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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Randy Henderson and Finn Fancy - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

It was delightful to have Randy Henderson join us to talk about the world of Finn Fancy, despite the technical difficulties we had getting the hangout properly started.

I asked him about the series, and he told us that there were now two books out: Finn Fancy Necromancy, and the most recent release, Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free. The third is with his editor, so that means there's more Finn Fancy to come!

In our conversations before the hangout, Randy had mentioned that we haven't talked about Urban Fantasy much on Dive into Worldbuilding (which is true), so I asked him to give us a sense of the way he views the genre. He told us that Urban Fantasy has different "flavors." Mythic and folklorishlike the work of Charles deLint, noirish like the work of Jim Butcher and Kat Richardson, or paranormal romance.

His own take on the genre in Finn Fancy isn't particularly urban, though it still falls under "Urban Fantasy." The stories are set in the seaside town of Port Townsend, in contrast with others who use fictionalized cities. Because of this, he says, there are fewer necessary levels of worldbuilding. The "map level" is taken care of, as is the national and cultural level, along with some aspects of gender dynamics and economics. Where you get to put your attention as an author of Urban Fantasy is in the overlay of the magical world and its properties. You explore the aspects of the magical realm, including hierarchies, power structure in magical communities, etc.

I asked Randy how much research he had done for this series, and he said he'd done very little - but it seems he just feels like it wasn't much compared to other projects he's attempted. He said he'd been writing epic secondary world fantasy, such as one with roman/gaulish culture, but he'd burned out. He started the Finn Fancy series imagining, "me, with magic," and then went from there. Only once it because clear that this was becoming a full book, he says, is when he had to think it through more and shore up the worldbuilding consistency, etc.

I asked him about his choice to use the 1980's as a featured time period in the book. "The 80's are my jam," he said. "That was the era of my youth." It was also a golden era of science fiction and fantasy movies, and advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

The way that the era appears in the book is that Finn has been in exile in the fairy realms since 1986, when he was 15 years old. Meanwhile his body has been occupied by a changeling. Unfortunately, when he goes back, the memory transfer that is expected to occur doesn't happen - leaving Finn in a much older body feeling like a 15 year old from the 80's. In a sense, Randy says, this kind of relation between the fairy world and the real world makes a book like this similar to a portal fantasy. Of course, the moment Finn gets back to 2011, he is framed for another crime, and off we go again.

I asked Randy a question that had been posed in a message by Cliff Winnig. That was to ask Randy about how important family was in the book. Randy said he made a conscious choice to involve family, because he wanted to get away from the "lone grizzled badass" character. He wanted comedic family dysfunction, an ensemble in the style of Arrested Development/ Joss Whedon. That creates lots of potential tension and many storyline possibilities.

The family is a family of necromancers who run a magical mortuary as the family business. Randy wanted to make sure that the hero could not get out of situations by blasting stuff. Finn's power is talking to the spirits of the dead, but it drains his life force at the same time.

This was where we discovered a key piece of research Randy had done - which, it turns out, was repurposed from a nonfiction piece on necromancy he'd written for Fantasy magazine. That's the great thing about real-world research: it never stops being useful! Randy also said he was inspired by a book called The Master of Five Magics, which he called a love story to magic systems. Each system has distinct rules, sources, etc.

In Randy's world, he has the following magic user types:

Wizards - people who can make fireballs and lightning
Thaumaturges - magical inventors
Sorcerers - makers of mind illusions and prophecy
Necromancers - people who can speak to the dead, etc.
Alchemists - people who can activate magical properties of things.

In addition to these human Arcana, he also has Fey, and Feyblood creatures, which are blends of fey plus real creatures. Feyblood creatures include a lot of mythological creatures like centaurs.

Randy said that when he began Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, he had to go further into explaining everything he'd explored in the first book.

Book 1: The Fey realm was something he used to explain Finn's exile, while the feyblood creatures were just there to be cool.

Book 2: Randy had to lay the foundation for this to be a series, and understand the system, the interactions between people and the fey and the feybloods, the power economy, etc.

