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Sunday, November 17, 2019

Blind Spots and White Rooms

What are the things you don't see?

Sometimes a story will feature sections of bare dialogue. These are like overhearing a conversation, and you have to guess what is going on around them based on the content of their talk.

It's all right not to specify things in a story, but we need to be aware that very often, a reader will fill in what they don't see with defaults.

Defaults are culturally dependent. They can be influenced by regional expectations. In some regions, "of course you have a basement." In others, "of course you have central heat." Where I live, it's astonishing if your house is not bolted to its foundation (because houses will walk off their foundations in a major earthquake).

When you are thinking about what kind of room your characters are in, remember that rooms have idiosyncracies. Ask who decorated them. What were they intended for? We noticed that Paul has maps and a sword in his room. I have wall hangings and a dresser. Morgan has a gaming chair and a dusty exercise machine. Ask whether a room was deliberately decorated. Was it filled by someone who had time to fill it? Were they in a hurry in some way?

Characters don't always think about everything around them. What does a kitchen look like if your main character has no interest in cooking? Morgan talked about having a character like that and comparing her view of the kitchen to that of her boyfriend who cooks.

Why do people pay attention to particular things? How does that change depending on their circumstances?

LaShawn noted that it's fun to play with character blind spots, with things they don't notice. If you want a reader to notice something that the character doesn't, you can always lay out an array of important and unimportant items. Paul remarked that sometimes an author doesn't plan the array, just puts a bunch of stuff out there and then some of it proves to be useful later.

Morgan asked how much we all look at hotel rooms. Not much, unless we're first walking in or noticing something wrong or different. Paul noted that if you are in a hotel room overseas, the room can be more distinctly different. LaShawn told us she once stayed in an older building that used to be a Men's Club because she was in overflow of people into rooms for a conference. It was unique and bizarre, because the doors were eight feet high and even the wall fixtures were very high up. It's worth noting that a hotel is not the same as a b&b or a ryokan, etc.

Any change in height or angle can really change our perception of a place. Adult heights tend to come in a much smaller range than those of children, and particularly so within a single culture. Our expected range of heights is smaller than the actual range of heights.

How do people learn not to see things? We notice things when they are new, and after a while our eyes gloss over them. There is a difference between not being taught to see something, and being taught not to see something. In China Mieville's The City and The City, people are taught not to see things right in front of them. We are taught not to look at homeless people when we encounter them. A change of environment will cause us to see things we might not in our most familiar contexts. If we go to a foreign country we are trying to watch for new languages, etc. so we pay attention to more things.

LaShawn noted that not everyone is the same, with the same opinions and experiences. This means you will notice different things. Kate remarked that you can be a relative outsider to an area even when everyone in the area is native to it. People also don't necessarily fit into the roles they have been assigned. When characters struggle with expectations, that teaches readers more about expectations.

It's helpful to try to understand secondary characters.

Kate brought up unreliable narrators. You can't necessarily orient reliably based on what is in a character's head.

My own view is that there's no such thing as a reliable narrator.

You can use situational irony to point up the unreliability of a narrator.

Kate noted that it's a problem when everyone sounds the same.

It's good to get multiple people to look at and critique a story while you are writing it, because different people will notice different things. People who don't usually read genre will be able to tell you if the genre conventions you are using are opaque to outsiders.

If you are writing in someone else's universe, you need to be able to speak the language of the people who live there. Star Wars people need to know Poe Dameron's idiolect. LaShawn told us that Mary Robinette Kowal was able to fool a whole bunch of people into thinking she was Patrick Rothfuss because she had studied his tweet style.

It's a really good idea to pay attention to language. It's our tool for writing, but it's also largely unconscious. People can't actually tell you what they will say in a given social situation; only what they think they ought to say.

Make sure you do your research. Kate can't stand it when someone has girl scouts "be prepared." (The Boy Scouts motto) The person who hypothesized about the Yucatán meteorite was not Luis Alvarez, but his son.

Know what you don't know.

Morgan noted that spoken and written language are very different, and it helps to read your dialogue aloud.

LaShawn said she looks at some of her early short stories and wonders, "Why did I pick this name?" Morgan noted that you often have to come up with a reason why someone is named something a bit unusual for their culture.

The blind spots and things you don't notice will change over time. If you have a new baby, you will be on the lookout for baby emissions, and if you have a toddler you will look for small people so you don't trip on them.

If you see someone wearing spurs in a grocery store,  (Kate did, and then later found herself post-riding in nearly the same situation) you can't really know the path someone took to get there. Be aware that there are things you can't know. Find experts to help you. Ask for the help of sensitivity readers, and pay them.

There isn't only one way for us to be who we are.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! I really enjoyed it.


S. Qiouyi Lu and As Dark as Hunger

It was a real pleasure to have S. come on the show! We got to talk about their story, As Dark as Hunger, which is now out in the latest issue of Black Static magazine.

This story takes place in a secondary world. S. told us that while Tolkien made his own language, they, like Paul Krueger in Steel Crow Saga, use existing world languages set into a context that is not the real world.

