that filled her fantasy Japan, but also the kinds of things that her characters worried about. The concerns they had, their definitions of success and failure, their justifications for action, and what motivated them to keep going forward in their lives, fit extremely well with my experiences of Japan, Japanese people and literature. It felt real, and spoke to me.

When we try to create an insider perspective, sometimes it's harder than other times. I suppose, though, that the object is not so much to pass for an insider as to create a story that speaks to readers in a meaningful way (interesting thoughts on this at OF Blog of the Fallen, here). And if the perspective is not quite what we'd expect from a full insider, that may indeed give us different kinds of insights - as I remarked in my discussion of what non-native speakers can bring to language and to stories.

I'd like to finish by talking more concretely about insider and outsider language. In my own stories, I usually try to create both insider and outsider points of view that I then contrast with one another. I think this is because of how I've been struck, throughout my experience in anthropology and life in general, by misunderstandings and the divergent ways different cultures invest meaning in what they say. The result is that I'm often looking for ways to describe the same objects and experiences while investing them with divergent value (as in my "different value" posts).

Here are a couple of basic principles to keep in mind. (You may notice that A and B are arbitrary, and can be switched without changing the basic principle.)
  • An outsider (say, from culture A) will notice things in an unfamiliar culture (B) when things that are typically meaningful in culture A differ in culture B.
  • An outsider (A) may not notice things that differ in culture B when those things are not meaningful in culture A - but if they are meaningful in culture B, the culture B insider will probably notice the difference.

  • An insider (of culture B) will not remark on the existence of things/practices/people that are normal to him/her, except when 1) those things/practices/people are seen by the insider to have a distinct value within an ongoing activity, or 2) when those things/practices/people diverge in some way from the insider's expectation.
  • Sometimes a shared activity between members of culture A and culture B will involve things/practices/people that are unremarkable to both parties, particularly if the shared activity is something the two cultures developed together (but aren't currently refining).

There are many ways an author can use principles like this. You can have have insiders find something meaningful while an outsider doesn't notice them at all. You can have an outsider notice something and have an emotional reaction to it that differs completely from the reaction that an insider would have when exposed to the same thing. As an example of this second possibility, I'll point you to something I always wondered about in Star Trek: facial ridges. The way they were treated was that people used them to tell the difference between the different interstellar races. But that was typically it. I could see a human saying, "gee, these guys have facial ridges" because a human in this case is an outsider to the facially ridged culture. But if the features of a face (heavy brows, unibrow, thick/thin lips, nose shape) are invested with so much meaning in human cultures, why wouldn't some quality of the facial ridges have additional meaning?

I tend to think about levels of detail and experience. If a character brings attention to the existence of something, then I automatically guess that person is an outsider; if instead a character expresses a judgment that presupposes the existence of something, I consider that evidence that the character is an insider.

Here are a couple of examples from fictional worlds I've been working with.

Example 1: (physical features)

The species called "Cochee-coco" has a noticeable facial feature. When a human sees this species, her first gut reaction is that they look like otters. However, she then notices that they have no eyebrows, but a bare patch of "pebbly" skin that goes from their eyes up to their ears. For the human character, this facial feature acts as a confirmation that these creatures are not familiar Earthlike creatures, but aliens that humankind has never encountered before. When a Cochee-coco sees this feature, she doesn't bring attention to the feature itself, but gives it its own special name (brow-character) and mentions what the qualities of this feature say about the people who have it: the two people she's looking at are quite masculine (indicating that masculinity is one of the meanings this feature can convey) and that they aren't related because the patterns they have in this skin are different (indicating that family relation is another meaning of the feature). You can see this is a deliberate departure from the Star Trek situation.

