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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.


Monday, November 25, 2013

To name, or not to name? An unusual case involving oppression.

Usually it's pretty clear when we need to name our characters. Main characters, and the people they primarily interact with, should have names. Even if you are writing in first person point of view, it's a good idea to give your character a name by putting it in the mouth of a secondary character early on. Knowing a character's name gives us a greater sense of grounding.

In the story I'm currently working on, there is a very important character. She is something of an antagonist, and the leader of a group of people who are acting as pirates and kidnappers. Because my protagonist becomes her prisoner, she has no need to give her name. And so she didn't. I used the technique that is most common in these cases, to use some physical attribute to describe her. She was "the scarred female."

So far, so good. However, she ends up aligning herself with the protagonist at a certain point, and they travel into the city together. At this point it would not be hard to give her a name. Actually, it would be far better! Once she and the protagonist are acting together, to call her by a phrase like "the scarred female" becomes really long and awkward.

Except that her name is not in a spoken language. It's in a sign language.

I tried at first not to name her at all, but the long-and-awkward thing was really bad. The number of times you have to mention a character who is acting alongside your protagonist is high enough that not naming them is a real problem.

I had a real problem with the idea of giving her a name in the main alien language, though, because the sign language in this case is a language of rebellion, and to call her in the main alien language would be to name her in the language of the people who enslaved and scarred her.

In the end, I made a decision. She needed a name, and I would give it to her in the main alien language, but I would mark it as problematic. She introduces herself like this:

"I have been known as Othua."

At first, my protagonist doesn't realize how problematic this name is, but I have decided that before I got to the end of the story, I would make my protagonist learn the truth about what that slave name means to her. And at that point my protagonist would stop calling her Othua and learn her real name. That real name would be described gesturally and its semantic content - Silent-Speaker - would be used thereafter.

I found it very interesting to work through the complexities of being true to my worldbuilding while handling this name issue, so I thought I would share.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Announcement, and Dedication: "Mind Locker" will be published in Analog!

It's official! I hinted about this earlier, but now I can reveal that I have sold my story entitled "Mind Locker" to Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and it will be coming out sometime in the next year (I will let you know when as soon as I find out!).

I'm super excited about this story. One reason for this is that it's my first sale to the new editor at Analog, Trevor Quachri. Another is that this story is not part of my Allied Systems Universe. Instead, it's a near-future story inspired by Google Glass and the changes the internet is making in our language... 

Hub Girl is twelve years old and lives in the slum of a major city. She keeps herself and her gang of friends fed by hacking the radio transponders of vending machines, and coordinating complex raids using the Arkive, an in-your-head internet which allows everyone to overlay customized information upon their reality. However, when the mysterious Locker begins kidnapping the children and disconnecting them from the internet, Hub Girl investigates, and finds a far bigger, more pervasive problem than even the police suspected. Here's the opening:


She's a night-walker, she's a child-stalker.
Won't see her coming, no use running
hands'll snatch you, she'll catch you
She's the night-walker, she's the mind-locker.

Since there won't be room in the magazine for me to provide a dedication, I've decided to do it here. I would like to dedicate this story to a group of amazing authors who have provided me with incredible inspiration, constantly showing me what kind of excellence is achievable, making me think, and opening my eyes to new ways of seeing the world. My deepest thanks to the late Octavia Butler, and to the vital and vibrant Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. I couldn't have written this story without them.


Costumes in Worldbuilding - A Google+ hangout report with VIDEO!

I was joined for this discussion by Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Brian Dolton. It was Halloween, so I was wearing my costume! Unfortunately, that's not precisely evident in the video (not that I suppose it matters that much). We started out by talking about some of the many issues surrounding costumes in our own world, as a source of inspiration for people working in our own or in other worlds.

When we dress up for Halloween, often it's nice to "be a thing," by which I mean dress up as something which other people will recognize. Erin said she usually dresses up using clothes of a certain historical era, but it does lead to people asking, "Who are you supposed to be?" Recognizability is certainly an issue, but a costume that is recognizable to one group may not be recognizable to another (who do you want to be recognizable to?).

There is also the question of when it is appropriate to wear a costume. It used to be that outside of Halloween and the occasional costume party, costumes were simply not worn (I did not mention the theater here, being more focused on costume-wearing by members of the general population). However, science fiction conventions are definitely places where it is appropriate to wear costumes, and cosplay (the Japanese abbreviation of costume play) is expanding those contexts even further. Even on Halloween there are a lot of rules for how and when to wear the costume, especially at school (where they have a parade). Sometimes there are contests.

Then we turned to other cultural issues around costumes. Masquerades were all about wearing costumes that made you unrecognizable (as opposed to recognizable as something else). Costumes are not always for fun. They can be symbolic of ethnic identity or can have religious significance. They may be used in rituals (one could argue that Halloween is a ritual, too!). There are also special ways to dress for formal or festival occasions that are not necessarily considered costumes, such as wearing formal wear or putting on a particular type of clothing which is historically significant within a particular cultural community. Erin noted that we make a distinction between "dressing up" and "dressing up as" but that they both imply a departure from the normal.

There is more to a costume than putting on clothes. There is a spirit that comes with it, a sort of significance to altering our appearance that touches on identity. Allie Brosh has a hilarious take on this at Hyperbole and a Half. This happens in theater as well - I could always feel the difference between regular rehearsal and dress rehearsal as deeply significant.

Erin remarked that having a costume can mark you as a participant, as an insider rather than a bystander. Certainly, clothing is a part of identity politics. I noted that I choose a very specific style of dress when I attend conventions because I want to appear as a participant, but as an author rather than a cosplayer - in part because I don't want to cover up my face and have nobody be able to recognize me. Is my style of dress recognizable as a costume? I'm not sure whether others would call it that. Brian noted that authors will sometimes adopt the same style of dress to make themselves recognizable, as when Neil Gaiman wears all black, Jay Lake wears Hawaiian shirts, or George R.R. Martin has his unique style of dress (which is recognizable enough that people will dress up as him!). Erin told us about a time when she dressed up as her husband, David.

Crafting skills are an interesting issue connected with costumes, as Halloween costumes have started to be much more store-bought, but cosplay is very much an arena for crafters (It's nice to see these skills are not just being lost!). In the Harajuku district in Tokyo, where cosplay originated, it was originally in part just a form of extreme fashion, which sometimes imitated anime characters, but it has changed and been adopted in the US now to mean dressing up as anime or comic characters, or even characters from books. I personally believe that this has led to a resurgence of crafting, because you can see so many cosplayers talking proudly on the internet about how long it took them to create their marvelous costumes. Erin remarked that the internet is a great place to learn how to knit, tat, or crochet, since it's really easy to find instructional videos. Brian says that Pinterest is also important to crafters. The easier it is to share, the more helpful it is for crafting.

Then we took on the question of sexy costumes. There has been a big discussion recently about the trend toward making all women's costumes sexy. Erin says that college kids like to wear them and be sexy - and there must be someone buying these, or they would not make them! She said it was a case of escapism, and of transgressing by doing something that they wouldn't normally do. However, the question of objectification is a big issue, especially when this gets applied to younger and younger girls. Take Back Halloween is a great website for people who don't want to get sucked into this trend.

Another big problem that comes up in the area of costumes is cultural appropriation. Dressing as native peoples, or members of a particular religion, or wearing ritual clothing as a fun costume for Halloween is a big problem. Taking anything which is meaningful within one cultural sphere and appropriating it for a "fun costume" is an insult to the cultural groups and contexts out of which the costume originally came, and thus deeply problematic. A race of people is not to be "worn for fun." Notably, it is possible to wear some costumes like this with respectful intent. However, the effect it has on others is not necessarily about your intent. Just as with authorial intent, the reader owns the story (said Brian), in the case of a costume, the viewer owns his/her own reaction. My own personal recommendation is just to avoid the minefield and not try to engage in cultural appropriation at all.

We looked then at the occasions on which costumes are worn. Holidays are certainly included. Each holiday has a different definition of what is appropriate and why. Is there social complexity behind the wearing of a costume? For example, the masquerade party was an excuse for being in disguise, and this has led to all kinds of great literature over the years (since the time of Shakespeare, and earlier). In Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, there was a costume ball setting where people were supposed to dress as their own historical ancestors, and the host of the party had to work quite hard to make sure that they didn't choose a historical period during which any of the guests' families had been the bad guy. Thus, there was special significance to being able to dress as an auspicious ancestor.

Brian brought up an interesting issue surrounding the use of costumes by superheroes in comics. As he described it, the purpose of a character having a costume was so that the character would be instantly recognizable, even when the artist drawing the comic had changed. However, over time this has become so normal that we take it for granted that superheroes have costumes. Even in the movies, all the superheroes have costumes. This is an entirely new context for costume-wearing, however, and not necessarily a naturalistic one. In Captain America they made a very clever reason why Cap would be wearing a costume - and it had to do with his image being co-opted for theatrical productions, not anything to do with his superpowers. After all, being a super-soldier does not require one to wear a costume! In a sense it can be seen as impractical. Why would superheroes want to stand out rather than blend in? Why do villains not dress up as superheroes and co-opt their image? Maybe the costume is a way of indicating to police, "I am on your side." Interestingly, we did see the question taken up in The Incredibles, with the whole sequence about, "No capes!" Alan Moore took up this cape issue in the Watchmen comic, where he had a superhero sponsored by a bank, who got his cape stuck in a revolving door and got shot... whereupon nobody wears capes any more. Erin noted that no superhero ever wears camouflage. Of course, there is the secret identity issue, where you need to disguise yourself. We had a bit of a laugh about Superman, who somehow became unrecognizable simply by donning a pair of glasses. Jokes have been made about this (and justifiably so!).

Brian wrapped up the hour by telling us that no real Viking warriors wore horns on their helmets. Good to know!

Thanks to everyone who attended. If you are interested in watching the video for details, here it is:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

TTYU Retro: "Mirror scenes" and how to avoid them for both appearance and culture

I think all of us must have written mirror scenes at one time or another. When I was earlier on in my development as a writer, I was far more visual - far more movielike, in a sense, because I really wanted to be able to imagine my characters in detail. I took the time to draw them to the best of my ability, and I thought about how to describe them based on that.

That can work fine so long as you are observing your characters from the outside - either as a character who observes them, or as an omniscient or distant narrator.

However, the further I've gone into writing, the more interested I've become in portraying my characters from the inside, and I quickly realized that if you are using deep point of view, and you put a lot of attention on a character's appearance, it automatically implies (via "show-don't-tell") that the character is vain and puts a lot of attention on his/her own appearance. In other words, put a person in front of a mirror and they will look like a person who spends significant amounts of time in front of a mirror. Put them there and let them comment on the flowing quality of their own dark locks, their own silky skin, or the depths of their own limpid eyes, and it starts to get seriously, narcissistically weird.

If you're going to put someone in front of a mirror, have a good reason to do so. In For Love, For Power, my main protagonist, Tagaret, never stands in front of a mirror. Not even to check if he's buttoned his cuffs properly (he asks a servant to check). His brother Nekantor stands in front of mirrors occasionally, but he's obsessive about having a perfect appearance, and he also finds mirrors very comforting because they're smooth and cold. For him a mirror is a way to keep from freaking out. When I put my third character, Imbati Aloran, in front of a mirror, it's to point out something pretty important: appear at an interview unmarked would be to fail before he began. He went to the mirror he shared with his bunkmate and painted the small black circle between his eyebrows. Then he combed his dark hair into its ponytail, which thanks to Kiit's precise trimming, fell just outside his collar. He shut both makeup brush and comb back into his box of implements. 

Previously in the story, we've seen members of the servant caste with tattoos on their foreheads; here, Aloran is showing us that young people of the caste don't have such tattoos, but must paint a mark on each day. He also takes care of his hair - but for him, personal appearance is a professional concern, not a personal one.

Generally speaking, if I think it's really critical to get an element of appearance in somewhere, I try to sneak it in. That's why I put "his dark hair" in the above quote, rather than just "his hair." One little extra adjective is enough, because the other elements of the description are more important.

Readers can generally fill in a lot of appearance details out of their own imaginations, just on the basis of the personality and behavior of a character. This is pretty amazing; it's also one of the reasons why I'd encourage you to be up front with important appearance details that you don't want readers to guess wrong.

If you're working with a group of people with homogeneous appearance, you need to be cautious and deliberate. I have written stories set in Japan; a friend of mine is working in a fantasy world where everyone has brown skin and black hair, with variations thereupon; the same caution would apply to a world where everyone was pale. What makes this tricky is putting the basic characteristics out there so your reader won't make an incorrect guess, and at the same time establishing the standard appearance without making it stick out as somehow unusual (from an internal point of view, it's not unusual at all). Over-description will make it seem unusual and give a sense of undue concern with appearance; under-description has other pitfalls. Put yourself in the position of the protagonist, and ask, "What does stand out?" If all hair is light, then will a particular style be remarkable? If all hair is dark, will a particular type of hair ornament be what stands out? Put the focus on what stands out to the insider-observer.

I'd like to issue a similar caution for those working with cultural differences. A "cultural mirror scene" would be one where the character is called upon to declare, "I am a X and because I am a X, I value this and I behave like this." Real situations where people have to do this are actually uncommon. They usually arise in conflict (politics on Facebook comes to mind, where people are anonymous yet called upon to take sides). In another type of cultural mirror scene, a character has to come face to face with an outsider to the culture, and take a big (figurative) step back in order to look at both conflicting cultures from a distant point of view, observing the difference between the two ways. You can also create situations where children are being taught, because those give adults a good opportunity to say, "We are this, and as this, we are supposed to behave like this."

More often, a person will notice the cultural behaviors and manners of others, rather than his/her own behaviors. Often you can just dial it back by a step - have a person remark on another person's culturally based behavior, but not include an explicit comparison with their own. Very often, the observer is only aware of the other's behavior as behavior, and not as culturally influenced behavior. As I see it, we're trying to avoid writing our characters as anthropologist/ethnographers unless they actually are anthropologist/ethnographers.

Try to be very sensitive to when and why you are putting "mirrors" around - and by that I mean whenever you have someone explicitly notice a contrast of manners or cultural behavior. In the same way that you don't want to have a character walking through a hall of mirrors and noticing another detail of their appearance every two or three steps, you don't want to exhaust your reader's cultural sensitivity by having your point of view character be hyper-aware of every last cultural contrast or detail in the surrounding environment. Make sure that when you use them, you are using them to demonstrate something important to the character, and to the story.

It's something to think about.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Diversity in Fictional Worlds - how I handle it.

Yesterday I read a terrific article by Mary Robinette Kowal about diversity in historical fantasy, entitled "Don't blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That's your choice, as an author." I highly recommend you click through and read it as well.

I've written posts about diversity here as well, most recently "My part (and your part?) in Diversity in SFF," which itself contains links to a couple of great posts by Aliette de Bodard and Carrie Cuinn on the subject. One of the things I did in that article was talk about how populations of any variety are naturally diverse, and portraying diversity in such contexts is more authentic than not doing so.

I thought I would take this opportunity here to do two things. First, to look at the diversity of characters in my own fiction, and second, to talk about how I handled diversity in my Varin world, because it was an interesting challenge.

First, characters in my own published (or soon-to-be-published) fiction. When I tried to do a survey, I found it difficult to count characters, because I didn't know whether just to count the protagonists, to count focal characters, or to count all characters! Since these are short stories, they don't have huge populations. I decided to look at focal characters. The drawback here is that I may be missing patterns in minor characters, but it's still instructive.

  • "Let the Word Take Me" had featured two white males (Arthur and David Linden), a white female (Monroe) and an alien female (Allayo).
  • "Cold Words" featured an alien who was a member of an oppressed minority on his planet (Rulii), the king on that planet (Majesty), and two humans, a man of African descent (Parker), and a woman of Japanese descent (Hada).
  • "At Cross Purposes" featured a white female (Lynn Gable) and her companions, a white male (Kenneth), a Korean male (Sung), and another white female (Doris Grabko), while the aliens (ChkaaTsee) were a male and female of the dominant phenotype. 
  • "The Liars" featured a white male (Adrian Preston) and a female of Chinese descent (Qing), a female of African descent (Alam) and a female alien who was disabled and a persecuted minority on her planet (Óp).
  • "Smoke and Feathers," out now, was set in modern Japan, and featured two Japanese schoolboys (Tenjiro, Ryuuji) and their grandmother (Baba).
  • "Lady Sakura's Letters," forthcoming, is set in Heian Japan, and features a woman of the Japanese imperial court (Lady Sakura), the Captain who betrayed her, and a male spirit.
  • "Mind Locker," forthcoming, features a mixed-race female (Hub Girl), a white female (The Locker), a white male (Mister Questions), an Asian person of indeterminate gender (The Pit Boss), an Indian male (Fixer Singh), and a male of African descent (Fisher).

Total characters: 30
Ratio of male/female humans: 6/5
Ratio of male/female aliens: 4/3
Ratio of white/nonwhite humans: 9/14
Ratio of dominant/non-dominant aliens: 4/2
Ratio of able to disabled characters, including aliens: 23/1
Representation of non-cis-heterosexual characters: 1

I did better than I had feared. I don't have much representation of disability, however, and I don't have much representation of the possible variations in sexuality. I think this is in part because these are short stories that do not have sexuality issues in their focus. Disability was a minor aspect of "The Liars," but something that would definitely be worth looking at in another story. I feel strongly that the issues surrounding diversity make for incredibly compelling stories.

In general, I would expect to see more axes of diversity in novels, because they are larger and encompass far more of the worlds that they feature. I'm pleased to say that I have deliberately touched on issues of gender, disability and sexuality in For Love, For Power. The biggest challenge in the Varin world is the question of white versus nonwhite, and because of a conversation I had on the subject this morning, I thought I would explain how I have approached it.

Varin is a world where it would be really easy to make everyone white. It is an isolated continent, not directly connected with diverse source populations. Its population is small and thus highly inbred. Also, all the cities are underground. The major social divisions there are caste-based rather than racial. Furthermore, I designed it with quite a lot of cultural resemblance to Europe, because I wanted it to feel very familiar to American or European readers, so I could then bring into question a lot of those familiar assumptions.

Long ago, I realized that Varin did have source populations, however. These source populations are from another area of the planet that they live on, and they are in fact diverse. The people of Varin live where they live because they were persecuted for religious reasons and fled. When they fled, they took members of their religion from many different countries with them. That means they have racial diversity, but it also means that the nation they established was started with the explicit goal of unity on the basis of religious culture. The population was also quite small, and thus has had a lot of interbreeding over the course of its thousand-year history. This actually makes some basic racial diversity very helpful for the overall health of the population.

So, what does that mean for the current population of Varin and its phenotypes? Basically it means that in the cities, skin color is pretty muted most of the time. However, there are different hair colors and types, and there are different skin colors - but these mostly range from pale to light brown, which the Varini call "gold."

It is very important that there not be any major correspondence between caste and skin color, so I try to be very careful about distributing skin color in various places. The only exception to this is the nobility, because they are an inbred group within an inbred group, and tend toward reddish hair. There are still gold-skinned nobles, though.

The other thing that makes skin color more interesting -and more specifically Varin - is that there is one single caste group, the laborer caste, who actually spend time on the surface, hunting or farming. There, caste does align with skin color. However, rather than aligning with phenotype, it aligns with "brightness." The skin variations that would be muted and less than evident among people who never leave the cavern cities become very evident, so some laborers are freckled and others are dark-skinned.  The primary impression these skin colors leave on a Varini who sees them is that they are a sign of courage, because venturing onto the surface is fraught with danger, and these people have survived it. One of the characters specifically identifies brown skin in a member of the soldier caste as a sign of ambition, because this woman was clearly guarding farmers before she became a member of the Eminence's personal guard.

All this is to say that secondary worlds deserve as much attention to diversity as our own - and I also agree with Mary Robinette Kowal that historical fiction deserves as much attention to diversity as modern. Some may argue that this is merely political correctness, but I don't think so at all. This is the way the world has always worked, and furthermore, it is such a source of richness for your world, and your fiction in general, that neglecting it would be a terrible missed opportunity.

It's something to think about.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

TTYU Retro: Wrestling with reader expectations and cliché

I like to turn things on their heads.

It's fun. When you've been reading science fiction and fantasy for a long time, you see patterns in it, and you start to see common models that everyone uses - these are things like "abducted by aliens!" or "evil king!" or "getting in over their heads!"

These are the kinds of things that start to become cliché.

They also are lots and lots of fun to subvert, or turn on their heads. When I come up with a story idea, I like to try to turn as many of the reader's expectations on their heads as possible. Every time a piece of the story has a familiar ring to it, I try to say, "What can I do to make this turn out in a way that people won't quite expect?"

It's an interesting task, and a tricky one, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it's really hard to avoid the patterns entirely. The longer the story, the more likely that some familiar situation is going to creep in. I suppose it's a bit like the "All roads lead to Rome" phenomenon. You can be going toward Rome, or away from Rome, but you're still on that road. Getting off the road is really difficult, and a slog, as you can imagine. Creating a new smooth road in a place no one has ever been before is amazing and cool if you can do it, but it's a huge challenge.

For another thing, if you do like to subvert patterns, you may discover that people don't notice. This has happened to me at least once (probably more, since I don't know everyone who reads my work). I dig into a story, try to make each character distinct with history and cultural background etc., try to play out the way that these identities and distinctions cause the expected pattern to twist back on itself and end up in an unfamiliar place. But sometimes readers will recognize the pattern early and decide, "I know what she's doing," relax their attention and miss the differences.

I don't blame anyone for this. Readers will read as they will, and research shows that a great deal of what we understand from what we read comes out of our own mind and experience. It does, however, inspire me to dig deeper, to push further, to make the subversion just that bit more obvious.

If you are working on something like this, and you are interested in creating distinctions and differences, my best piece of advice is this: put a strong piece of evidence for the difference you're creating right up front. If you're dealing with a historical-style social system but you're putting it in a futuristic world, make sure the old and new features co-occur as early as possible in the story. If you have an evil king but he's not just evil, he's got special issues, make that clear as soon as you can. If you're working with a character who is sexist, but you want readers to examine that sexism instead of thinking you are in on it as an author, then deliberately work against the misconception - strengthen the non-sexist characters, put a character in a position to do something unexpected, let characters have misconceptions and learn their way out of them, etc. I've heard the expression "hang a light on it" or "hang a flag on it" - don't be afraid to let people know that a feature of your world is there, and different from what they expected. Or even if it is like what they expected, make a point of poking the reader and pushing them off the ramifications of that expectation in whatever way you can.

It's something to think about.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Link: Body Language Reference Sheet from Writers Write

I've had many questions posed to me about body language over the years I've been blogging, and I highly recommend this link, which has illustrations of features of body language, intended for comics folk but also super useful for writers.

I hope you find it interesting!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Roads and Infrastructure: A 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout report with VIDEO!

Our hangouts forge ahead, in spite of sometimes odd technical conditions that had one participant looking like a pair of shadowy floating glasses...! I was joined for this chat by Erin Peterson, Harry Markov, and Brian Dolton.

When you think of roads, I'm sure a lot of associations come up. Road to Glory. Silk Road. All roads lead to Rome. Highway to Hell. Path to Redemption. Armies walk a lot faster on roads, which was one critical factor in the success of the Roman empire. Erin remarked that soldiers, news, and commerce all can travel on roads. Whether those things get mired in mud makes a huge difference to their success. Roads can hurt the land, but they can also cause towns to spring up (railroads were mentioned especially in connection with this). Towns spring up to feed people as they travel, and give them places to gather. It's actually good to look at the travel patterns around a town and ask why the town would be there in the first place - the reason probably has a great deal to do with roads. Harry said roads are about progress. Stable infrastructure makes travel and trade more reliable. It certainly helps if you're not in danger of losing an entire ship full of goods at sea!

Take a look at how your roads are constructed. How are they made? How much work is required to create them, and how much to maintain them? Are there choke points on the road, like bridges or forests? Those points are most likely to be targeted by bandits who may demand tolls from those passing by (governments can also use these points similarly!). Brian suggested that one should not provoke the authorities. Roads are not always safe. People, wild animals, stampedes, weather, and washouts are all potential dangers to travelers and to their cargo. Erin remarked that when one is on a road through the wilderness, there are not always a lot of support structures for travelers.

I remembered how in Tolkien there were roads... but that Frodo was encouraged to stay off them. I always got the sense that this was somehow a magical problem, but certainly, a road will make your  path far more predictable. Indeed, even if you are traveling through a wilderness, everyone who must travel will probably be on the road, so the road itself may be more populated than you think. Brian said that Tolkien underpopulated his landscpe. Wilderness is a big thing in fiction, but there isn't all that much of it. The American Pioneers may have seemed to be going into an area with no population density, but that was unusual because smallpox and other diseases had devastated the local populations. In Europe, the plague sometimes left entire villages empty.

Climate is important to roads. Dirt roads don't last, even in the desert, unless you maintain them. Asphalt breaks down after 30 years. Erin remarked that there may still be signs that roads once existed, but that doesn't mean that they are usable, or even passable. We discussed Alan Weisman's book The World without Us, which talks about how quickly things break down when nobody keeps building them up again. (Answer: more quickly than you might think.) People scavenge from things.

We talked about the movie Cars, which took the road as one of its central concepts. The road acts like a river, following the contours of the landscape. New technology allows the road to cut through the hills, and changes the area and its surrounding towns. Those places no longer accessible by the main road (i.e. the biggest road) can "dry out." Erin mentioned the town of Butte city, which was once a place where barges were loaded, but when the transportation changed, the city dried up.

We talked a bit about ports. In modern ports, cranes transfer giant boxes from ships to road vehicles.

Harry mentioned an island community with a mine. The town there was for miners and their families who were shipping materials out. When the mine stopped producing the entire town and port were abandoned. A similar situation is depicted in the Miyazaki film Castle in the Sky, where the skill of mining the most valuable material has been lost and the mining towns are struggling to find any more of the lesser materials, causing the towns to decay.

We talked a bit about the cultural significance of roads. Diners are designed to be next to roads, and can become the social center of an entire community. Roads can create environments where the people who meet are all travelers. We didn't touch on this in the hangout, but there was a recent fascinating article about gender and roads, talking about how when a man steps onto the road, his story begins, but when a woman does, her story ends. You can read it here. Brian mentioned how crossroads have been culturally significant for thousands of years, even featuring magical spells that can only be performed there, gods of the crossroads, and traditions of burying people - or murdering them! - at a crossroads. Lonely crossroads appear a lot in horror.

Fine-tuned cars run on fine-tuned roads (US roads and the Autobahn come to mind). Harry wondered about flying cars and how roads might work in the sky. In movies, you might see cars traveling roads in the sky, going over and under one another without any traffic jams or collisions. How would you enforce those roadways? Brian remarked that air traffic corridors were like roads in the sky already, because for example the I10 highway in the southern US is a route traveled by cars, but above it is the plane route, which is almost the same. One reason that planes need to travel predictably is a control issue. Car collisions are bad; air collisions are a disaster. You have to be able to control the flow so that nobody gets lost (which is much, much easier in the air!). Ships on water are slower and much less likely to collide. On the other hand, maps of shipping do suggest "roads" of a sort. Winds and doldrums are somewhat predictable, and it is always valuable to travel through known terrain (or sky, or seas). If you have trouble, someone will be coming along. In the era of the pioneers, hundreds of wagons would set off each day, because they were restricted by the seasons and had to leave in spring in order to reach their destinations before winter (the Donner Party learned that lesson the deadly way).

Erin said air traffic mirrors ground traffic. She also mentioned hazards and how horses, which can think for themselves, are able to avoid crashing into each other most of the time. Cars crash more and at higher speeds. This leads to a need for stop signs, traffic lights and modern traffic laws. Brian remarked that paving was originally intended to make maintenance easier, but now it's for speed. I talked about how when I was on a panel about the 7 wonders of the world, and how Paul Chafe had mentioned that the modern highway system was a wonder of the world, even though it was unlikely to be viewed as such. Erin noted that the rules for roads etc. evolve as the need for them evolves.

In science fiction, "roads" have other issues. Erin said she was always bothered by instantaneous information exchange across interstellar distances. She prefers the model where travel leads to information flow. Brian says he doesn't mind faster-than-light travel but prefers information to travel FTL rather than instantaneously, because of the way it affects communication. Until the telegraph was invented, information traveled at the same speed as people on Earth as well. We talked about how CJ Cherryh's Merchanter universe has an interesting variant of this, where the ships have black boxes and nobody messes with them, because every time a ship arrives it brings a flood of information with it.

This led us to talk about communication. I mentioned Nancy Kress' sunflashers, from Probability Moon. We also talked about Tolkien's beacon fires, which were really cool but seemed implausible inasmuch as they would have had to be maintained as permanent camps with supplies etc. in those remote and nigh-inaccessible locations. We remarked that people can skip technological "steps," as in modern Africa where laying networks of cable is being skipped in favor of cell phone towers. We imagined Google wifi balloons. So when you are thinking about infrastructure, make sure that you consider how your world got there - they may not have taken all the same steps our world has. My Varin world has messengers to get information to travel quickly, but not because they are low-technology. They used to have cable telephones, and then developed a wireless method for communication and recycled all the old cables. The problem is, they then lost the ability to repair the wireless technology, and by that time all the cables were gone. So they're stuck with people running or driving across town with notes! Erin said that in her parents' community, they don't have cable, but they do have satellite dishes. Peripheral areas in the US won't have cable sometimes - infrastructure varies from place to place.

It was only at the end of the hangout that we started to move off roads, and we certainly didn't get to everything! That's why we'll be discussing water today, and power generation shortly!

I hope to see you at a hangout soon! Thanks to everyone who attended this one. And here's the video!


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

'Dive into Worldbuilding!' - November Topics

I've been swamped with Halloween and the Convolution convention, so thank you for your patience. Here are the worldbuilding topics for November:

November 7: Water

November 14: Generating warmth and power

November 21: The contrasting narratives of Conqueror and Conquered

November 28: (no hangout, because it's Thanksgiving!)

As you may recall, our hangouts begin at 11am Pacific. Watch out, because we just ended Daylight Saving, so our clocks now read an hour earlier!

I hope to see you on Google+! And please, feel free to contact me if you would like to be added to the invitation circle.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

TTYU Retro: The First/Last sentence experiment

Have you ever done this?

Take your novel manuscript, or story manuscript if it contains multiple scenes. Take out all the first and last sentences, and put them in a separate file, in order. Then see what the story looks like. (You can actually do only first sentences, or only last sentences, but each of those will give you a very different result.)

The result won't look like a story, but you will be able to tell some things about how the story is progressing. I do this usually when I'm in the revision stage of a story, and and it can be an interesting measure of how much drive you're getting in your scene openers and cliffhangers, and whether there appears to be any link between them. To give you a sense of what a story might look like in this form, I'll give you the first and last sentences of each scene in "The Liars," which appeared in Analog this year:

1 (first). If it was possible to make a security area "adorable," Poik-Paradise had done it.
1 (last). By the time you've been here a couple days, either you won't notice it any more, or it'll be driving you crazy.

2 (first). The song was driving him crazy.
2 (last). When you hear it, you will understand.

3 (first). "Little Qing," Adrian asked, "you don't want to understand?"
3 (last). With a wordless sound of fear, Óp squirmed free of his grip and vanished.

4 (first). It was a long climb down, followed by an additional hike to the Tauth party, so Adrian uplinked to the orbiter while he walked.
4 (last. She might know he's suffering, might know the Paradise Company is hiding him to preserve its reputation, and might not give a damn."

5 (first). The communicator chimed.
5 (last). The Liar wrenched free of his captors, seized the broken champagne glass off the table, and stabbed it into his own throat.

6 (first). "Oh, God!" Adrian cried.
6 (last). "Yes, Óp, I think we do."

One thing I notice when I look at this is that I often try to link the first sentence of a scene with the last sentence of the previous one. Writing them out like this lets me test whether each opening sentence of the scene gets me curious to read the scene itself. It also helps me consider the kind of resonance I'm getting from each final sentence (by which I mean the feeling which continues on into the pause between scenes). It also helps me to tell where the largest amount of change is happening in the story, because there will be less of a connection between the sentences when a lot of change has happened and new information has been introduced.

Here is the same thing, done with the first six chapters of the novel I'm agent-hunting for right now.

1 (first). Tagaret believed in music the same way he believed in the sky.
1. (last). After five years away in Selimna, Mother would finally be coming home.

2 (first). The Speaker's death last night, like the tumble of a stone from the roof of some forsaken cavern, had the entire Imbati Service Academy holding its breath, listening for worse.
2 (last). "This much I can promise: if she accepts you, she will protect you."

3 (first). The scariest part of Tagaret's health check had been his examiner: the Health Master of the Imbati Academy, a woman built like a cave-cat, with whisper-gentle fingers and eyes like iron under her bodyguard's tattoo.
3 (last). Mechanically, Tagaret walked Reyn to the door, then returned to his room and locked himself in.

4 (first). Nekantor stared at the locked door for a long time.
4 (last). When Benél understood, he was powerful.

5 (first). Not until the lock clicked did it really hit him.
5 (last). "It's a surprise."

6 (first). Grobal Tagaret was not the person he'd wanted to see.
6 (last). Thank all the gods he had been born Imbati.

This one is less tight-sounding because the scope of the story is much larger, and there are three point of view characters. However, I can still check each first and last sentence for drive and resonance, and I can also notice other things, such as the fact that I've put a lot of importance on the locking of Tagaret's door. I might be inclined to change this if it were less important to the story, but as it is, I'm keeping it because it has an important role.

I encourage you to try this with your manuscripts and see what you can learn!