Since I'm a linguistics geek, of course we followed up on that immediately. The story features English, which S. refers to in the story context as Common; it also has Esperanto, called Komuna. Esperanto is a conlang originally designed to promote global communication and peace. It also uses Manchu, a language now known to have only 10 remaining native speakers as it has been supplanted by Mandarin. S. has some Manchu heritage in their family, and uses it for the mermaid language in this story, and uses the word for language/tongue to refer to it. They said it was fun to put together sentences. In the story world, the mermaid language has become isolated because mermaids are hunted, and that has contributed to additional divergence. S. uses different terms for the languages in the story because once you start referencing Earth terms, you have to assume Earth exists.

As they construct the world of the story, S. uses imagery of the bayous in the southeastern US, and of Asian riversides. There's the stench of the riverbank buildup, too. Smells trigger memory in really effective ways. S. told us that smelling a particular type of garbage or sewage smell makes them think "I miss Beijing." Smells can be difficult to describe but they are very powerful. S. is intrigued by the idea of scent as language. They said Pratchett's Discworld does a good job with scent and "werewolf smellovision."

There's a balance between having things readers can reference and understand, and things that are unique to a world. If you say "green as Nyquil," that implies the existence of Nyquil. If a particular word or language usage stands out, we say it's marked; if it doesn't, then it's unmarked. Using unmarked language can help sneak things under the radar for readers, but not all readers consider the same things marked or unmarked. For some readers, lotus flowers in a pond evoke an atmosphere and a scent.

S. told us about a story called "The Scent of Memory" by Zhao Haihong, in which a character who was kidnapped and doesn't remember his family uses perfume to restore his memory.

In "As Dark as Hunger," the main character lives a simple humble life fishing, but then her former lover comes to the village. Her lover wants to hunt mermaids, because people pay handsomely for them, but to find a humane way of doing it that won't kill them. S. told us that part of this conflict came from the conflicted feelings they have about shark fin soup. It's a celebratory dish, but cruel because it kills sharks.

S. told us that they struggle with xenophobia in the US, where there is an anti-China climate. They want to be able to defend their personhood without feeling obligated to defend Chinese politics they don't approve of.

In the story, there is a contrast between the village and the city. The village is downstream from the city, which pollutes its water. Talented people seek opportunity in the city, and children and the elderly are left behind. The city drains away the village's people. The main character has an ethical objection to hunting mermaids, but she does want a better life than the stinking river.

One of the major themes of the story is diaspora, of being removed from the motherland. While, in this story world, foxes can shapeshift back and forth many times, mermaids can only shapeshift from tail to legs once, and then can't change back. Their children are human. This is a metaphor for immigration and assimilation. One of the main character's ancestors made this change in order to keep her descendants from being hunted, but in so doing, closed a door that could not be re-opened.

The mermaid who ends up at the main character's house is fluent in mermaid tongue, but the main character herself only knows a few words. S. described how they are able to learn Mandarin, but there are things about Chinese culture that they can't ever grasp in spite of that learning.

Kat asked S. if this story featured any forcible conversion to the new culture.

The story does refer to the story of the main character's grandmother as her parents were trying to transform. The mother does it first with a haunting look of resentment. The grandmother ends up being part of a sort of 1.5 generation, of young children who came to a new culture with their parents. From the second generation on, it becomes hard to hold on to the language.

S. Qiouyi Lu's story "Mother Tongues" literalizes assimilation by featuring a mother who is literally selling her ability speak her heritage language. Like "As Dark as Hunger," it captures a feeling of yearning, the feeling "you're so close; you're almost there but not quite."

With people in the diaspora, there's still a hope that you can learn your culture, and open the door a little bit. The language is not forcibly diminished, but gradually replaced.

This is not exactly like language loss in indigenous groups. When you are looking at situations with indigenous culture, you see the links of culture being broken.

S. described growing up in Southern California with a significant Asian-American population where you could access tutoring in heritage languages. It would be a lot harder if you were the only Asian kid in your community.

The idea of spaceships could easily be matched with the themes of diaspora, but you don't often see them explored. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather takes up interesting questions in an intimate narrative with a larger conspiracy. S. said they liked how it explored religion as an arm of control, but it didn't really take on the question of colonization. Aliette de Bodard addresses questions of how culture permutates and varies. Lois McMaster Bujold asks what happens if culture is isolated.

S. told us they found the idea of Earth being destroyed as a default is quite depressing. They are glad solarpunk is growing.

As Dark as Hunger is part of a larger series of novellas that S. is still working on. The stories occur in the same world but are not necessarily linked. They are planning to link the stories together with a frame story about a cabinet of curiosities, in a similar way to Bradbury's The Illustrated Man.

