Sunday, December 29, 2013

Link: A fascinating discussion of "The Forgotten Female Figures of Christmas"

I really enjoyed reading this post, and the Part 2 post linked at the bottom of it. They talk about female figures who play an important role in Christmas celebrations, and their origins in religions that were suppressed by Christianity. Fascinating stuff - old traditions die hard.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Link: 12 Old Words that Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms

I loved this little article, and I hope you will, too. It's funny to think about the origins of some of the phrases we take for granted! I particularly liked learning about the two words for going, "wend" and "go"...

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

TTYU Retro: How much Worldbuilding before you write? (especially for NaNo folk)

So, how much worldbuilding do you really need to do before you can start writing a novel?

The answer is, of course, it depends. The less you do in first draft, the more you will likely have to do in revisions. However, having some basic things sketched out can be an enormous help, especially since specificity helps increase meaningful word count. For that reason, then, I thought I'd lay out some worldbuilding parameters here, especially for those among my readers who will be starting NaNoWriMo shortly! Remember - you can put an enormous amount of effort into worldbuilding (and for that I recommend my series of worldbuilding hangouts), but you can get a great deal of excellent effect up front with a small amount of concerted thinking.

1. Do I need a map?
Maps can be very helpful in several ways - they can get you in the mood to write in your world, and they can help you with logistical questions like, "If my characters have to get from A to B, on horseback, how long will that take?" Even if you're not working with a questing party, having a general map of the layout of the city or town or village where the story takes place will help you be able to describe your characters moving through it more fluently, and reduce the possibility of strange errors. I ended up mapping the suite where my noble family lived, down to the furniture! Because I had to fit a lot of different rooms into a relatively small space, and know where one room was relative to the others (and make it all fit!), the map became really important. You can, of course, write away and figure out your maps later, but in the interest of increasing word count in a non-fluffy way, I recommend a bit of mapping before you start. Making your descriptions of travel and motion more accurate makes the map a good investment of time.
2. How much setting?
My first recommendation is to have a sense of the world climate, and especially the local climate to where your story takes place. Choosing a climate won't just give you general weather conditions, and details on how comfortable it will be to storm the castle, or walk 50 miles, etc. (though those things are useful!). It will also give you a sense of what the local vegetation will look like, and what people will grow on what kind of farms, and thus what people will eat. It will also let you know what kind of building materials are available, and that will help you know what the local architecture looks like. If you don't deliberately choose a climate up front, then there is some risk of inconsistency between, say, food and weather. You may find yourself having to go back later and realign all of the details of agriculture, architecture, weather, road conditions... Since climate has such an enormous influence on what you're describing, and reaches into so many areas of life, it's worth setting this one up early.

3. Do I need to figure out the economy? 
The short answer is yes. You should really know where people are getting their food from, and their marketable goods from, and what kinds of things are basic and what are luxuries, etc. In terms of working quickly, this is one where you can often work with a sort of "default" economic setting, by deciding whether your economy is like a complex capitalist economy, a medieval feudal economy, a form of socialism, etc. This leads me directly to...

4. What's my technology level?
If you're planning to work fast, this is another area where default settings can be very helpful. Pick a period of human history and use its model for a sense of what kinds of tools people will possess, how valuable they will be, and how often used. Bronze age technology, Iron age technology, Industrial revolution technology, computer age technology - each of these has sets of expectations that readers (and you!) will be able to keep track of relatively easily.  Pick one, to allow you to orient yourself. If you want to change things, and work in a way that doesn't follow the easy defaults derived from our own history, you're looking at a longer-term project. It might be good to use defaults for now, and save alterations from those defaults for a later draft.

5. What's my social structure?
For me, social structure is a large part of what drives the conflict in my stories. This could be why I have to take so long to write them! When you're embarking on a novel, it's good to think through some basic stuff about how your people work. Do they have a monarchy? What is the government system like? What activities are valued? What kind of achievement might allow someone to rise in social standing (military success, etc.)? Think also about how many different cultural groups you're working with. Is it just one? More than one? Either way, large-scale cultural groups will come with subgroups inside them. For the purposes of a quick novel-writing experience, keeping the social structure to broad-brush strokes is probably the best idea, and then you can use your notes on the smaller details of social value and interaction later. You may end up unconsciously writing stereotypes if you're really in a hurry. That's not a problem, so long as you take a closer look at social nuance later.

This - social structure - is where you're first going to encounter your characters in your worldbuilding. Given that characters are the best way for social structures to demonstrate themselves, it's a good investment of time to sit down and figure out the explicit connections between your world's social structure and your characters, their resources, their assumptions and behavior. This again is going to increase your ability to capture specificity, this time in character behavior, and also in...