He says a lot of his insights into how the world worked came from asking "Why would/wouldn't they do this particular magic thing to get out of this situation?"

He sketched a hierarchy of the feyblood, and defined the fey realm and its different demesnes, which include twelve different fey types loosely modeled after many pantheistic archetypes: one focused on wisdom and justice, one focused on cunning and deception, one focused on the arts and creativity, etc.

Randy told us that after writing Finn Fancy, he binge-read the Dresden Files books so as not to cover the same ground. One thing he caught was the phrase "the Merlin" for a powerful magic user, which he had planned to use for himself, for example. As he explains, it's often not stealing when two books have similar elements, but coincidence arising from both books having grown from the same influences.

It's hard to resist the urge to go big with the stakes, Randy says. He wanted to have Finn more concerned with trying to survive, protect his family, find love and build a life for himself than saving the world. We discussed how saving the world can feel big and vague if it doesn't also have personal aspects. Randy said this was one of the things that hurt the Star Wars prequels. The original series had personal duels, but the prequels had no personal stakes, just got really flashy and large in scope without creating the emotional connection. He said that when he was going over the books, he'd say to himself, "No, let's not just have a cool battle scene" - he'd go back in the book and establish a precedent for that battle to occur rooted in personal stakes. Backwards plotting like this can be very helpful in revision.

I asked Randy about the premise of Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free. He says it picks up three months after the first book, as Finn goes on adjusting and catching up (slowly) on pop-cultural stuff. By this time, Finn has learned about 1989. To get out of necromancy, Finn starts a dating service for magical beings, and his first client is a Sasquatch looking for love. This leads him somehow to get mixed up in a feyblood rebellion.

Randy said it's hard to write a book a year, though it's a great problem to have. The odd thing is that because he has to keep writing, he's entirely in the headspace for the new book by the time he's having to talk with people about the old book coming out! He says he can see how he's grown as a writer through the process. He is able to think ahead better, and many of the craft mechanics like "don't use adverbs" and "avoid passive voice" and "show don't tell" and even tying plot to character arc come more naturally so more of his brain at writing time is freed up to focus on story.

The third book will be called Smells like Finn Spirit (and yes, Finn will have caught up to 1992 in his cultural explorations!). Apparently this book wraps up an arc from books 1 and 2, and will involve Finn saving the world. It has a large section in the fey realm, which involved more traditional fantasy worldbuilding.

Randy says he loves writing this series because it gets him back in touch with the sense of wonder and joy that he always got out of reading science fiction and fantasy. He is really enjoying the worldbuilding he gets to do. He says he thought it would not be as much worldbuilding as epic fantasy, but actually there is plenty to do!

He urges writers not to write what you think is hot, but to stick to what you love.

We spoke briefly also about writing short stories. Some people say you should start with them, but that's not necessarily true. You can do different kinds of things with short stories vs. novels. They are easier to finish, allow you to explore many characters and genres, and they can help you practice revision etc. in shorter cycles. Randy said he has written a lot of them and they helped him get to the point where he felt safe investing time in novels. The processes are similar but different.

Randy, thank you so much for joining us! It was a great discussion.

Next week we'll be meeting on Wednesday, May 4th at 10am Pacific and we'll be talking about Seasons! I hope you can join us.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Subconscious Worldbuilding - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

What if you're not worldbuilding?

Actually, you are - there is no world on a blank page/file until you put words there - and you can't possibly avoid it. Each word comes with a piece of world built into its connotations, its ins and outs.  But I have met people who told me they were not worldbuilding for their stories.

So what happens when you think you are not worldbuilding, but you are anyway?

You get a glimpse into the subconscious structure of the fictional world inside your brain. Even if you are putting a single alien/fantasy made-up word on a page, it will still come with associations due to sound and due to similarity to existing words. Even then, if you take your awareness and make it conscious, you can start to play with people's expectations. What if you give your hero a horrible name?

Technology sets are another key issue. When we see a cell phone, we expect a computer. When we see one element that makes us think of a particular historical time period, our subconscious expectations fill in all kinds of other aspects of that time period. If you see the word King, you will tend to think medieval.