S. has created maps of this planet, and has some idea of the cultures on it. They are enjoying the opportunity to finish stories they had thought about for a while, set in different geographical places, with Earth cultures in an alternative context. One features necromancy, and a character seeking to do magic on his brother's ashes, but unable to succeed in China, goes to look for a bruja in Mexico. S. said this story was inspired by their childhood in a desert region. Another story features a girl with bound feet who creates a steampunk mech to move around without pain. It is inspired by the Straits of Malacca and Southeast Asia. It's a secondary world they explore piece by piece, seeing what fits.

S. told us they are very happy to see so many Asian-derived secondary worlds coming out now, like in J. Y. Yang's work, or like in Paul Krueger's Steel Crow Saga. One advantage of working in secondary world versions like this is you don't have to do extensive research on the real Chinese mythology because you can "make up stuff." There is less pressure to get it right. This generation is starting to show the influence of anime, manga, and Japanese roleplaying games rather than relying on the same Western genre background. S. finds it interesting to see people drawing on these influences.

S. told us they hated History in High School, but it was mostly because it was taught badly - too much big picture, and not enough knowledge of what was happening to various different groups. Chinese-American history is has fascinating pieces we don't know. Idaho used to be one quarter Chinese. S. likes exploring these lesser known histories as a good jumping off point for stories.

I asked S. about their background in Linguistics, and they explained they have a BA in Linguistics, and their favorite areas of linguistics were Sociolinguistics and Phonology. They enjoy grammar books and dictionaries. Wikipedia can often give you an overview of a grammatical system. You can look in language grammars for examples of words and sample sentences. Once you have these pieces, you then have to figure out how to change them for context. If you working with a language that has only ten native speakers, as S. was for this story, it's hard to reach out to verify things.

J. Y. Yang's Tensorate series doesn't include Earth language. The main character realizes they are nonbinary or trans. That person uses the masculine version of the pronoun "I."

Steel Crow Saga uses Tagalog, Chinese, and other languages. There is a character with a taboo against using the first person pronoun, so he uses the third person to refer to himself.

S. said they always wish there were more science fiction based on linguistics, especially sociolinguistics. There isn't often as much about diglossia, when there are two languages used. Some societies have had one language for written work, and another for spoken. Singapore has four national languages, used in different contexts. You can do a lot to stratify or deconstruct a society based on language.

We talked briefly about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that language influences thought. The strong version of the hypothesis, which posits that language constrains thought, has been debunked. S. said they know Ted Chiang is a great writer because he based a whole story on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and S. didn't throw it across the room.

Paul asked how S.'s work as a translator has influenced their fiction. S. said the reverse was more true, that their fiction writing has helped them be a better translator. If you can't write well in the target language, translating a story will be difficult. Literature in different languages has different conventions. In Chinese literature it's not a faux pas to use a lot of adverbs. S. said they have to make a lot of decisions about translating phrases like "ran quickly" as "dashed." They try to balance editing and adapting for an English audience without losing the Chinese voice.

It's harder for them to translate into Chinese. There is stuff you can't look up in a dictionary. They would have to internalize vocabulary and writing conventions.

When asked if there should be a Hugo award for translations, S. argued that it is better to have translations integrated and listed alongside English-language works. There is an award in Japan for translated works, but so much there is translated that it makes sense. In addition, in the anglophone context, people already have the idea that translations are "different." A dedicated award might boost the profile of translated works, but might also turn people away. Having these works in the main Hugos shows that they compete.

Kat asked if S. comes under any pressure to create a flavor of Chineseness that is expected by anglophones. S. replied that individual translators have different styles, and some stories have more Chinese flavor than others. They quoted Ken Liu who said, "Authenticity is something other people use to describe your work." One interesting question S. runs into is whether to translate names into their literal meanings or not. Translating them is more "othering." S. has sometimes seen an interesting mixed approach used.

Thank you so much to S. Qiouyi Lu for being on the show, and to everyone who attended! This was a fascinating discussion.


Monday, November 11, 2019

Personal Habits

This is something of an underrepresented topic, but it's incredibly useful for world and character.

Do characters brush their teeth? How do they open and close doors? Do they slam them? Turn the handle and un-turn it afterward? How does the door open and with what kind of handle? Does it behave differently in different types of weather? Is it like a car door, where it has to slam? Do your characters make a mistake because they are accustomed to a sticky door when another door is less sticky?

What about going to the bathroom? Do your characters' clothes have zippers? Elastic? Buttons? What does that mean for getting in and out of clothes? Do they have socks with garters? What holds up your hosen? You can cut fabric on the bias if you want it to stretch a little, but how much does that affect the way you wear a garment? Kate notes that we don't thank the universe enough for Lycra.

Do you shut the door behind you or not? On a farm, you should leave a gate how you found it, or you might cause huge problems for livestock. Do you know how to go through a gate with a horse? There's a whole process involved. When you have farm animals involved, one mistake can cause a disaster. Kate asked, what if you need the gate open for the cows to come home, but you don't leave it open?

Morgan lived for a long time with cabinet doors that wouldn't close. Now they do, but people still don't close them.

Does your character close drawers? Why or why not? This will give you an insight into the character's style and thought processes.