6. Dialogue
You may not want to get fancy with your voice or dialogue before you jump in to a NaNo project - being experimental takes time. But whenever I want to experiment with voice, for prose or for dialogue, I do at least one (and sometimes more than one) experiment beforehand. If you come out of your social worldbuilding with something in mind, try a micro-scene to test out whether the voice you've imagined is sustainable, especially at high speeds. I don't recommend plunging headlong into a voice that will take you half an hour to get your head into every time you sit down (yes, I have done this. I'm not really cut out for NaNo)! Dialogue is probably the easiest thing to fix or restyle later.

What if I don't have something figured out in time?
Use defaults. Chances are, even if you haven't fully thought things out, you're using some sort of defaults from our own world already. The patterns of your story will tend to conform to your expectations of what might happen in your own life. It's really not a problem to use a default technology setting, for example, and go back and retool later. That's what revisions are for!

Overall, I would say that going through a few basic elements of worldbuilding before you start will help you sharpen your focus and will help your wordcount stay high (being vague doesn't require many words). Be sensitive, though, to the point at which you start spending more time for less result. That's when you should slow down and say, "I'll save these details for draft 2."

Good luck!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Setting your story in Japan - a linguistic and cultural checklist

So you've decided to set a story in Japan. Of course you're going to go and do some research, find out about Japanese yokai spirits maybe, or about the events and clothing and architecture of the Meiji Restoration or the Heian Period, or maybe you'll be going to the internet to check out webcams in Shibuya just to get the vibe. Maybe you've decided to use some Japanese language to make it more real.

Awesome. I would love to read that!

Let me just see if I can add a few little extra points to your research, to help your Japan seem more real.

1. Know your season.

Seasons are very culturally important in Japan. There are festivals that take place in different seasons. Personal letters almost always refer to the season and the weather associated with it. Certain kinds of poetic imagery go with different seasons, and each season has different flowers and weather phenomena that are used to describe the moods associated with it. Even the patterns and appearance of dishes can be seasonally linked (my husband and I were once informed that we were using our fall dishes at the wrong time of year, not that we have ever stopped doing so!). There are certain dishes, or flower arrangements, etc. that are seasonal. Early spring is plum blossoms and icy weather, spring is cherry blossoms (ephemerality) and blossom-viewing parties; the rainy season is moldy and constantly drippy; summer is hot humidity and cicadas singing; fall is icy weather, red maple leaves and yellow gingko leaves; winter is cold and rainy or snowy, and New Year's celebrations and Adult's Day, etc.

Now, you don't necessarily have to research every last thing that goes with a particular season! However, knowing the season and the weather and natural phenomena associated with it will take you a long way toward having a cultural Japanese "feel" in your story.

2. Know your appellations.

You probably already know about the use of -san after someone's name. That is a pretty standard formal way for people to address one another, and it can be used after first names or last names. For boys, the suffix -kun is often used in the place of -san. Doctors, dentists, professors, or teachers should be called by last name with the suffix -sensei, as should artists. If two people have a very close relationship, things are a bit different. You can use -chan for either boys or girls, even among adults if the relationship is close and playful. Either -kun or -chan can be added to abbreviated versions of the person's name; we met a man this summer who went by "Yattchan" within the family (his full name was Yasuo). 

When you don't know the name
Where we in English would use "sir" or "miss" or "ma'am," in Japanese they often use family terms that depend on the person's age and gender. These can use -chan instead if you are claiming intimacy (either in a playful or rude way).

Ojo-san = little girl
Onee-san = big sister, for a girl or young woman
Oba-san  = aunt, for a grown woman up to middle age
Obaa-san = grandmother, for an old woman

Boku = "I", can be used to address a little boy
Oni-san = big brother, for a boy or young man
Oji-san = uncle, for a grown man up to middle age
Ojii-san = grandfather, for an old man

Sensei can be used all by itself if you know the person is a doctor/dentist/teacher/etc. but you don't know his/her name.

*Anata literally means "you," but in practice it means "darling." Don't have people call each other "you" unless they are boyfriend and girlfriend, or they are married.

3. Know where to use names, and where not to use them.

In English we have a habit of adding names onto the things we say. "Hello, George." "Well, your majesty, I have something to say about that." "Yes, sir." "Goodbye, Ms. Walsh." In Japanese, this does not work. Japanese is a language which allows for sentence subjects to be dropped - that means not only is no name used, but no pronoun is used either. I don't suggest dropping pronouns in English, ever, but in Japanese, people are not going to add names onto the end of phrases like this. Avoid it.

If you are going to put someone's name in - because you can - it will come before the utterance. So instead of "Hello, Yuko," in Japanese it would be, "Yuko-san, ohayo gozaimasu." The name comes first.

