Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Language Design, with special guests Lawrence Schoen and David J. Peterson: a Google+ hangout report

The Language Design hangout finally happened, and it was a resounding success! We had fabulous guests with us, namely Lawrence Schoen and David J. Peterson, and great participants including Barbara Webb, Leigh Bardugo, Leigh Dragoon, and Megan Hutchins.

We started out with introductions, talking about what brought us to the evening's discussion.

Lawrence Schoen is the founder and director of the Klingon Language Institute. He has a Ph.D. in Psycholinguistics and also a man with a great sense of humor; he says he is where he is today because he "fell in with a bad crowd," and that soon he'll be teaching Klingon to people in Atlanta. He had us laughing quite a bit during the session.

David Peterson is the president of the Language Creation Society, and has been creating languages since 2000. He's best known for his work creating the Dothraki language for HBO's Game of Thrones series, based on the works of George R.R. Martin.

At this point there was a digression about who would most likely win in a fight: a Dothraki or a Klingon. Opinion was somewhat mixed but the general consensus was that the Klingon would come out on top. We learned that Lawrence has a real mek'leth at his house. Trespassers beware!

Barbara Webb is a writer who loves second world fantasy and making up random words.
Leigh Bardugo is a writer whose Grisha trilogy is coming out in June this year. It's a fantasy based on 1800's Tsarist Russia, using a Russian-inspired fantasy language that she designed with David Peterson's help.
Leigh Dragoon is a writer who is looking to add structure to the words she's already been using in her work.
Megan Hutchins started conlanging as a teen and gravitated to linguistics in college; she enjoys Mayan glyphs and language invention. Both she and David knew Dirk Elzinga, a linguist at BYU.

From there we started with basics of language construction. Lawrence stated quite clearly that his favorite thing is to tie culture into language - it's something I love too! - but we moved quickly into the question of language sounds, which are often the first element people start working with. David recommends asking for the purposes of languages which will appear in written stories, "What sounds can I represent with the Roman alphabet?" Although, as Lawrence observed, there are typewriters and fonts for the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and SAMPA (Speech Assessment Method Phonetic Alphabet), these aren't going to be much use for typical story-writing. David mentioned that not too many people know that the Mexican "x" indicates a "sh" sound, and said one should stay away from it; he does think that George R.R. Martin did a good job rendering Dothraki using the Roman alphabet. My own sense is that so long as you're not wedded to readers pronouncing your words accurately (a big if!), you can develop Roman-alphabet shorthand for some of the sounds you're creating and leave it at that.

Barbara mentioned how critical it is to figure out names early on; names are often the first (and sometimes also the last!) place where unequivocal evidence is available for an underlying language system. Lawrence urged everyone to make sure that whatever names you use in your work, they fit into the system of the underlying created language. I mentioned my own experience in my early years working with Varin, which was that I'd created all kinds of names and some years in realized that I wanted to have them to conform to underlying language systems, so I had to sort them into piles by what kind of system they seemed to match with, delete some, change others, and figure there were three different languages underlying the use of names. As David aptly remarked, the earlier you start with the idea that you want a language system to underlie your story, the less work you will have to do later on back-forming it.

Lawrence mentioned a character of his who had been cursed with the inability to use voiceless consonants (these include t/p/k/s etc.). Instead of having him mispronounce words, he had the character very carefully select the words he used so that he never had to use the sounds he couldn't pronounce, which apparently made his language use rather unusual! He recommended to us China Miéville's book Embassytown, which he said (and I have also heard) is wonderful for language geeks.

David explained three ways he's encountered to incorporate a created language into a story (and did so heroically, in spite of technical difficulties!). The first way is that used by George R.R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire. He uses the Dothraki words in his text and then follows them up with an immediate English translation in the same line, written in italics. Lawrence mentioned that this is actually a real-life approach to foreign language translation, where an Anglo-Saxon word in English would be immediately followed by the word with the same meaning in French. The example everyone has heard of is "Will and Testament." We briefly mentioned how Tolkien sets his elvish language poems and songs apart from the main text; this can work well because non-linguists and those not interested in the language itself can skip those sections. Mind you, as David noted, that means it's important not to put critical plot information in those sections!

The second way was the approach taken by the folks subtitling the Japanese TV series One Piece. With certain Japanese words - the example mentioned here was "nakama" - the English translation is not entirely accurate, so after translating it for a while, the group basically said, "okay, we're not going to translate it any more" and that way they could allow the watchers to learn a more Japanese-like interpretation of the word from the contexts where it appeared. Letting readers deduce the meaning of an unfamiliar alien (or foreign language) word from context is a very useful approach. David also mentioned the word Khal from Dothraki, whose interpretation is not entirely translatable (he's the head of a Khalasa, don't ya know...). Lawrence suggests (mischievously) that you teach just a few words for beginners, but give poetry and word games to those deeper in.

The third way David mentioned was one the used by Juliette Wade (cue sound of my jaw dropping) from my story Cold Words, where the language Aurrel was used as a translation template to alter English - another way of saying this is that the English I used was a relatively literal translation from Aurrel. David compared this to taking the phrase "Me encantan los tacos" in Spanish, and instead of translating it to the English "I love tacos," reflecting the literal Spanish meaning by translating it as "Tacos enchant me." One of the special things that my character Rulii did linguistically was that he never used the present progressive tense - which dramatically changed the flavor of his narrative.

I mentioned that my favorite elements of alien language, the ones I most enjoy incorporating into my stories, are cultural concepts and pragmatics. These are much less commonly used by language creators whose work I've encountered in the past, but Lawrence and David are both into them. Lawrence in particular says he'd love to see aliens who make speech errors or who don't speak properly, aliens with different speech styles, etc. For those of you less familiar with what pragmatics is, it's basically how you get things across that aren't restricted to the literal meaning of the words you're using - this includes manners and social posturing, speech acts like requests and refusals etc., implied meaning, and things of that nature. As an example of cultural concepts I explained how in Cold Words, I took the concept of "friend" and made it feel foreign to readers by showing how Rulii struggled with it - a "friend" is not "skin-close, as a littermate or consort," but closer than "huntmate" because somehow (and he can't figure out how) it's supposed to be independent of Rank. One can do a similiar thing, backwards, to teach alien words and cultural concepts to readers.

David mentioned a special technique he uses to enhance the realism of his created languages, that is, to invent them and then to "age" them by about 100 years. The language you've created gains a much more authentic feel if it has been subjected to the forces of language change. Lawrence notes that too few authors consider language change when dealing with time travel. He suggests that we have people time travel in Iceland more often because the language has barely changed since its ancient roots. This made me think of Stargate (the movie) in which the linguist had knowledge of a language that was an ancestor of the language spoken by the aliens he met, and therefore had to try to "update" his knowledge to learn the new language. I also have a similar book idea where a Tolkien-like student of ancient languages and religions accidentally discovers the descendants of the ancient people whose archaeology he's exploring.

Leigh Bardugo also gave us a glimpse of the language she's using in her forthcoming book; both the fantasy setting and the language are Russian-inspired. She notes that in YA you have to be very careful with fantasy language, because though Game of Thrones may have changed some things, people reading YA aren't generally prepared for the high fantasy approach to language. Each word has to have resonance even if you are skimming. She used her first person narrator to help scaffold the language, allowing what didn't make sense to the narrator to be opaque to the reader as well. She used little tricks like using cognates with Russian.

Watch out when you're writing stories. A linguist will tend to know too much about the language, and want to push it too far. A writer (i.e. someone who is primarily a writer) will tend to embed it more subtly into the story.

David pointed out that he liked Leigh Bardugo's language because, since it used Slavic, it had a real sound-feeling. If you use a particular Earthly language as your basis for naming, then it will often sound more authentic and integrated. Leigh was looking for a non-medieval setting around the 1800's which would feel textured and present yet exotic. Russian, including slang, worked well for this. Janice Hardy did a similar thing by using Afrikaans as a linguistic source when she was writing The Healing Wars series. Avatar: the Last Airbender (the TV show) also did a wonderful job with this kind of linguistic and cultural incorporation. Lawrence mentioned Shogun as a very successful instance of language use, because you get to learn Japanese along with the character.

This was a fantastic and inspirational discussion for me, and I hope we can have another one of these in the future. If you missed it and would like to attend a future session, please do contact me so I can put you on my Google+ language hangout circle and make sure you are informed about any future dates. Participants: please let me know if I have made any errors in my report (based on your recollections) and if you would like to have me provide a link to a web page for you, please do give me the URL and I'll add it.

Thanks so much to everyone!

