Thank You to my Patrons!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Designing pivotal historical events

This topic is about looking at a world you're building and trying to understand the underlying historical conditions that brought it to its current state.

In our world, we see events like the American Civil war that create effects that lasts for hundreds of years. Another event that we discussed was the Genpei war in Japan, which led to the move of the Japanese capital from Kyoto to Kamakura, and can be considered the reason why the current capital of Japan is in the east rather than the west.

LaShawn mentioned that she's working on a short story in a secondary world where people feel "we've always been this way" but the main character goes back and finds her own history and how it was influenced by events that impacted her people.

LaShawn described first sitting down and figuring out the history behind the story. She thought maybe she should set it on a spaceship, but then realized the character couldn't go to the kind of market she was thinking of if she was on a space ship. She observed disparities in how people lived (high tech vs horse and carriage) and thought about how that could happen. Something must have occurred that made it that way. She picked out a fun detail, opened up, and it it led to more.

Tonya told us about her novel in progress, which has links to her time in Trinidad. She told us about the book They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima, which details evidence of Africans in the Caribbean before Columbus' arrival. A fleet disappeared from Mali might have landed in Brazil, for example. Tonya went through the book "with a fine-toothed comb" and used elements of it in her novel.

I talked about how the secondary world of Varin, which has humans but is unrelated to Earth, has an Earthlike environment but a completely different history. Part of this history I designed after looking at what I'd written and asking questions like, "Why would these people have such a uniform single religion?" I developed a lot of the history and details of Varin after studying anthropology and linguistics.

One way to approach the question of designing events is to look at a current-day situation in your world where you find social group A and social group B. Examine it. Is this an ethnic difference? Is it a racial difference? Are they people of the same race but different ethnicity? Then you can ask how this divide came about. Was it colonization that brought the two groups together? Was it invasion? Is one group faith-based and one not? Is there any group that treats science as a religion?

These questions are certainly not only relevant to secondary worlds. If you are working with alternate history, it's really critical to identify the divergence point (or points).

LaShawn told us about her story "Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good." It was alternate history because it introduced an element that hadn't happened in the past. LaShawn's research suggested that both singers had lived in Chicago, but that the real life Rosetta had moved to New York in the early 1920s. So she decided to change it so Rosetta stays in Chicago, and the means she used was a quarantine. Quarantine suggests an illness, so she asked what that would be like. The virus in the story causes people to look dead and also explode. These zombie-like beings are called "stumps." Singers with unique voices are able to get rid of the stumps, so the government conscripts singers.

If Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were conscripted as exterminators, how would that affect history? LaShawn says that big bands would be more popular because singing was restricted. She was able to relate it to Prohibition history. It's our world, but it went down a different path. She got to ask how it would affect World War II.

It's always worth asking where the divergence points are in alternate history.

Tonya has designed a world in which everyone is born with a specific magical ability, but the world is a lot like our own and people's abilities are used for practical things, like rock manipulators being used for construction. She told us about a story where the main character can enter people's dreams and help them with trauma recovery or mental illness. She did ask a historical question in this world: what if Egypt had never stopped being a superpower? What if Egypt remained with its advanced culture and passed it to Greece and Rome? What would the consequences of that be?

I mentioned Beth Cato's trilogy that begins with the book Breath of Earth. That's an alternate history scenario that incorporates a lot of critical changes in geopolitics, and explores their consequences on the political level but also on the personal level.

Thank you to both LaShawn and Tonya for joining me for this discussion! If you are enjoying Dive into Worldbuilding, and would like a more extensive experience, support us on Patreon and join the Dive into Worldbuilding workshop:


Thursday, October 3, 2019

J. M. Frey and the Skylark Saga

It was a real pleasure to have J. M. Frey on the show! The Skylark Saga consists of two books, The Skylark's Song, and The Skylark's Sacrifice, the latter of which just came out, and is Jess' ninth novel. I asked her if the novel was steampunk, as it has something of a steampunk vibe, but she described it more as dieselpunk, and said the historical era it was modeled on was more Edwardian than Victorian - i.e. that it was slightly later, historically. Dieselpunk, Jess says, is about taking account for the impacts of discovery, and looking at colonialism.

The Skylark's Song takes place at the end of a ten-year war, during which two nations have moved into a third nation and forced those people from their homes and ways of life. The Klonn, who use diesel and other fossil fuels and have airplanes, are fighting against the Saskwya, who have gliders and zeppelins, and use solar and wind. The war has left behind ecological devastation and deprivation. Jess told us that while the Klonn, who are romantic and classist, like horse-drawn carriages, everyone else has eaten horses and walks everywhere they go.

Jess explained that she spent a year living in France when she was sixteen. She told us that in high school when they explain World War I and World War II, they don't talk about the "scar left in the planet." She was walking on one of the Normandy beaches when they found unexploded ordnance. There was a rotting American warship in the bay that was too dangerous to move. They don't know how much barbed wire is under the sand.

What gets left behind, she asks. What does ten years of war do to a confined area? What resources would be used up? How would you feed your army?

The world in the Skylark Saga is an invented one. It has influences from our Europe, and is of a similar size, but is not a representation of it. Jess says that she hasn't worked with the rest of this world because she's been focusing on this conflict. War makes you concentrate on the immediate surroundings. As Paul said, it's a focused story.

The main character in the books, Robin, is neither Klonn nor Saskwya, but indigenous to the area where they are fighting. She was seven when the war started, and was conscripted at age 11. She's been promoted several times. Her life is defined by war. She's a member of a population with a different religion from either of the governing parties. Her knowledge of the world all comes from generals. She has a very tightly focused point of view.