4. Know your "set phrases."

In Japanese, there are phrases that are expected to be used in different contexts. These are pretty much fixed, and they are not expected to be varied. There are a lot of them, and they don't always correspond directly to the phrases that would be used in English language contexts. Here are some important ones:
  • ohayo gozaimasu - good morning. Do not use after about 10:30am, because it literally means, "It's early!"
  • konnichi wa - hello. Use during the day after "ohayo" has expired.
  • konban wa - good evening. Use in later parts of the day
  • moshi moshi - hello. Use this on the telephone. It means, "speak," and can also be used any time you can't hear someone else, like "are you there?"
  • mata ne/ ja ne - goodbye. This is a very informal thing said between friends who expect to see each other again soon.
  • sayonara - goodbye. This is a very formal thing said between people who do not expect to see each other again soon, much like "farewell."
  • bai bai - goodbye. Say this on the telephone, and only in modern times.
  • dozo - go ahead. Say this when you are giving something to someone, or letting them do something.
  • dozo oagari kudasai - please come in. Use it when welcoming someone as a guest into your house. Literally means "go ahead, please come up."
  • gomen kudasai - hello. This is what you say when you arrive in a place (either home or business) but can't see anyone there, and would like to get some help.
  • gomen nasai - sorry. This is what you say when you bump into someone.
  • sumimasen - excuse me. You can say this if you bump into someone, or if you want someone's attention, or if you are apologizing.
  • shitsurei shimashita - sorry. Literally, "I did something rude." This is what you say when you have either done or said anything rude. It's much more formal and more broadly applicable than gomen nasai, and more formal than sumimasen.
  • shitsurei shimasu - literally, "I'm going to be rude." This is what you say after someone invites you to come into their house with oagari kudasai, as you step up into the inner part of the house. You can also say it instead of gomen kudasai.
  • kudasai - please. Watch out, because this means either "give me" or "do me the favor of...". It can't be used in as many contexts as English "sorry."
  • onegai shimasu - please. This one literally means "I make a request," and so it can be used in more contexts than kudasai. It can also be used in one context where in English we would use "thank you." If someone offers to do something nice for you, or to give you something nice, you do not say thank you in Japanese, you respond with onegai shimasu.
  • omatase shimashita - I kept you waiting. Say this when you rejoin a group after stepping away, or if you are late to meet someone. People in stores will say this when they turn to you after serving the person ahead of you.
  • chotto matte kudasai - please wait a minute. This is the casual form. The formal form used by storekeepers is "shosho omachi kudasai."
  • tadaima - what a person says when they arrive home. Literally means "just now."
  • okaeri nasai - what a person at home says when they hear an arriving person say tadaima.
  • itte kimasu - what a person says when leaving home but planning to come back soon. Literally, "I'm going and coming."
  • itte rasshai - what a person at home says in response to itte kimasu.
  • osaki deshita - Literally, "I was before you," what you might say to others in your family after you preceded them into the bath. Possibly, what you might say to people waiting in line for a single bathroom after you come out and vacate the room for them.
  • hai - This is often used for "yes," but can also mean, "I'm with you," indicating understanding rather than agreement. In the understanding sense, hai is often followed by...
  • wakarimashita - Literally means "I understood"or "I got it." Often used when someone indicates that they have received a message and internalized it.
  • kashikomarimashita - This is a lot like wakarimashita, except it is super formal, and often used by shopkeepers or other people to indicate that they have received a client's orders and will carry them out.
  • arigato - thank you. As I mentioned, not to be used in response to a generous offer (in that case, use onegai shimasu). This is very useful in giving thanks for various kinds of generosity, and comes in many different forms. Domo, domo arigato, arigato gozaimasu, domo arigato gozaimasu... each one has the same underlying meaning but a level of formality roughly indicated by its length. The longer, the more formal.
  • doitashimashite - you're welcome. Use this in response to thanks, but it can sometimes also be used in response to compliments.
  • moshiwake gozaimasen - I'm sorry. This is a much more serious form of I'm sorry than any of the ones above, and literally means "I have no excuse." I've put it in the formal form, but it can also be used less formally as moshiwake arimasen or even less formally as moshiwake nai.
  • itadakimasu - I humbly receive. This is what you say when you are about to start eating. Sometimes accompanied by a clap of the hands into prayer position. It expresses gratitude toward the person who made the food, and is usually answered with "dozo."
  • gochisosama deshita - It was a feast/treat. This is what you say when you have finished eating, or when you are about to leave a restaurant (if you feel comfortable speaking to the proprietor). It is also used to tease people engaging in public displays of affection, as if a public kiss were a rich dessert.
  • irasshaimase - This is the welcome that people running a restaurant will cry out, aloud, to people who enter.
  • baka - this is not a set phrase! It's a very rude insult that is much more rude than our word "stupid." You can use it by itself, or as baka yaro (also extremely rude). However, if you want to say "stupid X" you have to add "na." This is something I see people miss a lot. So you could call Taro-kun "baka," but if you want to say "stupid Taro," it would be "Baka na Taro-kun!"