Link: Great article about click languages with real video

I loved this article today. Not only does it talk about click languages and give you real examples, but it talks about how English speakers also use clicks - not as phonemes, but as discourse organizers. Check it out!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TTYU Retro: What does choice of point of view (POV) mean? How does it challenge a writer?

I can't tell you how many lengthy discussions I've witnessed, and participated in, on the topic of point of view. With every visit to Absolute Write (a terrific site for writers, so check it out if you haven't) I'm almost guaranteed to find a discussion of point of view going on in one form or another... so I thought it was about time I revisited the topic.

Most people come to the topic of point of view through the basic categorization scheme of first person - second person - third person. It's not too hard to learn that first person means "I," second means "you," and third means "he" or "she." Where things get tangled up is in the further categories that get imposed, particularly on third person. So for today's post, I'm going to start by talking about some general characteristics of point of view, and then make a checklist to talk about what effects each basic pronoun permutation has, and what challenges it presents to the writer.

The most basic thing that point of view does is allow you, as a writer, to control information. In any given social situation there is so much available sensory information that you can't possibly capture it all. This was brought home to me in quite dramatic fashion by one of my professors in grad school. He asked the people in the class to write down everything he did from the point when he said "go" to the point when he said "stop." Then he went outside the door, said "go," walked in and up to his desk carrying a book, set down the book, looked up and smiled, and said "stop." After doing that, he had each person read the description he or she had written. Every single one of twenty descriptions was different from every other.

As a writer, you're in charge of what information makes it into your story. What gets in there should be whatever information is most important for the reader to understand - this is true whatever pronoun you choose to use. The different pronouns, however, create different effects - especially when used in conjunction with different verb tenses. I'll try to lay out some of the differences, and the complications that come with them, below.

1a. First person present tense (sometimes, "first person concurrent")
  • How we identify it: "I" is in the subject position when the narrator acts; main action verbs are in present tense, "am," "go," "walk," etc. though there will also be progressives ("am doing") and modals ("should be").
  • The narrator is the character reporting while in the process of experiencing the story. That means that his/her knowledge is restricted. Unless he/she has experienced something, or been told something, he/she cannot know it. He/she cannot know anything about what will happen before it happens. However, he/she is free to speculate, and to judge, and to regret, etc.
  • The narrative feels very myopic and immediate. Often readers will feel an extreme sense of intensity. This makes it a good choice when you want people to identify with the visceral experiences and emotions of your narrator. The narrative also carries the individual voice of the character.
  • The writer has at least three challenges here. First is to make sure to keep all information restricted to the character's own perceptions, judgments and actions without letting author knowledge creep in. Second is to make sure to include enough information and orientation that readers don't become disoriented. Third is to make sure to exclude filter words that distance readers from the narrative, and to include enough of others' behavior, and of judgment-laced description, that the narrative doesn't fall into a constant repetitive pattern of sentences starting with "I."
Example from "Cold Words" (Analog Oct 2009):
I scent human outside the door: our linguist, Parker. He never comes to the Ice Home while I attend Cold Council - he must bring important news! I bow to haunches, then excuse myself from Majesty's presence, quickly as I can without inviting snarls from the others.

1b. First person past tense/retrospective
  • How we identify it: "I" is in the subject position; main action verbs are in past tense, "was," "went," "walked," etc. though there will also be progressives ("was doing") and modals ("should have been"). Certain verbs may appear in present tense because of ongoing states.
  • The narrator is the character reporting the story after it has happened. Some authors put the narrator in a sort of nebulous, unidentifiable later time, but I think it's particularly interesting when the later context is more specific. The character may be an old woman talking about her youth, or someone who has just survived the climactic battle reporting on events of the last six months, or possibly someone in the afterlife reporting on the cause of his/her death (so this choice doesn't necessarily make readers doubt the peril the narrator is in).
  • The narrative feels less directly immediate than present tense narration. It may be infused with a distinct sense of storyteller voice, particularly if the narrator's context means he/she is reporting as a storyteller after the fact.
  • The writer's challenges are similar to those of the present tense narrative, in that information must be systematically restricted to the perceptions, emotions and judgments of the main character. It is somewhat easier to keep readers oriented because of the "storyteller" factor. The narrator may also (though not necessarily) make reference to events in the future of his/her past self, because they are in the past relative to the place where he/she is currently sitting while telling the story. It's also good to avoid filter words and overuse of the simple first person subject "I" to begin sentences.
Example from Blue Fire by Janice Hardy:
I watered the lake violets in the front sunroom. Just busy work, but I had to do something other than sit in the town house worrying while my friends were out risking their lives. I should have been out there with them, but I'd been recognized on our last rescue mission, and it wasn't safe outside for me anymore. Not that Geveg had been all that save in the five years since the Baseeri invaded; but being hunted by the Duke, his soldiers, Geveg's Governor-General, and who knew how many trackers added a whole new level of danger.

1c. First person mixed present/past tense
I included this one because it's more unusual, but makes perfect sense if, for example, you have a narrator who is sitting and writing a diary entry, commenting on both things that have happened in his/her past, and things that are going on while he/she is writing.

Example from Through This Gate (Dana writing in her journal about trying to figure out her new roommate Shannon):
Maybe mom was hinting that Shannon has some kind of granola-head thing going and I shouldn't let myself be influenced, but I'm not sure that fits with the makeup, or the computer either. Anyway, when the last box was in, Mom looked around my empty half of the room as if she didn't notice the bare blue mattress or the battered furniture. "This is great," she said, gesturing - I swear, the woman could conduct orchestras.

2a. Second person
  • How we identify it: "You" is in the subject position when the narrator acts.
  • The narrator is placed in a position which is the same as that of the reader. An assumption is made that the reader will accept an alternate assignment of identity. However, the protagonist is not actually usually the reader, but a character in the story as one would expect with other pronouns.
  • The narrative feels demanding and provocative. There may be a sensation that the actual protagonist is standing behind the reader, acting, but mostly invisible.
  • The writer's challenge grows directly out of the problem of narrator=reader. In order to enjoy the story, the reader must accept that they are conditionally being placed in the position of both character and reader. Not all readers are willing to do this. The actual identity of the narrator will grow out of that narrator's judgments and actions. Because of the sensation that the character is standing invisibly behind the reader, the identity of the narrator becomes a major factor in driving the story. Story entry is of special importance, because often the reader will have an easier time accepting this unusual subject position if the writer eases them into it slowly, rather than saying something extreme like, say, "You're a cyborg and you want to take over the world!" It's also important to keep the focus of the point of view restricted to the perceptions and reactions of a single character. If it's hard for a reader to accept being one other person, adding extra information will only make it harder.
Example from If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want you to watch TV!" Raise your voice - they won't hear you otherwise - "I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

3a. Third person limited (also, "close third person")
  • How we identify it: "He" or "She" is in the subject position when the narrator acts.
  • The narrator is a character in the story. The information in the narrative must be restricted to what that single character knows, perceives, experiences, or judges, just as if it were written in first person.
  • The narrative feels idiosyncratic, carrying the character's voice. This voice may differ depending on the placement of the narrator either in the action (present tense) or after the action (past tense), but it reflects the character's identity.
  • The writer's challenge is to manage the story while maintaining the limits on the information a character can experience. Since both the protagonist and other characters will be marked with "he" and "she" pronouns, it can sometimes be harder to keep this discipline. Some authors using close third person point of view choose to change from one character to another over the course of the story in order to drive the story from different directions, so that no single character has all the information that the reader does. The challenges in this case become keeping the narrative voices distinct when using different characters to carry the narrative, and making sure readers don't get confused when point of view switches occur. A common means to reduce confusion is to mark point of view changes with chapter or scene breaks.
Examples from "The Eminence's Match" (Eight Against Reality, 2010)
Shadowless in the light of two hundred and twelve electric bulbs on his vaulted stone ceiling, the Eminence Nekantor frowned down over his naked ribs. Look: two gold buttons at the waist of his silk trousers. Fastened, both of them, completely fastened. Deceptively fastened. They had been fastened wrong: lower-then-upper, not upper-then-lower. The difference stuck to the buttons like fingerprints. The difference felt like fingers pressing on his mind.
Xinta bent into a half-bow, watching a gang of six noble boys surround him. They had a new leader today: Grobal Rennerik, with reddened knuckles on his right fist that matched a mark beside the former leader's left eye. The followers' gazes flickered hungrily between them. Clearly this encounter was to become Rennerik's demonstration that his leadership was deserved. That would mean a difficult task - but if he could carry it out, he could prove his worth in love and loyalty to all of them at once.

3b. Third person omniscient
  • How we identify it: "He" or "she" is in the subject position when any character acts.
  • The narrator is not a character in the story. This makes third person omniscient different from any of the other points of view mentioned above. It means the narrator is free of any restriction of person, time, or place that the story itself may impose on characters.
  • The narrative feels distinctly as if it is being related by a storyteller. Sometimes the voice of the narrator is distinctive (grandfatherly, or like an epic poet, etc.), and sometimes it is more invisible, but it does not match that of any character in the story. Readers don't share the myopia of any single character, though the narrator may show it to them.
  • The writer's challenge is to decide how to restrict the information included in the story. The narrator knows all - everything about the setting, about the characters' motives, perceptions, judgments, emotions and actions - but cannot tell all, for the reasons I mentioned above. Generally the narration will stick relatively close to the main character, because the goals of that person, and the stakes that person faces, are what keep the main conflict of the story driving forward. However, some narrators will create tension and drive by showing how different characters misunderstand one another. Because the narrator is not a character and has his/her own distinct voice, authors are free to show different characters' viewpoints in relatively close succession. The challenge becomes keeping the sense that the narrator is located in a place outside the story, distinct from the viewpoint of any character, so readers don't get confused when they are told what one character experiences so closely after hearing about another.
Example from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
"Here we are, Sara," said Captain Crewe, making his voice sound as cheerful as possible. Then he lifted her out of the cab and they mounted the steps and rang the bell. Sara often thought afterward that the house was somehow exactly like Miss Minchin. It was respectable and well furnished, but everything in it was ugly; and the very armchairs seemed to have hard bones in them.

You may notice at this point that I have not discussed some other variants of third person, like third person limited, or third person distant. These are questions of narrative distance, which I don't have time to discuss in this post. I'll try to take them up in the near future. For now, though, I encourage you to pop over to Janice Hardy's The Other Side of the Story, where she has gone further with questions of omniscient point of view.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Can you "know" a character if you're not in his/her head?

Quick answer: yes, you can.

Most often, though, I see this question in internet writing discussions, and it's not framed as a question. I see people saying, "I think I need this point of view in my story so people will be able to know the character better."

No, you don't necessarily.

I like to think of it this way: we don't "get into the heads" of people we know in real life, yet we do feel we know them. The way we get to know them is by observing their actions, listening to their words, and drawing conclusions about what they are thinking. Babies typically learn to construe others' emotions on the basis of facial expressions at age 9 months, and this changes everything about the way they interact with others. What I mean by this is that as humans we have a very strong basic instinct to read emotion from facial expressions - and this extends to construing motives etc. on the basis of others' behavior.

As authors, we can take advantage of this instinct. Non-POV characters, treated properly, will reveal their own thoughts and motives. The key, however, is that the author must know the auxiliary character's thoughts and motives. Thus in order to make it possible to write characters without having readers need to be in their heads, the author must be taking a look into their heads.

I can't tell you the number of times that I've written a scene and felt it wasn't really coming across quite right - but when I went back and looked over it, I discovered the problem was that I really didn't understand the emotional state and motives of an important secondary character. Sometimes a non-POV character can be so minor that his/her emotional states aren't particularly relevant (like a guard who takes no action, for example). However, I urge you not to underestimate how often people construe others' motives without even realizing they're doing it. It's always my habit to have point of view characters move through their world judging people and events, and thus I will occasionally find opportunities for characters to toss off a guess at what a minor standby character is thinking. By doing something like this, you can accomplish two things: first, you can say something about the main character's state of mind (like having him be self-conscious and wondering what others think of him), and second, you can imply that any character is potentially worthy of having his/her motives guessed at. This can encourage your readers to guess at the motives of minor characters more often, and give your entire world a greater sense of depth and dimension.

So when is it a good idea to make a character into a point-of-view character? I'd say that it's a good idea to use a character's point of view 1. when that character "owns" a vital piece of the main conflict and 2. when knowledge of that character's mental states enhances the main conflict rather than detracting from it. This previous post, Multiple POV or not?, considers some of the issues of including or excluding a character's point of view. Basic summary: just because a character has opinions, or even an important role, doesn't mean that you should include his/her point of view. My point here, however, is that it may be very important to understand what the character's point of view would be like.

What I suggest, in a case where you really want to know a secondary character deeply, is to write a piece from that person's point of view. This can be a part of the work-in-progress, but generally when I've done it I've done a completely separate piece, almost a short vignette story, having to do with some backstory event that helps form that character's personality and motives. I initially wrote my Panverse Eight Against Reality piece, "The Eminence's Match," as a piece of backstory for a major non-POV character in the trilogy I was writing at the time. I can't tell you how valuable that experience was for me, or how inspiring. I then was able to go further back in time, and get further insight, when I started writing my current novel. The more complex a character is, the more valuable it can be to know them deeply. That way their words and actions will make ten times better sense, and come across as real to readers, even when they are acting without the support of internal point of view.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Language Design hangout will go forward today at 5pm

Okay, so as I'd hoped I'm feeling quite a bit better today. Not that I'd planned to change this hangout, but at least I'm pretty sure I won't spend the whole hour sneezing (as I would have yesterday!).

Today at 5pm PST on Google+ David Peterson, Lawrence Schoen and I will be talking about conlanging, or designing languages. I'm really excited to have the chance to put our heads together for this one!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Late change: Pets hangout postponed

I apologize to those of you who were looking forward to today's discussion of pets, but I am hacking and sneezing and don't feel comfortable with video chat today. Tomorrow afternoon's discussion will still go on, no matter what... hopefully by then I'll see some improvement. My apologies to all!

The Culture of Oppression: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

I had a fantastic and very large group of people join me for my Culture of Oppression hangout on February 15th. My guests were Dale Emery, Liz Arroyo, Harry Markov, Jaleh Dragich, Janet Harriett, Barbara Webb, Glenda Pfeiffer, Bryan Thomas, and K. Richardson.

We started out by doing a bit of brainstorming on what came to mind when we thought of oppression. My list coming in to the hangout was: stereotypes, slurs, institutional bias, demographic pressure, "what is strength?", "to whom is oppression invisible", and "who buys in?" My guests mentioned bullying, isolated communities, minorities, ethnicity and sexuality.

Very often when we read science fiction and fantasy, we'll see a heavy emphasis on stereotyping and insults - the aspects of oppression which can easily be expressed out loud. However, in worldbuilding, it's very important to keep in mind that the invisible aspects of oppression are just as important, and your world won't work nearly as well if they are missing.

Jaleh mentioned that oppression leads to emotional scarring. In fact, oppressed peoples will often not only be insulted, but will come to believe in their own inferiority and join in oppressing one another. The animal people of Tamora Pierce's The Emperor Mage were mentioned in this context.

Institutional oppression happens when the structure of a system (institutional, bureaucratic) results in the oppression of a group. Religious oppression happens both across religions and within religions. We talked about the function of "gatekeepers" as a means to oppress within institutions. It's not fair to ask someone to "fill out this form" if he or she is unable to read. Liz mentioned language barriers - a really good point. In Australia* until the 1960's, immigrants could be asked to pass "a language test" in order to enter the country. Though one might assume that the test would be in English, tests would often be administered in Swahili or Tagalog to minorities that the authorities weren't keen to let in. This policy is referred to as the "White Australia Policy." This is just one small example of how, in oppressive situations, the rules will be applied inconsistently  based on what kind of person you are. Dale taught us "the unwritten law of unwritten law": written laws are just a façade for unwritten laws. Harry told us about how in Bulgaria you need to have the right connections to get appointments at universities, with doctors, or with lawyers. The people who know the right people or who have done the right kind of favors are able to bypass the gatekeepers, when to the general public it looks like everyone has to face the gatekeeper in order to proceed.
*[Note: during the verbal discussion I wrongly (if uncertainly) attributed this policy to the US - I apologize for the mistake. My Australian husband reminded me of the precise facts when I asked him.]

People who are "behind the law" are also vulnerable to predation. If the law says you are not allowed to access a particular person, and you access them anyway, then they are more easily able to take advantage of you because you cannot reveal that you saw them in the first place. The example I gave of this was of women who were swindled, fondled, raped or seriously injured by doctors (and men pretending to be doctors) when they sought abortions in the pre-Roe vs. Wade era.

When we write fiction, intentional oppression is a lot easier to portray than unintentional oppression. Similarly, it can be tricky to portray lack of opportunity realistically. Barbara brought up the fact that in fantasy, farmboys seem to have an uncanny ability to run off and have adventures unlimited by their poverty and lack of education, etc. Definitely keep an eye out for places in your work where people are able to access things in unrealistic ways.

As I have mentioned in a previous article, being oppressed does not mean that you are weak. People who are oppressed and have social walls erected around them will be aware of the power opportunities they do have, and use them to the greatest extent possible. A woman who is only allowed to choose her husband will choose very carefully. A woman whose virginity is considered a valuable bargaining chip may decide to take matters into her own hands in order to influence events (a friend and I both have situations like this in our current works-in-progress).

Oppressed people are not necessarily in control of the meaning of their own actions. Harry mentioned a story of a girl who was framed for killing a dragon, and how politicians used her as a symbol. Katniss of The Hunger Games is a terrific example of an oppressed person trying to use her actions to express meaning, but having those actions be twisted by multiple forces outside her control (the government of Panem, and the resistance).

Dale asked, "How do oppressors justify their oppression?" This will be different depending on whether it is intentional or unintentional oppression. With unintentional oppression, the oppressor is more likely to construe an oppressed person's lack of opportunity as a lack of drive or a lack of quality. With intentional oppression, very often that same "lack of quality" argument will be used to justify actively oppressive behaviors on the basis of "the greater good." Some people will become oppressors out of the fear that if they do not, they will become the oppressed. But who decides what is good for society? Who defines these group identities? You will tend to see a lot of common scripts for oppression, by which I mean ways in which a dominant group will simultaneously define and belittle another group. "They're not like us." "They're savages." Even characteristics in which the oppressed group takes pride (internally) can be turned into justification for ridicule. Bryan mentioned that people often feel threatened by strangeness in values and ways of understanding the world.

I took an example from my Varin world at this point and talked about how the Imbati servant caste is marked with tattoos on the forehead that are seen by nobles as a sign of servitude, by people of lower castes as signs of danger and their tendency to be gatekeepers/keep secrets, and by themselves as points of pride in the virtuous nature of their vocation to serve the nobles who desperately need their support. Imbati take pride in their own selflessness, and see themselves as fundamentally better off than the nobles because they are more virtuous, but also because they are healthier and take something of a parental role in their guardianship of an ostensibly higher caste. Barbara picked up on this and mentioned that sometimes there will be widespread denial that any problem of oppression exists. The oppressive condition is seen as normal. Dale insightfully remarked that we are very protective of how we identify ourselves. K mentioned that the cultural oppression of women involves convincing the women in question that they are being given privilege, being put on a pedestal. Janet picked up on the idea of the invisibility of oppression talking about her "slightly redneck" background (my favorite quote: "there's nothing duct tape won't fix!") when no one she knew considered their low socioeconomic status a problem of oppression. "You don't think, 'I'm oppressed,' you think, 'what's wrong with me?'" Jaleh related to this and talked about encountering a sort of vague distaste when she changed schools. Barbara said that oppression is easier to identify from the outside than it is from the inside.

Harry told us that in Bulgaria, people who have more will explain how they're better off, and people who do not share your religion will tell you how you should leave Bulgaria. Also, homosexuals won't get jobs unless they're able to act straight. K agreed that the question of whether you can "pass" is very important in how you will be treated by the oppressive group.

Bryan mentioned encountering the attitude that "God likes white people more" when he was in Ghana, and being shocked that such a view could remain in the culture so long after slavery ended. The stamps of oppression last for years and years. Indeed, Japan has tried multiple times to eliminate discrimination against the untouchable caste, which is hundreds of years old. However, the bias still remains in places of residence (it's hard to move in Japan) and in names.

Liz Arroyo mentioned that names are critical. This is certainly true, not just in the Japanese example, but in Jaleh's example above, and in cases of ethnic division. Names are also critical in my Varin caste system, so if you're creating an oppressive situation, think about how you might use names to your advantage.

At that point we returned to the question of the invisibility of privilege, and the attitude of "I don't see what everybody is complaining about," which is extremely common. Jaleh notes that people have a hard time seeing beyond their own problems. Dale remarked that the effects of privilege may be visible but attributable to other factors. In particular he said that individual quality is a very strong myth of America, because we don't tend to take into account the many ways we are helped by institutions and by our own social connections.

K said that coming out as homosexual switches your position of privilege. Suddenly you're experiencing prejudice that you didn't before, and it makes you more grateful for what you have.  A different kind of switch in privileged status is the one I experienced when I went to live in Japan and suddenly became a minority (in our dorm we had a saying, "only foreigners steal," because when our tv was stolen by someone who broke in from outside, we were blamed for it). Dale observed that people in a privileged group are quick to point out when someone has broken free of oppression and achieved success, giving such unusual cases too much credence in evaluating how much progress has been made against that oppression by society in general. There is a price to pay for moving beyond your social position - such as when a woman who does well in a large company is accused of sleeping around to achieve her success. Privileged people are also careful not to be brought down by exposing themselves to less "cool" people, even if those people are also powerful. Dale mentioned Downtown Abbey as a place to find great examples of this (someone falling in love with a chauffeur! scandal!). In the Australian penal colonies, they considered it very important to separate "the races" - which to them meant keeping the English separate from the Irish!

With that, I have caught up on my hangout reports (whew!). I know there were a number of people who had hoped to participate in this hangout, and I'm sorry we couldn't include you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Food, Agriculture and Diet: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

Food, agriculture and diet were our discussion topic on February 8th (I'm running a bit behind!). I was joined by Leigh Dragoon, Harry Markov, Elizabeth Arroyo, Jaleh Dragich, Glenda Pfeiffer and K. Richardson.

Our discussion began with Leigh bemoaning the fact that to few fantasy worlds give enough detail in the area of food, but tend to focus on bread, cheese, grapes... and stew. This list became our effective "do more than this" default for the whole hour! Most likely the basis for this list is the tendency for so many fantasy worlds to be based on Europe in the middle ages. After all, bread and cheese (also grapes and stew) were big at that point. However, there is so much more to food than that!

We had several books recommended as inspiration. The first was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Also recommended were Nanny Ogg's Cookbook by Terry Pratchett and Plants & Society by Estelle Levetin.

When designing dietary habits for a population, I always recommend a ground-up approach (literally?) that begins with Climate and Geography. Climate and Geography will tell you what foods will grow, and that will tell you what ingredients your cooks have to work with. If you don't want to take a do-it-from-scratch approach, you can always take an existing set of climate/agricultural technique/foods/cuisine and work with it - say, using the foods of the Incas, or of Siberia, or of the Amazon rain forest (mm, plantain soup!). Needless to say, you need to know your world well and figure out where the foods come from, but you can always take an existing basis and make variations to it. In Varin, my noble people eat "tunnel-pigeon," for example.

Food is often social, so culture and attitudes will come with it. I believe it was Jaleh (correct me if I'm wrong!) who told us about a culture where there was a traditional story designed to be told while food cooked, because depending on the version told, it would effectively measure the amount of time required to cook a root vegetable properly. (I thought this was a lovely idea!)

Food will have different significance to different social groups. A higher caste will tend to eat rare foods. A lower caste will eat more common foods. What is rare, and what is common, in your world? Is the food eaten by the poor more basic, or is it more highly processed (our world has both of these)?

Jaleh gave us the example of Joust by Mercedes Lackey. In the fishing communities, fish was most commonly eaten and meat was very unusual and expensive - but in the dragon-keeping communities, meat was extremely common and fish was a delicacy.

Harry told us about Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren where different communities had sprung up around a single enormous tree, and depending on where they lived, they were able to access different kinds of food items which they would then have as their specialty and trade with other communities (spice/fruit vs. coconut oil).

Food is one of the major economic building blocks of any society. As Harry remarked, sugar used to be worth its weight in gold, but now it is extremely common. Alcohol is also part of food culture, though of course it has its own culture too. I was put in mind at this point of the triangular trade across the Atlantic ocean where slaves were traded for rum which was traded for (I think) sugar. Jaleh followed this up with a discussion of the history of tea, and Leigh added that tea was traded from China for opium from England, and this was a major cause of the opium wars. If you ever thought that your people's diet had nothing to do with your plot, you might like to think again. There are some really interesting possibilities here. Leigh also noted that sometimes coffee shops have been outlawed because people there started political rebellions. We all had to laugh at the suggestion that if you want to keep your people calm, you should give them depressants like alcohol instead of stimulants like coffee!

Less commonly dealt with, especially in fantasy but also in science fiction and even mainstream, is the question of eating disorders. Apparently in Victorian times eating disorders also existed, but women who suffered anorexia (or tuberculosis) were seen as "angels." One good book dealing with eating disorders is Nell's Quilt; Neil Gaiman's book Good Omens actually has Famine as a major character and the updated version of him is not an old-style lack of crops guy but a man of high fashion who inspires people to eat less and less in order to be stylish. The book Wintergirls apparently also deals with this topic. It's a topic that could take up an entire hangout in itself, and maybe we'll pick it up sometime, but that was where we had to bring our hangout to a close, so I'll have to leave you to explore the cultural underpinnings of eating disorders and body image for yourselves, for now.

