Last week, Stina Leicht (pronounced "Light") joined us to talk about her worldbuilding, with a specific focus on her series The Fey and the Fallen, set in Northern Ireland in the 1970's, a tumultuous period politically, which was known as The Troubles. The main character in the series is Liam, a young Catholic man who thinks his dad is a Protestant who "knocked his mother up and ran," when actually his father is a Pouka (shapeshifter).
Stina told us that the idea for the series started when she read a book called Those are Real Bullets, about Bloody Sunday in 1971, a protest that started because of lack of jobs and housing for Catholic families, and went bad (very bad). She wrote a short story about the character who stepped into her head, and then that story turned into a novel - a novel which involved four years of research including Irish language classes, tons of reading, and interviews with people who lived in Derry and Belfast in that era.
Stina emphasized that we should not only rely on what is written down, because there are plenty of aspects to historical events that don't get written down. There are things people just assume that everybody knows, when really only insiders know them. It is certainly a case of the victors writing the history - and the warnings associated with that should apply across contexts. Watch out when you are researching only based on one type of history. When you are in the middle of a conflict it's a lot messier than it appears 200 years later. Stina recommended the movie Harvey to us (Jimmy Stewart) as a source of some of her inspiration.
Pouka (Púca) are really dark in Irish legends.
One of the most interesting things to come out of the discussion (in my opinion) was that this conflict is talked about most commonly as a dispute between Catholics and protestants, but it really has to do with power, and who has all the jobs and who has to rely on the dole. Having a Catholic school on one's resume would mean one was ruled out for jobs. Unemployment for Irish Catholic men reached 40% in this period. There was similar discrimination in the area of housing, and its effects were especially bad because votes were linked to homes. This inequity and the inspiration of the American Civil Rights movement led to protests where families marched. Bloody Sunday saw 13 people killed between the ages of 15 and 22.
I asked Stina "What goes on the page?" She told us that research is like an iceberg, and what goes on the page is just the tip, but what is under the surface still affects the plot (though it is unseen). A writer has to make many decisions of "How much is too much?" "What precisely affects the plot?" It was particularly tricky because people who were present during this period are still alive. She described how careful she was about having respect for the people and the situation, and not treating it as cut and dried. She said that a couple of people expressed anger after the book was published, but not very many.
Stina wanted magic to be an undercurrent in these stories, because she likes stories where you can't quite tell what is real and what is magic (and she does a great job in the series). The first book is where protagonist Liam's life "becomes a train wreck" and the second is about coping and getting hope. The third book has been outlined... (I can't wait to see it, personally!)
Recently Stina has been working on a "Flintlock Fantasy" set in the late 1700's with strong American Revolutionary influence, but set in a secondary world. She says, "You always start with a question," and her question for this new project was "What if Tolkien were American?" The story involves racism and classism as well as magic etc.
We asked Stina what the difference was between writing in the real world and writing in a made-up world. She said that in the real world, often a lot of the worldbuilding has been done for you. There are interesting and hard-to-research details like how you can see a bus full of people and say "They are all Catholics." The secret to that one is apparently that Catholics support certain soccer teams and will wear those team colors. There are also other things like how you pronounce "h" and what side of the street you walk on. The same kinds of details are important in secondary worlds: markers for different sides of a social division.
It's useful to pick a place and study it to see the social markers. Stina mentioned two of her own choices on the day: blue hair meaning a punk connection (though some observed it could also mean a geek connection, or an artist identity), a cowboy hat indicating where she's from (Texas). This kind of close observation can inspire you for creating the same kinds of distinctions in secondary worlds.
Stina mentioned that she has an animation background that informs her writing. She said that often successful stories start with key elements that audiences can recognize and relate to, and then hang extra futuristic or fantasy elements on top. She mentioned admiring the worldbuilding in Blade Runner, where there were layers and layers in the background, including a lamp in the police office with scenes from a buffalo hunt on it. How people talked about the androids as "skin jobs." It's very important not just to consider the alternate reality but how people talk about the markers of identity as well. Stina mentioned how "leadbellies" was a word to describe people wearing gray uniforms. Liam, her protagonist, does not drink tea because he's a good Republican...
It's too easy to make a fantasy world seem antiseptic because details are left out. Write between the cracks. Think about how a world fits together ecologically. How do its people get by financially? What is their poitics? What kind of agriculture do they have? What is the technology level, and how does this interplay with magic? Art? Architecture? Design? Linguistics? If you are going to fill a room with stuff, make sure that the stuff it contains isn't random, and has connections to the world and to the characters who occupy it. It's good also to consider how things change over the course of history.
Stina said, "Writing is like cooking." She said this meant that it wasn't a really exact science, and if you approach it as super-exact, you miss out. "Sprinkle it in."
We had a great conversation and even ran over a bit! Stina is super awesome and I swear she talks in quotes, which I was often unable to write down with complete accuracy. Thank you so much, Stina, for attending, and thanks also to the other attendees, Glenda Pfeiffer, Reggie Lutz, and Christian Stiehl.
Tomorrow's discussion will be Music, so I hope to see you there! Google+. 11am PDT.