This turned into a long list! However, I'm not sure I covered everything. So if you have additions or questions, feel free to put them in the comments. Have fun with your story in Japan!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Water - a Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report with VIDEO!

Water is a really important topic for worldbuilding, because if your people are made of mostly water the way we are, and yet you don't know where your water is coming from, your world is not going to hold together. Yes, we can set up water supplies in expected ways from our own experience and set them in the background, but there are other options, too! I was joined for this discussion by Lexie Scanlon, Reggie Lutz, and Lillian Csernica.

We started by talking about Frank Herbert's Dune, which is always a good place to start when talking about water in worldbuilding. He sets up water as an extremely scarce resource, and organizes an entire conflict of societies around it. The Fremen value water highly, and consider that water belongs to the tribe (the larger social group) so that people who die get their water reclaimed from their bodies and returned to the community reservoir. Meanwhile, the invasive people who are claiming a dominant position here make a big deal about wasting water - feeding it to gigantic palm trees, having parties where people wash their feet and then leave their towels on the wet floor, etc. It's a deliberately constructed contrast between a deep value and the purposeful denigration of that value.

Lexie talked about desert research, saying that Field Marshal Rommel in World War II described the desert as an ocean. Water becomes more precious the further you are away from it. In places where we have fresh water piped into our homes, we tend to take water for granted, but recent concerns with pollution and climate change have pointed out the scarcity of clean water in our world.

Lillian mentioned a recent patent for a system that intends to take concrete out of water in order to reclaim the water lost as waste in the process of making concrete. Another process used to extract fresh water is desalinization, which has undergone some recent technological improvements, and is used in a number of countries around the world including Australia.

I told a story from when I was living in Japan and walking to school in Kyoto. Every morning I would pass by a fancy restaurant, and out in front of this restaurant each morning I would see people dumping buckets of water into the street, until they had essentially washed the entire street that stood before the storefront. This was obviously intended to clean and purify the street so that the environment of the restaurant would be clean, but for a girl coming from California, where drought conditions are so common, it was quite shocking.

When I was a child I remember seeing a show on TV, probably from National Geographic, in which a mother somewhere in Africa was using cow urine to bathe her child. (I'm sorry that I don't have further information on the location; it was a lot of years ago). At the time my brother and I were both very surprised by this, but we learned that urine is pretty sterile in terms of not containing bacteria and being able to wash them away. In a context where fresh water is truly scarce, it makes no sense to flush the outside of the body with water that then becomes dirty and washes away into the environment; it should be saved for drinking. Thus the cow urine was an obvious, practical choice in that context. Lillian mentioned how in England, human urine was used to bleach linen, also for the purposes of water conservation, and Reggie talked about how urine was used to cure leather because of the ammonia contained in it. In space, of course, they have special machines to convert astronauts' urine back into drinkable water. Lexie remarked how Dune did this really well with its stillsuit technology. In a desert context, drowning might be an unfamiliar concept... and certainly a rare occurrence.

Here on earth there are many methods to filter water. Lillian mentioned that many impurities can be removed from water simply by filtering it through several layers of sari fabric (I think copepods in particular are removed by this method). I had seen a purification method that involved placing water in plastic or glass bottles and setting the bottles out on top of a sheet of corrugated metal, allowing the sun reflection to kill any nasties living in the water.

Here in the US, of course, we are taught not to leave water in plastic bottles because of the BPA compounds which can leak from the plastic into the water over time. Lexie told us about her experience in the military. Previously, soldiers would use iodine capsules to purify water in canteens, but now they are using reverse osmosis purifiers. In the military, it is understood that to cut off supply lines, in particular to cut off water, stops an army from functioning. "Water is the thread that attaches you to the living."

Water also has the special property that it expands and loses density when it freezes, which is why ice floats and why lakes freeze over, not under. This is a pretty important property when you consider how aquatic animals can live safely under ice.

Sea levels change over time, and they have deep effects on culture as well as biology.

Water can be used as a cutting tool in industry - and probably inspired the use of water-bending as a cutting tool in Avatar: The Last Airbender (the animated show).

Lillian observed that without fresh water, there can be no dragonflies. Scarcity of water affects the entire food web.

California relies on snowpack as a water storage method to get it through rainless summers. Water is heavy - typically the most intractably heaviest thing carried by backpackers, for example - and hard to move. It is also hard to control. Flooding is incredibly hard to handle, and can ironically lead to shortages of fresh water if there is damage to the existing pipe system. Reggie and I agreed that it would be very interesting to deal with a useful application of flooding in science fiction. Of course, there are more traditional uses for flooding...the calendar of Egypt was based on the Nile river's yearly floods, as was the system of agriculture there.