If you don't want readers to go in the expected direction, you have to block them, redirect them, and do it early. You have very little time to depart from the schemata - scenes/sets - that readers bring up before they will start feeling like you have betrayed them and their expectations.

This is why you often see people picking words carefully. Would you use King? If the situation is a little unexpected, might you use Majesty instead? Or Eminence? Brian mentioned Prince, which has an expected meaning of "king's son," but in fact is a ruling title in its own right in many real-world places. Picking words is really critical, because they bring important implications with them.

We talked about Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern, which starts out looking quite medieval and then later turns out to be a world colonized by spacefaring humans. Many of us thought this gradual change was well done, but it doesn't work for everyone. People do drop out over a series.

In terms of climate, Che mentioned that it's very easy to write exactly what you experience.
Brian mentioned the problem Star Wars has with single-biome worlds (very unrealistic!).

There are also cultural expectations that sneak in, such as the idea that the "north" will be advanced and the tropics less advanced. These are colonial assumptions that we bring with us from our history.

I mentioned that I'd like to see an Inca fantasy. Brian said yes, that they would weave their way out of problems. Ropes and knots were their specialty, and super-sophisticated. He also mentioned floating gardens, and villages in the lakes of Bolivia. They had no plows, no animals they could ride, no enormous beasts of burden, but they were very technologically advanced.

We also talked about Etruscans, Romans, and Vikings, just to acknowledge that they were pretty advanced in their own ways. Roman concrete remains a mystery to this day because it was a family trade secret. Local materials in a place can vary widely. People indigenous to an area will optimize those materials, but colonists will typically try to import their own ways, even from a very different climate, and can run into problems. What if your home methods don't work?

One of the things that can enter into worldbuilding when we're not looking is our own history of reading science fiction or fantasy. Our expectations of fictional worlds are set by that which we have previously read. I mentioned how Aliette de Bodard described writing her sf/f in English, and said that it was easier for her because the sf/f she had read had been in English. The reading we do sets patterns in our minds that become easier to tread again.

Kimberly noted that sometimes no matter how hard we try to keep our worldbuilding conscious and specific, readers can overwrite it with their own preconceptions. We asked, "How do you put in enough?" The answer isn't clear, though, because different people will have a harder or easier time departing from their own schemata.

You can put evidence for difference into your story in many different ways. You can have outsider characters who are explicit guides to the world and can explain its rules (as with Breq in Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie).

Another bias that often hides in fiction is racial bias. This topic could be an hour all by itself, but definitely watch out for it.

The best approach for an author is to try to make deliberate decisions to create expectations, defeat expectations, or re-derive a more standard expectation in a different way. Re-deriving is an interesting thing. Say you'd like to have a seven-day week in your world, with a two-day weekend, but you don't necessarily want to refer back to our world and the Norse (etc.) derivations of the weekday names. You have to find an alternate basis for the same system.  Think through food production and when it occurs, and how that would affect the flow of life in your fictional region.

Brian pointed out that there are times when you can't work on food, such as during the far northern winters. Often you have a lot of intense time on followed by a long time off (hoping the food will last!). Summer vacations in the US are long because children had to be allowed to participate in the agricultural harvest. We joked about the pyramids of Egypt, but Brian pointed out that there have been big, fortified granaries before.

Brian told us about the origins of veal crates. They may seem cramped, but they originated in climates where there was snow, and for long periods, cows couldn't forage. In Switzerland, he explained, you could only keep the animals by bringing them inside on the ground floor of your house and feeding them with as much hay as you've managed to grow during the last season. The cows would give birth over winter before forage is available, so the calves live in a cramped, dark place until the weather allows them to go out.

Pigs are easier to grow than cows under the same conditions, which is why some populations rely more heavily on pig meat.

This topic is one that tends to lead us into a discussion of ways to depart from the subconscious default, and there are a ton of ways to do that! Thank you to everyone who attended.