My character Nekantor has obsessive-compulsive disorder, so his habits are really important to his character. A lot of our impressions of a character's habits have to do with what our expectations are. Do you expect a small person to have a small car? But what if they need a large car because they have horses and tack to carry?

Morgan says she likes looking over the steering wheel of an SUV to look at the road. Sometimes the advantage of a particular thing will diminish if everyone else has the same thing, as when everyone starts having large cars, or cars with fast acceleration.

Think about the size of the characters and how it affects their habits and interactions. Kate says she always ends up with the biggest horse, and it's ridiculous.

Do your characters shove their hands in their pockets? Do they have pockets? What do they carry in them? Does a character carry string? Or a worry stone? Or a knife?

How do people look at each other? Up or down? Can you see up the person's nose? Can you smell the person's armpits if you're short? Do people lean on a smaller person's head? Do people joke about height? Does a large person have careful habits to minimize size so as not to scare people?

Tall people in a small house will have to duck a lot. What about on a submarine? Or a ship?

Do you carry writing implements or paper with you? Sand, wax, or blotter? Do you have a barrel of sand handy to remove rust from your tools?

Morgan takes her keys and puts them in her purse before she exits the car to prevent herself from locking the keys inside.

Some habits are self-protective.

My character Adon has a lot of clothes-related habits. He changes clothes when upset, and analyzes people's attitudes based on their clothing.

Kate wrote about a bunch of aliens reacting to hearing a human describe how they lie to get laid. Normal-seeming things can become very weird if you step far outside your normal sphere.

Would carnivorous aliens have dental floss? Probably not.

How do people apportion food? Do they have moral reasons or ostensible health reasons why they would do that? How many vegetables do characters eat? Do they have meals at particular times? We have TONS of narratives and habits around food.

We also have habits related to what we talk about, when, and how.

Do you serve food in the kitchen or at the table? Who gets served first? Do you fill plates in an order? Do you eat standing at a counter with your laptop open? Do you eat fast or slow? Mercedes Lackey does a lot of interesting things about how people access food.

If you're hungry, should you offer everyone else food before you get your own?

What are your dietary habits like?

How do you manage permissions for boundary-crossing? In Mazes of Power, the Imbati ask permission before asking a question, and have a gesture specifically intended to get permission to touch someone.

Do we ask other people before we change the heat settings in a car? In the house?

Kate said when she visited Africa, the habit was to grab the forearm with a handshake. French people who are friends give kisses on the cheek, but which side goes first?

Remember that habits often take time. Sometimes they take other people's time.

Thank you so much to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, November 12 at 4pm Pacific.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Designing Voices 1

We had so much fun with this discussion that we thought we should do it again (which is why I added the number 1 to the title). When talking about voices in this context, it is important to note that I mean character voices rather than author voice. Character voices can show in speech/dialogue or in internalization. If you are using character voice for different points of view, the voice of each point of view must be distinct. When it's done well, you can often tell who is speaking even without the dialog tags.

Morgan mentioned that P. N. Elrod's Blood List as an example of a book with very good character voices.

What are the ingredients that go into distinct character voices? There are many. Vocabulary is a big one. Syntax is another. So is slang. You want to be able to sense the character's cultural background in the way that they choose whether or not to speak, as well as how.

When I was writing The Persistence of Blood, I had a two-year-old character, Pelli. I set her at the two word stage of language development so that I would have a clear set of limitations on how she could communicate. Morgan said she used two word tweets! The trick was allowing her to play a small but important role in the plot, so she had to be able to communicate in a way that was limited, plausible for her age, but also meaningful.

We spent some time talking about word choice. The importance of word choice cannot be understated. The difference between "fall ill" and "get sick" can tell you a lot about a character. It can tell you where this person learned language and what kind of education was available.

A character can have a "native register," i.e. the language they learned first, and also be able to use a prestige dialect, and to code-switch between them.

In one of the later books of my Varin series, I have two characters, Meetis and Corbinan. Both are undercaste. They speak two regional varieties of the undercaste dialect, because they are from two different cities. The biggest difference between these two regional varieties is the pronoun usage. (Pronoun usage is a hugely useful tool for differentiating voices). Meetis also knows how to code-switch to her local prestige dialect of Varinin, while Corbinan cannot. This makes an enormous difference in how they are treated by gatekeepers.

It's important to note that people without power often develop an instinct for understanding those with power and how they speak and operate. It's a survival skill. The reverse is much less the case.

In English, use of sir or ma'am is regional.

How people choose their conversation moves as they open talk with another person is also an aspect of voice.

If you ask a classroom full of people to write about what the teacher is doing, you will find they have different voices. One of the elements that often differs is the term of address used for the teacher. Does a student call him Mr. X? Does the student call him by first name? Do they call him "Dad"? How far a person can flout the formal context of the classroom will vary depending on where the class is happening. Our friend in Japan taught her daughter in class for a year and they both used exclusively formal forms of address (Y-san, Y-sensei) while in the classroom context.

