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Monday, October 30, 2017

Monica Valentinelli

Author Monica Valentinelli joined us to talk about her work in fiction, games, and media tie-ins, and we had a super-interesting discussion!  Monica told us that she likes to write horror, dark fantasy, and dark science fiction, but that when it comes to horror, she's not a fan of chopping off somebody's arm and calling it horror. She prefers atmospheric horror including the works of Edgar Alan Poe, Mary Shelly, and Anne Rice, among others.

"What is horror?" she asks. Is it a mood or a genre? Genre is more of a question of which shelf to put a book on, in her mind. Not until revisions do you have a sense of that. She finds it easier to write horror and the darker genres because she can capture that mood. She also says the motivations of the characters are clearer because they are "drawing to the point of light." Even if things are terrible, there is that little point of light that they are trying to move toward.

Monica said she likes to look at what kinds of situations are no-win. She prefers gray skies. When you are surrounded by darkness, what do you do? Are you crushed? Do you fight?

I asked her if she uses any talismanic words (recurring words that evoke particular feelings). She explained, "I don't write by fixating on words..." Instead, she focuses on the sound of the narrative. She has a background in musical history, and perhaps because of that she includes reading aloud as part of her process.

She describes a story as being like an iceberg. Readers see the tip, but they need the impression of depth.

Monica is writing a novel about alchemists, who have specific behaviors like purifying themselves by going into the hottest water possible. The details paint the picture for the reader. History is messy. Monica says she researches obsessively. In her view, human nature doesn't change, but technology does. She likes to look at the advertisements and letters from a historical period. What does a tentacle mean to a story? You don't know until you know what the characters see it as. She doesn't want to get stuck in tropes.

I asked Monica what her research process looks like. She told us it depends on what she already knows, and what she's doing with the topic. For Dark Eras, a "near world" urban fantasy game, she was creating a template so people could play as monster hunters. That sent her into research on Salem, and the pre-Enlightenment views on why crops failed, etc. (The general view was that it was the devil.) She spent three months researching a twenty thousand word chapter. There were a lot of tensions in the community and aspects of the history that had remained unexplained in the usual accounts. Tituba was married, for example. Also, these were not the only witch trials that were happening at that time.

Monica says the danger is that research can become procrastination. It has been for her novel. It's important as you research to ask, "What is the purpose of the research?" and "Am I losing focus?" It takes time to process the layers of information. There is also the question of how you are using the information. Are you writing historical fiction? Or are you being inspired by it?

Monica told us her alchemy novel is in the same world as Violet War, and right now she's working on multiple stories in the world.  She has been influenced by working in games and media tie-ins, where you can ply in a sandbox. She wants to know the world really well so she can write quickly.

I asked her what it was like to work on media tie-in projects. She told me you see what's on the stage. The most important part is actually contractual: there is a contract and licensing agreement between the company producing the product and the license owner for a particular period of time. That amount of time varies widely. That agreement determines the scope of the project, and every arrangement is different. If you are working with a team, it's different from just working for an editor. Monica worked on a Firefly role-playing game, and on a Firefly dictionary. She said how and where you can build things depends on what material you are given. Sometimes there is a setting bible; sometimes you need to make one. The tough question is where your creativity can stray from the core of the property. When is Star Wars no longer Star Wars? It's not something you own. It's highly variable, and Monica says that you need skills to collaborate and manage your own ego. If you aren't willing to do this, you can be replaced by someone who is willing to do the work. Monica says she has brought a lot of learnings from this to her own life. Her big goal is to do something like Rick Riordan Presents.

I asked Monica about her favorite aspects of worldbuilding. She says she likes to have milestones and touch points. "I have to know about how magic works to write about a wizard," she says. Character psychology is more about characterization for her than about worldbuilding.

She likes to start a story by developing an elevator pitch. (This is a description of a story that can be delivered to an agent or editor during a short ride in an elevator.) It's a 1-5 sentence summary of what the story is about. Otherwise, Monica says, she's going to go off the rails. She picks two books or movies that it's most like. That helps her put a visual container on the story.

Monica said that when she works on character, she focuses on how characters react to things. She uses a book called The Secret Language of Birthdays, which give keywords and personality traits for people who have particular birth dates. It often gives both positive and negative traits, and gives her clues for a starting point. A basic background for a character helps her give someone direction. She writes down character motivations. The value of her research is filtered through this. Does my character really care about the types of shoes they wore in 1865?

Her interest in history sometimes gives her trouble when actual history doesn't match with the popular narrative of that history, and readers try to tell her history worked one way, when she knows it worked another way. She thinks it's important to be accurate so that the incorrect narrative doesn't "become the history"for her readers.

Right now, Monica is looking for places to publish her short stories set in her macro-world. She's also writing something for a collection in which each story is an auction item. Hers is a found rare book, "The Mythica d'Argent," a metal book with chemical mysteries, such as the fact that it doesn't tarnish. She also has a lot of gaming work coming out shortly in Dark Eras 2, where the chapters are about different historical eras in a near-world, including the period of Galileo Galilei, the Empire of Mali, the Qing Dynasty, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

I asked Monica how working on a novel was different from working in a game. She said that in a novel, you get to use your own voice, but the story is usually static. The reader will take from it what they want to. In a game, there is the potential for story. Games are dynamic, though video games are less dynamic than role-playing games. Groups of people can pick up the threads and tell their own story, so you do want to tell people all the details of the world, in a way that doesn't happen in a novel. In the novel, there is a focus on plot, subplots and characters. Pieces of the world that aren't relevant to the characters get cut. In a game, you have to have twenty magical items so the players can pick one. You have to present "the whole iceberg." As far as narrative, the character motivations in a role-playing game are decided by the player. Motivation in a video game is generally provided. A lot of plot isn't usually there in the game unless it's provided by non-player characters. For a game, there's a mixture of cool setting, cool beings or entities that people can work from, and there must be more material than one person can use. You are designing the rules.

Monica said she perceives a mental transition phase between novels and games. The Violet War is something that she aims to make into a playable role-playing game, but there are a lot of steps still necessary. She needs readers, material, marketing, etc. But for now she needs to focus on what she's doing, which is writing short stories in the world to attract readers.

Monica, you were a wonderful guest and we really enjoyed talking to you! Thank you so much for your insights and for answering all our questions, and good luck with your projects.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, November 1st, and we'll be talking about Precociousness. I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, October 25, 2017


The word Taboo comes from Tongan originally, where it referred to a prohibition associated with sacredness. However, it has much broader applicability at this point, and so this discussion decided to dive into a lot of the possible implications of the concept across our own world. As Kat said, we don't want to erase our own practices. Some taboos are religious, and some are not. Something like "don't speak ill of the dead" is a non-religious taboo in our society. We also prefer not to talk about how much money people make. In some cultures, you don't talk about what someone does for a living.

When someone breaks a taboo, generally speaking you will have a visceral reaction, a very deep-seated sense of wrongness.

One taboo is the separation of toileting and eating, and the fact that we don't talk about what we do in the bathroom. Some people will not talk about intimate parts of their body. In fact, the taboo on talking about butts can lead to literal medical care problems.

Brian mentioned that there are major taboos surrounding sexual practices like incest and bestiality. But there are also minor ones like talking to other men in the restroom. Men also aren't supposed to talk to other men about emotion.

Do we talk to strangers? Would a person in your fictional world talk to strangers? Why or why not?

Women tend to go to the bathroom in pairs to make sure it's safe. Women can talk to other women, and are expected to tell them if they aren't fully put together.

Kat said that the "men don't talk about emotion" taboo was probably a larger prohibition on receiving emotional labor from other men.

Discussing sex is taboo. It may be the taboo lying at the root of people's unwillingness to talk about sexual orientation, because people assume that discussing whether someone is gay or straight forces them to talk about sex.

We also have food taboos. There are old ones, like the Kosher taboos, but there are also things like not putting ketchup on your ice cream.

What are the consequences associated with breaking a taboo? Is it just that you don't get invited to dinner parties? But if you don't get invited to dinner parties, that excludes you from networking opportunities that could make the difference between success and lack of it.