Example 2: (manners)

In my Varin world, there is a caste called the Imbati who are servants - but high-level servants, so they serve the nobility as body servants and bodyguards, but also serve as political assistants and secret-keepers. They also are lawyers (servants of the Courts) and bureaucrats (servants of the State). In their role as guardians of information, they've developed manners surrounding the asking of questions. As an author, I want to make it clear to my readers that this rule affects Imbati life, but I have to be careful about how I make it clear - because it doesn't make sense for either the nobility or the servants to "tell" the reader about the rule (here we are again with "show don't tell"). So in the point of view of a noble boy I have him asking the servant a question in exasperation, then saying, "no, don't answer that" and apologizing for having "poor Imbati manners." I'll also add that he can do this because he's more self-aware and respectful of servant ways than most of the nobility. Then in the servant point of view I have to treat it a different way. I have the servant character giving another character permission to ask a question, and then I have the servant notice the mischievous look his girlfriend gets "when about to ask a question without permission."

Example 3: (setting/practices)

The undercaste of my Varin world are downtrodden - no surprise there. But I've spent quite a long time looking for ways to push beyond the obvious evidence for their downtrodden-ness. I have decided that though they are offered health care at clinics, they prefer not to get it there because they're abused by the staff. But if it's normal for them not to go to doctors, it's unlikely that they'll mention it. Instead, since being sick is a departure from the norm, they would talk about what they actually do when they're sick (getting help from neighbors, drinking from natural mineral springs in the vicinity, etc.). A person who actually dealt with doctors on a daily basis through work or other means would be pitied.

We have to work hard when dealing with the portrayal of fictional worlds, because we can't rely on our subconscious sense of belonging to make the language behave the way it needs to. But as I mentioned in my post about the myth of the native speaker, subconscious instincts can be both help and problem.

When dealing with world cultures, as opposed to fictional cultures, it's often easy to rely on one's instinctive, unconscious abilities in pragmatics to express the meanings that we invest in objects, people, and practices. But keep in mind that we have to push away from our subconscious when dealing with other cultures, because it can diminish the effectiveness of our portrayal of them. This is where you see the real skill of a sensitive researcher come into play. No matter what culture you belong to, you need to spend some time closely observing, and especially listening to, the cultures you hope to portray from the inside. Authors who can keep themselves attentive to the meanings created by insiders of a world culture will be able to create a similar effect of their own, while at the same time bringing their own insights to the story.

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tests of Character

What does your character think is important?

All right, now, what does your character really think is important? For what, or whom, would they drop everything and run into battle (figuratively or literally)? For what reason would they disregard personal safety, need for food, etc.?

In my novel in progress, there is a point when the main character falls abruptly ill. This event galvanizes all kinds of people around him, and it's the kind of event that will show what these people consider important.

  • The main character's mother cares about nothing more than saving his life - not particularly surprising.

  • The mother's servant takes her wishes as his own, of course, and he has medical training that would cause him to act - but he discovers he cares very deeply for the main character and drops everything, hardly eating or sleeping for two days in order to get him through his illness.

  • The main character's brother, by contrast, figures everybody is caring for the main character but nobody has noticed that there was something he was supposed to do, and now nobody is available to do it. He cares far more about the political situation than he does about his brother.
When we hit a catastrophic event in our stories, or even just a deeply important gesture (such as a touch from a person one is attracted to), it provides us with fantastic opportunities to reveal character. In fact, it's worth trying to achieve just this sort of test of character during the course of a story. We're encouraged to ask, "What is the worst thing that could happen from this characters point of view?" and then to try to have that happen. Why? Not only is it dramatic, but it provides a test of character and allows the character to become more deeply human (whether he/she is in fact human or not), as well as giving that character a unique opportunity to direct the plot. Tests of character are where plot and character come together to drive the plot.

If you're in the midst of writing a story, look for places where events could conspire to test your character and cut through to what he or she considers most important. If you're planning a story but have more information about your character than about the plot, look through your character's personality for places of weakness, those funny-bones or Achilles heels that could really use testing. Then use that information to guide your plot choices. Oddly enough, you don't even need to know how the character would react to being tested in that way - only that they should be tested. You can then wait and figure out what happens when you get there.

It's something to think about.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What does it mean to lie?

I've been thinking about lying recently, for several reasons. First is because of accusations of lying that I see flying back and forth between people of different political persuasions. Second is because I'm writing a story entitled, "The Liars." Third is because I have children.

You might think that since I say I have children, I would be saying that they lie. Not so. Instead, what they do is they make me question how lying is defined in the first place.

Consider the following situations. What do you think of them? Are these people lying?

1. A person testifies before congress and says that a study defined nuclear families as having one mother and one father when this was not in fact the definition used by the study.

2. A person hears a loved one tell a story of an injury, and proceeds to tell another story about a nearly identical injury she herself sustained, but for which there is no evidence.

3. A person tells a group of curious but unwary outsiders a lengthy story about how he used to ride to school on a kangaroo, including details of what the kangaroo ate, what kind of saddle it wore, etc.

Okay, so let's go through. As I see it, there are two possibilities for the person in situation 1. Either he was lying, or he was in error (possibly as a result of insufficient research). The difference between the two, to my mind, would be whether this person had indeed read the real definition and then decided intentionally to disregard it.

There are also two possibilities for the person in situation 2. Either she is lying to take attention away from the injured person, or she is expressing empathy for the injured person by imagining herself in a similar situation. The difference between the two, to my mind, would be whether the person is maliciously inclined toward the injured person or not.

Just as in the first two situations, there are two possible interpretations for situation 3. Either the storyteller is lying to deceive a group of people as a result of their ignorance, or he is playfully telling a joke and trying to engage their skepticism and enjoyment of hyperbole/sarcasm as well as their curiosity. The difference between the two is whether he intended to fool or belittle the listeners.

I know from personal experience that the people in situations 2 and 3 were not lying (because I know them). I don't know anything about the person in situation 1 except that many people believe he was lying. In all three cases, the situation is ambiguous, not because of any question of factual accuracy (all three cases involve factual inaccuracy!), but because of the implication of intent.

If the inaccurate statement is made with malicious (or selfish) intent, then it is a lie.

Of course, factual accuracy (or inaccuracy) is much easier to judge than malicious intent. In the case of situation 3, the intent of the storyteller was playful, but the culture of the listeners didn't actually allow for this as a possible interpretation, and therefore they thought the speaker was lying (inexplicably!) and the speaker had to explain to them that the whole thing was a joke. And then of course there are "white lies" which people don't seem to mind so much, which are told with explicitly benevolent intent... and there are lies which are told because they are required for reasons of politeness... [See my other article about this, Honesty and Politeness]

I find this an incredibly rich source of ideas for stories. There are plenty of situations when an error or omission by one party can be interpreted as deliberately malicious by the other. Cultural differences only exacerbate these situations. Have you ever been in an ambiguous lying situation? Have you ever seen someone accused of lying when they didn't deserve it? Was the factual accuracy at issue, or the intent behind it?

It's something to think about.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cool link about ancient Pictish

There's now some evidence that ancient Pictish was a written language. Check out the methods scientists used to determine this here.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Culture Share: France - Pierrade, fondue and raclette: French convivial meals

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Aliette de Bodard discusses convivial meals in France.

Pierrade, fondue and raclette: French convivial meals

by Aliette de Bodard

If you go to a French cookware store, you'll find that there often is a section titled "convivial", or some very similar words--and what they sell might seem very odd if you have never been to France: there's a series of what seem outlandish devices, accompanied by pictures of happy-looking people gathered around a table. Those devices are used for what I'd term "convivial meals."

These meals all have in common the very small prep time, and the fact that the instruments for cooking the food are laid on the table for everyone to use. This makes them a very popular choice for large and/or festive gatherings, or simply for a change of fare compared to oven-baked or casseroled dishes.