We spoke briefly about dialogue tags. Many people these days argue that "____ said" is the only acceptable type of tag. I personally use all sorts. This brought us to the question of repetition.

Repetition is such a critical topic that we really need to spend an hour on it another time. That said, we spent some time talking about it here. It's a powerful tool in writing, and you need to be aware of how you are using it. Very often in edits, I find myself eliminating repetitions of words. The reason for this is that readers will notice if you repeat words, and they will expect there to be some reason why they are being repeated. Is a word being repeated because it's important? If yes, great. If no... ask yourself if it is a marked word or an unmarked word.

"Said," as used in dialog tags, is an unmarked word. You can repeat it as many times as you like and it just fades into the background. Small function words like "the" are also unmarked. Marked words are ones that are more important and draw attention. Those repetitions are the ones that should either be significant or absent. If a character uses a particular word or phrase repeatedly, it can help to make clear that their character is the one speaking.

It's important to think both about the character points of view, and about the potential audience. Thinking about your reader's pattern of language use is critical because a word choice that means one thing to the characters can mean something different to readers. Watch out for things that will hit the reader in a weird or problematic way.

One of the tools I love to use when I'm designing voices is meter. By this I mean "poetic meter," or the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each word, and how they string together. Iambic pentameter, well known as the Shakespearean meter, is five "feet" where each foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (an iamb). You can actually take classes on the linguistics of poetic meter - I have taken one, and I found it fascinating. Shakespearean sonnets and their iambic pentameter (example) are very different from the rhythmically different poems of the Australian Banjo Patterson (example).

A speaker of the Pelismar dialect of Varinin might say "I'm sorry I'm late."
A speaker of the Safe Harbor dialect of Varinin would say "I blame the tides."
Metrically, these two are very different.

"Bless your heart" is an example of a phrase that can mean different things depending on context. It can either be "Wow, this person has no clue and I don't know how to dignify what they said" or it can sometimes be sympathetic, or mean "You're so kind." This isn't always the phrase used for those purposes. Depending on region or time period, someone might say "Isn't that special," or "Thank you for sharing with me."

The House on Mango Street is an example of a book with a very distinct and powerful voice.

When we talk about voice, then, how does that connect with worldbuilding? Basically, a person's identity and background have a lot to do with what they care about and what they notice. Culture, in the sense of how a person was brought up and what they were taught was important, can easily be seen in voice.

In Transgressions of Power, the character Adon tends to judge noble people's attitudes based on what they are wearing. "Lady Selemei's dress looks like it's made of panels of steel so she's obviously taking this seriously."

The voice carries the character. Personality is expressed in language. People also have different contexts in which they speak differently.

Morgan and I had a great conversation. There is so much more here to talk about that I am planning to revisit this topic very soon.

Dive into Worldbuilding will meet this week on Tuesday, November 5 at 4PM Pacific. I hope to see you there!


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Designing pivotal historical events

This topic is about looking at a world you're building and trying to understand the underlying historical conditions that brought it to its current state.

In our world, we see events like the American Civil war that create effects that lasts for hundreds of years. Another event that we discussed was the Genpei war in Japan, which led to the move of the Japanese capital from Kyoto to Kamakura, and can be considered the reason why the current capital of Japan is in the east rather than the west.

LaShawn mentioned that she's working on a short story in a secondary world where people feel "we've always been this way" but the main character goes back and finds her own history and how it was influenced by events that impacted her people.

LaShawn described first sitting down and figuring out the history behind the story. She thought maybe she should set it on a spaceship, but then realized the character couldn't go to the kind of market she was thinking of if she was on a space ship. She observed disparities in how people lived (high tech vs horse and carriage) and thought about how that could happen. Something must have occurred that made it that way. She picked out a fun detail, opened up, and it it led to more.

Tonya told us about her novel in progress, which has links to her time in Trinidad. She told us about the book They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima, which details evidence of Africans in the Caribbean before Columbus' arrival. A fleet disappeared from Mali might have landed in Brazil, for example. Tonya went through the book "with a fine-toothed comb" and used elements of it in her novel.

I talked about how the secondary world of Varin, which has humans but is unrelated to Earth, has an Earthlike environment but a completely different history. Part of this history I designed after looking at what I'd written and asking questions like, "Why would these people have such a uniform single religion?" I developed a lot of the history and details of Varin after studying anthropology and linguistics.

One way to approach the question of designing events is to look at a current-day situation in your world where you find social group A and social group B. Examine it. Is this an ethnic difference? Is it a racial difference? Are they people of the same race but different ethnicity? Then you can ask how this divide came about. Was it colonization that brought the two groups together? Was it invasion? Is one group faith-based and one not? Is there any group that treats science as a religion?

These questions are certainly not only relevant to secondary worlds. If you are working with alternate history, it's really critical to identify the divergence point (or points).