Conflict avoidance is not the same as taboo avoidance. This is a very interesting topic when we start talking about social justice, because it is taboo to confront someone about having done something unjust. The injustice itself is ostensibly taboo, but in fact, calling out is seen as worse.

As you design a society, ask yourself: whose behavior gets regulated, and when, and how?

There can be certain behaviors that cause you to lose your status in society. Literally, some behaviors are considered so dirty or low that they can drag you down from your caste. Low people are not allowed to perform religious rites.

Taboo behaviors can also be an act of bonding. "In the frat we tell sexist jokes" is an example of this. Racist jokes always start with looking around and checking who is in the room.

Brian asked, "Is taboo a reflection of a society's history?" It is - and influences that history - so it's worth thinking about in your world design.

"I don't see color" is one way that we express the taboo of talking about racism. But until people are equal, we do need to see it. The idea that talking about race is the same as racism is a form of taboo. It makes the unwarranted assumption that "everyone is like me and I am normal." We can't assume anything from our own experience about the experience of a person from another race. The experience members of a particular race share is not genetic, but is societally imposed, based on the society's perception of their racial group membership.

It's quite common for people who do not share a racialized experience to fail to see what that racialized experience means, or to deny that it is different. However, something like the different life experience of short versus tall people is never questioned. If you are short, you can't reach things on shelves designed for taller people (which are common in the US). This puts you to quite a bit of hassle, but if you remark on it, people will pretty easily acknowledge that you experience this difficulty.

Racialized experiences are not the same as preferences or allergies, because they are externally imposed.

Talking about social class is also taboo in the US. It does matter what class you display, based on your accent, your posture, or even your teeth (orthodonture and dentistry are expensive), but you are not supposed to talk about it. Dental insurance is not included for poor people, and it can also be a marker of immigrants.

In the US, there is pressure to have your teeth look a certain way. There are also many taboos across the world associated with body presentation. Body odor taboos vary greatly from culture to culture. The smell of one's breath and one's flatulence are both taboos.

Ads help to create a social culture. Victorian soap ads established the habit of washing daily.

Humor often skirts the edge of taboo because it relies on a slight bit of discomfort.

Any mixing of cultures can potentially lead to taboo conflicts. It's easy to imagine that aliens might reverse what we conceive of as sacred, possibly having revolting funeral practices or other practices that would cause humans to balk. Here on Earth there are cultures that keep the dead relative's body around for a period of time after death. We talked about the fiction of Mary Anne Mohanraj and Haralambi Markov, which tackle taboo topics in fascinating ways.

Thank you to everyone who attended and participated.

Today's hangout will discuss Performances, and we'll meet at 10am Pacific. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Anne Leonard and Moth and Spark

It was a pleasure to have author Anne Leonard come on the show to talk about her worldbuilding! She told us that her favorite thing about worldbuilding is that she doesn't have to worry about plot when she's doing it. She said ever since she was a kid playing Dungeons and Dragons, she thought coming up with backstories was more interesting than the play itself.

Anne describes Moth and Spark as a "literary fantasy." She started out thinking she was writing a cheesy romance story to "get it out of my system," a Pride and Prejudice with dragons in a secondary world. She says she put in a lot of stuff, most of which had to come out.

She did a lot of research. One part of that was that when she was looking for a suitably epic ending, four years after starting the book, she took a geology field trip to Yosemite. It turned out to be exactly what she needed. It gave her a better mental image, she explained, and a better sense of scope. Those mountains are huge, and appropriate to the experience of writing about dragons.

When she was writing about dragons, she researched reptiles to make them as much as possible like real reptiles. She also did historical research about past wars, about historical cultures, etc. She looked at maps of ancient Mediterranean Greece and Asia. She studied how people moved between Asia and Greece, and how the Roman Empire worked.

The empire in Anne's book wants to control the dragons. The kingdom where the story takes place wants to break free from the Empire. The empire is based in part on the Roman empire and part on the Ottoman empire. Anne said she had Greek myths and the Iliad in the back of her head while she wrote.