Here is a selection of those meals:


Pierrade comes from the French "pierre", which means stone, and that's basically what a pierrade is: it's a flat length of stone (not sure, but probably marble) laid on top of a resistor which causes its entire surface to become hot. The star of pierrade dishes is the meat: very often it's beef or lamb, but it can also be sausages, chicken, ... Pierrade meat needs to be sliced very thin, because pretty much the only part of the meat that will cook is the one in contact with the hot stone (unlike a frying pan, there is no heat-haze that helps the meat firm up). My family traditionally eats pierrade with oven-baked potatoes, but it can also be eaten on its own, with copious amounts of meat; with sliced vegetables cooked on the stone (peppers, zucchini, tomatoes); or with a simple salad. The basic process is simple: you set up the pierrade to warm up (oiling it and/or adding a thin layer of salt if the meat you plan to cook is lean and won't release enough grease to lubricate the stone). Once the pierrade is warm, everyone can come and sit at the table: platters of meat and side dishes are passed around, and everyone cooks their own meat on the pierrade. Possibly the only time-consuming part of the process is the cleaning-up of the pierrade itself: it always ends up covered in a layer of carbonised fat, which can be a real pain to scrape off the stone!


Raclette derives its name from the cheese that forms its base: raclette is a firm, yellow cheese with a characteristic taste--its name deriving from "racler", which means "to scrape (off)" (we'll see why in a minute). This is a winter dish, which originally came from the Alps--but it has now spread far from its area of origin, and is pretty much eaten all over France (though the best cheeses and raclette dishes are still found in Savoie and/or Switzerland, and it's still traditional to eat a raclette when going into the Alps for a skiing holiday).

The ingredients of a raclette are hearty fare: there are thin slices of raclette cheese, boiled potatoes, and a variety of charcuterie from cooked ham to saucisson (dry sausage) to Grisons meat. Like pierrade, raclette requires specialised equipment, namely a "appareil a raclette" (raclette device). It also consists of a heating element, but the setup is a bit different from a pierrade: a raclette device heats things up from above: each participant is given a "poelon", a rectangular pan with a handle, which then fits underneath the resistor. This is for melting the cheese: one or two slices are put in the poelon--when they're melted, the cheese is poured over the meat and/or potatoes in the plate, and everything eaten as it is--the warmth of the melted cheese combining with the salty strong taste of the meat, and the earthier flavor of boiled potatoes (the boiled potatoes are generally set on the device itself, on the metal tray above the heating element, which keeps them warm the entire meal).

The traditional raclette setup, which you still see in restaurants in the Alps, is an entire chunk of cheese set under a resistor: the surface of the cheese gradually melts, and you scrape off the melted bits as they become available--hence the name. It's usually so hearty (one massive chunk of cheese for two people) you're all set up for the winter!


Fondue is another Alpine dish, and has become a popular winter dish as well (and, like raclette, it's also traditionally eaten on skiing holidays). Like raclette, its main ingredient is melted cheese, but it's a slightly different beast. Fondue means "melted", and that's pretty much what the dish is: melted cheese--with a twist. While the cheeses are important (you usually have two or three different mountain cheeses such as Beaufort--which cheeses are used depend a lot on the area of the Alps you're in, as well as on what's available), the key element of a fondue is the wine. And it has to be good wine, not cooking wine, since it gives its characteristic taste to the mix: the ones generally used are Apremont, Abymes or Chaparellian, all white wines from Savoie (to give you an idea, most fondues have half as much wine in them as they have cheese!).

A fondue device ("appareil a fondue") is basically a warm container, with a rim wide enough for everyone to cluster around it. At the beginning of the meal, the appareil a fondue is brought to the table with the fondue steaming warm inside (which keeps everything to a viscous stage). Everyone is given a small skewer or fork and bits of bread, which are then used to dip into the cheese mixture.

This is just a sampling of the most common convivial meals: you'll find other devices in French cookware stores, such as crepe (thin pancakes) makers--but I mostly stuck to the ones I had tested *grin* They're all worth a try, and combine a great time among friends with awesome food--what's not to like?