Lillian brought up the earthquake and tsunami that occurred in Japan, and the Daiichi reactor disaster. That reactor uses water to cool its rods, but has had trouble using it to contain the radiation (instead apparently they are trying to spray resin into the air!). The kinetic energy of the tsunami was enormous, enough to rival any disaster movie. Twenty thousand people lost their lives. Lack of drinkable water and hygienic facilities led to illness and death. Aftershock earthquakes there have been associated with PTSD.

Water can be used for power generation. It also has a multitude of technologies that surround it, including (but certainly not limited to) mill wheels, levees, irrigation, naval ships, and cisterns. We talked about how cities have started to use gray water runoff systems for irrigation.

Different communities have different ideas about water value and usage. Reggie said that in Mountain Pennsylvania,  there is not a lot of recycling, and after packaging fish they clean up the styrofoam containers and pour ice into the sink. This led us to think about water-related habits that characters might have, such as leaving the water on while brushing one's teeth, or using low-flush toilets (or space toilets!). In Japan there was a serious problem with wasted water at a women's university because the students were continuously flushing the toilet to disguise the sounds of their visits. This problem was resolved when someone invented a gadget that would play a recorded flushing sound, and placed it in the toilet stalls.

We often use water-related language. Emotion is often connected metaphorically to water, as when emotions "flood" over us. Water also makes a good metaphor for electricity. Water appears a lot in music (Bridge Over Troubled Water). We have a lot of water-related expressions like "off the deep end," "in deep water," "in over his head," "up a creek without a paddle," "raining cats and dogs," etc. Japanese has lots of different words to describe rain falling at different intensities, and even to describe different kinds of dripping water.

Thank you to everyone who attended! I hope to see some of you at today's discussion of Gift-giving. Here is the video for those who would like to hear exactly what was said:

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

TTYU Retro: Why sidekicks are so useful!

I was writing a big giant set piece chapter some time ago, trying to make it more streamlined and more exciting than it had been before. It was a serious challenge because it involved a big ceremony - the Accession Ball - that had to happen in a particular way, and it was sort of one thing after another after another. Lots of events, and a bit of internalization by my protagonist. Not boring precisely, but you had to be able to buy in. Some readers I knew would start skimming.

So I added a sidekick.

I had a convenient character available. Tagaret (my protagonist) has an eleven-year-old cousin, Pyaras, who appears in the story and tries to become a part of his gang because other kids are abusing him. In the first draft of the chapter, I had Pyaras get upset and be kicked out of the Ball, and Tagaret went in alone. In the new draft, I had Pyaras go in with Tagaret.

Sidekicks are great, because they do several things.

1. They ask questions.
A younger kid, or someone who isn't an expert, can be confused by different points of what is going on, and create realistic reasons for your main character to explain things (or for bystanders to explain things). This spares you a lot of "show don't tell" effort by creating a realistic context for telling.

2. They inspire your protagonist's better nature
Tagaret is expected to look after Pyaras and make sure he's okay. Having him around gives Tagaret a chance to think about someone beside himself. It helps him be more altruistic, less self-centered, and also can create fabulous opportunities for him to make difficult decisions. "Do I leave Pyaras here and go out to see that girl I've been admiring - even if it means he gets in trouble? Or do I give up my chance with the girl and protect Pyaras from the bullies?"

3. They can create diversions
In the new draft of my scene, I decided to reduce the feeling of "lists" by having Pyaras act up. Now, be aware that you shouldn't just have people act up randomly - it has to fit in with what you already have going on. Pyaras has already been getting bullied by kids who think he's too big and strong for his own good, and more like one of the lower-caste soldiers than he is like a nobleman. Thus, when one of the soldier caste people appears in the ceremony, someone in the audience decides to needle Pyaras, and Tagaret has to stop him from trying to start a fight right in the middle of the party. This simultaneously advances their relationship, and Pyaras' emotional states, and it also lets me skip over some stuff in the ceremony that readers might find repetitive.

4. They can draw out your protagonist
Tagaret is not a super-introverted guy, but the Accession Ball scene doesn't give him a lot of chances to interact with other people, especially during the ceremony. Putting Pyaras with him helps because he can whisper to him and interact in an external rather than an internal way. Especially if the person you're working with is the strong silent type, giving him or her a companion to talk to will really help keep those scenes from becoming too slow and introspective.

It's something to think about!


Monday, December 9, 2013

Laws versus Common Sense/Manners (and Privilege)

Lately I had a discussion with a friend online where that person told me, essentially, that companies will naturally take advantage of their customers to the extent permitted by law. I promptly disagreed. The recent string of filibusters in the United States Senate is a really good example of how, when people really take advantage of others to the extent that is legally permitted, things go off the rails so far that it becomes time to change the laws. What was stopping minority groups in the Senate from filibustering everything in sight before, when they had the numbers to accomplish it?

Common sense and good manners.