In Moth and Spark's backstory, a powerful country crossed the sea 500 years ago and conquered Caithan. They stole dragons and took them south. The dragons are kept under control by magic, but the dragons are intelligent and have manipulated things so that someone will break the spell that keeps them controlled.

I asked Anne about the magic system in this world. She said there were not a lot of tools, or schools. It's a more mystical environment, with ghosts and hexes. She carefully defines what the people believe, but it's not necessarily exactly what is going on. The people in the "rational" upper classes think hexes don't do anything. However, there are real effects caused by the intrusion of dragon presences into this world. Carousel horses will "come alive," and people will have visions. This is because the dragons are trying to tell their story using susceptible people.

Anne told us she likes the supernatural, and elements of horror. Her focus is definitely character-driven. She is interested in what happens in people's heads. She wrote a ball scene inspired by, and full of easter eggs for, Pride and Prejudice. She wrote a line referencing Cinderella because a character says she won't lose her shoe.

I asked Anne about the distinction between dragon riders and others, which is clear from the very beginning of the story. She said she had taken inspiration from Anne McCaffrey's Pern books in that the dragons choose who they want. The difference is that dragons are the physical manifestations of something outside the world. How dragons appear is not how dragons are; they operate on another plane. What the magical curse on them has done is confine them, and keep them from expanding into other dimensions where they might be. They exist in a multi-world universe where time is not necessarily constant. Their existence outside of our concept of time allows them to give future visions. They resemble some representations of gods.

Anne told us that when she was in college she knew someone who had snakes as pets. She got to touch and hold a ball python, and it was totally unlike what she had imagined. She says, "scales are the smoothest, silkiest things." To feel it moving and constricting was amazing. "Snakes are all muscle and I just love it."

This was one of the inspirations for making her dragons very snakelike. They only eat once a week. She said they are kind of like a combination of snakes and cats. The cat part is the attitude, and the pointy face. They are like European dragons with four limbs and big wings, and lots of impressive claws. The claws can leave scratches on stone. You don't look into a dragon's eyes because "you'll go mad." They can mesmerize you so you just watch them as they are coming down to eat you.

I asked Anne about the significance of her title, "Moth and Spark." She says moths are a symbol in the book, and a harbinger of magic. They are a metaphor of how people behave compared to dragons. The dragons are the "spark," and moths are attracted to a bright light as people are attracted to dragons.

At this point in the hangout we shifted gears and I asked Anne about what she's currently working on. She said she's just finished a book manuscript; it was intended to be about a quest, but the quest kept dropping out. It takes place in a secondary world, and is narrated in two different time periods.

The story features a tyrannical king and his wife. One point of view is the queen's during the period between when she has her first child and her second. The other is after the queen's disappearance, people are trying to determine whether the king killed her or she vanished in a war. The king's sons are also rebelling against their father.

One of the characters is a woman whose father was killed and who joined the resistance. Anne says that writing this part was hard, because though it was an old idea, she found it was influenced by current events. There is real evil in the world of this story. The wife's decisions, and domestic abuse. Anne told us she had tried to write this story but it hadn't gone anywhere at first.

The chronological setting for the story is the gas lamp era. They have rudimentary electricity. Access to technology is very dependent on class. The rich have plumbing, but the poor use chamber pots. The amount of money you have controls how much technology you can use.

Anne told us that she was inspired by a trip to Mexico. She visited a tiny village which had no reliable septic system, and where the electricity was such that if you used too many heaters you could blow a fuse. People would use satellite dishes to dry their laundry. What impressed her was the coexistence of low and high technology. Most of the world doesn't have it all. In fact, even some homes in the US weren't electrified until the 1940's.

The way she handles technology in this world affects how people move, how they communicate and how they use transportation. When you have to physically go see someone in order to talk to them, and mail service is poor, everything happens more slowly. You have to make arrangements to meet someone, then walk three miles, and that slows everything down.

Anne says that when you are on the cusp, the borderline between magic and technology, it's really interesting because boundaries are places where interesting things happen.

