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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Andrea Stewart - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

We were joined for this hangout by author Andrea Stewart, who told us a bit about her worldbuilding and her work. Her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, IGMS, and Galaxy's Edge.

We started by talking about a piece she had in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Set in a psudo-Chinese culture, it featured an opium den with magical smoke, in a place where the land surrounding the city was dying and this had become the people's escape. Very cool story! Andrea explained that her mom is a Chinese immigrant, so half her family is Chinese. One of the key differences, she says, is in conversational interaction style.

I asked her about her series, the Changeling Wars. She told me that it had begun as a writing exercise, where every person in a group picks a word, and then each member has to write a piece that uses all the words chosen by the group. She describes this series as being part of a move from dark fantasy to a bit lighter fantasy. The first book begins when a woman walks in on her cheating husband, and her emotion is so powerful in that moment that it awakens magic in her. It turns out she's a changeling, and not just adopted, as she believed.

Andrea has very warm words for writing exercises, which she says can spark ideas you might not otherwise come up with.

Changeling Wars is a portal fantasy involving the Fae. There are twelve families jostling for power among the fae, and the main character, Nicole, is a changeling who can open and close doors between the worlds. Her power can't be canceled out. Everyone therefore is trying to kill her because she upsets the power balance between the families. It's in first person point of view, and starts out as an urban fantasy. Nicole is very "type A," practical, and wants to work for a promotion, not suddenly to have magic! The story is set in Portland.

Andrea told us that to research for the story she traveled to Portland and took pictures and notes. In fact, she had started writing the book before she took the trip, and her experience there really changed how the story came out. She said she liked Portland's reputation, but found when she got there that some car chase scenes she'd written wouldn't work. She had begun some research on YouTube, but that medium has limitations despite the amount of video that people post. Andrea says that Google Street View is excellent, but only gives you one time of day, and can't give you smells, sounds, or changes of light. She did her visits between draft 1 and draft 2 of her first novel.

She says, "I want to set a fight scene in the Japanese Garden sometime."

She also did research on the fairy world, by going to the library and looking at folklore. It's influenced by Scottish folklore, but nonetheless, a lot of the book's twist on the fae is uniquely her own. She says she has outlined five books for the series, but imagines it could be as many as six to ten.

She told us a bit about the protagonist's life. She is coming to terms with her cheating husband, and wondering whether she still wants her marriage. She also comes to feel that she does not belong in either the Fae world or the real world. Nicole is half Chinese and half Scottish. Andrea makes use of the idea of third culture people, who come from a place where they don't quite belong in any of the cultures that enter into their makeup. She asks questions about what makes a family as Nicole works on finding her role between the two worlds. In Book 3, Nicole has to learn about aspects of fae culture, including politeness rules, that everyone expects her to know.

Andrea said she had fun with the clothes in the book, and the difference between mortal clothes and shimmery moving dresses influenced by medieval fantasy.

She says that science fiction and fantasy go together, and that there is not a clear border between them, especially since science fiction and science are part of our world.

She wanted to keep the magic consistent. People have specializations, like magical travel or quicker swordplay, or changing the shape of objects. They can set wards. There is also ice and fire elemental magic. These are all powered by emotion. It's therefore possible to get burnt out emotionally and not be able to work magic. People have different recovery rates. Pschology enters into her decisions on this.

I asked Andrea whether she had a "story bible" and she said "I have a few of them." On e for magic and how it works, one for the properties of the world, and another for the different families, locations, characters, and relationships. She says she works in Word.

We also talked a bit about her work in progress, which she read from at WorldCon. She had written the book, and then split it into two books and sent it out. The book's title is still in flux, but it features two coutries, the last two standing against an army of conquering nonhumans. The technology level is Renaissance. It has dragons! But not in the way you might expect, Andrea explains. She describes the book as Breaking Bad meets The Other Boleyn Girl, with dragons. The protagonist must ask how far she's willing to go to save her country, and whether she's willing to enslave the dragons. It features themes of tribalism.

Andrea says she is still revising to make the split between the two books work - separating the arcs, and making sure book 1 has a resolution, while still leaving things open for the second book. I said that splitting a book like that gives you room to take your time, and she agreed that there was more space to go into emotional implications that can't be skipped. "That's how your reader connects to your character," she says. "How are people going to care?"

The split version has room for travel to enemy lands, and to explore the reasons why people fight. It also has more room for internal politics, conflict over decisions, and exploration of consequences like refugee populations.

