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Sunday, October 7, 2018

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and The Antiquities Hunter

It was a real pleasure to have Maya on the show! This new book of hers, The Antiquities Hunter, is her "first dive into mystery/crime/detective" novels. It follows Gina Suzu Miyoko, a tiny Japanese-American woman as she tries to figure out who is stealing antiquities and selling them north of the border on the black market. She said that several people asked why there was no dead body in the first chapter, but she points out that antiquities stealing is not a victimless crime.

This book features a fictional version of our world. It's different from a lot of Maya's other work, which has been mostly science fiction and fantasy but included some alternate history and steampunk. The archaeological digs she's depicted up to this point were on other planets! There, she says, she could use the tools of archaeology as she pleased.

In this book, she got to explore some substrates of our world she hadn't seen in depth before, including the workings of museums, auction houses, etc. These places have a patina on them, but there's dirty work underneath.

Gina Miyoko, the protagonist, has interesting parents, each of which is into a particular type of magic. Maya says this is where a certain fantasy element comes into the book. Gina's mom works as a folklorist at San Francisco State University and is really into Russian Orthodox magic, always giving Gina lucky charms, and even blessing her motorcycle! Gina's father's world is Buddhist. In the end, it's left ambiguous whether the magic is really operating or not. Another character in the book is a park ranger of Hopi background who is the one who draws Gina into the mystery of stolen antiquities. For him, the process of finding antiquities thieves is very personal.

I asked Maya about her research process. She said this book took a very long time to write. It started with the character of Gina. Gina's mom, Nadya, was initially in psychology, but then later changed to folklore. Maya did research on Russian Orthodox magic with the book "The Bathhouse at Midnight: A Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia." For the archaeological aspects, Maya drew on Archaeology Magazine, where she found a lot of information on National Park Service Agents. There was a story about a woman with a family who was in the field conducting sting operations on antiquities thieves and black market dealers. For the background of a character named Rose, Maya looked at black market antiquities that showed up at Sotheby's and the English Museum, like the Elgin Marbles (a set of marble statues that once stood in the Parthenon). Maya also had questions like, "What is it like to go to a Police Academy?" and "How are police departments structured?" which she got answered by police officers she connected with in online chatrooms. She also explored questions of what happens when jurisdictions collide, how departments work together, etc.

There were other important questions to answer as well, such as, "Do cell phones work on the Yucatán Peninsula?" As it turned out, people couldn't use regular cell phones bout would have to use a special GPS phone. There are also lots of legal details surrounding the international organizations with researchers at the sites.

I asked Maya whether she did research all at once or spread out over time. A lot of the work came in from previous research she had done. Most most of the rest came in her initial research.  She will get a core idea and get excited about it, stop and drag in research until she feels confident. The last step post-editor was requesting some more depth on a few specific topics - things like helicopters and how many passengers they can hold, how much weight they can load, etc. and details on weaponry and the motorcycle named Boris (a Harley superglide 1983). There were also details on specific artifacts.

Maya told us there were a lot of Easter Eggs in the book. One tense scene takes place in the underbelly of a pyramid in Chiapas. Maya hinted that "knowing about weapons will help you identify a new problem." At the same time, she emphasizes, research is a "deep pool you can dive into and possibly drown." You want to have a layer of basic research, then a layer of more specifics, and then a last layer of tiny details.

Balance is important. You don't want to overdo your research, but you don't want to restrict your audience to people who don't know better. Maya told her that with her science fiction and fantasy, former Analog editor Stanley Schmidt would say she had too much detail and to back off. You don't want to confuse - but you don't want to be implausible, either. It bothers Maya when she runs into something that would never happen in a real police department, for example. Make your story credible to those who know, and not overwhelming to those who don't.

Maya said it was helpful to use touchstones - a number of things that people understand, so they don't feel lost when they are walking in. Then you can fill in alien or fantasy details around them. People know the word "pyramid" so there's no need to describe it in detail. But as for how you get inside the pyramid? That requires detail like "there was an opening blown in it."

Paul asked how her process on this book differed from her work on Star Wars. Maya told us that was more difficult because some information was not available, or had less accessible sources. Star wars has essential guides to the GFFA (galaxy far far away), DVDs, an in-house encyclopedia. Maya's partner on her Star Wars novel was Michael, who had been writing in this universe for a decade and was an expert. Most of Shadow Games happened on Banistar Station, which had appeared once in a comic book and not many people knew what it was. They had to draw conclusions like, "nobody's in a space suit so there is breathable air." At a certain point, though, you have to decide what the answer is because there isn't an answer out there to find. The stuff you make up might be rejected, however. You research the canon and try to extend it using individual experts as helpers. Maya suggests that people not use Wookiepediea unless they are willing to chase down the original sources.

Even though some public perception appears to be that if you make stuff up it requires less research, fantasy actually requires about three times the research over the real world, according to Maya. This can be a problem for aspiring writers who think they can make anything up in a fantasy world. Maya says, "This isn't fantasy, this is chaos." In fact, it's not the case that there are no rules. You get to make up the rules, but then you have to stick to them. If you don't, there is no way to judge the importance of events, or even sometimes what things look like. There is no reasonable hope of making good hypotheses.

I mentioned the relatively chaotic magic systems used by Laura Anne Gilman and Nnedi Okorafor, but pointed out that when you are working with a system like that it can be a more demanding process for the writer than having strict rules (rather than less demanding).

Maya mentioned magical realism, which has different kinds of demands. She mentioned Tim Powers' world, where there is magic system 1 and magic system 2, and the two turn out to coexist and clash with each other, but everything converges within the story line.

Managing reader expectations is very important. If you foil readers' expectations once or twice, it's really cool. But if you foil them too often, there comes a moment when reality refuses to play, and readers will put the book down. They become desensitized and disengage, or simply lose the thread of the narrative.

When a writer doesn't tell you what's in a room, for example, and then suddenly says that the protagonist "picked up the sword," it's not helpful. Maya has done a lot of editing and ghostwriting, and run into situations where a writer will decide mid-scene to have an object there. Ok, so we're in a mountain Arabian desert cave, and suddenly there's a writing desk? With a shelf and a book?

Watching how sometimes people forget to fill stuff in helped Maya learn a lot about what she wanted to put in. She says, "I need to let the reader know what a treasure room in Chiapas looks like" rather than have "deus ex writing desk."

You also don't want to forget what month it is. Sometimes an editor will write time notations in the margins, like, "on Friday," or "one week later." You want to remember what time of year it is for the purposes of weather, etc. You can also try to match the time of year to the mood of the story. "Thank god for our devices," says Maya, because they let her ask things like "What's the weather like in Tel Aviv?" and "What's the weather like in Chiapas in this season?" Weather affects the story!

Maya told us about a book she read where there was a literal countdown going on, and it took three chapters to get to a particular point, yet only an hour and a half had passed. You have to be careful about spending too many words on too little time.

Maya suggests if you want to make stuff up well, you should study Science, History, and Psychology. That way when you make stuff up, you'll be using solid pieces to do it.

Truth is less credible than fiction. Maya once researched the questionof how long it would take for a human in a dark place to lose their sense of sight. The answer is less than five years. Then if they resumed having sight, it would be a different sort of struggle because the brain would lose the talent of processing and integrating sight information. She tried to write about it but was told that it wasn't plausible.

Coincidences happen in real life all the time, but in fiction they are deemed too convenient. The name Tiffany was quite common in the middle ages, but if you use it there, you won't be believed because it is so common in our own age. Knowing what names were popular in a particular time period is useful information, but may go against people's expectations! Also, a lot of people will have the same name in real life, but it's a problem if they have that in fiction.

Writers will sometimes populate a culture, and grab names from different world cultures. This is not a good idea! You will end up with a character with a Hawaiian name, and one with a Scandinavian, with no reasoning behind it. Yes, you can have more than one naming style in your world, but come up with why.

Maybe you have people coming from two completely different language groups. They will have markedly different naming strategies. Tolkien was very consistent in his world because he was a linguist.

If you are using a real-world context, learn how names really work in the country of origin of your character. This is important. In Spain, you have a christening name followed by your mother's first surname followed by your father's first surname. You could make up a culture that uses this system. You could have one that uses name, family, clan names, or a name from the father's profession, etc. The more real world knowledge you have, the better you will do at making stuff up, at achieving richness and depth. If you want it to feel like a real world, you need grounding for odd elements.

Thank you so much, Maya, for coming on the show and giving us your insights! Thanks also to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, October 9th, 2018 to discuss Time Travel. I hope you can join us!


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