LaShawn told us about her story "Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good." It was alternate history because it introduced an element that hadn't happened in the past. LaShawn's research suggested that both singers had lived in Chicago, but that the real life Rosetta had moved to New York in the early 1920s. So she decided to change it so Rosetta stays in Chicago, and the means she used was a quarantine. Quarantine suggests an illness, so she asked what that would be like. The virus in the story causes people to look dead and also explode. These zombie-like beings are called "stumps." Singers with unique voices are able to get rid of the stumps, so the government conscripts singers.

If Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were conscripted as exterminators, how would that affect history? LaShawn says that big bands would be more popular because singing was restricted. She was able to relate it to Prohibition history. It's our world, but it went down a different path. She got to ask how it would affect World War II.

It's always worth asking where the divergence points are in alternate history.

Tonya has designed a world in which everyone is born with a specific magical ability, but the world is a lot like our own and people's abilities are used for practical things, like rock manipulators being used for construction. She told us about a story where the main character can enter people's dreams and help them with trauma recovery or mental illness. She did ask a historical question in this world: what if Egypt had never stopped being a superpower? What if Egypt remained with its advanced culture and passed it to Greece and Rome? What would the consequences of that be?

I mentioned Beth Cato's trilogy that begins with the book Breath of Earth. That's an alternate history scenario that incorporates a lot of critical changes in geopolitics, and explores their consequences on the political level but also on the personal level.

Thank you to both LaShawn and Tonya for joining me for this discussion! If you are enjoying Dive into Worldbuilding, and would like a more extensive experience, support us on Patreon and join the Dive into Worldbuilding workshop:


Thursday, October 3, 2019

J. M. Frey and the Skylark Saga

It was a real pleasure to have J. M. Frey on the show! The Skylark Saga consists of two books, The Skylark's Song, and The Skylark's Sacrifice, the latter of which just came out, and is Jess' ninth novel. I asked her if the novel was steampunk, as it has something of a steampunk vibe, but she described it more as dieselpunk, and said the historical era it was modeled on was more Edwardian than Victorian - i.e. that it was slightly later, historically. Dieselpunk, Jess says, is about taking account for the impacts of discovery, and looking at colonialism.

The Skylark's Song takes place at the end of a ten-year war, during which two nations have moved into a third nation and forced those people from their homes and ways of life. The Klonn, who use diesel and other fossil fuels and have airplanes, are fighting against the Saskwya, who have gliders and zeppelins, and use solar and wind. The war has left behind ecological devastation and deprivation. Jess told us that while the Klonn, who are romantic and classist, like horse-drawn carriages, everyone else has eaten horses and walks everywhere they go.

Jess explained that she spent a year living in France when she was sixteen. She told us that in high school when they explain World War I and World War II, they don't talk about the "scar left in the planet." She was walking on one of the Normandy beaches when they found unexploded ordnance. There was a rotting American warship in the bay that was too dangerous to move. They don't know how much barbed wire is under the sand.

What gets left behind, she asks. What does ten years of war do to a confined area? What resources would be used up? How would you feed your army?

The world in the Skylark Saga is an invented one. It has influences from our Europe, and is of a similar size, but is not a representation of it. Jess says that she hasn't worked with the rest of this world because she's been focusing on this conflict. War makes you concentrate on the immediate surroundings. As Paul said, it's a focused story.

The main character in the books, Robin, is neither Klonn nor Saskwya, but indigenous to the area where they are fighting. She was seven when the war started, and was conscripted at age 11. She's been promoted several times. Her life is defined by war. She's a member of a population with a different religion from either of the governing parties. Her knowledge of the world all comes from generals. She has a very tightly focused point of view.

Jess says she's "very single-minded." She told us Robin was modeled on Billy Bishop, a Canadian hero who went to war in World War I. He saw people dying and said to himself, "This is not how I'm going to die." He'd been lazy and a grifter, but he went into the airforce and shot down more planes than anyone else. He wanted the war to stop, so he got really good at his job. Jess described herself as using one of his lines, "I refuse to die in the mud," for Robin.

Jess told us she didn't model the war in this series on a specific war, though it draws inspiration from real history. She uses the series to consider the impact of colonialism, industrialism, etc. on indigenous populations. She looks at how they push back. She drew our attention to historical events in our world between about 1880 and the 1920s as her main source of ingredients.

As an author, she says, when inviting people into fantasy places, you need touchpoints. You need to recognize a place you already know. This is why Star Trek has things like bars, restaurants, and Shakespeare.

She was pulling in WWI material, diesel technology, and a rocket pack in the style of The Rocketeer. A rocket pack that was not working was given to the Klonn as an insulting gift, and Robin is expected at one point to try to repair it. The areas depicted in the story are intended to evoke the Black Forest, and No Man's Land. Saskwya has some elements of Spain, while the Klonn are a bit like a 17th century fairy tale.

I told Jess that Robin's people reminded me of the Roma because of the way they had moved from place to place. She allowed that comparison, but also said there was a parallel in the Trail of Tears and residential schools. Identity is stolen from you. You are not able to practice your religion or use your idiom.

Jess told us that the place she started when figuring out the peoples in this story was to figure out how they swear. If you can figure out how they swear, you can figure out what it means to blaspheme, and then find what the people hold holy, and from there you can work into their ideals and what they aspire to.