Aliette de Bodard
lives in Paris, France.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Creating the *Feel* of a World

Let's say you have a really excellent world, and you've figured out a ton of things about it. The next step in story terms is to translate that world into the story and make it come alive. I've talked before about being careful not to info-dump - about managing and dispensing information in various ways (including Hiding Information in Plain Sight). But a lot of what makes a world come alive is not the information you know about it, but the feel of the place.

What creates the feel of a world?

Well, that information you've created will be useful. It's not going to be enough on its own to create a really intense feel. Here are some things that are useful for creating a world feel:

1. Objects that imply activities
I've mentioned this before, but objects can be extremely useful for creating world feel. What you need to look for is an object that is idiosyncratic. It could be an object designed for an activity unique to your world. It may be an object common to our own lives, but should take a form uniquely suited to the world you're creating. Like this Roman "Swiss Army Knife," for example. These objects will imply the activities and social circumstances they are designed to fit into.

2. Symbols that imply attitudes/judgment
Symbols can be found in lots of places. Real world cultures are full of them. In Japan, the moon is associated with autumn, and therefore can symbolize it. Colors can be symbolic, as when we associate blue with boys and pink with girls (don't get me started on that, but it is a symbolic color system). In your world, any of these things can be symbolic, and if they symbolize unexpected things, the feel of your world will be enhanced. Better still if those symbols can mean one thing to one social group, and another to another. In Varin, the nobility see the manservant's tattoo as a symbol of skill and subservience; other servants see it as a sign of elite education, pride and adulthood; and Lowers see it as a sign of danger (as do nobles who might be in danger of encountering their bodyguard skills!).

3. Metaphors that imply value categories
I can't overestimate the importance of metaphors in creating a feel for your world. We don't think consciously about a lot of the metaphors we use, but using them evokes all kinds of imagery that we associate with what is important and basic in our world. "Life is a journey" evokes all kinds of things, including old fairy tales ("off to seek his fortune"), the voyages of early explorers, the frontier, etc. If "life is a game" then you can go into all kinds of games that life might be like - poker will give you one feel, chess another, power and assassination yet another. In fact, I highly encourage you to create games unique to your world circumstances; they can be enormously important in creating feel!

4. Voices that imply, well, everything
Pay attention to your character voices. Because they are constantly present, they do an enormous amount of work in creating the feel of your world. They can help delineate social groups and world categories all over the map, and by casting judgment (as I've mentioned before in Subjective Point of View: expressing judgment with adverbs and verbs), they create an enormous amount of "world feel" while at the same time working for you in the areas of plot and character.

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Exciting: "Cold Words" to be anthologized!

Some of you may have seen me going, "I have exciting secret news" last week. At this point I can tell you what it is. My novelette, "Cold Words," (Analog, Oct. 2009) has been selected for inclusion in Analog's very first Kindle anthology: Into the New Millennium: Trailblazing Tales from Analog Science Fiction and Fact 2000-2010!

I'm thrilled at this. I was very proud of "Cold Words" and love my protagonist, Rulii - in fact, I've been thinking for some time about how to do a sequel to this story. I read a part of "Cold Words" aloud at Westercon, and was asked whether it had been anthologized... at the time I had to say no, but no longer! I will let you all know as soon as I learn more about the publication date.

Critique partners - finding and valuing them

I was asked by an anonymous blog commenter a few days ago, "how do you find a critique partner?" so I thought I'd share my thoughts on the subject.

I started out, as I think most writers do, simply writing for myself and not looking for critique. However, that phase didn't last long. I knew that I needed other people to look at my work in order to see how to improve it. I did show it to a number of friends, but friends as a general pool (unless you're hanging out with excellent writers) aren't the most reliable for finding really good quality critique.

Because I write science fiction and fantasy, I joined the Critters website as my first critique venue. This site was a great place for me to start, because by critiquing others, I learned quite a lot about how to improve my own writing. I am not a person who writes lots and lots of stories quickly, so I generally found the wait in the critique queue to be too long for my taste. Despite this, however, I did read a lot of interesting work and receive some quality critiques which helped a lot. The best thing that came out of this was that I met Janice Hardy. I'd critiqued a work of hers and we got into a lengthy email discussion about her worldbuilding that ended up getting transferred to telephone discussions and we've been critiquing each other's work ever since.

My luck in meeting Janice was exceptional, and that brings me to my commenter's second question, "What do you look for in a critique partner?" First off, I look for someone who is not going to be kind to me just on the basis of friendship, someone who isn't going to take things for granted. I also appreciate it if that person has an analytical mind and is able to speculate helpfully on the source of any issues that arise. Janice and I are well matched because while we share many of the same values in what we write, our strengths lie in complementary areas. Janice totally rocks on plot, goals, stakes, and general story guts, so she keeps me on track when I have weaknesses in those areas. My own strengths are typically in worldbuilding and character development. Thus we are able to help each other work toward a goal that will be stronger, and which both of us will enjoy reading.

I also have other critique partners. I went to a convention writer's workshop (BayCon) and met Dario Ciriello there, and through him was connected with a face-to-face group which I stayed with for quite some time. Because of my family life - in particular, the demands of full-time motherhood - the face to face group proved tricky for me after a while. However, I am still working with Dario, who has a great eye for quality and is very good at helping me out (thus his status as editor at Panverse Publishing!).

One does upon occasion leave critique groups. There may be many reasons for this. I've heard of people leaving groups for social or political reasons; fortunately, this hasn't happened to me. I've also heard of people leaving groups because they felt the group members weren't at a level to help them any more. This is possible too, but again, hasn't happened to me. I've actually found that in the groups I've joined, the writers there were just as hungry for self-improvement as I was, and thus, the longer I was a member, the better we all became. That is a dynamic that I deeply value, and something that makes me very happy about my current writer's group.

I also occasionally run into people, either at conventions or through my internet writer networks, who take interest in my writing at the same time that I do theirs. These people become critique partners, sometimes only for a single work, but sometimes for more. I can hardly describe how much I appreciate the support of Lillian Csernica and Jamie Todd Rubin, who have critiqued for me and engaged in lengthy discussions of my work (and theirs!).

The important thing to remember here is that no one is ever obligated to read a single word you have written. Even at Critters, where return critiquing is required, people may choose to critique others' work and not yours. Every time someone reads your work and offers feedback beyond "I liked it" or "I didn't like it", that is an incredible gift. Their time is precious. This is why I always remind people that when you meet an established author, you should be very careful about asking them to look at your work. I try never to do this if at all possible, and to let them ask first.

Given that, it only makes sense that one's response to critique should not be to criticize the critiquer. Neither should it be to explain things to them. Remember that if and when your work gets published, you won't be standing beside it to explain. Whatever it evokes in the mind of the reader is a legitimate interpretation. That's one reason why critiques are so valuable - they help you as a writer to identify the mistaken understandings that you've inadvertently left open for readers to find.

Critique is why I am where I am today. I've learned so much from the friends I've mentioned, and from many others - things I never would have been able to grasp on my own. In fact, my tendency to seek critique saved me this past year when my computer was stolen, because I was able to reconstruct almost all of my writing files simply by asking my critique partners to send me what they had of my various drafts.

To my critiquers over the years: I'm eternally grateful to each and every one of you.

To my readers: I hope that you will be as fortunate in finding critique partners as I have been.

Monday, August 1, 2011

My schedule for WorldCon in Reno!