Remember to join us tomorrow (Wednesday, 4/20/16) to talk with author Randy Henderson! I hope to see you there.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Food - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

Food is a huge topic. There's growing, processing, making, eating, transporting foods. There's TV culture surrounding food; there are eating disorders, and relationships with food. There are meals, and how they are defined. There's also storing and preserving food, and protecting it from vermin.

Deborah told us about her breakfast, because she'd grown much of it herself. Freezers were mentioned, as ways to control when you can eat the food.

A lot of our time (a lot!) is dedicated to food, but at different points in history it has even taken more time. Hunting and gathering took lots of time; so did farming and raising animals.

These days there are some people (adults on their own) who don't know how to cook for themselves, but who rely on the support of others to cook for them, and the support of civilization (restaurants) is pretty critical in that process.

Cooking for yourself is very different from cooking for others, and often less motivating.

The financial cost of food is very important. The percentage of one's income that one spends on food may differ depending on where you live.

We spoke about food deserts, which are urban areas where nothing is available except cans, boxes, and convenience stores. Lack of access to fresh, healthy food can lead to health problems. Recently, we've been seeing some movements toward urban agriculture to combat the problem of food deserts.

Deborah talked about the farming she and her husband do on 1700 square feet of their property. That much land produces a lot of food in northern California, but might not in another region.

That brought us to climate, which is a critical aspect of food production and what will become available. We also briefly discussed the challenge of climate change and its impact on food production.

We then dove into fiction, considering how one would create a world where some people couldn't eat the dominant food crops. How would social relations work if food for one group was poison to another? In our world, there are social traditions like bringing bread to new neighbors, and even in our world, that could be complicated if the new neighbors were gluten-free. In Japan, the tradition is to give soba noodles to your neighbors when you move into an area (because "soba" means nearby). Would food gifts like that be inappropriate? How much awareness of the dietary differences would there be in the larger culture?

Deborah told us she loves describing food in her books - not just good food, but also horrible food. Both can reveal character, and bad food can even give you a plot twist if people get sick.

We talked about Dune by Frank Herbert, and specifically about how water was treated. That brought us to the manners surrounding food, and how they might relate to political power.

If you are dealing with aliens, of course, their food needs may be different. Would snake people only eat every three days? I mentioned my wolflike character, Rulii, and how he eats "scout's strength" (a special meal) before he goes out on a scouting mission, intending not to eat for a few days afterward.

It may be useful to remember that the composition of meals influences what comes out the other end (and how much!). You can't extricate intake from the subsequent output!

We spoke about food phases, or taste in food. People with autism sometimes need to have food that is stable, routine, and predictable. The texture of food can be a critical component of whether someone likes it. In general, people have to balance between stable and predictable food routines and any desire for novelty or variety.

We also mentioned how people talk at the table (or generally while eating). In addition to other topics that may come up, we also tend to talk a lot about food or food behavior. This can mean that if characters in your book sit down to eat but talk exclusively about Plot Business, that the interaction will come off as unrealistic. Think about what opportunities you might have to let people talk about their food as a topic-changing move, or character-building move, etc.

Mealtime group conversations can be very complex, especially at big family reunion dinners! Does politics get discussed at the table? How personal is it? How does it get connected to the individuals' identity?

I mentioned a couple of food examples from books I have read. One was the drink "safe" from The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, a drink that no one particularly liked, but which was impossible to poison undetectably. The other was the odd food habits of Presger Translator Zeiat from Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. She drank fish sauce, and ate whole oysters (shell and all)... and this was a core part of her character.

If you are served bad food, do you have to eat it? What does the culture demand?

If you have special dietary requirements, do you bring your own meal when you are a guest somewhere? Or do you demand that the host cook something you can eat? Under what conditions might one of those two solutions be better than the other?

We also discussed "food surprises," which is when people serve people food without telling them what is in it, and potentially try to trap them into eating something they've said they can't eat. While some people doubt others' professed allergies, it is potentially deadly to feed them the wrong thing and you should never do this. In a fictional situation, you might end up being asked questions like "Did you mean to kill the ambassador?" It could potentially make for an interesting, if awful, plot twist.

