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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Portraying Children

The first thing to know about children is that they are complex, and they vary widely. It's important never to standardize one's expectations about them. One of the things that can happen is that child characters will be oversimplified because they are "only children." Another thing that can happen is they are portrayed as tiny adults, which again, they are not. The behavior of children differs greatly between cultures, and within cultures, and even within single families.

One of the reasons I was interested to talk about this topic on the show was that the protagonist of my forthcoming novella, "The Persistence of Blood," has five children who range in age from 19 to 2. It was an interesting challenge to keep them all present and active in the story in age-appropriate ways. The youngest, Pelli, is in the two-word stage of language development. This is actually a tiny bit on the late side for standard language development expectations... but remember, expectations are restrictive. Some kids experience the same language stages at very early or very late times relative to the expectation, especially if they have siblings who might talk for them. Restricting myself to the two-word stage for Pelli was helpful because it kept me from accidentally making her language too complex. At the same time, I had to put some thought into how she would express ideas, because a two-word child's thoughts can be quite complex, and they are very creative about how they use their language resources to express those thoughts.

As with anything else, it's important to do your research. Observe children in realistic environments if you have the opportunity. You can also watch shows like the reality show Fetch with Ruff Ruffman, which can give you a picture of how smart and capable 6th-graders are.

Che mentioned the show Kids' Master Chef. Sometimes you get giggly kids who just really like to cook. Sometimes you get unusually quiet and mature child chefs.

Shows like these are non-representative samples, of course. But so are protagonists!

Che mentioned some characters she enjoyed from reading middle grade books, such as a character with social anxiety who gets another character to act as a go-between even though the go-between only speaks two words at a time. She also has seen characters who never stop talking and characters who run over others.

Cliff mentioned the question of appearance. Some kids look like their siblings and others do not. In fiction, we often see the idea of a changeling child taking on the question of fitting in with the family or not. He also pointed out that when it comes to portraying adopted children, genre fiction has a mixed record of success. I had recently read this article, where a family discovered via commercial genetic testing that one of its members had been accidentally switched at birth. The question of genetics versus environment in the development of a person always leads in interesting directions.

This is why, now, they put wristbands on babies and have special alarms that go off if you try to leave the floor.

When we look at babies in fiction, easy babies are overrepresented. Che said that sometimes the baby was treated more like a prop. Babies can be easy or difficult based on a ton of different factors about their health and behavior. My own daughter cried a lot when she was tiny because of a milk allergy; when we got her off milk products, she was much happier!

The baby in Dan Simmons' Hyperion was definitely better than a prop, but we did notice she was a very, very low-maintenance easy baby. Babies tend to make themselves the center of things. Lois McMaster Bujold had a case of a baby who was born and people were trying to kill it in a coup. There are all kinds of complications to having a baby in a story because they are so helpless and vulnerable and prone to crying when they need things. If you have a child that needs to be saved, it will change the story a lot if it's in utero, or if it's in some kind of uterine replicator, or if it's been born.

Morgan remarked that sometimes "sleeping through the night" means sleeping for a five-hour stretch, not for a full 8 or more hours.

We also spoke about nursing. Babies have to learn how to nurse effectively, even though they are born with a sucking reflex. And they nurse a lot - my son nursed for 45 minutes every two hours, 24 hours per day, for his first month of life.

We remarked that the parenting style we were discussing was one where the parent follows the child's need. Very often in fiction, you find regimented parenting styles... or parents who ignore their kids so the kids can go off on adventures! How do parents actually interact with their children? What does the story look like when that relationship is in place?

How do you portray how parents evaluate kids? Does the protagonist ever hear criticisms of their parents' parenting style? Has the child been traumatized? How is the child expected to recover from that? Do others judge their progress within their hearing?

Cliff talked about the movie Coco, where the child protagonist is about 10-12. It features how the child fits in with family expectations, and his role as an individual within a community. We get glimpses of the title character at age 3 and age 100. The boy protagonist was trying to figure out what his connection to the family was, and what it meant. Cliff said it led to a discussion with his children about who they might like to bring back from the dead - a light discussion of a heavy topic.

One challenge of portraying children is being aware of the child's environment. What do children pick up on about the things that happen around them? Where does their attention go? It may not go to the places adult attention might go. Some kids will pay very close attention to where they are while riding in the car. Others will not notice where they are at all. Some kids are hyper-aware of social things, like the social rank of everyone in a room. This may have to do with growing up in a complex environment where there were risks to not tracking everyone's mood and relative power position.

How we use language influences what we pay attention to.

In fiction, the stressors on characters are often extreme things like war or apocalypse. We find ourselves not just having to depict kids, but to depict them in situations of extreme stress. How do children find ways to "keep it together"? What mechanisms do they use to cope?

Kat mentioned that in the case of child refugees, or children in abusive homes, some become beautifully cooperative, while some freak out and become non-cooperative. Reading refugee memoirs can give you insight into this aspect of real children's experiences and help you portray them more accurately.

Disney movies contain a lot of traumas like parental death, threats and coercion by adults. Adults are often villains in the form of mean or racist teachers, neighbors, etc. Bullies are also often antagonists in stories with child protagonists.

Children get socialized very differently, and this has a huge influence on their behavior.

Children go through growth spurts both mentally and cognitively. They will get very hungry and sleepy (sometimes one after the other) and then have sudden developmental changes. This often gets neglected in fiction, but it's important to remember that children change a lot. In our family we used to say, "The only constant is change."

Thanks to everyone who attended. The first hangout of 2018 will occur at our new standard time, on Tuesday, January 9th at 4pm Pacific. We'll be expanding on the topic of Birds. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Social Norms of Contagion

I always knew this one was going to be interesting! Basically, this hangout looked at the ways that people think about contagious disease, and how that affects their behavior (or not). If your base concept of contagion is that diseases float around in the air, your approach to protecting yourself will be very different from what it would be if you believe that diseases are carried in water, or if you believe they are transmitted from person to person in bodily fluids.

Back in the time of the plague, there was no germ theory, and so it was impossible for the people to recognize where the dangers of plague actually came from. Only later did people realize it was transmitted by fleas that were carried by rats.

There is still a myth/urban legend in South Korea of "fan death" - it suggests that if you leave an electric circulating fan on all night you will die.

In Japan, people believe very strongly that you must keep your core warm. Kat described how her dad had a belly-only sweater. Apparently, a chilled gut is seen as lying at the heart of many ailments including digestive problems, though it has less to do with contagion.

We did remark, though, how common it is in Japan to see people wearing medical face masks. The idea is that if you have a cold, you wear a face mask to make sure you don't give your cold to anyone else. In the US, though, people tend to imagine that face masks are only for people with quite serious diseases, and a Westerner will be inclined to think that the face mask means someone is dangerously ill. Meanwhile, the Japanese person is left wondering why Westerners will just hack and cough without covering it, thereby putting others at risk of contagion.

There has been an interesting change in behavior in the last several years in the US. Back when some of our discussants were kids (including me), we were taught to cover our mouths with our hands if we had to cough or sneeze. Now, however, that advice has changed and people are told to cover their mouths with their elbows. You can tell if someone has been exposed to children if they have learned to sneeze in their elbow.

People of Japanese descent in the US have been known to be horrified at the way that people here continue to do things like shake hands during cold and flu season.

I learned, back when I was first teaching, that germs can live for quite a long time on paper. It meant that I was catching all kinds of colds just from grading my students' work. At that time, hand sanitizer was not a widely available product.

We discussed how current US culture tends to place heroic value on coming to work when you are sick, when in fact it is one way to make a lot more people sick at your work! Why can't we shift the culture so that if you are contagious, you don't go in? Some kinds of institutional decisions, like giving personal leave days rather than vacation vs. sick days, may contribute to pressures for people to come into work while sick.

We talked about the concept of the miasma, meaning a zone of air that could make you sick. If you were looking out for miasmas, then posies (flower bouquets for your nose) or plague doctor masks might seem like a good approach to protect yourself.

These days, anti-vaxxers have been creating a situation where the instance of dangerous contagious diseases is going way up, and in fact, there are different kinds of measures that must be taken to protect from each different disease. It's not just germ theory in general, but depends on the property of the particular disease. Thus, your behavior will depend on which diseases you've learned appropriate quarantine protocols for. The protocol for lice - avoiding sharing hats and brushes or combs, and avoiding head contact - is very different from the protocol for measles, which can remain  in the air for hours after a contagious person has walked through it. This is why the clinic will say "if you suspect measles, don't come in; wait outside."

We also spoke about bedbugs, which have become very chemically resistant after all the years people have tried to poison them. They are still vulnerable to heat, however, and so people have developed anti-bedbug ovens to heat their things. We heard about one person who wrapped their couch in heat-insulated blankets and saved it by baking it.

This brought us to cooking. Cooking is highly useful because it kills bacteria which can cause disease. Apparently, new protocols for food safety were put in place at WisCon after a famous incident where norovirus (an awful stomach flu) was passed catastrophically through the convention-goers. These protocols included keeping food at safe temperatures.

Khaalidah mentioned that bathing too much can hurt good bacteria that protect us. We talked a bit about the gut biome. Kat noted that eradicating the gut biome is very bad for us. The biome in the stomach is not the same as the one in the lower intestine.

At that point in the discussion we turned to the question of how to tackle the question of social norms of contagion in stories. You might encounter them in historical fiction, but they can also occur in science fiction and fantasy.

  • Are there artifacts that were invented to protect from disease that have persisted in your society? 
  • Are there aspects of social etiquette that have grown out of disease concerns? 
  • How do the layouts of buildings and cities reflect this? 
  • Where do you put wells so they will be safe from sewage contamination?
  • What do your people do when they sneeze? Is there a phrase to say? Is it ignored?
I mentioned that there's an incidence of contagious disease in my novel that inspires people to start wearing gloves, and that thirty years later, they are still wearing them as a fashion item. Ann Leckie also did something with gloves, where the people of the Radch consider un-gloved hands to be obscene.

Kat mentioned how in Japan it is believed that the ground outside is dirty, so there is a quarantine area (the genkan entry area) built into each home, and people store their shoes there. This belief was brought to the US by East Asian populations, and thus has led to changes in architecture. There are also strict rules about what you do with plates, knives, and chopsticks. Passing condiments is not an expected social behavior in Japan.

In the US, we can have mud rooms which bear some similarity to the entryways of Japan. Inside, though, the US typically has people walk barefoot, or wear socks, maybe socks with grippy bottoms, whereas in Japan you wear slippers (and a special pair of slippers for the bathroom).

Work/repair people used to walk straight in wearing their boots, but now they typically use boot covers when they come into a home.

Khaalidah mentioned that in a Muslim home, you might pray in any room, so no dirty shoes are allowed in the house.

We spoke briefly about the fact that many religions have strict cultural practices surrounding the preparation of food, and that these may have arisen from particular health threats during the time period when they were first established, and persisted thereafter as a form of religious identity - as Cliff put it, how to distinguish "us" from "not us." This question of belonging can then have serious consequences, up to and including death.

Fear of disease is often used as a tool of oppression against people considered Other. It's easy to say "those outsiders are disease-ridden so you should stay away from them." This has been used against nomadic groups in our world. Outsiders can sometimes be blamed for contagion because they don't follow the local norms of quarantine or washing, etc. 

Hygiene is often built into religious practices such as salt purification or washing before coming into a sacred space.

Hand-washing before meals is a widespread measure against the spread of disease.

Nail polish hides what is under your nails and some religions forbid it. Khaalidah told us it also prohibits ablution, which is why it is not accepted in Muslim practice.''

Khaalidah told us about Muslim hygienic practices. There are ablutions with the five daily prayers. There is also a ritual bath to be taken after sex. There are blessings to be had in washing your mouth, especially when fasting. There are ablutions to be done before touching the Quran. One washes private areas as well as hands after using the toilet.

Moors brought the idea of a septic system and hygienic habits to Europe.

The religious origins of a hygiene practice can be lost over time while the practice persists. Kat noted that taking off shoes made particular sense when inside floors were made of tatami, which is heavily degraded by grit... but it persists even with non-tatami floors.

Beauty standards are also influenced by health issues, as when syphilitic beauty marks were admired, or when consumption-like waifish weakness became a value. This is also a class issue.

Thank you to everyone who participated! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, December 20th (tomorrow) at 10am Pacific to talk about Birds. I hope you'll join us!


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Awards Eligible Fiction from 2017

I have one piece of awards-eligible fiction this year: "Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth," a novella which appeared in Clarkesworld Issue 127. It's on the Nebula Awards Recommended Reading List (thank you!) and is eligible for the Hugo and the Nebula. Click on the picture below if you'd like to read it.

Gardner Dozois reviewed it very positively, here.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Birthdays and Coming of Age

Of course, we started this hangout with the birthday song. Actually, we didn't sing it, but we talked about how widespread it is and how many variations it has internationally (and locally). Tip: don't direct-import the birthday song into a secondary world!

Kat told us that she saw an Australian book of birthday cakes which featured a lot of possible birthday cakes she described as "attainable," unlike many of the art cakes we see these days. It's very easy to make the mistake of expecting a pattern of sameness to hold across English-speaking cultures. One of the things that was considered obligatory in this book about Australian birthdays was "fairy bread," or bread with butter and rainbow sprinkles on it. Another was the game "pass the parcel," where you wrap something up in a lot of layers of wrapping paper and pass it around to music, and people unwrap one layer at a time when the music stops.

Different social groups may have different songs they use for birthdays, like the "Birthday Dirge" in fannish circles.

The ceremony of blowing out candles is very common, but it must come at the end of the song, not the beginning or the middle.

The idea of celebrating a birthday is relatively recent. In Catholic countries, traditionally one would celebrate a Saint's Day, or the day dedicated to the saint with whom one shared a name. One might also celebrate the day one had been baptized. Kat said that when she was in Tahiti, the French-speakers there would wish her happy saint's day on Saint Katherine's Day.

Kat also brought up the topic of Japanese birthday-counting. Before Westernization, all Japanese birthdays were celebrated on January 1. You were also counted as 1 year old when you emerged from the womb, so it would be possible for a baby to be born on December 31st and be counted as two years old at the age of 2 days. She speculated that in a society where age is important and relative age is important for social interaction, that might help to create age cohorts. Kat also noted that the Chinese Zodiac year changes on January 1 in Japan, so everyone born in the same calendar year would be the same sign. Japan had a base-10 calendar for a long time, so tens and twenties are important.

When you live in a regularized and secularized system, it's easy to forget that holidays and rest days were also celebratory.

We asked where we had seen birthdays in secondary worlds. The example that came most immediately to mind was Bilbo Baggins' birthday party at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring. Hobbits also had the tradition of giving gifts, rather than receiving them, on a birthday.

Cliff had the idea that one could have a particular birthday celebration for coming of age, at which the present given by the oldest female relative would be a dagger.

In the case of outer space science fiction, calculating age and birthdays can be complicated. Which planet forms the basis for the time system? Does each have its own system? What time system is used in interstellar space? Vernor Vinge's solution was to have everyone count their age in seconds. Shauna suggested that the human body clock might be used as a basis for a time system. Kat noted that a shipborn character might measure time by "orbits" or by repair cycles on the ship clock.

Some cultures have traditionally not celebrated birthdays until the child reaches a certain age when it is more likely to survive to adulthood.

Facebook birthday announcements are inadvertently teaching us about the planetary day because of the way people get birthday wishes a day early from places in Asia. Larry Niven's Ringworld featured a person who spent his 200th birthday teleporting around the world to enjoy the entirety of it.

I spoke a little bit about birthdays in my own secondary world of Varin. In the Varin nobility, survival is not at all guaranteed, so the traditional birthday greeting is, "Congratulations." The seventeenth birthday is an important one because it marks a child's introduction into political life for boys, or into marriage elegibility for girls. The other important birthday is an early one, usually between 2 and 6 years of age, when for the first time the child is certified by a doctor as being healthy enough to join in social life. It's called a "confirmation," and one of those parties appears in my forthcoming novella, "The Persistence of Blood."

Ask: how do these people choose the age of majority? What do they base it on? Is it at all affected by developmental differences between the sexes?

Different societies have different ideas of what it means to become an adult. They also have different concepts of how precious children are, and different ideas of what kinds of developmental and social milestones are important.

Jewish adulthood happens at age 13 (with the exception of Orthodox Jews who have a boy's adulthood at 13 and a girl's at 12). Puberty is often what people identify as what makes you a grownup, but not always. Cliff noted that the concept of adolescence is relatively recent. Puberty rites exist around the world. In the Jewish case, the age of adulthood is important for ceremonial purposes, like joining in a minyan, a group of 10 or more adults. You can participate as a member of a minyan if you are over 13. You also have ritual responsibilities, which is why in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah you lead the whole service.

Puberty and adulthood are not necessarily strongly linked everywhere. You may need training to be an adult, or you may need to have achieved something particular.

In the US, you can vote at age 18, which is the age of consent (though not in all states), but you can't drink until 21 and you can't rent a car until age 25. Being able to drive a car is a huge rite of passage in the West.

What kids are allowed to do independently has been scaled back in some regions. In some places, very young children are expected to be able to get across town on public transit by themselves, or to stay home alone. In other places, parents would be blamed for allowing them to attempt it.

The movie Kiki's Delivery Service has a young witch moving out to live on her own for a year at age 13, which always astonished me.

There is so much more we could have chatted about! We'll have to take up the question of Coming of Age again sometime. Thank you to everyone who participated. Today, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet at 10am Pacific (in 25 minutes) to talk about Portraying Children. I hope you'll join us!


Monday, December 4, 2017


When I think of advertising in fiction, my mind goes straight to the futuristic dystopias like Blade Runner, where the ads were the height of buildings, and Minority Report, where ads would register your identity via your eyes, and advertise directly to you. Firefly/Serenity also had advertising jingles, which were used as a trigger for River because they could appear anywhere without notice.

Jingles are interesting because they are most effective when they are incredibly hard to forget. Too many of us remembered the Oscar Meyer song, and the list of Big Mac ingredients, from our childhoods. Che said she thought that they had gone out of style in favor of pop music, but we could still think of what we called micro-jingles, like the very brief Nationwide jingle, or the Intel Inside series of four notes, that are in current use.

I created a fictional scenario that falls into the category of the future dystopia with advertising in my story, "Mind Locker." In that story, everyone had augmented reality with internet in their heads, and the slums of the city were hidden from citydwellers by a layer of virtually projected advertising.

To take it back to the opposite end technologically, we can look at fantasy scenarios where taverns have signs hanging out front, and where vendors sing songs or have calls to hawk their wares.

Che told us how in the Rome HBO series, there was a town crier who shouted out the news, and interspersed the news with an advertisement for a bakery. People in the city could apparently pay him to advertise their bread.

If you are running a business in a fantasy or science fictional world, what would be the optimal method to get the word out about it? You don't necessarily know who the interested people are. If you get the word out, that means you get more business, which means you have more work to do. What is the economic system into which your business fits?

We could think of more fictional scenarios with very little advertising, or a great deal, than with a middling amount of it.

Businesses are always looking for better reach, new and better ways to reach consumers. There's an insidiousness to advertising, also, because it can be extremely manipulative, selling a lifestyle, or a feeling, or making you feel as if your life is incomplete without a product that you don't really need. This is one of the reasons why it can be illegal to advertise certain products to children.'

In our world, consciously navigating advertising can require a lot of self-awareness and smarts.

There are three things going on here.

1. Actual need. There's a product someone is making, and another person needs to have it for life, and they need to find each other.
2. Cultural narrative. There is a product that becomes part of a significant cultural narrative of value, which then results in people feeling they need it for status or inclusion, when in fact they would not die without it.
3. Manipulation. This is the further extreme of the cultural narrative scenario, when people are convinced they need a product when obtaining it will harm them, either literally or by denting their means to do other things that are critical for their success.

A lot of ads tell tiny stories about how with this thing you will be healthy, or happy, or have something else terribly important.

Cliff spoke a bit about ads that target children, because he has had to explain to his twins that "they are paying this woman to pretend to be enjoying this toy." Ads can be disguised as an enthusiast making a video.

We spoke about viral marketing, like the case of the Chewbacca Mom. In her case, this was a spontaneous video of someone enjoying a product, and it turned out to be such a winning endorsement that it made a huge difference for the product and the company involved, who then turned around and rewarded her - sort of a backwards way of advertising. Not quite the same, but closely related, was the joke that KFC hid on their Twitter feed, which got news when a person discovered it, and the company then rewarded that person.

Amazon reviews are an interesting question here, because some are endorsements, and others are paid advertising masquerading as endorsements.

I brought up the idea of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. When a person's actions are motivated from the inside, they are called intrinsic. This is what was going on with Chewbacca mom. The excitement of a person in a TV ad for a product is motivated by external reward, and is called extrinsic. The two are quite different in their effect.

This is one of the reasons why learning about persuasive language is very important.

If you are setting up advertising in a fictional scenario, ask:

What is appropriate for whom, and when?
Who benefits?

Are there worthy projects that people should support?

Is your society a capitalist society, or is it not? Advertising will be markedly different in those two different models. State advertising overlaps with propaganda. We also have propagandizing advertisement, as when we have ads for July 4th barbecue items which are meant to evoke childhood, patriotism, but can also evoke fear of others, and fear of invasion.

Music is often used in advertising to evoke scenarios that the music was originally connected to, such as musicals.

We get a peek into other cultures when we watch advertisements from other cultures. This is one reason why advertising can be such a useful tool for worldbuilding. It shows cultural narratives and ideals. In the new Bladerunner, the ads had progressed.

Brian Buhl asked what kind of responsibility is associated with advertising. Capitalist ads can be dehumanizing. Is there legal regulation of advertising to avoid this?

In the US, lawyers and medicines didn't used to be able to advertise. Cigarette ads used to appear on TV. The Joe Camel character was made illegal because it was deemed to have been targeting children. Such ads were moved to Asia because there are no such laws there (predatory companies will take advantage of such things). Cliff noted that there has been a significant change in culture, where his dorm used to have a cigarette machines, but now such a thing would be unheard of.

In the Hunger Games, previous winners of the games were used in advertising. The Hunger Games was all about its survivors and their prizes, and their product endorsements.

We have the Superbowl, which for many people is more about the advertising than it is about the game. Companies will spend millions just for a thirty-second spot.

Advertising is both a window into culture, and a driver of culture.

I explained an ad I had seen in Japan for a type of bread that was perfectly square and white and an inch thick, and so fluffy that when you pinched one corner it would spring back. As an American I found it unappetizing, but it did reveal what qualities many Japanese people associated with ideal bread!

Thomas' English muffins used to have ads that were historical dramas about how sad people were when Thomas left England. They were selling Englishness to Americans.

Advertising can also be a hotbed of cultural appropriation. There are lots of ads featuring people in costumes that portray them as stereotypical Others. They can therefore be used in worldbuilding to show who is oppressed. Cliff mentioned a 1970's ad featuring a crying Indian, who was in fact not even portrayed by a Native American actor. It was an attempt to tie the idea of the noble savage into the idea of not littering. Don't Mess with Texas was also an anti-littering campaign, but the phrase has moved away from that limited context into others because it was so well tied to Texan self-image. The "I <3 NY" ads were actually an ad for upstate New York and New York City, but they are now used in far more contexts.

Here are some important questions to ask: Who owns the default narrative? Who is being advertised to? Who is allowed to be mocked? (Different countries target different groups.)

Ads can reveal social strife. There have been recent examples of extremely racist ads out of China (a black man going into a washing machine and coming out Chinese) and the US (a Dove ad showing a black woman removing a brown shirt and turning into a white woman with a pink shirt).

There's a lot more to this topic than we could cover in an hour, but thanks to everyone who attended and made for a lively discussion!


Spencer Ellsworth - Starfire: A Red Peace, and Wilderness Survival

Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since childhood, and he's been a literary agent, and he's joined us as a discussant... and now he's got three short novels coming out from, so I was really excited to feature him on the show. The novels of the Starfire trilogy are A Red Peace, Shadowsun Seven, and Memory's Blade.

The story is a space opera, set ten thousand years in the future in our galaxy at the end of a long war against giant space spiders that eat planets and suns. Humans used genetically engineered soldiers against the spiders, and now those soldiers have overthrown the Empire and decided to kill all humans. There's a mysterious peace with the spiders which essentially consists of "we can coexist with the spiders until we bump into them."

The main characters are a smuggler who decides to save humans - she's genetically engineered, but her parents escaped the life of soldiers, and a soldier who is realizing the nature of the unconscionable orders he's being given. The soldier has a drug problem, in part to cope with what he's being asked to do.

Spencer says this has a similar tone to the X-men, inasmuch as it has an echo of real issues but then a lot of wacky stuff. People in his books read comic books about a folk hero who is a space sheriff. Spencer hints that this person is not as made-up as he appears.

The genetic engineering mixed human DNA with that of a legendary, supposedly extinct race called the Jorians, whose empire was disrupted by the spiders. Many legendary things are attributed to the Jorians, such as terraforming. This universe has a history.

Spencer says the stories are less hard SF and more "fantasy in space," with a Dune-ish flavor.

I asked how many humans there were, and Spencer said they were a despised upper class, who were proud of having pure human DNA, a sort of pedigree. He says the idea was inspired in part by the Russian revolution, in that there was a sympathetic resistance with a good cause, but as with Lenin, the winner turned ruthless. The concept of a war that depends on a disposable soldier class, he said, was inspired by the separation of soldiers and non-soldiers in the US. The soldier character was inspired by conversations with Spencer's dad, who treats PTSD in Marines. Spencer noted that in World War II, soldiers spent about 40 days in combat zones, but that the number is much higher for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans.

Spencer said that writing on commission nearly broke his brain the first time. He wrote and threw away the beginning of Book 2 several times. "Beginnings of middles are challenging." He explained that it helped to know what kind of story he was telling. Book 1 is a chase story, Book 2 is a caper/infiltration story, and Book 3 is a story of spectacular battles. Having that structure was useful, because the stream-of-consciousness approach wasn't working. The characters have to get out of a space prison... but why? There's a giant space tick that comes to ships and sucks the air out of them, and is therefore full of air pockets.

Spencer says, "you have to get to the point where you're playing and having fun."

Brian asked whether Spencer plots (outlines) more or whether he does discovery writing. Spencer explained that he has been plotting more. "The more I write, the more I plot... I'm sort of a born-again plotter... If I have a really tight plot I can produce a book on deadline."

Cliff asked how Spencer expanded the world as he wrote books 2 and 3. Spencer said that he re-read Book 1 and looked for places to expand. Some places he seeded deliberately, and other places he just threw in. For example, he never explained how faster-than-light travel worked. He looked for holes, and places where people might like to learn more.

He also worked with the idea that "the glorious resistance is broke." Book 2 leveraged that with the idea that an offer for "letters of credit" would be meaningful for some, but worthless for others. Spencer said he was reading The Expanse while writing book 2, and he wanted to have some bare minimum of scientific accuracy, like with artificial gravity. It made him want to try to explain with a bit more rigor.

At this point in the conversation, we moved onto the other topic that Spencer had wanted to discuss, that of wilderness survival. He told us that as a snotty teenager he'd gone to a wilderness camp (a good one). He then worked there on and off for five years in college. It was in Arizona, so the environment was desert. It was based out of Mesa, and often they would circle around a town but try not to let any of the students know there was a town nearby. There were tarantulas (but only the Vegan kid was brave enough to pick them up). A kid ate a scorpion (apparently it tasted like a really sour shrimp).

We asked Spencer what you think about when you're worrying about whether a character will survive in a wilderness setting. The main issue is that food and water will run out. In civilization, we tend to eat a lot more calories in a day than we need to survive, and so people in the wilderness will eat a lot less, but may expend a lot of energy trying to get enough to eat. Fish and game take a while to clean. Making a bow or a boomerang for hunting is hard, and requires a lot of trial and error. Living on roots and berries is "not much." Even in the height of berry season, you have to eat a LOT of berries, or a LOT of leaves, to get enough to eat. Spencer says, "never turf a character out in the desert without a knife." You need a knife to make a spoon.

Spencer has eaten rattlesnake, and apparently you have to eat the ribs. You can eat crayfish in this area of Arizona - apparently it's an invasive species there which causes problems, so no one will mind if you eat them.

After a few days, you will be exhausted from low calorie intake, and low level of carbohydrates. Spencer explains that this is why people settled down to make bread when they could.

Making a fire in a wet biome is hard. You need to learn the tricks to find dry wood.

There are five different uses for a yucca plant, but those don't apply in another biome.

Spencer doesn't watch wilderness survival shows. There are wilderness skills meetups that you can join to learn more (linked here). Gary Paulson books have a lot of good wilderness survival information. The film Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford shows some wilderness survival skills. Brian Dolton recommended The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea, which looks at people trying to survive as they cross the southern border of the US.

Che asked how much you have to carry to survive. Spencer observed that in the medieval setting typical of fantasy, people had parasites anyway, so they just drank the available water anyway unless they were near cities. Carrying water is very heavy, so it's a good idea to carry a filtration device. Spencer says "Dry camping is a scary endeavor." "You wake up dehydrated, and have to hike dehydrated." He said if he had kids in his survival group who complained of headache or stomachache, he would tell them to drink 2 canteens of water and see how they felt. A backpack would probably have to weigh 50-60 pounds if you wanted to have enough calories to feed you for the week. Spencer explained that you can compact some of that if you have a lot of oily foods. He said someone like Tolkien's Aragorn probably carried a lot of rendered-down fat. He would probably either just eat it, or use it to cook his roots and berries because of the amount of calories he would get from it. He would probably also carry dry, flat bread if he could find it, but would want a type that would not mold easily. "You want a complex carbohydrate source if you can get it." Tolkien's invention of lembas bread makes sense because he was a veteran of World War I, and would have understood about the need for calories. Spencer said that when he was running his wilderness group, they would make sure to have sunflower seeds and powdered creamer for the kids, because they were nice and fatty. "If you are writing fantasy, you can invent nuts." "Any fatty nut is going to be beneficial," but they are most appropriate in a dry environment because in the damp they will sour and sprout.

Spencer said that in the scene where Aragorn walks up to the camp with a deer, "that would be the next 30 hours of Aragorn's life, trying to figure how much nutrition he could get out of that deer." He'd have to strip the meat off and build a smokehouse to smoke it. He'd want to eat as much of the organ meat as possible and also smoke as much as he couldn't eat. He'd also have to render the fat and process the hide. "The ringwraiths probably would have caught him in the probably 30-40 hours he'd have to spend processing the deer" before it could spoil. Spencer said it's also possible they just ate as much as they could and then left the rest as waste, but he would be mad at them for it. Brian added that the wagon trains that crossed the US would shoot a buffalo, eat fresh meat, and then leave the carcasses.

Spencer said it's important to remember that indigenous ways of life are usually sustainable, and colonizers' ways are usually not. The killing of animals would be done very carefully to keep the herd above the population threshold needed for it to stay the same size over time. The arrival of horses changed this, however.

It's hard to be a vegetarian in the wilderness. If you're hungry you will need to kill something. You can smoke fatty meat, but it's better to render the fat and then eat it.

Cliff asked how long it would take to fix the food from a midsize animal, and Spencer said two days if you have to smoke it, scrape the hide, eat the organs, and render the fat. He suggested that if you're in an alien planet scenario, you can use handwavium for your smokehouse. Che asked if one would build a smokehouse on wheels and somehow bring it with you. Spencer said in the Pacific Northwest, there are fishing sites where people would build a smokehouse. People with horses and carts can bring tools, but if you put a clay oven in a handcart, it will crack if it bounces.

Calories are the biggest issue for wilderness survival. Clothes will also degrade. Spencer said you can shave bone awls out of solid bone, and they end up about 3 times the size of sewing needles. You can use sinew from animal tendons or from plants like yucca as thread.

Spencer, thanks so much for joining us and letting us feature your work and your specialty! This was quite fascinating. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, December 6 at 10am Pacific to discuss portraying children. Then, on December 12, we'll be joined by guest author Rebecca Kuang! I hope you can make it to these discussions, and as always, please consider supporting the show on Patreon, here.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017


There are quite a number of stories based on the character of a child genius, such as Ender's Game or Spy Kids. We were talking about prodigies, where the person's abilities are extremely different from what one would expect for their age. Social difficulties often play into a story like this. Genius kids may or may not appear in a controlled environment. But the idea that a genius would have social difficulties is its own stereotype. Kat opined that the character of Wesley Crusher ruined the child genius category.

Precociousness doesn't just mean intellectual genius. It implies a child being more advanced in some way. Sometimes it implies they seem older or more sexually mature. It's always about children, however. It is erased by adulthood.

We spoke about the movie Shine, about a precocious but abused boy who was a brilliant pianist in Australia. This brought us to questions about genderedness and the ways in which emotional intelligence is not expected of certain people. The expectations for precocious girls are different. They are not generally allowed to be socially disconnected like boys. Che told us that Mozart's sister had been more talented, but no one cared. Girls are often told to hide their exceptionality. Girls in history have become warriors often have done so because it's the only way to escape the box of societal expectations that you have been put in.

Expectations are a key factor here. Precociousness implies a disparity between expectations and performance. Girls who became motherless were expected to take on adult roles in caring for the family, but were not considered precocious for doing so. "Little man" means something very different from "little woman," which is most commonly a way to belittle one's wife.

Prodigies can grow up and still be exceptional.

Kat brought up the question of what happens when you were a child prodigy but you aren't any more, and what effect that might have on your psychology. What happens if you lose your magic? (In fantasy, this could be literal.) We spoke briefly about IQ testing and how it sets up expectations that may be toxic. You could be precocious but being treated that way might lead to worse things later.

Kat told us that she was able to access a "walled garden of education" because of being identified as precocious. It was a safe haven for her, and useful as she dealt with identity issues. She benefited from being pushed instead of stifled. Testing allowed this to happen for her. When she reentered the mainstream, she felt pressure not to make other people feel bad. There was an expectation to underperform for other people's comfort. Kat told us that in her case, this was exacerbated by gender and racialization.

Morgan asked, if you are brilliant and ADD, will you get support for your intelligence?

The idea of "potential" is an extremely loaded one.

Culture tells us that everyone should expect to hit particular milestones by a certain age. You can be labeled, to your detriment, for being either faster or slower than those milestones. Human development is not a smooth process, and it happens in "growth spurts" both physically and mentally.

The cultural system has inertia. We compared it to the way clothes are made off the rack, basically by making assumptions about people's size at certain ages. In earlier eras, people had smaller wardrobes that had been specially fitted to them. We have lost the idea that custom-crafting for non-elites exists. The fit of clothes is an indicator of class.

Intellectual precocity interacts with class. The more money you have, the more flexibility you have. School funding in the United States is complicated, and the richer you are, the more access you have to specialist educators that people in poor areas don't have.

The idea of a child being precocious can also be weaponized, or used against them. Tamir Rice was killed, and police justified his killing by claiming that he looked mature. Age perception of black people among white people is skewed. White people tend not to recognize the signs of age in non-white people. Young black children are perceived as older, while privileged white people are described as "finding his way" into their 30s. In the case of young girls, people often conflate the onset of puberty with the ability to give meaningful consent. Can children consent? Precocity can be deliberately assigned to victims to protect their harassers and rapists.

Neoteny, or the appearance of childlike-ness, is generally associated with big eyes, rounded features, and the things we might term kawaii or chibi (from Japanese).

We argue that the intellectually precocious child should be given access to adult spaces, and therefore that same word is adopted by people who argue for access to the sexually precocious.

Authors should aim for nuance in their portrayals.

Sometimes portraying a child as precocious allows the author to argue that they were predestined for some fate. Sometimes authors don't do sufficient research about children and their behaviors. Twelve-year-olds are not tiny adults. Sometimes making a character a child genius is about wish fulfillment. Children are often portrayed in fiction either as overly intelligent, or as under-intelligent. Moral of the story: do your research! Meet some kids if you can.

Thank you to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet tomorrow, Wednesday, November 22 at 10am Pacific to discuss Birthdays and Coming of Age. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, November 8, 2017


The first thing I think of when I think of performances in SF/F is the bard in the tavern. However, there are a lot of different kinds of opportunities for writers to put performances in their fiction. I personally used an orchestral concert as an important element of my novel on submission, because of the way that art is subversive and boundary-crossing. I modeled it on the real historical events surrounding Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, where a lot of concertgoers walked out during the performance because they were so scandalized.

We talked a bit about puppetry, specifically about the French Guignol puppet shows, and English Punch and Judy shows. They can be quite revealing of history and social biases. They are forms of on-the-street public performance where you donate to the players as you leave. Modern Guignol shows do sometimes have to be scheduled in inside venues where they sell tickets, but this is a relatively new development on top of a longer history of street performance.

When you are thinking about what kinds of performances to feature in your fiction, ask yourself, "Who attends a performance here? What class are they? What are the expectations for audience participation? Is this type of performance high- or low-energy?" Puppet shows often expect more audience participation, while orchestral concerts tend not to invite audience participation.

Our discussant Shauna Roberts told us quite a lot of interesting information about the history of orchestras. She told us that in the 1700s, orchestras were less professional and the musicians were not as good, perhaps as good as high-school musicians now. The groups were often smaller. Sometimes musicians would hire someone to show up to the rehearsals for them, and then end up coming to the final performances and sight-reading the music. The composer of the piece might be composing and revising up till the last minute. Instruments that were played might not be highly evolved. The other really key element was that the audience was usually hearing a piece of music for the very first time, because the piece was composed for the event. Orchestras in this day and age are basically playing "orchestra's greatest hits." At this point in history, it was more like improv or jazz, where you make it up as you go along.

Things changed a great deal when it became possible to record performances and hear them more than once. A change may also have occurred when sheet music first was able to be printed. One way in which sheet music has evolved is that composers have increased the detail they provide for musicians in terms of tempo and dynamic changes, etc. In the olden days the music was written without much detail and musicians would ornament.  This somewhat parallels the way in which dramatic plays have changed to give more stage instructions (since the very simple instructions of Shakespeare, for example).

Possibly the biggest change that occurred with the advent of recordings was that before recordings, each orchestra had its own style. People would seek out particular orchestras to hear those styles. However, after recordings orchestral styles converged and orchestras became less distinguishable.

At this point we moved away from orchestras. I spoke a bit about Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which is an amazing place to visit and is full of performances. There are pantomimes where you watch a show and can yell at the actors. There are violins or other instruments people play for you at dinner. And there are also full-scale historical reenactments that you can participate in.

Mimes are cool. They get a lot of ridicule these days, but they are essentially silent storytellers, and get a lot of flak these days because it became popular to imitate (badly) the mime of Marcel Marceau. My family went to see the mime troupe Mummenschanz, and we were amazed by the performance. One of the things I noticed about mime is how active the role of the audience is in interpreting the meaning of what's going on.

Shauna mentioned that in the novel Never Let Me Go, there is no emotional or facial information, and all of it must be provided by the inference of the reader. (Yes, the reader is a very important participant in the meaning of any book).

Cliff talked about a play called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, where there are thirty plays, and the audience says numbers and the performers do the performance that corresponds to the numbers. Also, someone orders pizza.

We have this concept of the "fourth wall" between an audience and a performance. Would a performance in a fictional society have this same concept? How would they relate to it? In Western theater and Noh theater from Japan, the fourth wall is generally inviolate. In haunted houses, performers interact directly with the audience.

The context of a performance matters a great deal. Cliff explained that in India pre-1947 in the Raj courts, a musician's role was to play in the court. It was essentially a palace job, full time. After independence, the social context changed, and musicians started giving performances with tickets at a fixed time. This was a tough transition for many reasons, but its influence on performance was that it cut down on the sitar ragas that could be played.

When '78 records came into use, it created pressure for songs to be short. '78s were clearly the Twitter of musical recordings.

Recordings separate the context of recording from the context of listening.

Opera could once only be seen live in the theater, but it can now also be seen in recordings and even in movie theaters.

The television show Star Trek featured quite a lot of performances, but most of them were of European classical orchestral music. Many of us would have liked to see more different selections!

Some types of performance have a fixed canon, like Noh and Kabuki, and Gagaku. Shakespeare also has a fixed canon. Noh uses masks for its characters. In all of these cases, the historical language gets preserved in the performances.

Performances aren't always short. Kabuki performances last all day, and people picnic in the audience. Shakespeare plays also used to last longer, with more songs.

Do people talk during a performance? In a nightclub, they do. In a concert hall, they don't. Dimming the house lights was a technological development that allowed organizers to signal the need for silence.

Movies made performances available to the masses because they were so much cheaper to run.

I also mentioned that there is a new type of performance out there - the YouTube video. Performers like Markiplier and Jack Septiceye are playing games, but also performing comedic improvisation.

Many fictional works have thought about the role of virtual reality performances and holograms. People like making art with whatever technology is available! Fahrenheit 451 had a participatory play that happened at home. Star Trek had the holodeck.

What kind of behavior is accepted during a performance? Talking? Eating? What is rude? Dinner theater combines eating and watching a performance deliberately. What is polite?

A church mass could be considered a type of performance with audience participation, as well as a ritual.

Cliff recommended Adam-Troy Castro's Marionette stories as doing something unusual with performance. They feature one hundred thousand aliens who all dance until they drop dead, and an instance of a human dancer joining in.

Thank you to everyone who attended! Today's hangout will feature author Spencer Ellsworth. We'll be meeting in 40 minutes. I hope you can come!


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What We Do at Different Times of Day

This was a lively topic! I started out by clarifying what I meant by it. We have a lot of daily practices, most of them everyday things, that we do at particular times of day (and not at other times of day). Since everyday cultural practices are some of the details that really make a fictional world pop (or even a version of the real world, actually), I wanted to spend some time talking about this.

Che immediately thought of the practice of avoiding drinking alcohol until after 5pm. Kat mentioned the Japanese practice of having a bath before going to bed and contrasted it with the American practice of getting up and jumping in the shower. The Japanese practice makes a lot of sense because buildings don't often have central heating (they generally heat room by room), and so it works really well to heat up your body and then tuck into bed. Kat said, "you are your own hot water bottle."

And then, of course, there's tea time! Americans tend to have tea with breakfast (if they drink tea) and sometimes lunch, but my Australian husband likes to have it midmorning and midafternoon. Kat said in her house teatime was morning, afternoon, and evening before bed. The movie Astérix chez les Bretons (in French) makes a joke about the early Breton soldiers not wanting to fight at teatime. Astérix likes to make jokes so that the cast of characters is responsible for all the historical things like the ruins of the Roman coliseum and the fact that the Sphynx has no nose. Another discussant pointed out that between Astérix and Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bear, they've invented all the things!

Morgan mentioned siestas. They tend to happen during the hottest time of day, and be dependent on local climate, as Cliff observed. They have led sometimes to stereotypes about laziness from colonizers arriving from outside the climate zone. They also happen in Spain. In France, stores traditionally closed for two hours during lunchtime. Thinking through climate helps you to worldbuild in more than one way, because it provides setting and also traditional behaviors. Cliff called it "double worldbuilding."

What reasons do we have for scheduling things at particular times? This is a good thing to think through. Climate obviously enters in. So does the age of the person involved, as with naptimes for children. Culture teaches us assumptions about how brains work, but can also fail to take neurodiversity into account, as well as culture differences in a diverse society. Some people like a fixed schedule.

Meals also tend to be culturally influenced to take place at particular times of day - and not always at the same times of day. What are the meals called in your society? Which meal is the biggest? Is there a "second breakfast"?

Kat noted that clocks tend to be normalized. Bank workers still work at different times from shift workers, however. Technology level has a lot of influence on what time people do things, because an agrarian schedule is very different from a factory one. If you have no electricity, it limits the kinds of things you can do after dark. Cliff also noted that people have things they schedule at different times of year, especially when they are growing food.

Clocks regulate shifts. The sun regulates life, but it is also constantly changing. Cliff pointed out that when you are working on a ship, the schedule tends to be four hours on, four hours off. Kat noted that someone has to be on lookout all the time.

Time is a convention, and it is often run on the basis of some group's behavior, and disseminated mechanically. Local time in the middle ages was determined by the church bells of the town, rung by the clergy. The days would be divided differently as the days changed with the seasons. Days are also measured differently by different groups. For example, the day begins and ends at sunset for the Jewish and Islamic communities, whereas by the clock it begins right after midnight, and for some communities it begins at dawn.

Cliff spent some time telling us about sitar playing. Many of the musical pieces, called ragas, are to be played only at particular times of day. Some are for early, mid, or late morning. Some are seasonal. One can only be played during the eight minutes of sunset. Practice gives you a bit more flexibility, but it's ideal to practice the sunset raga in the evening. It's perceived to affect health like bad medicine if you play them at the wrong time. There is another raga called bhairavi, where once you've played it you can't play anything else. Sometimes sitar players have set up special concerts at unusual times so concertgoers could hear a different repertoire. Sometimes teachers will give music lessons on Sunday to teach morning ragas. The differences between these pieces have to do with the scale of notes used, the pattern for ascending and descending, and various motifs. Cliff says morning ragas tend to have more flats. In general, the ragas have different "vibe" to them, having something to do with the rhythm and aesthetic.

Kat remarked that there are also American songs that only get played at certain times of day, such as reveille and taps. Lullabies are for bedtime. There are wake-up songs and work songs.

We considered for a minute or so the difference between a song intended to evoke a particular time of day (musically) and one that is only to be played at a particular time of day.

These patterns definitely also exist in Western culture. People have very strong opinions about hearing Christmas music out of season. There are rituals associated with certain times of year, and not all are religious. When do you eat pumpkin pie?

When are prayers supposed to be? At sunrise? Bedtime? Five times a day? Before or after you eat? Do you change them depending on what you're eating? Are there special times of year when you pray differently?

Ask questions about the practices of the people in your fictional society.

The example of Second Breakfast in the Lord of the Rings movies was wonderful, because it was used for both worldbuilding and character development. Cliff remarked that in science fiction, highly regimented use of time is often associated with fascistic societies like those of A Wrinkle in Time, Metropolis, or "Repent, Harlequin, said the Ticktockman." The phrase "making the trains run on time" is directly associated with Nazi Germany.

Timekeeping is both personal and communal.

Discussions are ongoing in various contexts about whether Daylight Saving should remain a part of our yearly scheduling. People have circadian rhythms that get messed up with Daylight Saving switches. In addition, studies of teens have shown that they are more effective at studying if they have been allowed to wake up later in the morning. Is there any form of circadian variation in your world?

We do have flavors we prefer at particular times of year. Pumpkin spice is apparently followed by gingerbread and then by peppermint.

Kat remarked that in Japan there is a deep understanding of the culinary calendar. There is, for example, a particular day in the summer which is the right one for eating a bowl of eel on rice. She told us that for relatives of hers, Thanksgiving and July 4th made sense and were comforting because of the predictability of the food offered on those days.

There are seasonal beers in different countries, including the US and Japan (and others).

Japan also has seasonal rice, as when they serve rice from the newly harvested crop. There are also things to add to rice for different times of year.

Bûche de Noël is a cake exclusively for Christmas. In Japan, every festival has its own unique wagashi (candy).

Beer is not a good thing for breakfast, I imagine because it intoxicates you before you have to work. Is there a cutoff time for coffee? In the US some perceive there to be one, but in Europe it's very common to have espresso after dinner.

What time do you eat dinner? Kat said in her family, her father was a gardener, so he'd work until dusk and they would not eat dinner until 8pm. In the circus, though, one might have dinner between two evening shows.

 Cliff said that certain activities are reserved for "liminal time" in between other activites. In an initiation, it's common to find dramatic changes of schedule. A break from the comfort of the known has a strong effect on character comfort.

There is a lot more one could talk about here (jet lag, for instance), but I think we covered a lot in a short time. Thanks to everyone who participated.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Wednesday, November 8 at 10am Pacific, and we'll be talking with guest author Spencer Ellsworth about his new book series, and about outdoor survival. I hope you can make it!


Monday, October 30, 2017

Monica Valentinelli

Author Monica Valentinelli joined us to talk about her work in fiction, games, and media tie-ins, and we had a super-interesting discussion!  Monica told us that she likes to write horror, dark fantasy, and dark science fiction, but that when it comes to horror, she's not a fan of chopping off somebody's arm and calling it horror. She prefers atmospheric horror including the works of Edgar Alan Poe, Mary Shelly, and Anne Rice, among others.

"What is horror?" she asks. Is it a mood or a genre? Genre is more of a question of which shelf to put a book on, in her mind. Not until revisions do you have a sense of that. She finds it easier to write horror and the darker genres because she can capture that mood. She also says the motivations of the characters are clearer because they are "drawing to the point of light." Even if things are terrible, there is that little point of light that they are trying to move toward.

Monica said she likes to look at what kinds of situations are no-win. She prefers gray skies. When you are surrounded by darkness, what do you do? Are you crushed? Do you fight?

I asked her if she uses any talismanic words (recurring words that evoke particular feelings). She explained, "I don't write by fixating on words..." Instead, she focuses on the sound of the narrative. She has a background in musical history, and perhaps because of that she includes reading aloud as part of her process.

She describes a story as being like an iceberg. Readers see the tip, but they need the impression of depth.

Monica is writing a novel about alchemists, who have specific behaviors like purifying themselves by going into the hottest water possible. The details paint the picture for the reader. History is messy. Monica says she researches obsessively. In her view, human nature doesn't change, but technology does. She likes to look at the advertisements and letters from a historical period. What does a tentacle mean to a story? You don't know until you know what the characters see it as. She doesn't want to get stuck in tropes.

I asked Monica what her research process looks like. She told us it depends on what she already knows, and what she's doing with the topic. For Dark Eras, a "near world" urban fantasy game, she was creating a template so people could play as monster hunters. That sent her into research on Salem, and the pre-Enlightenment views on why crops failed, etc. (The general view was that it was the devil.) She spent three months researching a twenty thousand word chapter. There were a lot of tensions in the community and aspects of the history that had remained unexplained in the usual accounts. Tituba was married, for example. Also, these were not the only witch trials that were happening at that time.

Monica says the danger is that research can become procrastination. It has been for her novel. It's important as you research to ask, "What is the purpose of the research?" and "Am I losing focus?" It takes time to process the layers of information. There is also the question of how you are using the information. Are you writing historical fiction? Or are you being inspired by it?

Monica told us her alchemy novel is in the same world as Violet War, and right now she's working on multiple stories in the world.  She has been influenced by working in games and media tie-ins, where you can ply in a sandbox. She wants to know the world really well so she can write quickly.

I asked her what it was like to work on media tie-in projects. She told me you see what's on the stage. The most important part is actually contractual: there is a contract and licensing agreement between the company producing the product and the license owner for a particular period of time. That amount of time varies widely. That agreement determines the scope of the project, and every arrangement is different. If you are working with a team, it's different from just working for an editor. Monica worked on a Firefly role-playing game, and on a Firefly dictionary. She said how and where you can build things depends on what material you are given. Sometimes there is a setting bible; sometimes you need to make one. The tough question is where your creativity can stray from the core of the property. When is Star Wars no longer Star Wars? It's not something you own. It's highly variable, and Monica says that you need skills to collaborate and manage your own ego. If you aren't willing to do this, you can be replaced by someone who is willing to do the work. Monica says she has brought a lot of learnings from this to her own life. Her big goal is to do something like Rick Riordan Presents.

I asked Monica about her favorite aspects of worldbuilding. She says she likes to have milestones and touch points. "I have to know about how magic works to write about a wizard," she says. Character psychology is more about characterization for her than about worldbuilding.

She likes to start a story by developing an elevator pitch. (This is a description of a story that can be delivered to an agent or editor during a short ride in an elevator.) It's a 1-5 sentence summary of what the story is about. Otherwise, Monica says, she's going to go off the rails. She picks two books or movies that it's most like. That helps her put a visual container on the story.

Monica said that when she works on character, she focuses on how characters react to things. She uses a book called The Secret Language of Birthdays, which give keywords and personality traits for people who have particular birth dates. It often gives both positive and negative traits, and gives her clues for a starting point. A basic background for a character helps her give someone direction. She writes down character motivations. The value of her research is filtered through this. Does my character really care about the types of shoes they wore in 1865?

Her interest in history sometimes gives her trouble when actual history doesn't match with the popular narrative of that history, and readers try to tell her history worked one way, when she knows it worked another way. She thinks it's important to be accurate so that the incorrect narrative doesn't "become the history"for her readers.

Right now, Monica is looking for places to publish her short stories set in her macro-world. She's also writing something for a collection in which each story is an auction item. Hers is a found rare book, "The Mythica d'Argent," a metal book with chemical mysteries, such as the fact that it doesn't tarnish. She also has a lot of gaming work coming out shortly in Dark Eras 2, where the chapters are about different historical eras in a near-world, including the period of Galileo Galilei, the Empire of Mali, the Qing Dynasty, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

I asked Monica how working on a novel was different from working in a game. She said that in a novel, you get to use your own voice, but the story is usually static. The reader will take from it what they want to. In a game, there is the potential for story. Games are dynamic, though video games are less dynamic than role-playing games. Groups of people can pick up the threads and tell their own story, so you do want to tell people all the details of the world, in a way that doesn't happen in a novel. In the novel, there is a focus on plot, subplots and characters. Pieces of the world that aren't relevant to the characters get cut. In a game, you have to have twenty magical items so the players can pick one. You have to present "the whole iceberg." As far as narrative, the character motivations in a role-playing game are decided by the player. Motivation in a video game is generally provided. A lot of plot isn't usually there in the game unless it's provided by non-player characters. For a game, there's a mixture of cool setting, cool beings or entities that people can work from, and there must be more material than one person can use. You are designing the rules.

Monica said she perceives a mental transition phase between novels and games. The Violet War is something that she aims to make into a playable role-playing game, but there are a lot of steps still necessary. She needs readers, material, marketing, etc. But for now she needs to focus on what she's doing, which is writing short stories in the world to attract readers.

Monica, you were a wonderful guest and we really enjoyed talking to you! Thank you so much for your insights and for answering all our questions, and good luck with your projects.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, November 1st, and we'll be talking about Precociousness. I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, October 25, 2017


The word Taboo comes from Tongan originally, where it referred to a prohibition associated with sacredness. However, it has much broader applicability at this point, and so this discussion decided to dive into a lot of the possible implications of the concept across our own world. As Kat said, we don't want to erase our own practices. Some taboos are religious, and some are not. Something like "don't speak ill of the dead" is a non-religious taboo in our society. We also prefer not to talk about how much money people make. In some cultures, you don't talk about what someone does for a living.

When someone breaks a taboo, generally speaking you will have a visceral reaction, a very deep-seated sense of wrongness.

One taboo is the separation of toileting and eating, and the fact that we don't talk about what we do in the bathroom. Some people will not talk about intimate parts of their body. In fact, the taboo on talking about butts can lead to literal medical care problems.

Brian mentioned that there are major taboos surrounding sexual practices like incest and bestiality. But there are also minor ones like talking to other men in the restroom. Men also aren't supposed to talk to other men about emotion.

Do we talk to strangers? Would a person in your fictional world talk to strangers? Why or why not?

Women tend to go to the bathroom in pairs to make sure it's safe. Women can talk to other women, and are expected to tell them if they aren't fully put together.

Kat said that the "men don't talk about emotion" taboo was probably a larger prohibition on receiving emotional labor from other men.

Discussing sex is taboo. It may be the taboo lying at the root of people's unwillingness to talk about sexual orientation, because people assume that discussing whether someone is gay or straight forces them to talk about sex.

We also have food taboos. There are old ones, like the Kosher taboos, but there are also things like not putting ketchup on your ice cream.

What are the consequences associated with breaking a taboo? Is it just that you don't get invited to dinner parties? But if you don't get invited to dinner parties, that excludes you from networking opportunities that could make the difference between success and lack of it.

Conflict avoidance is not the same as taboo avoidance. This is a very interesting topic when we start talking about social justice, because it is taboo to confront someone about having done something unjust. The injustice itself is ostensibly taboo, but in fact, calling out is seen as worse.

As you design a society, ask yourself: whose behavior gets regulated, and when, and how?

There can be certain behaviors that cause you to lose your status in society. Literally, some behaviors are considered so dirty or low that they can drag you down from your caste. Low people are not allowed to perform religious rites.

Taboo behaviors can also be an act of bonding. "In the frat we tell sexist jokes" is an example of this. Racist jokes always start with looking around and checking who is in the room.

Brian asked, "Is taboo a reflection of a society's history?" It is - and influences that history - so it's worth thinking about in your world design.

"I don't see color" is one way that we express the taboo of talking about racism. But until people are equal, we do need to see it. The idea that talking about race is the same as racism is a form of taboo. It makes the unwarranted assumption that "everyone is like me and I am normal." We can't assume anything from our own experience about the experience of a person from another race. The experience members of a particular race share is not genetic, but is societally imposed, based on the society's perception of their racial group membership.

It's quite common for people who do not share a racialized experience to fail to see what that racialized experience means, or to deny that it is different. However, something like the different life experience of short versus tall people is never questioned. If you are short, you can't reach things on shelves designed for taller people (which are common in the US). This puts you to quite a bit of hassle, but if you remark on it, people will pretty easily acknowledge that you experience this difficulty.

Racialized experiences are not the same as preferences or allergies, because they are externally imposed.

Talking about social class is also taboo in the US. It does matter what class you display, based on your accent, your posture, or even your teeth (orthodonture and dentistry are expensive), but you are not supposed to talk about it. Dental insurance is not included for poor people, and it can also be a marker of immigrants.

In the US, there is pressure to have your teeth look a certain way. There are also many taboos across the world associated with body presentation. Body odor taboos vary greatly from culture to culture. The smell of one's breath and one's flatulence are both taboos.

Ads help to create a social culture. Victorian soap ads established the habit of washing daily.

Humor often skirts the edge of taboo because it relies on a slight bit of discomfort.

Any mixing of cultures can potentially lead to taboo conflicts. It's easy to imagine that aliens might reverse what we conceive of as sacred, possibly having revolting funeral practices or other practices that would cause humans to balk. Here on Earth there are cultures that keep the dead relative's body around for a period of time after death. We talked about the fiction of Mary Anne Mohanraj and Haralambi Markov, which tackle taboo topics in fascinating ways.

Thank you to everyone who attended and participated.

Today's hangout will discuss Performances, and we'll meet at 10am Pacific. I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Anne Leonard and Moth and Spark

It was a pleasure to have author Anne Leonard come on the show to talk about her worldbuilding! She told us that her favorite thing about worldbuilding is that she doesn't have to worry about plot when she's doing it. She said ever since she was a kid playing Dungeons and Dragons, she thought coming up with backstories was more interesting than the play itself.

Anne describes Moth and Spark as a "literary fantasy." She started out thinking she was writing a cheesy romance story to "get it out of my system," a Pride and Prejudice with dragons in a secondary world. She says she put in a lot of stuff, most of which had to come out.

She did a lot of research. One part of that was that when she was looking for a suitably epic ending, four years after starting the book, she took a geology field trip to Yosemite. It turned out to be exactly what she needed. It gave her a better mental image, she explained, and a better sense of scope. Those mountains are huge, and appropriate to the experience of writing about dragons.

When she was writing about dragons, she researched reptiles to make them as much as possible like real reptiles. She also did historical research about past wars, about historical cultures, etc. She looked at maps of ancient Mediterranean Greece and Asia. She studied how people moved between Asia and Greece, and how the Roman Empire worked.

The empire in Anne's book wants to control the dragons. The kingdom where the story takes place wants to break free from the Empire. The empire is based in part on the Roman empire and part on the Ottoman empire. Anne said she had Greek myths and the Iliad in the back of her head while she wrote.

In Moth and Spark's backstory, a powerful country crossed the sea 500 years ago and conquered Caithan. They stole dragons and took them south. The dragons are kept under control by magic, but the dragons are intelligent and have manipulated things so that someone will break the spell that keeps them controlled.

I asked Anne about the magic system in this world. She said there were not a lot of tools, or schools. It's a more mystical environment, with ghosts and hexes. She carefully defines what the people believe, but it's not necessarily exactly what is going on. The people in the "rational" upper classes think hexes don't do anything. However, there are real effects caused by the intrusion of dragon presences into this world. Carousel horses will "come alive," and people will have visions. This is because the dragons are trying to tell their story using susceptible people.

Anne told us she likes the supernatural, and elements of horror. Her focus is definitely character-driven. She is interested in what happens in people's heads. She wrote a ball scene inspired by, and full of easter eggs for, Pride and Prejudice. She wrote a line referencing Cinderella because a character says she won't lose her shoe.

I asked Anne about the distinction between dragon riders and others, which is clear from the very beginning of the story. She said she had taken inspiration from Anne McCaffrey's Pern books in that the dragons choose who they want. The difference is that dragons are the physical manifestations of something outside the world. How dragons appear is not how dragons are; they operate on another plane. What the magical curse on them has done is confine them, and keep them from expanding into other dimensions where they might be. They exist in a multi-world universe where time is not necessarily constant. Their existence outside of our concept of time allows them to give future visions. They resemble some representations of gods.

Anne told us that when she was in college she knew someone who had snakes as pets. She got to touch and hold a ball python, and it was totally unlike what she had imagined. She says, "scales are the smoothest, silkiest things." To feel it moving and constricting was amazing. "Snakes are all muscle and I just love it."

This was one of the inspirations for making her dragons very snakelike. They only eat once a week. She said they are kind of like a combination of snakes and cats. The cat part is the attitude, and the pointy face. They are like European dragons with four limbs and big wings, and lots of impressive claws. The claws can leave scratches on stone. You don't look into a dragon's eyes because "you'll go mad." They can mesmerize you so you just watch them as they are coming down to eat you.

I asked Anne about the significance of her title, "Moth and Spark." She says moths are a symbol in the book, and a harbinger of magic. They are a metaphor of how people behave compared to dragons. The dragons are the "spark," and moths are attracted to a bright light as people are attracted to dragons.

At this point in the hangout we shifted gears and I asked Anne about what she's currently working on. She said she's just finished a book manuscript; it was intended to be about a quest, but the quest kept dropping out. It takes place in a secondary world, and is narrated in two different time periods.

The story features a tyrannical king and his wife. One point of view is the queen's during the period between when she has her first child and her second. The other is after the queen's disappearance, people are trying to determine whether the king killed her or she vanished in a war. The king's sons are also rebelling against their father.

One of the characters is a woman whose father was killed and who joined the resistance. Anne says that writing this part was hard, because though it was an old idea, she found it was influenced by current events. There is real evil in the world of this story. The wife's decisions, and domestic abuse. Anne told us she had tried to write this story but it hadn't gone anywhere at first.

The chronological setting for the story is the gas lamp era. They have rudimentary electricity. Access to technology is very dependent on class. The rich have plumbing, but the poor use chamber pots. The amount of money you have controls how much technology you can use.

Anne told us that she was inspired by a trip to Mexico. She visited a tiny village which had no reliable septic system, and where the electricity was such that if you used too many heaters you could blow a fuse. People would use satellite dishes to dry their laundry. What impressed her was the coexistence of low and high technology. Most of the world doesn't have it all. In fact, even some homes in the US weren't electrified until the 1940's.

The way she handles technology in this world affects how people move, how they communicate and how they use transportation. When you have to physically go see someone in order to talk to them, and mail service is poor, everything happens more slowly. You have to make arrangements to meet someone, then walk three miles, and that slows everything down.

Anne says that when you are on the cusp, the borderline between magic and technology, it's really interesting because boundaries are places where interesting things happen.

Anne said that she really enjoyed working with her protagonist in this manuscript because she's a middle-aged woman, not a hot-blooded twenty-one-year-old. She's the leader of the Resistance. She's made her choices, and she's not impassioned about every cause. Her priorities are clear to her.

Che asked what Anne's favorite books were and what had influenced her. She told us she's a language junkie. She reads Victorian novels, Dorothy Dunnett, Steven King and Peter Straub. She loved Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell and said she wished she'd written it! She liked the academic feel of the footnotes. She also likes Austen and Dickens, and finds it interesting how modern their language sounds, not as distant as we think.

Thank you so much, Anne, for coming on the show! It was a pleasure to speak with you. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Thursday, October 19th at 10am Pacific. We'll be talking about what we do at different times of day. I hope you can join us!


Monday, October 16, 2017


This was always going to be an interesting topic! We kept it broad, because instead of just doing alcohol or drinks, we wanted to cover solid, liquid, and gaseous intoxicants. You can inhale them, ingest them, inject them, or even apply them topically. These are mind-altering substances, and they are woven into our social fabric, and have a strong influence on society. They even lie at the root of major cultural changes like the American Prohibition and its consequences (including organized crime).

Kat said we should make sure to include things like licking frogs. It's not just people who are interested in intoxicants, either - animals have been found deliberately ingesting fermented fruit or juice, etc.

If you are including intoxicants in your worldbuilding - and it would be very surprising if you did not - you should think about how they are delivered, and what their consequences are.

Alice in Wonderland features a lot of ingestion-leads-to-weird-effects, ostensibly real ones, that were probably inspired by the effects of intoxicants.

Many intoxicants are also ritualized in various ways.

As with many topics, we have to be careful to avoid exoticizing intoxicants and doing the "mysticized spiritual path plus intoxicants" story.

Intoxicants seem to be normalized more in fantasy, where taverns are incredibly common. One of our discussants asked, "If you're on a quest, should you really be taking psychotropics?"

We encourage all readers or listeners to avoid doing a last-minute story twist where "it was all a pipe dream or an intoxicated hallucination."

Star Trek has a long history of featuring intoxicants, including Romulan Ale. We thought it was interesting how Alien Nation used the idea that the aliens would ingest sour milk to become intoxicated. Alternate intoxicants like this are less common. Ian Banks novels include social use of intoxicants. The Fuzzy books by H. Beam Piper have a TON of cocktails, and in fact these are cocktails of the period in which the books were written, which led one of the discussants to call them Mad Men in space. In the case of these books, there was a pretty direct transfer of the social milieu of the writer and its social significance into a far-future context.

We thought it would be interesting to consider what intoxicants might be in an environment of scent communication. Would squid or octopus ink cause intoxication?

There are always intoxicating herbs, like catnip.

People tend to take their local grains and sugars and turn them into alcohol or a local beer.

Intoxication of the mind-altering type always borders on literal toxicity. You can poison yourself with ergot, or mushrooms, or peyote. Sometimes it's ingesting the wrong thing accidentally that poisons you; sometimes it's just overdosing on the intended intoxicant. This is certainly common with opiods!

We talked about absinthe, which is made with wormwood. Other artemisia relatives are also made into intoxicating liquors. There is a very long world tradition of soaking things in alcohol. Sometimes, alcohol intensifies the effect of other intoxicants.

We asked whether we had ever seen a story based on, "We are on a quest for strange new drugs." We did know about plenty of stories about "We are on a quest for strange new highs with existing drugs" like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Pineapple express.

Intoxicants can take a different form in Cyberpunk or hard science fiction. People can be "brain jacked" or stimulated in an intoxicating way. Snow Crash features some of this, and so does the new book by Annalee Niewitz, Autonomous.

In my own novelette, "Cold Words," I featured an alien protagonist who was addicted to an intoxicating substance. One of the things I tried to do with the story was have the purpose of his choice be misunderstood and judged negatively by humans who were imagining drug use in the context of their own social models.

We thought it would be interesting to see an alien who found the human environment intoxicating and needed a filtration system in order to interact with us. It would also be interesting if humans were intoxicated by the aliens they interacted with, and for some reason ambassadors to them kept making bad judgments... We would love to see an alien say, "Humans exhale carbon dioxide, it's amazing!"

We agreed that it was weird and troubling when stories about kids accidentally ingesting alcohol and getting drunk were considered funny. Our society's understanding of intoxicated or drunk characters has changed over time. Back in the classic Disney films, they were often portrayed as funny. Now, they are more likely to be portrayed as pathetic or ill. Glorification of drug use happens in stories; so does stigmatization of drug use. Kat says that these days she sees less "nudge nudge wink wink," or fewer stories about "I got drunk and I did bad things ha ha."

Alongside stigmatization comes the edgy countercultural rebellion angle of drug use.

We talked about casual users of intoxicants that we had seen in fiction. One example we saw was Masterharper Robinton in the Pern books, who used a lot of wine.

C.S. Friedman had an interesting situation in her novel This Alien Shore, where space pilots were people who were psychotic unless drugged, and had to be off their pharmaceuticals in order to function well as space pilots.

Dune had the spice, of course.

One relatively common narrative features hallucinogens leading to a higher truth. The Oracle of Delphi inhaled volcanic gas. Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg featured a special kind of wine that would induce spiritually meaningful and sometimes prophetic dreams.

Use of intoxicants by different social groups can lead to very different narratives. Cocaine was used by rich white people and spoken about in one way; crack was used by poor black people and spoken about in a very different way. Racism plays out in how this happens. We noted the difference between the way the opioid crisis among white people is treated differently from previous drug crises that affected others. Kat noted that cyberpunk has dealt with questions of social stratification.

Ask what is high class and what is stigmatized.

Sometimes you see people in real life who have undiagnosed mental disorders and use intoxicants as self-medication.

It's fascinating to look at cultural changes over time, such as that surrounding the use of cigarettes, as well as looking how their use has changed around the world.

Kat also brought up a really interesting question to ask: Are intoxicants sequestered, i.e. used in very restrictive contexts, or are they woven into the fabric of life?

We also briefly mentioned the problems of supervillains being caused by physical enhancement drugs gone wrong.

It would be possible to do a whole hangout on performance-enhancing drugs, but they were barely mentioned here.

Brave New World has state-mandated drug use to pacify the populace.

Consider whether in your worldbuilding you would prefer to keep the social role of intoxicants the same, and just substitute in fantasy/alien words for existing substances, or whether you would like to do more work and redesign the social phenomenon of intoxicants from the ground up.

These were some really interesting thoughts! Thank you to everyone who attended the discussion.

Dive into Worldbuilding meets this week on Thursday, October 19th at 10am Pacific. We'll be talking about activities that are associated with particular times of day. I hope to see you there!