So here it is, officially! I've received my schedule for Reno Worldcon. I'd love to see you if you're attending. I've got some great panels, as well as a reading and an autographing session (with some very awesome people). These are the most reliable places to catch me:

Thu 15:00 - 16:00, KaffeeKlatsch: Thu 15:00, KK1 (RSCC)
Juliette Wade, Carol Berg, Lee Harris, Larry Correia

Fri 14:00 - 15:00, Anticipatory Anthropology: Study of Future Humans, A16 (RSCC)
Margaret Mead said "Anthropology has to date made very
meager contributions to man's developing concern with the
future" ("Contribution" 3). Two decades later, the American
Anthropological Association began awarding an annual prize
for "Anticipatory Anthropology" in order to ameliorate this
shortcoming, what Robert Textor (who sponsored the award
and for whom it is named) called the discipline's
"tempocentrism"- i.e., its concern only "with the past, the
ethnographic present, and the actual present"
Irene Radford, Juliette Wade, Margaret McGaffey Fisk, Patricia MacEwen

Fri 16:00 - 17:00, Neologism and Linguicide: How the Dominant Language Mutates and Assimilates Other Languages, D04 (RSCC)
We've all heard of species becoming endangered, but the
famous anthropologist Wade Davis warns of a similar problem
happening to the languages which endangers the richness of
the world's cultures. How we preserve or destroy these
languages and how we cultivate linguistic habits, will
determine what we are able to think in the world of the
near future.
Lawrence M. Schoen, Juliette Wade, Sheila Finch, David J. Peterson

Sat 12:00 - 13:00, Designing Believable Languages, A10 (RSCC)
How do biology, population density, and other features help
determine the development of languages on an alien world?
Peadar Ó Guilín, Juliette Wade, S.M. Stirling, David J. Peterson

Sat 15:00 - 16:00, Analog Doesn't Publish Women?, A10 (RSCC)
The Analog Mafia, not just for men...
Stanley Schmidt (M), Juliette Wade, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Mary A. Turzillo

Sat 16:30 - 17:00, Reading: Juliette Wade, A15 (RSCC)

Sun 11:00 - 12:00, Autographing: Sun 11:00, Hall 2 (RSCC)
(Juliette Wade, Nancy Kress, Grania Davis, Jack Skillingstead, Robert G. Pielke, Gail Carriger, Joe Haldeman)

Be Tender; Be Terrible (with your characters)

Do you care about your characters?

I think the question of whether we care - and whether readers care - is one of the most vital in all of writing. If readers don't care, they won't keep reading. If we don't care, as writers, then how can we expect our readers to care?

So how can you make people care?

It's not uncommon to hear writers talk about torturing their characters, doing bad things to them in order to make the story stronger. This is very, very important. If we don't challenge our characters, and if we make everything easy for them, then readers can quickly stop caring.

It's not enough, though, just to do terrible things. We also need other reasons to care. Something good about the person that we can relate to, or a glimpse of the character's tastes that can let us align with them. Even when dealing with an antagonist, it's useful to give them something soft and vulnerable somewhere, to keep the reader's attention riveted.

I've been watching the extended version of The Lord of the Rings, and I've been impressed over and over with how Tolkien - and Peter Jackson's treatment of the story - creates both the tender and the terrible sides of its characters. Interestingly, the extended version adds some time to the terrible events of the story, but adds far more time to the tender events of the story - Merry and Pippin dancing on the table in the Shire, for example, or Eowyn and Faramir meeting in the Houses of Healing.

The experience of depth in a story relies on the presence of both the tender and the terrible. It's a lot like dynamic range in music - a song with both loud and soft moments will leave a deeper impression on us than a song that is all loud or all soft. In fact, I highly recommend that with complex stories, you look for opportunities to provide different dynamic values for each arc that you are creating. The intimate contrasts with the epic. Action contrasts with subtle tension. Strength contrasts with vulnerability. The orcs at the doorstep of Helm's deep look frightening on their own, but they are more frightening when we are shown the families inside waiting to be overrun. Sauron is this overwhelming force of evil, but he can still feel fear, and when that fear is something that our heroes can use to their advantage, how much more interesting the story becomes! Maybe that's what irritates us so much about the Mary Sue - if she's all good, then she comes across as flat.

Some might call these contrasting elements yin and yang, or masculine and feminine - but they're more comprehensive than that. They make the difference between bas-relief and full-scale sculpture, between two and three dimensions. Either one is less effective without the other.

It's something to think about.