Anne said that she really enjoyed working with her protagonist in this manuscript because she's a middle-aged woman, not a hot-blooded twenty-one-year-old. She's the leader of the Resistance. She's made her choices, and she's not impassioned about every cause. Her priorities are clear to her.

Che asked what Anne's favorite books were and what had influenced her. She told us she's a language junkie. She reads Victorian novels, Dorothy Dunnett, Steven King and Peter Straub. She loved Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell and said she wished she'd written it! She liked the academic feel of the footnotes. She also likes Austen and Dickens, and finds it interesting how modern their language sounds, not as distant as we think.

Thank you so much, Anne, for coming on the show! It was a pleasure to speak with you. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, October 19th at 10am Pacific. We'll be talking about what we do at different times of day. I hope you can join us!


Monday, October 16, 2017


This was always going to be an interesting topic! We kept it broad, because instead of just doing alcohol or drinks, we wanted to cover solid, liquid, and gaseous intoxicants. You can inhale them, ingest them, inject them, or even apply them topically. These are mind-altering substances, and they are woven into our social fabric, and have a strong influence on society. They even lie at the root of major cultural changes like the American Prohibition and its consequences (including organized crime).

Kat said we should make sure to include things like licking frogs. It's not just people who are interested in intoxicants, either - animals have been found deliberately ingesting fermented fruit or juice, etc.

If you are including intoxicants in your worldbuilding - and it would be very surprising if you did not - you should think about how they are delivered, and what their consequences are.

Alice in Wonderland features a lot of ingestion-leads-to-weird-effects, ostensibly real ones, that were probably inspired by the effects of intoxicants.

Many intoxicants are also ritualized in various ways.

As with many topics, we have to be careful to avoid exoticizing intoxicants and doing the "mysticized spiritual path plus intoxicants" story.

Intoxicants seem to be normalized more in fantasy, where taverns are incredibly common. One of our discussants asked, "If you're on a quest, should you really be taking psychotropics?"

We encourage all readers or listeners to avoid doing a last-minute story twist where "it was all a pipe dream or an intoxicated hallucination."

Star Trek has a long history of featuring intoxicants, including Romulan Ale. We thought it was interesting how Alien Nation used the idea that the aliens would ingest sour milk to become intoxicated. Alternate intoxicants like this are less common. Ian Banks novels include social use of intoxicants. The Fuzzy books by H. Beam Piper have a TON of cocktails, and in fact these are cocktails of the period in which the books were written, which led one of the discussants to call them Mad Men in space. In the case of these books, there was a pretty direct transfer of the social milieu of the writer and its social significance into a far-future context.

We thought it would be interesting to consider what intoxicants might be in an environment of scent communication. Would squid or octopus ink cause intoxication?

There are always intoxicating herbs, like catnip.

People tend to take their local grains and sugars and turn them into alcohol or a local beer.

Intoxication of the mind-altering type always borders on literal toxicity. You can poison yourself with ergot, or mushrooms, or peyote. Sometimes it's ingesting the wrong thing accidentally that poisons you; sometimes it's just overdosing on the intended intoxicant. This is certainly common with opiods!

We talked about absinthe, which is made with wormwood. Other artemisia relatives are also made into intoxicating liquors. There is a very long world tradition of soaking things in alcohol. Sometimes, alcohol intensifies the effect of other intoxicants.

We asked whether we had ever seen a story based on, "We are on a quest for strange new drugs." We did know about plenty of stories about "We are on a quest for strange new highs with existing drugs" like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Pineapple express.

Intoxicants can take a different form in Cyberpunk or hard science fiction. People can be "brain jacked" or stimulated in an intoxicating way. Snow Crash features some of this, and so does the new book by Annalee Niewitz, Autonomous.

In my own novelette, "Cold Words," I featured an alien protagonist who was addicted to an intoxicating substance. One of the things I tried to do with the story was have the purpose of his choice be misunderstood and judged negatively by humans who were imagining drug use in the context of their own social models.

We thought it would be interesting to see an alien who found the human environment intoxicating and needed a filtration system in order to interact with us. It would also be interesting if humans were intoxicated by the aliens they interacted with, and for some reason ambassadors to them kept making bad judgments... We would love to see an alien say, "Humans exhale carbon dioxide, it's amazing!"

We agreed that it was weird and troubling when stories about kids accidentally ingesting alcohol and getting drunk were considered funny. Our society's understanding of intoxicated or drunk characters has changed over time. Back in the classic Disney films, they were often portrayed as funny. Now, they are more likely to be portrayed as pathetic or ill. Glorification of drug use happens in stories; so does stigmatization of drug use. Kat says that these days she sees less "nudge nudge wink wink," or fewer stories about "I got drunk and I did bad things ha ha."

Alongside stigmatization comes the edgy countercultural rebellion angle of drug use.

We talked about casual users of intoxicants that we had seen in fiction. One example we saw was Masterharper Robinton in the Pern books, who used a lot of wine.

C.S. Friedman had an interesting situation in her novel This Alien Shore, where space pilots were people who were psychotic unless drugged, and had to be off their pharmaceuticals in order to function well as space pilots.

Dune had the spice, of course.

One relatively common narrative features hallucinogens leading to a higher truth. The Oracle of Delphi inhaled volcanic gas. Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg featured a special kind of wine that would induce spiritually meaningful and sometimes prophetic dreams.

Use of intoxicants by different social groups can lead to very different narratives. Cocaine was used by rich white people and spoken about in one way; crack was used by poor black people and spoken about in a very different way. Racism plays out in how this happens. We noted the difference between the way the opioid crisis among white people is treated differently from previous drug crises that affected others. Kat noted that cyberpunk has dealt with questions of social stratification.

Ask what is high class and what is stigmatized.

Sometimes you see people in real life who have undiagnosed mental disorders and use intoxicants as self-medication.

It's fascinating to look at cultural changes over time, such as that surrounding the use of cigarettes, as well as looking how their use has changed around the world.

Kat also brought up a really interesting question to ask: Are intoxicants sequestered, i.e. used in very restrictive contexts, or are they woven into the fabric of life?

We also briefly mentioned the problems of supervillains being caused by physical enhancement drugs gone wrong.

It would be possible to do a whole hangout on performance-enhancing drugs, but they were barely mentioned here.

Brave New World has state-mandated drug use to pacify the populace.

Consider whether in your worldbuilding you would prefer to keep the social role of intoxicants the same, and just substitute in fantasy/alien words for existing substances, or whether you would like to do more work and redesign the social phenomenon of intoxicants from the ground up.

These were some really interesting thoughts! Thank you to everyone who attended the discussion.

Dive into Worldbuilding meets this week on Thursday, October 19th at 10am Pacific. We'll be talking about activities that are associated with particular times of day. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Liz Argall - Fiction and Comics

As a longtime fan of Liz Argall's comic, Things Without Arms and Without Legs, I was thrilled to have her come on the show. Liz told us that when she thinks about worldbuilding, she finds short work more comfortable than long. She says, "I do a lot of world listening," and compared her process to finding a piece of driftwood and shaping it.

We spoke first about Liz's story "Mermaid's Hook," which she wrote while thinking about The Little Mermaid, which she never liked. She said she asked herself, "Where is a person falling from a ship likely to be caught by a mermaid?" She thought about contemporary piracy, and people escaping from one place to another, and then slave ships. Her gut feel was that a prince wouldn't fall from a ship without a search being conducted, so she chose to do a first contact story between a mermaid and someone trying to escape a slave ship. They would not share a language.

Liz told us "I'm a very kinesthetic writer." She visualizes things through an acting and embodiment process.

She told us she loves the idea of the spirit and "ness-ness" of a thing.

I remarked that I'd found the way she gave her mermaid sharklike skin was very interesting. Liz told us that had come from an experience she had in primary school (elementary school), when she was able to touch a wild Port Jackson shark. She says mermaids are often so mammalian, and she didn't want that in her story.