This is such a big topic that we barely scratched the surface, but it was a fun discussion! Thanks to everyone who attended.

This week's hangout will be on Wednesday, April 20, at 11am Pacific (one hour later than our usual time) on Google Hangouts. We will have a chance to talk to author Randy Henderson about his book, Finn Fancy Necromancy, and about the genre of Urban Fantasy in general. I'm really looking forward to it, and I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Worldbuilding under the radar - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

This discussion focused on the kinds of worldbuilding details that might come out automatically without being noticed by a writer. In particular, we talked about critical underpinnings for a world. Measuring distance. Measuring time. Measuring money.

"What is the name of your money, and why?" we asked. In our own world, gold pieces were not called "gold pieces." There were Crowns, and shillings, and pennies, and Spanish silver, and pieces of eight. There are still nickels. These words have historical origins and such origins are worth thinking through for a secondary world. The Canadian "loonies" and "twonies" were mentioned.

It's important also to ask, "Why are the nobility rich? Where do they get their money?" Do they own all the land, as is the case in many places, so they are entitled to skim off the proceeds of the use of that land? Where else might their money come from?

Morgan mentioned that some places have two different currencies. Money considerations have to be practical, because "you can't walk around with everything in pennies." Ask yourself whose face you would put on a coin.

Other kinds of measurement can also sneak in. How do we measure height? What about weight? What does the choice of measurement say about the world? Science fiction often uses the metric system because it's considered scientific. Fantasy often uses archaic measurements. Do you measure in feet and inches and pounds? How about kilograms, or stone? These measurements vary in our world, and will suggest different things about yours.

How do you measure temperature? Do you avoid measuring it at all? Do you talk about temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius, or Kelvin?

How does time get measured? We talked about days of the week, which have a long history that goes back to Norse gods in some cases. Why would your world have seven days in a week? Would it? Would it have the concept of weekends? Why? I mentioned how I re-derived the week structure for my Varin world, and also re-derived seconds and minutes and hours, so that the world would feel much like ours but have a very different fundamental basis.

Sometimes you don't need to use precise measurements, but can rely on characters' judgment of things instead. Does the precise height matter? How would the presence or lack of precise measurements affect a reader's impression of the world?

We talked about how, as a writer, you can rely on the translation effect. If you are using familiar measurements, you can simply say that these measurements are a translation of the measurements that the people of your world normally use. That can be helpful to keep your story comprehensible!

Often people neglect to think about climate and how it relates to the kind of food that is available for people to eat. Does food have to travel far for your people to eat it?

What does the transport system look like in this world? If you are moving food by horse, then you will have to find a way to get it to market before it spoils, which limits the range of what you will have access to. There is a long and rich history of food access in our own world that is worth researching. Roman roads had a huge influence.

We talked briefly about inventing fantasy foods.

We also discussed the question of "If it's a rabbit, should you call it a rabbit?" How does the creature compare to an animal in our world? Will it be helpful or confusing to use a new term? How do the differences in this creature become relevant to the story, necessitating a special word for it?

The more alien words you use in a story, the more you will alienate your reader and make them feel distant from the story's narrative. So sometimes you will want to use a rough translation to English to help keep that distance from intruding into the reader's experience. Use of alien words needs to be supported by context.

Che told us about how sensory differences influenced culture in a story of hers, because werewolf people had something called a "scent conviction" where a person could be placed at the scene of a crime by their scent. This also entailed that there existed people called "scrubbers" who could remove a person's scent from a place.

This is a huge topic, and in one hour we could just scratch the surface, but we had a very enjoyable talk! I have to get two more report summaries up, one from last week and one from this week, but I do want to let you know that we will have a guest next week!

Next week, Wednesday, April 20th, 2016, we will be meeting an hour later than usual, at 11am Pacific. Our guest will be author Randy Henderson who will speak with us about Finn Fancy Necromancy and worldbuilding in Urban Fantasy. I'm really looking forward to it, and I hope you can attend!