That got me thinking. What makes common sense? How do we dictate manners? When are laws necessary and when are they not necessary?

When groups are really tiny, say a single family tiny, people can negotiate what happens person to person, and express their feelings to one another. There are power dynamics, of course, since a child won't be able to dictate to a parent where the family will go on a certain day if appointments or parental preference say otherwise. But it tends to be negotiated face to face, with little need for rules or voting.

Take that group and make it a little bigger. Maybe it is a small farming community, or a village in the countryside. Everybody there still knows each other, and there are certain understandings about what one does and what one doesn't do. Everybody knows you don't walk across the corner of that cornfield because that particular farmer will get upset, or owns a dog, etc. Community understandings about behavior are formed, and a kind of common sense develops that is appropriate to that context. Nobody needs to write anything down.

Common sense is something that we often invoke, but keep in mind that it is culturally based. Common sense grows within a community out of a sense of shared destiny and needs, and the specifics of it are determined by the nature of the physical and social environment. That means that when a sense of shared destiny and needs is lacking, or the context is not shared, then common sense and manners will fall apart.

That's when laws start to be useful, because they provide a contract that is objectively agreed upon (ideally, though not uniformly!) by the members of the community through a carefully outlined process. Clearly there are disagreements between cultural communities about what kind of laws should exist, too!

When it comes to oppressed populations, that's where things get complicated. Oppressed populations are typically defined as "Other," i.e. as non-members of the greater population. This means that members of the dominant group are less likely to apply common sense rules and manners when dealing with these groups. It also means that since common sense rules and manners are seen to apply first to every situation, and the invocation of laws requires more effort, that unfairness is likely to start right there on the ground. Even when laws are invoked, they are invoked at the peril of the oppressed group. First of all there can be social repercussions, censure and punishments that are administered at the non-legal level. Second, if the laws do not explicitly refer to the oppressed group as possible beneficiaries, it is easy for members of the dominant group to claim that the law does not apply to them. Third, there can simply be bias in the people who are called upon to enforce the law. Even just dealing with bullying is a huge challenge because friction can enter into the process at so many different levels; dealing with large-scale injustices is far worse.

So many of the things we think of as natural and expected behaviors in our own lives are less a product of law than of common sense and manners, and thus we cannot assume that they would be natural and expected behaviors toward anyone who is not considered a member of our own community for one reason or another. People find many reasons to institute exclusions. Privilege has to do with the seemingly reasonable expectation that common sense and manners can always be expected to work in our favor. That evaluation will be fair, advancement will be on the basis of merit, and that laws will be just. However, the definitions of "fair" and "merit" are also culturally based, and subject to either ease or difficulty based on whether they run alongside, or run counter to, our common sense. And common sense is for insiders. A person who can walk into another cultural community and expect every rule of manners and common sense to conform to their own view is engaging in a privileged expectation. This is not how things work. When I go to a foreign country, I don't expect people to follow my rules; however, there are people who do have that expectation when they travel.

I am sharing these thoughts because I feel they apply to real life. That means they also apply to worldbuilding. I hope you can take something from this to help you think through the kinds of interactions that might take place in your fictional worlds as well.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

TTYU Retro: Trashers and ashers and slops: the careful design of derogatory slang for fictional worlds

Insults can be harder than they look.

You see them everywhere in fantasy and science fiction worlds. Any time you're working with a fictional world, chances are pretty high you'll find a group of people or aliens that nobody likes. If you're designing your own world, it's common enough to have this happen, and you'll find yourself saying, "Everybody hates this social group. I need to figure out how other people insult them for who they are."

My first piece of advice to you is to take your time figuring this out. Don't rush.