She says the ocean doesn't care if we live or die. Her mermaid was to be a mermaid wholly, more fish than mammal, smooth in one direction and prickly in the other like a shark, which also is pretty metaphorically cool.

Liz says she researches a lot without a sense of plan. What she learns serves as nourishment for ideas, like a compost bin. she does a lot of thinking and building, but then writes quickly. She describes the experience as being like carrying a burning flame.

We also spoke about her Aurealis award-winning story "Falling Leaves," which takes place in a post-apocalyptic Australia. Liz told us she worked a lot on disaster preparedness, which provided material for this story. This one she said was very different from "Mermaid's Hook" in that it was not a quick process. It was a 9 month slog full of anguish, but something unexpected happened five thousand words in and she had to pursue it. She said "I had to attend to the truth of the event." I asked her what that event had been. It was when the character named Charlotte fell and/or threw herself off the building where she'd been talking with her friend.

Liz told us that when she was twelve or thirteen "I didn't have a lot of trust." Liz's friend sat down near her and Liz said she had a reaction of "I hate you," and that became the seed of this story. Ordinarily she says she likes tracing the arc of a life, but although that was how this story started out, its focus really changed. Liz says it was important to attend to the anger, grief, and pain of young girls.

At one point, she says she had to cut five hundred words of how to use hemp plants for carbon sequestration.

At this point we moved on to speaking about Liz's comics experience. She says she wrote indie comics for a long time, and this influenced her style. It taught her what to strip out and what to expand. The density of the form means, Liz says, that "I often go to places that inhabit my body differently."

She was writing for comics at first, and then went to the Clarion workshop and learned to love prose. There was a faster turnaround, and the freedom to go into people's heads. Then a comic artist friend of hers said, "You should draw your own."

At first it was a means to raise money for other causes. She was a migrant, and her husband was on a special visa, also a migrant, and so bound to his job while she was bound to be a dependent spouse. But, Liz says, "I do not thrive if I cannot work."

In her comics work she likes to be present for people and keep space for them. She focuses on feelings and nurturing.

In her comic, "Things Without Arms and Without Legs," the world of the Things is very simple, but still important, and she has to honor it, and honor the nature of the characters. Nothing bad will happen to the pink bunny. Boot is unlovable sometimes, but characters will still love and accept Boot.
The world has been fleshed out gradually over time. It would be possible to stare at the sun without getting hurt. Chuckles the blue unicorn fell from the moon and is not good at eating spaghetti.

Liz does not have a world book for the Things, and doesn't often have story arcs. She knows what kind of things definitely won't happen.

She says Monorail Bunny is a little bit weird. "I drew him creepy so that doesn't help."

Sometimes she writes something deeply personal that she thinks no one will relate to, but it connects with people.

Her comic "A Sad" is her most famous, and it's important because it features a question that people don't often ask.

I remarked that the emotional landscape that Liz describes is a form of worldbuilding we don't often see on the show - and given that I'm always looking for new ways to approach worldbuilding, I found it really fantastic!

Liz says the panel border in comics is a powerful tool, but it often feels disruptive for the space and breath she is looking for in a comic. The world of the Things is a landscape, a place she feels comfortable putting emotion in.

Liz used to live on a farm. She lived there during a drought when they had to truck in water, and then during a flood. Landscape is not just realism but emotion. She told us about an occasion when, much later while she lived in the city, she found a 2-3 foot blue-tongued lizard. She said she thought, "I hope he doesn't get trodden on," and "He looks delicious," and "he feels smooth." Living on the farm gave her a different awareness and a different response to her experiences.

Liz, thank you so much for coming on the show! This was a fascinating discussion, and became very emotional - you were so generous with your time and your feelings.

Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 10am Pacific to talk with author Monica Valentinelli. Join us!


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Public Displays of Affection

We began this hangout, as we often do, by exploring some terms. What counts as a public display of affection? We thought about hand-holding, kissing, or just walking side by side. Does it have to be romantic affection (not necessarily)? Yes, it's easy to think of kids making out int he halls at school, but there are a lot of ways to show affection, and a lot of relationships in which affection can be considered, such as family, friends, teachers and students, colleagues, etc. It's important to think about power dynamics, and how those can influence how shows of affection are understood.