Thank you so much for joining us, Andrea! It was great fun to hear about what you are working on.
 Here is the video of our discussion:


Friday, February 5, 2016

Culture Shock: A Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

When we started our discussion on Culture Shock, I pointed out that I wanted to look at various kinds of culture shock - not just that experienced by travelers, but also that which can happen in the workplace, or in marriages between families, etc. As it turned out, the discussion went to some interesting places but didn't quite cover all of the things I'd been thinking of. We'll have to come back to it again!

I spoke about the culture shock I experienced during my first visit to Japan, when I was living with a host family who would tell me to do and say things but not explain why. I had to bathe at particular times, and say "osaki deshita" when I came out. It took me some time and independent research to figure out what exactly was going on! Unfortunately, one of the things I learned was that this particular host family had been trying to take advantage of my presence to make money. The reason it took me so long to realize this was actually culture shock - I was just assuming that any discomfort I suffered (as when I was not allowed to heat my room against the cold) was due to my lack of understanding of cultural details.

Cliff told us a story about a coworker, a woman from a traditional Muslim community where men aren't permitted to touch women who are not close family members. She became very upset when a coworker tapped her on the shoulder. This was problematic because she had kept her expectations for touch behavior unstated, and they didn't match the culture of this Silicon Valley company.

We talked a bit about social casual touching, which (along with personal space) often has complex rules and boundaries that are extremely firm and can be very upsetting to people - but differ widely across cultural communities. Sometimes the rules are religious and sometimes they are more widespread across the culture.

Cliff told us about a situation from his work in progress, where arthropods have difficulty interacting with a human merchant when the research the human has done is insufficient and the negotiation goes wrong. The arthropods have very strong rules about communal vs. individual behavior, and again, there is unfortunate boundary-crossing.

I mentioned that very often in science fiction - and certainly there are a great number of salient examples from Star Trek - the aliens' motives and requirements are made light of or considered quaint or funny. I believe that to be a common error in the way these things are treated, because cultural differences can have life or death consequences.

Politeness can be a big problem because the base assumption is usually that "if you're not polite, you're being intentionally offensive." The consequences of rudeness or even cultural awkwardness can be serious and long-lasting.

Morgan told us about the Ukandir people in her work in progress, where keeping track of bloodines is really important, and a person who has not done this is treated as shocking and becomes ashamed of not knowing.

I mentioned that in our world, bloodlines and the policing of them are incredibly important to people's life outcomes, as with the "one drop rule" to determine whether a child is considered a member of the white or black communities. In this case, it has long been a life or death matter.

Culture is strange, because it is arbitrary on many levels, yet real in its structures and consequences.

Cliff returned to the idea of making light of alien cultures, and pointed out that (especially early) Star Trek was based in many ways on the idea of American exceptionalism, where it suggests that the crew has the best point of view and other cultures are based on something not valuable. In other ways, though, it uses its aliens to reflect aspects of our own culture metaphorically. It can get people to look at their culture from the outside.

I spoke a bit about my story, The Liars (Analog May 2012). It featured a cultural system that had many problematic aspects, but the worst problem arose when that system was pressured by human action, which made the problematic parts worse. In the end the humans could only remove themselves to try to make things better.

We also talked about unexpected consequences of historical decisions. China's one child policy has led to an overpopulation of men, and stigmatization of second children. It has also led to loss of vocabulary for complex kin relationships.

We agreed that there could be cross-generational culture shock, because older people are often offended by younger people's language. Glenda remarked that "long-haired music" before the 1960s referred to classical music, and Morgan noted that "golden oldies" are defined differently by different generations.

The idea of culture shock is a really great tool for authors working in speculative worlds. Much of science fiction depends on creating culture shock in the reader. A point of view character who is a stranger to their environment is a terrific tool, also. This has been used in many stories, including Shogun. A stranger gives you the opportunity to explain the rules in naturalistic settings. If there are no real outsiders, you can still have characters come from different cultures or subcultures within the story. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar does this very well, as do many historical novels. Jane Austen immerses you in a culturally distinct world. Ursula K. LeGuin also uses the technique of using a contrast of cultures, neither of which is like our own.

Without outsiders, portraying a culture effectively is much harder. This is especially true for short stories, where there is less time to let people learn the alien culture.

Morgan told us how her shapeshifters were more tolerant of nudity before and after shifting than the non-shifter population.

Cliff and I talked briefly about how there is culture shock between parents (especially new parents) and non-parents.

We really enjoyed the discussion and plan to take it up again.

Next week, Wednesday, February 10 at 10am Pacific, we'll be joined by author Andrea Stewart, who will tell us about her work. I hope you can come!