Any group of people will most likely have several names, and it's good to think through what they all are, and in what contexts they might be used.
  • There will be the name they give themselves; this name may or may not be used by the rest of the population to refer to them. It will most likely have some historical significance, and you may want to spend some time thinking of etymological origins for it. An example of this in the real world is "Roma," which is the name of the group commonly referred to as "Gypsies." In my Varin world, "Akrabitti" is the family name used by the undercaste. The significance of this word will not be at all derogatory, but will likely be proud, because it's an insider word.
  • There may be a sort of neutral descriptor for their social position. By this I refer to words like the word "undercaste" itself. A word like this is much more anthropological-sounding, and it typically won't be used a lot by people in normal conversation, because it will make people sound like they're analyzing their own social structure in a very neutral and detached way.
  • There will probably be an "official name" for them. This may or may not match the people's term for themselves, but it will be the way that they are referred to by governments, or when they are being talked about in terms of their relation to the larger society and its social groups. One way to think about this one is to compare it to scientific terms for taboo body parts. Most people will know the term, and everyone will know it's the official term, so it should be okay to use it, but they'll still feel a bit uncomfortable saying it. An example of this from my fiction would be the word "Lowland" or "Lowlanders" to refer to the oppressed group of aliens in my story, "Cold Words." In my Varin world, "Akrabitti" is used both by the undercaste themselves, and by the government to describe them.
  • There will be a common way they are referred to by people who despise them (and possibly more than one). This one will be a slur, and everybody will know that it's a slur. It will be short, and easy to say. I think the most common mistake I see for terms like this in fiction is when people use the official term as a slur, which makes everything feel clunkier. Designing slurs is harder than it looks, because of the way they have to roll off the tongue. To think of where these will come from, think about the reasons why these people are despised. What is it about them? Is it their appearance? A good example of this comes from Ender's Game, where humans refer to their enemies as "buggers" because they look like bugs. Is it a behavior? In "Cold Words," (Analog Oct. 2009) the Lowlanders are called "Shiverers" because they have a tendency to shiver in cold weather (they have less fur than the dominant group), and because shivering is the particular behavior that marks them as undesirable. In "The Liars," (Analog, Oct. 2012) the group is called "Liars" because (for various physiological and linguistic reasons) they are the only people in the society who are able to lie without being detected - not that they do!
Sometimes you'll run into a situation which is more complex. Though I have been working in my Varin world for years and years, I had never really arrived at a slur that I was happy with for the undercaste, the Akrabitti. The main reasons for this are that they are a large group, they have no distinguishing physical characteristics besides a governmentally mandated piece of clothing (a hood), and they have no distinct geographical origin. I suppose I could have tried to have people refer to their hoods that mark their status, but the word "hoods" is too evocative of real-world gangsters (for me), and "hoodies" is obviously specific to a real-world garment. I never use any word that is too easily associated with the real world, because it will distract from the effectiveness of the term.

I had a friend hand me a huge breakthrough. Jamie Todd Rubin suggested that I should use the word "trashers" to refer to these people. I immediately recognized that this was the right type of word I should be working with, and I'm very grateful to him for thinking of it. At the time, though, I remember saying to myself "that's so perfect - I only wish it referred to all of them." The additional complexity here is that the Akrabitti do three main jobs, not just one: they can collect trash, they can cremate the dead, or they can clean prisons and feed prisoners. Nonetheless, I figured that "trashers" would work, because it's clear that trash collection is a much more widespread profession than cremation or prison work.

I was writing along, though, when something amazing happened. I came up with a second term spontaneously, just based on the situation I was writing. I'll try to give you a quick picture of how it happened. Three of my characters - my main character, Tagaret, his mother and his young cousin Pyaras - had just witnessed the funeral of the Eminence, and were watching members of the lower castes present themselves to the newly "crowned" Eminence to place their people under his protection. However, Tagaret noticed that the Akrabitti were absent, and was troubled because he didn't see how the Eminence could have completed his obligation to protect all the people of Varin without them being there. Here was the sequence that followed:

Pyaras made a face. "Who'd want to see a trasher, though?"
"Pyaras," said Mother, chidingly.
"Well, they don't."
"It's not that." Mother lowered her voice. "It's the ashers they don't want to think of."

You can probably see that this was one of those moments where my subconscious took decisive action. My characters were thinking about a person who had just died, and "trashers" turned itself into "ashers" spontaneously. I felt like I'd been hit by lightning. How obvious was it, anyway, that I had to have three terms for the undercaste based on their jobs, rather than just one? For some reason, though, I'd never thought of it over all these years working with the world. So I then decided that I had to find the third term - that for the prison workers - and I started working on it concertedly. I decided quite early on that I wanted it to be a single syllable, because I wanted it to have a "lions and tigers and bears" rhythm. I think I wanted that because I imagined the possibility of using the three terms as a taunting chant. It's not the sort of thing that the characters above would ever use (because they are quite concerned with manners), but there will be other people in other contexts who might use it. After several hours of trying different options, I came up with "slops." It does what I need it to do, because it expresses the mopping and slopping cleaning aspect of the prison jobs, and also has an aspect of "feeding pigs" which I believe works when it comes to the idea of feeding prisoners. So finally I feel as if I've found something that's easy and really plausible (whew!).

To this point, I haven't mentioned the idea of using derogatory slang for groups who are more powerful, but some of the same principles apply. Just because a particular group is supposed to be admired doesn't mean they will be, and so they may very well be referred to disrespectfully by others. This does happen in Varin, but the point of view characters I'm working with don't tend to do it (just because of who they are). It's really far more a question of people marking group insiders and group outsiders than a simple question of higher or lower status. Just keep in mind that insiders to a group are less likely to use the official name of their group when speaking with other insiders. An example from Varin is when Aloran, a member of the Imbati servant caste, gets suspicious because a fellow servant calls him "Imbati Aloran." The other servant would normally just call him "Aloran," or if he didn't know Aloran's name, he'd call him "castemate."