Hugging teachers in the US used to be much more common, but then there was a change and greater concern about sexual abuse, and it became far rarer.

Kids are often expected to grow out of being physically affectionate. Which cultures does that change occur in? It doesn't occur in all of them.

Khaalidah remarked that a hypersexualized society discourages touch because it tends to overconstrue things in sexual ways - and maybe also because it's easier for touch to be understood as sexual by the people involved. She said she's a nurse, and mentioned therapeutic touch. Touch is very important to humans. People need to be able to read body language and tell who is open to it. She said if we spent more time learning to read each other, it would be helpful.

Across cultures, the conventions of touch differ. In America right now, hugging friends is very common. In France, kissing on both cheeks is common. If you tried to switch them, either gesture would seem very weird to someone in the other country.

Spencer noted that in the US, it's socially frowned on for a man to put his arm around another man, but that rough-housing is okay. In Victorian times, though, men could hold hands, kiss on the cheek, or put their arms around each other, and it was not stigmatized. Attitudes surrounding sex changed. Attitudes and expectations surrounding touch also changed. Platonic touch and sexual touch are neighbors, and the border shifts. In Victorian times it was cool to be spinsters together with great mutual affection.

Khaalidah remarked that she really liked the way the men in the Lord of the Rings were physically and emotionally affectionate with one another with no sexual judgment. There is plenty of hugging, and Frodo kisses Sam. Men are allowed to cry.

When you are creating a world, think through the different rules for different social categories. This can include men and women, or other genders, or different kinds of categories altogether. In our society women are allowed to "hug it out" but men are not.

Spencer talked briefly about boarding schools for Native Americans. This is a setting where people have been colonized, and can be very problematic. There are definitely differences in how people interpret eye contact. He says he has also noticed a "limp handshake," because soft grip is associated with kindness. This group also tends to be more respectful of the elderly - if an elder needs you, you drop everything. Spencer notes that native teens are not so embarrassed to have their grandmothers smother them in kisses.

Khaalidah told us she likes to "nom" her children, but the last of them stopped accepting this at about age ten. She says there were influences from Nigerian culture in her upbringing, like never kicking kids out of the bed. They went away when they were ready.

How much of touch habit is individual, and how much is culture?

What forms of affection exist? Are touches iconic? This means that they are codified gestures, like the French double-cheek-kiss, or the hug greeting, or the handshake.

We talked briefly about handshake combat. What does a handshake mean? What does a soft handshake mean? What does a firm one mean? What about a long one?

Personal distance is also relevant to this.

What kind of touch is expected?

Morgan pointed out that affection can be complicated by power dynamics.

Iconic gestures can have very specific social meanings. When I was in high school, hugging a friend meant nothing more than a greeting, but holding hands meant there was a romantic relationship.

What gets communicated to the person being touched? What gets communicated to bystanders?

Spencer said that handshakes in his experience were partly indicative of what you did for a living. Ranch hands would have very strong hands.

The handshake grew out of a gesture that allowed people to check one another for weapons.

We didn't talk about secret handshakes, but that topic was touched on by the show not long ago, when we spoke about In-group marking.

We talked about the interesting moment in The Force Awakens, when Rey tells Finn not to grab her hand when they have to run. It clearly has different meanings for each of them. Did he want it for his security? She clearly felt it as a power move, to grab her and move her.

Some people get hired to cuddle. Khaalidah wrote a story with a cuddle-robot based on this idea.

There are special contexts in which the rules of touch change. Dancing is a major one of these. Touch expectations are vastly different for dances like lambada, tango, waltz, and gavotte. There was a story in the news recently about actor John Boyega and touch expectations at Carnival, when the dance style is very intimate!

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie doesn't do a lot with touch rules per se, but does have very specific types of manners as relates to whether hands are covered in gloves or not.

There can also be social class touch differentials. What are the rules about touching or not touching servants? Employees?

Thank you to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets tomorrow, October 4th at 10am Pacific to discuss Taboos. I hope you can join us!