Jess says she's "very single-minded." She told us Robin was modeled on Billy Bishop, a Canadian hero who went to war in World War I. He saw people dying and said to himself, "This is not how I'm going to die." He'd been lazy and a grifter, but he went into the airforce and shot down more planes than anyone else. He wanted the war to stop, so he got really good at his job. Jess described herself as using one of his lines, "I refuse to die in the mud," for Robin.

Jess told us she didn't model the war in this series on a specific war, though it draws inspiration from real history. She uses the series to consider the impact of colonialism, industrialism, etc. on indigenous populations. She looks at how they push back. She drew our attention to historical events in our world between about 1880 and the 1920s as her main source of ingredients.

As an author, she says, when inviting people into fantasy places, you need touchpoints. You need to recognize a place you already know. This is why Star Trek has things like bars, restaurants, and Shakespeare.

She was pulling in WWI material, diesel technology, and a rocket pack in the style of The Rocketeer. A rocket pack that was not working was given to the Klonn as an insulting gift, and Robin is expected at one point to try to repair it. The areas depicted in the story are intended to evoke the Black Forest, and No Man's Land. Saskwya has some elements of Spain, while the Klonn are a bit like a 17th century fairy tale.

I told Jess that Robin's people reminded me of the Roma because of the way they had moved from place to place. She allowed that comparison, but also said there was a parallel in the Trail of Tears and residential schools. Identity is stolen from you. You are not able to practice your religion or use your idiom.

Jess told us that the place she started when figuring out the peoples in this story was to figure out how they swear. If you can figure out how they swear, you can figure out what it means to blaspheme, and then find what the people hold holy, and from there you can work into their ideals and what they aspire to.

Robin's people, the Sealies, worship multiple small gods and say, "Omens!" when they swear. Their gods must be bargained with. The Benne aristocracy of Saskwya worship the All-Mother. The Klonn worship the Seven Arts. Jess told us that the Greeks held out their hands while praying to receive the favor of the gods. Sealies hold their hands up so that gods can land there. Gods of ill luck, by contrast, will land on your shoulder, so you should brush your shoulder with crossed fingers to discourage them. The Sealies believe that bees are messengers of the gods. They eat honey and keep hives, and a lot of their phrases are built on the theme of bees. They also move around, so honey is much easier to acquire than refined sugar. You need clothes you can roll up and stick on your back. They feed food into the fire for the gods. Refined sugar is important for the Benne, who are stationary and have walk-in closets.

The plot of the saga involves an Enemies to Lovers storyline, and there's an interesting story behind it. Jess told us she'd never written UA before, though she's friends with a number of other Canadian YA writers. Jess says YA is much harder to write than you think. She wrote this story initially on a drunken dare when she was at the Canadian National exhibition. After she'd finished telling it to a group of friends they told her it was a good idea and she should make a book. The first time she wrote it, there was no love interest. She felt that as narrow-minded as Robin was, she would not try to have a romance while in a war. But after she got an agent for the book, he said that it needed a love interest. Jess disagreed, so she made a point of having the characters clash. These characters come from wildly different backgrounds and have very different views of the war and of religion. Eventually she started to appreciate the storyline when she was able to have Robin keep her emotional intelligence and her "don't come near me with those lips" attitude but find ways for her to fall in love anyway.

Jess says she always trusts her reader to be intelligent enough to understand. She felt that the prose in Dune was condescending. She says "the more complexity I can add to my story, the happier a duck I am!" The idea of the opposing pilots coming together was never something she liked in the book until she leaned into it harder and made it more complex.

Jess has an entire wall of whiteboard in the room where she writes, and she uses it to keep track of all kinds of world elements, including notes on people's eye color and how they take their tea.

Jess told us about her background in theater school, which gave her skills she uses in character building. She has a lot of awareness of physical traits and verbal tics. She has played both Annie and Anne of Green Gables, and though they are both technically named Ann, they have totally different physicality. She says she admires Martin Freeman's work because his portrayals of Everett Ross and Dr. Watson are so different. How does a character stand? How does he hold his hands? Does he lean? Does he cross his ankles? Does he have language habits? Whenever she discovers something good about a character, she writes it on the wall. She has done acting exercises, talking to the character of The Coyote while vacuuming. She explains that improv classes are a powerful tool for writers and recommends them to everyone. They help you let characters inside your body.

When she meets a character, she considers how many times she's going to use them, whether they're a recurring extra or a principal. How much life do they require? Characters can always grow to serve a scene or narrative.

One thing that's nice about writing is that you don't get just one go at it. Jess described having tons and tons of drafts of her different works, so I asked her what she considered a "draft." She said a draft is anything where she has to rethink something, add or delete something "where I might regret it in the morning."

She told us everybody makes writing sound so magical, like it's not six hours at a keyboard. "It's boring. It's labor." People will ask her if she meant to do some clever thing in the manuscript, and she'll think, "I'm so happy you found that because that took me six days to do."

Her Accidental Turn series was supposed to be one book, but when she signed with a publisher, they wanted the next two books. The publisher's argument was "it's about [literary] tropes, so it has to be a trilogy." By that time, she'd already erased The Wall, and she had to reconstruct it. She had no map, so she had to go back and reconstruct it. She hired her former roommate to help her, and they had to do things like change the location of towns on the map based on how she'd described traveling between them. It was a "crunchy process" in a pub for three days.

Jess, thank you so much for coming on the show and talking about The Skylark and your writing process! It was a really interesting chat. Dive into Worldbuilding meets today, October 3, 2019 at 4pm Pacific to discuss Designing Pivotal Historical Events. I hope you can join us! The link to the meeting is: