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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pause in your writing for intense worldbuilding - "the grocery store" edition

I'm always discovering more about my Varin world. This makes sense, since every time I enter a new environment in my real world, I discover things, too. New people, new experiences. A species of caterpillar I've never seen before. Woodland flowers. New languages.

I've written an article before about how to worldbuild after you've already started a story. At the time I approached it as though this were something special and unusual. It's not, though. Even if you've spent bunches of time building your world before writing a story in it, you will, and should, keep worldbuilding as you go. You never know when you will encounter an environment that will require some thought.

I documented one example of this here on the blog when I talked about designing a pharmacy. That was fun, and you can read about it here.

Last night and this morning, I was designing a grocery store. Because in all my years of thinking and planning, and writing an entire novel in this world, none of my characters had ever visited one.

There are a surprising number of considerations that go into designing something like this, which is why I encourage you to take a pause and think it through.

When I think "grocery store," I think of the stores I always go to first thing. When I think "not like my usual store," I usually think of the grocery store I went to in Japan, Kitamura, which was quite different and which I describe here.

First things first, though. This isn't "a grocery store." This is a grocery store in the small cavern city of Daronvel, which is up in the mountains of Varin, built with the help of drills and quarrying equipment in a set of lava tunnels. You're not going to be seeing high ceilings here. The other thing you won't be seeing is a lot of lowland foods, because all of those would have to be imported from surrounding cities on the connecting roads. Imported stuff is going to be expensive, and not a lot of people in the city are going to be able to afford it - possibly a few nobles (maybe around 10?), police, and some top-level bureaucrats. Conceivably some of the region's engineers will also make enough money to afford it.

That brings us to the question of "what is local?" The region surrounding Daronvel is alpine, so I took inspiration from a place I've visited in the Alps. Honey will be available, and bushberries (like blueberries), and products of the mountain creatures that most resemble goats and sheep (cheese, meat, etc.). There are also food plants that can be grown in the caverns, such as river lettuce (a form of edible algae) and mushrooms of various varieties. The special conditions that prevent large-scale construction and agriculture on the surface - namely, wysps, for those of you who may have read Soul's Bargain (in Clarkesworld 94) - mean that there isn't a lot of grain grown here. Note for those readers: things have changed a lot socially between Soul's Bargain and the story I'm currently writing.

Okay, so at this point I have a pretty good idea of what's going to be in the store. But there's a social twist: the character going to the store is a member of the undercaste. She's not welcome in the front. So she has to go in the back door, and the merchants will be assuming that she's likely to be a shoplifter. They have quite a few undercaste customers, though, so they have a specially designed back access.

My character will have to go to the back where the loading dock is, and enter a door to one side of it. That door has a handle on the outside, but not on the inside, which means she can't open it to go back out. At that point she's standing between two rows of stainless steel bins holding merchandise. These rows are a continuous line, so she has to walk between them, picking items out of the bins. There is no wall behind them, though - it's at the back of the staff area for the grocery store. I imagine the way it feels looking through into the back of a shop or post office. Conceivably, there might be a curtain set up to keep the customer from seeing the merchants working with each other. So, back to the bins. The items there are often going to be seconds or nominally expired merchandise. At the end of the rows of bins is a counter with a merchant-caste cashier. That person has a tall shelf behind him/her where the more expensive items are kept, so they can take them down upon request. The customer is then expected to pay and package their own items in a bag or basket they have brought for themselves. Only once they have paid does the cashier release the door-latch allowing them to leave.

My immediate thought upon understanding all of this was that this is going to be a pretty nervous place to go for my main character, who is currently on the run from the police. Being trapped is not so great when you might have to escape at any moment! But she needs the food, and she's hoping to find a friend there, so I have to send her in.

Now this place feels really different, and not at all like the stores I know.

Some people might say that this kind of intense worldbuilding of such a quirky location is more fitting, or more likely to happen, in a novel. However, concentrating a lot of worldbuilding effort on a single item or location can actually gain you a lot of mileage in a short story, because this tiny peek actually can imply a whole lot about the world overall.

It's something to think about.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Fear of beginnings, and fear of sequels.

Beginnings of stories are very difficult. I think it's partly because of the way I write - I like to put together a puzzle that comes together into a certain type of constellation at the end. This means I usually know what I want the end result to look like - but it also requires that I start all the beginning pieces in the right place so they will progress into that final desired relation.

I wrote the opening chapter of For Love, For Power probably upwards of six times. The same thing happens pretty often with short stories. I spend a lot of time walking around with different kinds of beginnings rattling around in my head, until insight strikes and I can see the optimal starting configuration. Sometimes, as with my current novel Work-In-Progress, I write the opening in one way, and then before I get too far out of the starting gate I realize it's not right. In the case of Secrets That Bind, I realized that the chapter I'd written as chapter 1 could not be chapter 1. I therefore promoted what had been chapter 2 to the beginning, and took that original chapter 1 and integrated it with the chapter that had been chapter 3.

Let me get concrete. I have two undercaste characters in Secrets, Meetis and Corbinan. Each one has a very particular role. Corbinan is the person who first stumbles into the big conflict. Meetis is the one who drives the solution to that conflict. In my original draft, I thought, "jump into the main conflict as soon as possible." It's often an approach that works well. In this case, however, it was not working, for two reasons. First, Corbinan is not the solution-driver. He stumbles in and is swallowed by the conflict - in a sense, he's the "damsel," though he does act on his own behalf in ways that damsels don't. Meetis is a person in trouble, but she's all about the solutions, and the solution to her first (seemingly unrelated) problem soon delivers her into an identifiable relation with the main conflict, so readers can anticipate her entry into it. Second, Corbinan speaks in undercaste dialect. So does Meetis, but her language is far more accessible (because she's younger, and because she's someone who is good at placating Highers). By encountering Meetis first, we're able to get a more gradual entry into the language, and learn the context surrounding the way Corbinan talks, so that he's less of a jolt when we encounter him.

This is one of the reasons why I like to have an "entry" beta-reader. I'll write the first chapter of each point of view character, and then run it by someone who can tell me if they are feeling very confused, and which characters they relate to most easily. It's a kind of critical orientation to the story that allows me to make sure the jumping-off point is solid. Jumping off stone is far more effective than jumping off sand.

When I write short stories, I like to think around until I find a first sentence that gets me jazzed to jump in. I'm willing to spend concerted time on this, even up to a few days. I've gotten better at it as time has gone by.

Now, however, I am about to attempt two short story sequels, and I find I'm hesitating (in the case of one of the two, this "hesitation" has amounted to several years of not being able to start). The crux of the problem is bridging - creating an opening that not only sets up the ending properly, but also evokes the first story for those who have read about it, and provides enough backstory for those who haven't read it, without bogging down the current story.

I think I need to start thinking about these stories a little bit the way I think about novel openings - that is to say, to enter in a place where I feel familiar with the world, and excited about the plot, and worried about other people's entry later. Backstory can be added. Revisions are possible - and more than that, they are inevitable. What better opportunity to create a bridge between two islands than when both ends of it can be anchored on solid ground?

Wish me luck.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Picking the right word (it's okay to use a thesaurus/etymological dictionary)

On a couple of occasions I've heard writers say that using a thesaurus is not a good idea. The argument was that if a word isn't part of your natural usage vocabulary, it will come out sounding wrong in context.

That is always a possibility, but it does assume that you don't have a lot of flexibility in your writing voice. I could make an argument that on the contrary, it's better to go for the right word, and if necessary, get help integrating it into the voice later.

I was thinking about this topic while I was recently watching Avatar: Legend of Korra with my kids. They use a lot of technologies that parallel technologies of our world, but they don't use the words for them that we would use. In particular, the character Bolin becomes a movie star. The problem with calling them "movies" would be that it might pull viewers out of the environment with too strong a reference to our own world and its technologies. Therefore, the show uses the word "mover" instead. Same idea, different word, different associations.

In our own world, we use different words for the same thing. Think, for example, about when you might expect to see or use the following words:

motion picture



Can you imagine yourself saying, "Did you like that motion picture?" I can't. I'm more likely to ask, "Did you like that movie?" or possibly "What did you think of that film?" Motion picture seems to be something used exclusively by studios to describe their products: "A major motion picture." The more familiar and colloquial shortening "movie" has become the default word for this thing. "Film" refers to the material that movies were originally recorded to, and has a slightly different feel.

That different feel issue is right at the heart of this question of naming things. Sometimes you can feel happy going with your gut on what the word for something in your world should be. Sometimes not. An etymological dictionary can help you to delve into the "feel" behind the word and see if you can get more of a sense to it. A thesaurus can help you to see what other options might be out there with very different connotations.

I often use generic words when I'm in fantasy or science fictional settings. Generic words are words we have heard so many times in so many different contexts that we don't immediately associate them with one specific context. They can be very useful, because that lack of immediate context can allow an author to create their own associations within the story world. There are other instances, however, when the right word, with the right connotations, is out there and your story world would benefit immensely from having it appear in the right spot.

One of the words that I spent a long time looking for was the word "indulgence." It's not a word I use  a lot in my own life, but it's really really useful for my Varin world, particularly when I am working with servant-caste characters. I remember writing along in my servant-caste character Aloran and feeling that word hovering out there at the edge of my consciousness. I would think to myself, "There's a word he would use to show how he understands the way that nobles express kindness to him, but I just can't think of it." In that case, I didn't use a thesaurus - one day as I was revising, the word finally just popped into my head. I was pleased, because I could go back through at that point and put it in the places where I'd been gesturing vaguely at that same idea without having the proper word for it. It probably would have been sensible of me to spend a bit of time with a thesaurus seeing if I could run across the word in a more systematic way!

What words do you need in your world? Is there one waiting out there for you that might have just the right social connotations to give your world extra dimension?

It's something to think about - and don't be afraid to use your references!


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

We all need to be reminded about the inspiring feminist Clara Barton

During my trip to Washington, D.C. I took a trip out to the town of Glen Echo, Maryland with my mom and my kids. It's a delightful place, featuring a park area with artist yurts and a children's playground and a theater for kids and a puppet theater and a merry-go-round, etc. etc. I highly recommend it. This is a place that has been a "destination" for so long that it used to be an amusement park, and before that it was a "chautauqua." It was also the center of civil rights protests in 1960, so you can investigate that if you are curious, because it's very interesting.

It is also the site of Clara Barton's house (here's a good blog article on the house, where I found this photo).

If you go there, you can wait on the bench out front and take a tour of the house. The information I'm sharing here is paraphrased from the verbal presentation we got during our tour from a lovely guide by the name of Clara Ferrari.

You probably learned about Clara Barton in elementary school. I couldn't say if I did, because I didn't remember anything clearly. She is, quite simply, one of the most inspiring badass feminists ever, and the ultimate testament to how much a person can learn on the job. She went from teen elementary school teacher, to founder of the New Jersey public schools, to Civil War nurse, to founder of the American Red Cross and the First Aid Society.

Clara Barton started out as a teacher in her local school at the age of seventeen, figuring out how to teach while doing it. When she realized that there were no free schools in the state of New Jersey, she went there and offered to start one. She was given a warehouse space totally unsuited to running a school, and on her first day had 6 students. They attended for the morning, and then because there was no cafeteria facility, she had to send them home for lunch, imagining they might never come back. When she reconvened school at 2pm, they had brought 14 friends back with them. By the end of that year the school had 600 students. Clara Barton was ideally suited to become the school's principal, having built it from the ground up, but there was one problem. I'm sure you can guess what it was.

She was a woman. So the principal's job was given to a man, and she left.

"I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay." (all italicized quotes are from this quote site)

She was excited when the civil war came along. Not happy about it, of course. But she saw it as an opportunity.

"The conflict is one thing I've been waiting for. I'm well and strong and young -- young enough to go to the front. If I cannot be a soldier, I'll help soldiers."

She started a letter-writing campaign asking for supplies for the troops before the war even officially got started, and managed to gather three warehouses full of supplies. Then she went to the powers that be for the North and said she'd give them the supplies if they let her go serve as a nurse on the front. The powers that be said, basically, "You can't serve as a nurse on the front. You're a woman." She came back with, "Okay I guess you don't need these three warehouses full of stuff, then."

That was how Clara Barton got to go and serve as a nurse on the front. She was never trained as a nurse, but again, learned on the job. She faced horrors and death. She even narrowly missed death herself several times. Here are two more quotes from the same site:

"A ball had passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through the sleeve and passing through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?"

"I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them."

She became so famous for her activities during this time that she was a household name, and when the war was over, people from all over started writing to her and asking whether she had seen their missing loved ones. The therefore spent a number of years finding missing soldiers - either figuring out where they were after the war, or finding witness accounts of their deaths, to bring closure to their families. As this site explains, "Her search concluded at the end of 1866 with over 22,000 men identified."

To take a break after this exhausting activity, Clara Barton went to Europe. This is where she encountered the International Red Cross organization, which at the time was all about doing what she had done in the Civil War - nursing and caring for people in war time. She served during the Franco-Prussian war, came out alive, and returned to the United States, where she asked the US government to start a branch of the Red Cross. She had to lobby for ten years before it actually happened. Clara Barton became the president of the American Red Cross. Her home in Glen Echo was built for her during this time, because the builders, who were residents of Glen Echo, thought her presence would be prestigious for their community. The house is huge, and the large entry hall is basically all closets. (The house has more than 500 closets.) It was easy to open a wall, pull out emergency supplies, and take them to wherever they were needed.

This brings me to Clara Barton's essential innovation in the activities of the Red Cross. She was the first person to see that the Red Cross could serve during natural disasters and other peacetime emergencies rather than just in wartime. Not only that, but she was the one who brought peacetime activities to the international organization as well. She changed the whole world, and served as president of the American Red Cross until she was in her 80's. Then, in 1904, she was forced to resign as president by people who felt she was too old and and too old-fashioned and, yes, too female to continue as president of the still-healthy, still-growing organization. She resigned, and promptly went on to establish the National First Aid society. So if you have a first aid kit in your house, or your car, or your workplace, you have Clara Barton to thank for it.

I walked out of that place inspired to tell everyone I knew about Clara Barton and her incredible life and achievements, and also to make sure I made a difference in the world. I hope you may feel similar inspiration. I feel certain that stories will emerge from this experience.