Important announcements for this week's events

Hey, there, hangout friends! This is a two-hangout week. I'll do them chronologically.

1. Tomorrow, Wednesday, February 22, at 11am PST on Google+ I'll be hosting a discussion of Pets in Worldbuilding, so please come and join us!

2. The next day, Thursday, February 23 at 5pm PST on Google+ I will be co-osting a discussion of Language design with awesome language folk Lawrence Schoen and David J. Peterson! This hangout is intended for people who are working on their own languages, so if you answer that description, stop by and tell us about what you're doing. We'll also be discussing other conlangs such as Elvish and Na'vi, and of course Klingon (Dr. Schoen's specialty) and Dothraki (Mr. Peterson's specialty).

I hope to see you there!

Translating "issues" from our world into fictional worlds

In science fiction and fantasy very often we find ourselves dealing with instances of real-world phenomena, translating them into the alternate environment of a fictional world. In fact, I believe it to be a major motivator behind many fantasy and science fiction stories. It's also the reason why Analog magazine is called "Analog" - because of the idea that stories provide a sort of analogy of our own world.

However, dealing with issues from our own world in the context of fiction is not as easy as it seems. If you've been reading and/or writing science fiction and fantasy for any length of time you may have detected this danger before: sometimes a recognizable real-world "issue" can stick out of the story and break the sense of an integrated world.

Now, this is a fine line, which won't be in the same location for every reader. For example, I remember talking about Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness with a friend, and he told me that he couldn't read it because the feminist issues stuck out too far and it just seemed like a lecture to him. I never felt that way - to me it always felt like the gender issues had been beautifully integrated into the story.

In For Love, For Power, I'm dealing with a lot of issues that are relevant to the modern real world. Some are even currently topical. Though their immediate relevance is entirely accidental, I have to watch out. I can't let them kick my readers out of the story. I can't let people think I put them in there just to pound them on the head. So just on the off chance any of you might be dealing with similar situations, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts about dealing with these issues.

Rule #1: Every issue has to have an independent basis/motivation in the fictional world. 
Rule #2: Every issue has to have obvious differences of detail and language from its real-world incarnation.

What this means is you have to know why this issue matters to these people (as opposed to real world people): where it originated, how people talk about it, what kind of fundamental concepts and values (religious or non-religious) they relate it to. And the more potentially salient an issue is, the more work you have to do to support it.

Let's get specific. Here are the issues I've been dealing with, and the kind of historical and cultural support I'm building for them in Varin.

1. Human equality/difference
The caste system of Varin is so ingrained in its people that essentially no one believes in the equality of all humanity. This is a pretty common conceit with caste systems, but to be believable it has to have some basis in fact. So I designed the history of the world to provide a backstory for the origin of the castes which would give each one (except the lowest) a strong motivation for pride in caste identity. While this backstory doesn't come out in the current book, evidence of it is all around, and it shows in caste attitudes. Each of the Varin castes has a strong sense of caste identity, with different ideals and values, as well as different manners and behavior. These people do think significantly differently from each other for cultural reasons. In this context, then, having a character who does believe in human equality would make very little sense. I have a plan for future books which depends on the existence of someone like this, but this cultural attitude seems to belong more to our own world and would stick out by a mile. So I'm going to make sure that my character doesn't actually believe in human equality. Instead, I've given her a backstory where at the age of nine she was forced to steal the identity of a dead person in order to keep herself alive, and as a result does not believe that a person's name is inextricable from that person's identity. Since each person in Varin is identified by caste name first, personal name second, that gives her a kind of skepticism that will allow her to question some of her assumptions without being a farcical crusader for human equality.

2. Contraception
Because of the shrinking population of the noble caste, the nobility have outlawed contraception for their own people, though contraceptives are readily available to other castes (and encouraged for the undercaste). They have also made it illegal for their servants, who have no restrictions on their own use, to buy contraceptives on behalf of their masters and mistresses. Oral contraceptives are available for use by both men and women, but the one that is used in the plot is the male version.

3. Marriage/Homosexuality
The nobility requires all of its people to enter into marriage with a member of the opposite sex, for the same reasons mentioned above, namely that the caste is shrinking and desperately needs children. Newly married couples come under intense pressure until they produce at least two children. These rules apply regardless of the sexuality of the people involved. So among the nobles, homosexual relationships are supposed to be kept quiet, and exposure can lead to a pretty serious loss of reputation (potential loss of employment or other opportunities). This is not the case in the larger population. However, if I were simply to say that both what we call traditional marriage and what we call gay marriage were okay, it would be completely non-Varin. What I did in response to this was re-vamp the concept of marriage in terms of Varin's major religion, a polytheistic family model somewhat along the lines of the ancient Greek gods, in which people invoke different gods on different topics (each god or goddess is a patron of a particular type of activity). Heterosexual marriage is modeled on the relationship of the Youth Sirin with the Maiden Eyn, and the expectation is for the man to be romantic and faithful and establish the home (Sirin was originally a planet), while the woman is so inspired by his love that even though she may wander far afield, she remains faithful and always returns home (Eyn was originally a comet in a somewhat different orbit). Homosexual unions, by contrast, are modeled on the relationship between the Twin brothers Bes and Trigis (a planet/moon pair of roughly equal size) who never abandon each other, and who support one another in spite of difficulty with their other siblings, physical hardship etc. So if two men or two women want to be together in Varin, they enter into a brotherly or sisterly partnership, which works on the basis of entirely different assumptions.

I have read some books (and perhaps you have too) where I was reading along and suddenly an issue stood out as not belonging in the world I was reading about. Maybe it was that the phrasing of the issue was too similar to what I'd heard in our own world. Or maybe it was the subtler problem that even though the words used were different, I couldn't see that a person from such a different background would accept our own concepts so easily. This has (as you can see) led me to do a lot of restructuring of my world's underpinnings, and so far I think it has been pretty effective. I hope my readers agree.

In any case, it's something to think about.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Link: Idioms around the World

Today Io9 had this cute article about idioms from around the world. There's one confusing sentence in it toward the end, but enough unusual idioms to get your mind flowing if you're looking to create idioms for your characters to use. I've written about idioms before, and I highly recommend using them, so check it out!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Culture Share: International -The United World College of the Atlantic

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, where writers share their experience of world cultures. Emily Mah Tippetts discusses life at the United World College of the Atlantic, an international school in Wales.

The United World College of the Atlantic
I was seventeen when I left my home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and went to live in south Wales to attend the United World College of the Atlantic. There are now about a dozen United World Colleges around the world. Atlantic College, as we called it, is the founding campus. It was also one of the first schools to adopt the International Baccalaureate program. The term “College” is here meant in the British sense and refers to the last two years of high school.
The school had: 1) A medieval castle as its main building, 2) about 350 students from over 80 countries, and 3) an international staff of teachers who were devoted to the school’s goal of promoting world peace through personal connections. My first year I had roommates from England, Egypt, and Romania, and my second year they were from Uzbekistan, Kenya, and Italy. As students we had little in the way of personal space or possessions, and this was by design. We could decorate or own little corner of our room, and had one closet sized locker and a cubby in the communal bathroom. Even the showers were communal.
The idea, I believe, was to take us all out of our comfort zone so that we would rely on each other emotionally and socially, and to a large extent this worked. The student body ran the gamut from the hyper-religious to the militantly secular, from the strictest conservatives to the most flamboyant liberals, though given the mission and aim of the school, most of us were left of center. It also provided a top class education, so when Oxford and Cambridge interviewed prospective students, there was a large contingent of us there. Many private school educated Brits looked askance at this boarding school that churned out people with their jeans torn and their hair dyed with henna.
On top of the usual strains of living in close quarters with each other, we had to work closely with one another as well. All of us were required to do some kind of service, and of the several options, I chose to work on the farm. This means that while I had a full academic courseload, I also learned to drive a tractor and birth lambs, and yes, I had to get up in the middle of the night to serve my watches during lambing season. You haven’t lived until you’ve been up at three a.m. with someone swearing at you in Spanish because you’re having trouble turning a lamb so that it can be born, or had a Mandarin girl write in your yearbook that the time you yelled and screamed at her to tear the amniotic sac before the lamb suffocated, then wrote on the board that she had been a hero was one of the highlights of her year.
While many have asked me how we all found a common ground in this environment, I think it’d be misleading to say that we did. Our social circles were diverse and overlapping, but learning to cope with other cultures was something we had to do one on one. Everything from what distance on approach it was appropriate to look up and nod a greeting to how to express annoyance without causing offense was an ongoing project for all of us. There was never a day when I felt I had it all learned, and I don’t think anyone did.
The culture clashes could happen within a culture as easily as they occurred between the cultures. I know all six of us from the United States wished at times that we could disown each other. A person from the Pacific Northwest might find themselves more comfortable with the Canadians, and the Mexican students and I shared a lot of food and celebrated Cinco de Mayo together.
Did we come out of the experience equipped to spread world peace? In some ways, but I also feel an odd kinship with people I see on reality tv shows like Survivor. At times we were stretched to our utmost and we had to find a way to work it out. We weren’t allowed to vote each other out of the school, though sadly, some students elected not to stay. Sometimes it was because of inter-student politics, but it could be real world politics as well.
Together we saw South Africa have their first free elections, and on that day our South African economics teacher, decided to tell us about his past. As it turned out, he had been on Robben Island, in work camps, and eventually was exiled. People had spread rumors about him for years, but that was the day he confirmed them, and then got up and resumed the economics lesson. Together we saw NAFTA signed, and then the Mexican peso crash. We saw South America begin to conquer hyper-inflation. I’ll never forget the time my Argentinian friend returned from break in tears, because for the first time the money she had in her wallet when she arrived at home could still buy something. We saw the Eurozone progress as people planned their futures with fewer thoughts about borders than their parents had. We saw the tiger economies roar and were the first generation of students to have email addresses.
We learned how to recognize a language from how someone answered the phone, which was necessary in a house of 50 students, 40 nationalities, and one pay phone. The person at the other end was likely paying through the nose for the call (there was no Skype back then), so one would often hear the desperate shout of, “I need an ___ speaker!” We learned what rude gestures insulted which culture groups, and who would want a kiss on the cheek in greeting, and whether it would be one or two.
We learned to recognize national flags at a glance, and would fight over what cultural activities we should be allowed to have as privileges. We Americans always wanted to watch the Academy Awards after curfew, but the school said no. They let us have the Super Bowl instead, even though several of us didn’t know the rules to American football. The student body demanded an American prom from us, even though we were the types who’d ditch our own proms back home. Every year we’d reluctantly meet up, come up with a theme and decorations budget and give them a prom. A prom where alcohol was served and no one had a dress that cost more than $30.00.
People often ask what was the most difficult part of the experience. It wasn’t the racial insults or heated cultural disputes. It wasn’t the times when global politics split open rifts between roommates and best friends. It wasn’t the heartbreaks or the traumas we inflicted on each other as adolescents. The hardest part, for me, was saying goodbye at the end of two years. Even though the rise of the internet, Facebook, and Skype have made much of the world a global village, there were some of us from corners of the world so remote that I will never cross paths with them again. The hardest part of the two years, was that for some of these friendships, it was the only two years we’ll ever have.

Emily Mah Tippetts currently lives in London, England.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fighting "medieval" tooth and nail: a question of world and genre

I had a friend ask after my work-in-progress today, saying that he'd had the impression that the setting was medieval. I was thrilled that he'd ask how my writing was going, but the first thing I said to him was, "It's not medieval, though some of the social stuff might have given you that impression."

I've heard a lot of people talk about how overused medieval settings, how much they hate them, or at least how much they hate to see them done badly, etc. etc. Ironically, these are often some of the same people who will hear me talk about Varin and get the wrong impression. It's not their fault. The reason they're so tired of medieval settings is the same reason why they will tend to see them everywhere: they are so accustomed to seeing them that they are hyper-sensitized to all the cues.

Cues like: stone buildings, nobles and servants, tapestries, etc. etc. The list goes on. Even the idea of caste structure in general appears to have taken on this medieval interpretation, though medieval Europe didn't have a caste system (medieval Japan, by contrast, did).

Gradually I've learned that for every medieval cue I use, I have to make sure to counterbalance that with something else that is obviously not medieval. In paragraph three of my novel I mention the crystal chandeliers dimming, and on page five someone gets up on stage in a spotlight and speaks through a microphone. I suppose I could have avoided all the cues, but I'm a bit stubborn. I wanted to use the cues and then create a non-medieval world in spite of them. A lot of what some might interpret as signs of a medieval setting are actually signs that my world has a history - a long history.

The fact that the nobility live in the old fancy stone buildings shouldn't surprise anyone. They do that in places like England as well. Noble groups maintain these physical links to the past. In Varin, they also maintain a lot of social links to the past. Tagret (my protagonist) goes to a concert hall and observes, "This place, with its glass and mirrors and painted steel, reeked of the new money of the Melumalai merchant caste. If he felt put off by it, Reyn and the others must surely have felt worse." The old is seen as more refined, higher quality; the new is seen as unsubtle and a bit crass. This is a society undergoing change and resisting it. Our own society also undergoes change (albeit much faster than Varin) and resists it. Think about the big civil rights issues, the culture wars etc. I can't take on something as big and diverse as our world with all its countries and social groups, but I can make sure that my world has history, has change, and has dissent.

I think maybe there's another reason why I designed this world to use cues that can so easily be construed as medieval alongside technology that draws from both classic science fiction and our own times. It can be summed up as follows: familiarity breeds comfort. There's a particular type of value in novelty and strangeness, and I'm ready to go for that in spades when I'm dealing with science fictional settings and alien societies. But Varin is a world meant to be seen from the inside, and that means I want readers to feel comfortable there. I want them to feel like they can say, "I've seen this before; I haven't seen it in quite this combination, but I get this." I want them not to be quite sure whether this is fantasy or whether it is science fiction, because fantasy typically references the old and familiar (not always, as modern writers show) and science fiction the new and unfamiliar. I want the world-learning burden to be reduced so the story can focus on the core conflicts between characters, and subtle details that grow out of the larger patterns.

I'm giving it my best shot.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Making a City Work: A worldbuilding hangout report

This hangout was a continuation of last week's discussion on Cities, simply because we felt like we had a lot more to talk about (let's face it, most of these topics are endless!). It was also my biggest turnout yet! I was joined by Glenda Pfeiffer, Janet Harriet, Brian Dolton, Jaleh Dragich, Elizabeth Arroyo, Rebecca Blain, K Richardson and Bryan Thomas Schmidt.

I started us off by talking about City of Ember. Now, I haven't read the book, I confess. But I saw the movie and found it wonderful, and the thing I really picked up on was how solidly they grounded the workings of the city. The story wouldn't have worked at all if readers/viewers couldn't believe in the possibility of this city working. The operational detail was provided in the "pledge of allegiance" which made mention of the "mighty flowing river" beneath the city, and in the Assignment Day where new adults received their jobs by pulling papers out of a bag. The first one is great because the river actually provides critical plot points later (in addition to explaining how they maintain power etc.). The second is great because you get to see all the jobs that people get to have (or at least an excellent selection thereof) and by watching the kids' reactions, you get a read on their judgment of those jobs. It's a glimpse into how the city is run, and into its' culture. Examples: they have an enormous hydroelectric power generator, and working there is seen as fun and a privilege. Pipeworks is important but considered dirty. Mold-scraper is not good news but there has to be one. Greenhouse assistant explains something about the sources of food. It's great stuff and you get it all up front in one simple scene. Then you go further following the characters and you get to see the main parts of the city in the eyes of the Messenger, and the dank, dirty underbelly of the city through the eyes of the pipeworks laborer.

Rebecca spoke to us about a city she has created, on a cliff face above "the Rift." It has both underground water and water from above, but is characterized by extremely harsh terrain. It's really critical if you're going to establish a city to know:
1. Where its water comes from
2. Where its food comes from
3. Where its electrical power (if any) comes from
4. Who keeps things running
5. How the critical roles in city maintenance are filled and how they are regarded (this will deeply affect the lives of individuals filling those roles).

You can always add depth to a city by considering its history. Things are built for a reason (utility, art, politics etc); and those things that have been built tend to be preserved, unless there is a specific reason why they would be removed. What is built and where it is built depend on the available resources and the city conditions. For example, my underground city of Pelismara has five levels, each with a considerable layer of rock in between, but you'd be a fool to dig every time you wanted to hide pipes or cables; eventually the city would collapse. So those have to go elsewhere, and they do (in dedicated alleyways).

You also need to figure out how the city deals with its garbage. Does it recycle? How much waste does it produce? Does that waste get piled somewhere? Burned? Buried? Pelismara does some burning, but mostly recycles like crazy. This has caused them some problems, because once long ago they had a wired phone system and when they moved to wireless, they recycled all the wires. So now that the wireless phone system has failed, they have nothing to fall back on and must resort to people running messages (yes, I love to pull tricks like this). There's a ton to learn about cultures from their garbage, so don't forget to take a look around at the midden heaps of Vikings and Native American Indians for inspiration. (They even track the colors in the dirt to trace the locations of ancient buildings etc). And don't forget that people die: you'll have to deal with the dead bodies too. It's easy to have people bury them if your city is small and not that crowded, but if it's underground? Or if people die a lot? What happens then?

Brian mentioned Leviathan Wakes and its generation ship full of mormons, thinking of it as a city. Indeed, large groups of space travelers can be considered to live in "cities" - you'll see that one of my commenters has written a report on how the Starship Enterprise can be considered a city. In the case of a space ship, as Brian said, there can be no tolerance for loss of material. Chances are that disposal of any sort will be strictly monitored.

In Tokyo they have a strange phenomenon surrounding garbage collection. Because there is no room for large plastic bins, garbage is put out in plastic grocery bags, and because the garbage workers have to come to work on the train before they can go out to pick up, garbage pickup happens after the sun comes up. This results in a field day for crows. Watch out for them, too - they are large and they will steal your food right out of your hand if they like.

This got us all going on different methods of garbage collection. Jaleh has to drive to the dump; there's no pickup because she's in rural New York where homes are too spread out. Recycling is free, but you pay a fee for the trash you drop off. Janet has trash pickup where she lives in Ohio, but there's no centralized garbage company, only a lot of little companies. Control need not be centralized; there are a lot of possible models available here. Brian mentioned that whole communities of people live on trash, taking from what others throw away. Bryan told us about trash being taken back from El Paso into Mexico for processing, and Glenda mentioned a designated bulk trash day for large items like appliances.

Off garbage now, and back onto resources. We shouldn't forget trade, which brings resources to an area, allowing cities to form spontaneously. Somehow, resources have to converge. When that convergence is disrupted, the city can starve and die. Janet mentioned her town is at a railroad intersection that was a booming steel town 80 years ago, but the money has now gone away and there is not much left to sustain services. A similar thing happened with Radiator Springs in Pixar's "Cars" movie.

I mentioned that there is a sense of isolation among farmers in France, which is drawing people (another kind of resource) away from the rural areas. In fact, there's now an internet dating service specifically geared toward lonely farmers. I find this rather delightful.

Our last major topic was the way that these resource and service underpinnings, and population conditions, can affect society and its laws. In Rebecca's city, because conditions are so dangerous, murder is heavily punished. Women stay in the city while men are foragers and hunters. Women are expected to produce as many babies as possible, so there's no institution of monogamous marriage. Murderers are tried by horses (ridden by women, apparently) and murderers cast into the Rift. Pelismara experiences a number of different kinds of population pressure: the Venorai laborers work in very dangerous conditions, so they never go anywhere by themselves, and it has become an expression in the general language ("Venorai never walk alone"). The nobility's population is shrinking due to attrition and inbreeding, so women are incredibly oppressed in the name of getting them to produce more offspring. Overall, however, the population is not changing measurably because of the lack of growth or decline in resources. Brian mentioned that in a case of overpopulation, murder might become a sanctioned activity rather a than an illegal one. Wars might also be used to divert overly large numbers of aggressive young people into pursuits that will simultaneously keep them occupied and reduce their numbers.

At the end of the discussion we decided to talk about diet, food and culture at our next hangout. Since that one has already occurred at the time I write this, I'll try to get it written up this week, too. Tomorrow's hangout will be at 11am PST on Google + and we'll be talking about the culture of oppression. I hope you can join us.

Tomorrow's Worldbuilding Hangout: The Culture of Oppression

Wow, it's Tuesday already... Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! Please come join us tomorrow at 11am PST on Google+ for a hangout where we will discuss the culture of oppression. This should be an interesting one. I've got two hangout reports to catch up on, so I'll try to get those out to you in the next day or so.

Monday, February 13, 2012

TTYU Retro: The Life Cycle of Twitter (or should I call it Flutter?)

I have a lot of friends who are on Twitter, and also quite a number who are not. When you hear people talk about Twitter, they talk about how amazing it is with its instant connectivity, all of the cool people you meet, etc., etc. What they're really talking about is the mature stage of Twitter. It's not what you see when you first get there, unless you're being invited by a friend who will begin by introducing you to a large number of pre-existing Twitterfolk. So for those who are less familiar with Twitter, I thought I'd describe the stages of its development for me, by comparing them to the life cycle of a butterfly.

1. Egg stage
You have a Twitter account. You don't follow anybody so the Twitterverse looks like an empty room. You try to find things to say and feel like you're talking to yourself, so you hardly say anything. If you try to invite people to see something you've done online, you're met with resounding silence. Maybe a person or two notices you and gives you a follow but there's little interaction.

How to move to the next stage: Ask your friends if they're on Twitter, and follow them. Take Twitter's follow suggestions if necessary. Find the Twitter accounts of groups you may be associated with. Whenever someone follows you, swing over to their profile and see what they're talking about. They might be a spambot (block!) but if they're human and interesting, follow them.

2. Caterpillar stage
You follow enough people that you're getting some interesting tweets coming in. You're also tweeting a bit more yourself, both socially and with content. You know how to use @ signs to contact particular Twitterfolk. The Twitterverse looks bigger and starts to have people in it: you have an incoming stream of information, and maybe you also have a friend or three, or have made acquaintances who care about your tweets. You get really hungry and start following people, and it becomes more and more likely that these are people you discover through tweets that come indirectly to your Twitter stream, via re-tweet. If you announce something to your followers, a few people click through; if one of your tweets hits a really well-connected person, you may see a wave.

How to get to the next stage: Keep doing what you're doing. Keep your eye out at the edges of your leaf. If you see interesting content, engage with it. Especially if you run across a highly-connected person, interact and engage with them. Follow them, because they will be passing on lots of cool information and new people to get to know. Don't underestimate the importance of simple greetings and expressions of solidarity, like sympathizing with people or cheering for them when they need it. You would do it for your friends, and this is important: These are your friends.

3. Butterfly (Flutter) stage
You're really in the wind now. There are no more walls, and butterflies are in flocks all around you. You've figured out the hashtags marked with # (though you may still be learning how some existing ones work). You're still doing social and content tweets, but you can contribute to hashtags. Sometimes your post will reach a few people, and sometimes it will reach waves of people you never imagined. You can also use hashtags as guideposts to help you know where to fly. Everything is connected, and you can see a tiny connection path when it shows itself, follow it and discover an entirely new "region" of interconnected people. You might attend a hashtag chat or follow a hashtag you're interested in to see what you can discover. You start seeing people you know sending messages with @ signs to other people you know. You might rediscover someone you met twenty years ago because they happen to be on Twitter and the wind blows them your way (this happened to me).

How to handle this stage: read what you want to read. Don't be afraid to unfollow if you're feeling overloaded, but don't feel obliged to read everything everyone posts, either - just read the wind when you stop in and see where it takes you. Tweet what you want to tweet, considering that you're speaking into a crowd; don't feel obliged to report every part of your day, because that's not necessary and it may exhaust you. Realize that there's more out there than you could ever process on your own. Explore and have fun.

I'm sure there are meta-levels of Twitter expertise which I haven't touched on. That's just because I haven't been there yet. Maybe when I get there I'll be able to find myself a new metaphor... Until then, I hope you like butterflies.

You can find me on Twitter here: @JulietteWade

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Culture Share - Wales: What's it like living in the South Wales Valleys?

 This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette B. Edwards discusses life in the South Wales Valleys.

What is it like living in the South Wales Valleys?

The kneejerk reaction is to say ‘cold, damp and a bit miserable’ and this time of year that’s pretty accurate. Drizzling rain gives the whole area a hue of grey and what little sunshine we get is accompanied by dark clouds. Maybe not so miserable though because even in the rain people seem pretty happy. The view from this part of the country is beautiful – lush green hills all around dotted with a few villages.

My village – if you can call it that – is always quiet. Made up of only five streets and one shop; it’s affectionately known as ‘The Site’ by those who live here. The sounds of traffic are few and far between, and you’re more likely to run into a wandering cat on a walk than another person. Interaction with neighbours is usually over a fence or wall. The nearest town is Blackwood, which is small enough that it seems busy a few times a week. Suburban, I suppose, would be the best description. We’re a little too far down the valley to be rural. The capital of Cardiff is a half hour train ride away.

This part of the country doesn’t often support the Welsh language. Further West and North it’s a requirement, but around here school is practically the only place anyone speaks it. We have one Welsh language channel on television, but even the adverts there are in English. That doesn’t stop a sense of national identity though. Calling a Welshman an Englishman, I imagine, would be akin to calling someone from New Jersey a New Yorker or vice versa. Almost everyone knows the national anthem and will sing it loudly before every Six Nations match. Rugby Union is our main sport and with the Six Nations starting soon, the pubs will be full of red jerseys.