It's good also to be aware of the way that taboo status will tend to "contaminate" terms. To take an object example (rather than a human example), the toilet has a lot of euphemistic terms used to describe it, because the longer a word is used to refer to something considered dirty or taboo, the more likely that word is to take on the taboo feeling and thus be considered too impolite for common use. Thus, depending on the situation you're working with, you may want to consider whether the terminology used to refer to a group has changed over time, and whether that's relevant to your story.

If you are looking for more examples, I encourage you to look around at your own daily life. Not all slang labels are really dirty/derogatory, and you can probably find good examples of social labels in your company, or your neighborhood, or your memories of school. You can also find a lot of good examples of slurs and insider/outsider terms in YA literature, because many of these authors show sensitivity to the way that cliques and social groups refer to one another.

It's something to think about.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Altering an Ecosystem

Sometimes you build a world and you want to create everything from the ground up. Other times, you want to take something familiar, and make it strange - tune it to the needs of your story. The first option takes a lot of time and research and thought. The second one might seem easier, but it can be deceptively tricky.

One of the traps that you can fall into is where you take everything familiar in the system and simply give it a new name. Maybe you can get away with one or two things like this, but the more "maros" and "quasits" you have that behave just like deer and rabbits, the more readers are going to look around and go, "Wait, nothing is really new here." If it's a rabbit, call it a rabbit, in other words. And I do - when something behaves like a rabbit, and has the physical, ecological, and symbolic properties of rabbits, I call it a rabbit. (This actually happens in For Love, For Power.)

Are people going to get mad if they are in a world where they expect things to be different, and they find a rabbit? Some are. Really it depends on context. When I used the word grouse in "Cold Words," one reader got mad at me, saying it was stupid of me to put an Earth bird on an alien world. To me, though, it was just a translation. After all, my character appears to be thinking in English when we all know he can't possibly be. Almost every word he says is therefore a translation - grouse was just one more translation amidst all the others, from my point of view. If I'd used a word in the alien language, I would have had to do a lot of extra work to convey the idea that I meant a chubby-looking bird, in a place where it didn't deserve that much attention.

Varin is a bit of an odd situation, because it's designed to be a world where things seem very familiar, and yet are deceptively different. Therefore it's not a problem in my view to include rabbits but also to include tunnel-hounds, which are a bit like eyeless black puppies with a keen sense of smell and platypus-like electricity sensors.

So far, so good, as long as we don't actually go outside into the forest.

Of course, we do have to, though. You can't put a big bad wilderness out there and never go into it! (At least, in my opinion.)

At the moment I am writing a story that requires me to face the question of the wilderness head-on. I've written scenes up there before, but never really done it justice. In particular, there is one uniquely Varin addition to the ecosystem that will make a huge difference to it. It's a tree-that-is-not-a-tree, called a shinca. These are things that look like trees, which have their roots down in hot rock, and grow up through the caverns to the surface, where they branch and have fruit. They are indestructible by ordinary means, they glow, and they are very warm to the touch. They also have offspring in the form of little floating sparks which collect excess energy from the forest, up to and including fires, and bring it back to feed the parent tree. All fun stuff - but the issue then becomes that these trees have grown up with this forest, evolved with it. That means that the forest will have particular properties that are going to be different from an ordinary forest that does not have shinca in it.

To me, that means I have to find an ecological logic for why the forest is the way it is, and how it interacts with the shinca. Each of the shinca's properties will have a different effect.

1. The shinca's offspring prevent forest fires. 
This is going to create a very different kind of environment in terms of tree life and underbrush. Trees will not produce hard seeds that need fire to break them open. Underbrush will grow very thickly without creating fire danger. Creatures that eat the thick underbrush will thrive. Fewer trees will have fireproof bark, though they will still have insect-proof bark.

2. The shinca's light will be used as guidance and for safety.
Some insects will navigate using shinca rather than moonlight. There will be some nocturnal animals with less powerful night vision, who stay close to the shinca because they can see more effectively there...and they may be insect eaters! These in turn will attract predators, and will likely have to be very good at hiding because they can't stray far from their home shinca.

3. The shinca's heat will attract wildlife.
The heat will be a helpful side effect for insects and for certain small animals. Other animals may seek the shinca out in case of particularly cold weather. In the autumn, animals who migrate southward to seek warmer weather will use the shinca as gathering points from which to begin their migration. This includes both butterflies and birds, and these congregations of animals will similarly attract predators who are keen to fatten up for wintertime. During winter, the shinca become oases where liquid water and plant life can be found in spite of the surrounding cold.

I'm really excited to see how these differences play out when I'm able to take my story "upstairs" from Varin's cavern cities and really get my characters deep into this forest, interacting with it and its flora and fauna. And I encourage you to think past the surface to the underlying ecology of the forests and other environments you work with. You might discover some really wonderful opportunities.