As I write this, it’s 25th January – Saint Dwynwen’s day (pronounced: doyn-wen.) She’s like Saint Valentine for Wales. Like every Saint, she has her own story. Traditionally Welsh tales were never written down, so there are many different versions. We learn these as children, along with some folk stories. Every school differs; some teach more than others. The ‘child-friendly’ version of her tale is: Dwynwen fell in love with a man called Maelon (My-Lonn; literally meaning ‘prince’) but her father refused to let them marry. Distraught, she ran into the woods and prayed for God to make her forget Maelon. An angel visited her with a potion to make her forget Maelon and turn him into a block of ice. God then gave Dwynwen three wishes. She wished for Maelon to be thawed, for God to grant the wishes of all lovers and that she would never marry. When God had granted her wishes, she became a nun.

In the South many speak what is termed ‘Wenglish’ – a Welsh form of English. Around here it is commonplace to ask someone “Where you to?”, to request a ‘Cwtch’ (C-utch as in butch) or to inquire “Whose coat is this jacket?” Simple terms like ‘ach y fi’ are in the vocabulary of everyone.* Phrases like “Where you to?” or “I’ll be there now in a minute” are known to be a form of Welsh logic. They are sometimes oxymoronic but if you say them in Wales you’ll be understood. Calling someone ‘Bach’ (small) – another Welsh word that everyone knows, is also commonplace. E.g. My uncle Dai is commonly known as Dai Bach. The man is six-foot-six but he was small when he was young, and so the name stuck. The ‘ch’ sound (like the ch in Achmed, for example) comes easy, but things such as the ‘ai’ in Dai are mainly in the accent – it’s not something that can be explained without a Welsh voice on hand. (Try saying eye with an ‘a’ at the beginning and you might be close!)

The area is by no means attractive, affluent or promising, but it’s a little like your family – it’s alright for you to insult it, but woe betide anyone else who tries.

*Cwtch = Hug
*Ach a fi = Disgusting

Juliette B. Edwards lives in "The Site" in South Wales.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Deep Worldbuilding and POV Scene Preparation: an in-depth example

Yesterday I started to write a scene that occurs in a new environment. What I mean by this is that I have to write a scene in a hospital, and I've never thought about what a hospital would look like in Varin. So I figured, why not work my thoughts out here on the blog? That way I can really show the amount of preparation and thinking that I put into working out this sort of thing. I swear, this is why my writing process is so slow (ha)! In any case, I thought a vision of my process might give you ideas for some things to think through as you enter a new environment in your own world.

The first challenge as I enter this process is to bring up what I know about hospitals from this world, with all my gut reactions and all of the details that I fill in instinctively, and then take a step back and look at these things as foreign. When I start a scene like this I absolutely must keep my mind from slipping into "House" or "Law and Order" or "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" (or anything else for that matter). Varin has a level of technology very similar to ours, but that technology expresses itself very differently, because Varin's history is completely separate from that our world.

So I started my research by speaking with a fabulous writer friend of mine, Deborah J. Ross, who has (lucky for me) personal knowledge of what goes on in a cardiac ward. She told me about what kind of machines a patient would be hooked up to (heart monitor, IV, possibly nasal oxygen) and whether the patient would be likely to be able to speak (important for what I would like to have happen in the scene). Then I went through those details and asked whether Varin would have each one. I concluded that the answer was predominantly "yes." I actually wasn't too happy about this - if I'd been able to omit one, the scene would have appeared more different. Instead, I have to think about how to include everything familiar, but find one or two very salient details to alter in order to jar readers out of their normal perception.

It's actually not that hard to jar people off of their expected models - if you do it deliberately, first thing. I've done this already with one of my characters. He has obsessive-compulsive disorder, but in Varin, they don't call it OCD. Instead, he "suffers compulsive obsessions." You'd be amazed how just changing around the expected phrasing causes it stop bringing up all of the expected real-world associations.

At that point I realized I needed to get closer to the scene (i.e. start writing it) so I could work on the detail level rather than the general level of expectations and equipment. The other thing that writing the scene allowed me to do was bring in another huge tool for creating difference: deep point of view.

After all, I don't just need to know what this environment is like. I need to know how my servant-caste character, Aloran, experiences this environment. Immediately, more questions open up. How much medical experience does Aloran have? Answer: he has a lot of training, but essentially none of it with hospital doctors, who come from the knowledge-worker caste immediately below his. Instead he has learned his medical training from other servants who have undergone the same training. What about his own experience going to hospitals as a patient or friend of a patient? Answer: he has no doubt been to a hospital before, but it would have been one geared toward people of officer-caste and lower, not a hospital designed specifically for the nobility. Thus, the things he notices about the hospital will be 1. those things that make it unique to the knowledge-worker-caste doctors who are in charge there and 2. those things that make it a hospital for nobles, rather than a hospital for everyone else.

So I started writing. Tagret and his mother Tamelera get the news that Tagret's father, Tamelera's husband and the Master of the house, has had a heart attack and gone to the Health Center. So Aloran escorts Tagret and Tamelera over there.

Difference #1 (behavior and layout)In this hospital, the patients are far, far more important than the doctors and nurses who serve them. Thus, they are received instantly by a doctor's assistant, the moment they walk in the door. Since none of them is a patient, this person escorts them to the patient's bedside. If they were patients, this person would ask questions and fill out paperwork for them. This entire first room is dedicated to instantly serving the people who come in: after the assistant's desk beside the door is a row of "triage chairs" on either side, where a nobleman or noblewoman can come in and have a seat anyplace that's open. The first-line nurses sit back against the walls behind these (well-spaced) chairs, each with a rolling cart of equipment he or she can bring forward to the chairs to do an initial evaluation.

Difference #2 (technology): You probably already noticed this one: the triage chairs. These are made of steel, and adjustable, so that a patient can be reclined and even wheeled (wheelchair-style or gurney-style) into the back treatment rooms as necessary. The triage chairs are a piece of technology that arose spontaneously when I tried to collapse the steps that we take entering a hospital: admission, initial evaluation, and being moved into a treatment area.

Difference #3 (technology saturation/judgment): One of the things that each receiving nurse has on his or her equipment cart is a device with a small computer screen. This is a testing device, but I make no mention of its use as they walk past. It's attached to a number of different measurement devices (blood pressure cuff, pulse counter, etc) that I don't need to go into. If someone from our world were to walk past this thing, if anything they might notice that the screen was awfully small. In Varin, the culture has a deeply ingrained religious bias against "capturing faces," and this has hampered the acceptability of photography and the development of live cinema, and also the development of screen technology. Aloran therefore notices the presence of the screens, because despite extensive medical training, he's only seen one or two of these comprehensive measurement devices in his life. The use of this device, with the screen attached to it, is seen as the province of the knowledge-worker-caste doctors almost exclusively. I think of this quote from Alexander Graham Bell, about his invention of the telephone: "The telephone is so important that, one day, every town will have one." Obviously the saturation of telephones went far beyond that, but the point is we can't always anticipate the level of saturation a particular technology will achieve. There are plenty of technologies whose use is restricted to particular limited contexts in our world; and this is one of those for Varin.

Difference #4 (manners): The assistant who escorts them to the Master's room calls Tagret sir, calls Tamelera Lady, and takes leave of Aloran with a set phrase: "May your honorable service earn its just reward, sir." These are social rules of the Variner caste system that show up in basic interactions between castes, so they show up here.

So here we are, the family hasn't even arrived in the hospital room, and already there are four major differences set before a reader to say unequivocally, "We aren't in Kansas any more." By this time, the fact that this place isn't like "House" should be so obvious that the similarities we do encounter will be significantly blunted. Add to this the fact that the Master is being treated in his own private room with stone walls and a steel door, and I suspect that the heart monitor, the IV, and the oxygen tube will have been largely stripped of their usual associations. I will leave them mostly as is, and probably change just a few tiny things about where they are placed/how they are supported, to make them more Varin-like.

Difference #5 (sound): The one thing that strikes me as so iconic to the real world that I have to change it at all costs is the peeping of the heart monitor. So my idea is to mix up my experiences just a bit, and have the heart monitor in fact relaying the rhythmic rushing sounds of the heart beating - a variation of what I experienced when I was allowed to listen to my unborn children's hearts beating.

And after thinking all of those things through, I feel much more confident about continuing into the scene. In fact, I'm pleased that there will be fewer differences from our own expectations when we hit the treatment room itself, because that will let me put more focus on the interactions of the characters, which after all are the really important part for driving the plot forward.

I hope this talk-through/think-through, written as I have been preparing and just beginning to write the hospital scene in Chapter 27 of For Love, For Power, has given you some ideas about what you can do to create interesting worldbuilding effects in your own worlds.