Robin's people, the Sealies, worship multiple small gods and say, "Omens!" when they swear. Their gods must be bargained with. The Benne aristocracy of Saskwya worship the All-Mother. The Klonn worship the Seven Arts. Jess told us that the Greeks held out their hands while praying to receive the favor of the gods. Sealies hold their hands up so that gods can land there. Gods of ill luck, by contrast, will land on your shoulder, so you should brush your shoulder with crossed fingers to discourage them. The Sealies believe that bees are messengers of the gods. They eat honey and keep hives, and a lot of their phrases are built on the theme of bees. They also move around, so honey is much easier to acquire than refined sugar. You need clothes you can roll up and stick on your back. They feed food into the fire for the gods. Refined sugar is important for the Benne, who are stationary and have walk-in closets.

The plot of the saga involves an Enemies to Lovers storyline, and there's an interesting story behind it. Jess told us she'd never written UA before, though she's friends with a number of other Canadian YA writers. Jess says YA is much harder to write than you think. She wrote this story initially on a drunken dare when she was at the Canadian National exhibition. After she'd finished telling it to a group of friends they told her it was a good idea and she should make a book. The first time she wrote it, there was no love interest. She felt that as narrow-minded as Robin was, she would not try to have a romance while in a war. But after she got an agent for the book, he said that it needed a love interest. Jess disagreed, so she made a point of having the characters clash. These characters come from wildly different backgrounds and have very different views of the war and of religion. Eventually she started to appreciate the storyline when she was able to have Robin keep her emotional intelligence and her "don't come near me with those lips" attitude but find ways for her to fall in love anyway.

Jess says she always trusts her reader to be intelligent enough to understand. She felt that the prose in Dune was condescending. She says "the more complexity I can add to my story, the happier a duck I am!" The idea of the opposing pilots coming together was never something she liked in the book until she leaned into it harder and made it more complex.

Jess has an entire wall of whiteboard in the room where she writes, and she uses it to keep track of all kinds of world elements, including notes on people's eye color and how they take their tea.

Jess told us about her background in theater school, which gave her skills she uses in character building. She has a lot of awareness of physical traits and verbal tics. She has played both Annie and Anne of Green Gables, and though they are both technically named Ann, they have totally different physicality. She says she admires Martin Freeman's work because his portrayals of Everett Ross and Dr. Watson are so different. How does a character stand? How does he hold his hands? Does he lean? Does he cross his ankles? Does he have language habits? Whenever she discovers something good about a character, she writes it on the wall. She has done acting exercises, talking to the character of The Coyote while vacuuming. She explains that improv classes are a powerful tool for writers and recommends them to everyone. They help you let characters inside your body.

When she meets a character, she considers how many times she's going to use them, whether they're a recurring extra or a principal. How much life do they require? Characters can always grow to serve a scene or narrative.

One thing that's nice about writing is that you don't get just one go at it. Jess described having tons and tons of drafts of her different works, so I asked her what she considered a "draft." She said a draft is anything where she has to rethink something, add or delete something "where I might regret it in the morning."

She told us everybody makes writing sound so magical, like it's not six hours at a keyboard. "It's boring. It's labor." People will ask her if she meant to do some clever thing in the manuscript, and she'll think, "I'm so happy you found that because that took me six days to do."

Her Accidental Turn series was supposed to be one book, but when she signed with a publisher, they wanted the next two books. The publisher's argument was "it's about [literary] tropes, so it has to be a trilogy." By that time, she'd already erased The Wall, and she had to reconstruct it. She had no map, so she had to go back and reconstruct it. She hired her former roommate to help her, and they had to do things like change the location of towns on the map based on how she'd described traveling between them. It was a "crunchy process" in a pub for three days.

Jess, thank you so much for coming on the show and talking about The Skylark and your writing process! It was a really interesting chat. Dive into Worldbuilding meets today, October 3, 2019 at 4pm Pacific to discuss Designing Pivotal Historical Events. I hope you can join us! The link to the meeting is:


Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Story Elements and Worldbuilding

This was a delightful discussion that went to a lot of different places. The question we looked at was "How many things are affected by worldbuilding in your story?"

Of course, the simplified answer is "everything." Worldbuilding and story are not separate, but there are people who are inclined to think about worldbuilding as a separate activity from storytelling, where you have a world bible you can look at to one side of your story. This discussion explored some of the many, many different ways that story and world are interconnected.

Kate says it's easy to miss good worldbuilding if you're not paying attention. She wants to see a background moment in a story that involves briefcase-sized kits for making insulin. Not the focus of the story,  just a moment to show that gatekeeping in medicine has fundamentally changed.

Morgan thought about cell phones. The technology of communication is incredibly important in suspense films and basically any other story where you have to anticipate how easily a message can travel. There has even been a line, "How did we ever fight crime without cell phones?"

Worldbuilding is like a gigantic continuum that stretches from planetary location and structure to geography and climate, and onward into architecture and food and social practices. It goes all the way from the macro- to the micro-scale.

Morgan observed that some stories can't be told in some worlds. Building on the cell phone idea, some stories depend on constrictions in communication. If you have cell phones, you can't cut the phone wires. On the other hand, you can find creative reasons why cell phones might not work.

Older people have different stories, because they have experienced different kinds of cultural and technological changes. Characters of different ages may not use certain items, or might use them in distinctly different ways. We talked about the character of Dot on Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, who starts out terrified of the telephone because she's been told by a priest that it's dangerous.

When you have different point of view characters, there isn't just one world; different characters have personal worlds. You can tell a story about moving out of your personal world into a larger shared world, or clashing with it, understanding or not understanding it.

Worldbuilding is all about taking advantage of exciting opportunities. It's a holistic process that links the large scale with the small scale.

Paul rightly pointed out that because everything in the world is connected, your point of entry can be anything.

I explained how I went about designing the Varin cities and expanding the variability of the cave systems in which they were built using models in our world: the Gouffre de Padirac, Derinkuyu, and the Skocjanske Jame.

Kate said she can steer any conversation to the topic of plate tectonics in five moves or fewer.

We also talked about the unrealistic geography in The Lord of the Rings. At that time, much less was broadly known about geography, and you could make things up, but now you have so many more resources on the topic that you don't have to.

Remember, when you are not making things up, it's less work!

It's also really important to think about the social part of worldbuilding, the part that builds the people and supports your characters. Character psychology is also tied to worldbuilding.

A lot of the time, you should not feel like you are wondering what is in a particular place; you should be trying to figure out what has to be there based on the principles you have set up.

In Varin, I set up a situation where all young noble women have personal bodyguards. This has significant implications for their social relationships, and for the social relationships of boys.

Always ask about implications. Stick a pin in a spot, and the implications of that choice will spread out and go everywhere.

Phenomena that appear to be incompatible may exist in different social groups within the same country or region.

Kate asked, "How hard is physics to deal with?" She suggests that convergent evolution is stronger than we think. Maybe alien worlds would be more similar to ours than we speculate.

Paul remarked that eyes have evolved several times in different genuses on Earth. Bats and birds both fly. Penguins fly, but in a different medium.

Oceanic creatures have some similarities because the medium they inhabit is "Hard to deal with." Some have emerged from the ocean but retain signs of their past presence there.

Models of bipedalism on Earth include the human model and the kangaroo model (and others). Kate called kangaroos "the T-rexes of deer."

It's worth thinking about neurology, too. This includes the neurology of dinosaurs and of everyone else.

Organisms and the ways they relate to their world offer a lot of cool worldbuilding opportunities. What if there were color-blind aliens? Kate said, "Punchy shrimp see sixteen extra colors, so they say, 'no, you're the colorblind one.'"

That said, we have one electromagnetic spectrum. This leads to commonalities in color words across Earth culture, for example.

Language is an enormous opportunity in worldbuilding that people don't often take sufficient advantage of. Each language is going to have to try to solve some of the same communication problems, but it might not do so in the same way. Japanese expresses the manner in which an activity is done via adverbs, when English uses a proliferation of verbs.

Morgan notes that the scope of possible worldbuilding can be daunting. The world is huge, and lots of things can happen at once. We need to understand the major influences that are most relevant to the story.

Some historical events can have a significant influence on culture and language. The American Civil War was one such period. The Genpei War in Japan had a significant influence on warfare, and also indirectly led to the naming of certain kinds of crabs.

Any time you have social groups like cliques or castes, etc. you can ask yourself where these groups came from. How did they form? Why did they form?

You can obviously create simple distinctions without interrogating them. If you simplify, you can give the impression of a culture that is like an animated film versus a live action film. This can be done well, but it's worth being careful.

Ask how people's places of origin affect their characters, and how they affect their relationships. Morgan noted that assumptions like whether someone will be college-bound or not, while seemingly simple, can have enormous influence on people's lives.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! Today, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at 4pm Pacific to talk with guest author J. M. Frey about her Skylark Saga. I hope you can join us! The link to the Zoom meeting is:


Monday, September 16, 2019

Predictability and Unpredictability

If you're reading this, thank you so much for continuing to seek out Dive into Worldbuilding! After some exploration of technology options, the show is back. We're using Zoom meetings and streaming them live to YouTube. This past week we spoke about predictability and unpredictability.

What makes stories predictable?

First, it's useful to ask how we predict things in the first place. We use our observations of patterns in the world to speculate about what will happen next. Many of these patterns are culturally influenced. We also create narratives to make sense of events in our lives.

After you've read a lot of books or watched a lot of shows, you can become very good at guessing what will happen next. This can be a good or bad thing.

Kat observed that culturally, writers are trained into using act structure. We are trained to try to create a page-turning narrative of a particular type, with beats, etc. We participate in a shared storytelling culture, which uses template stories and variations on those. Storytelling cultures across history have had particular patterns they follow when telling stories. Following tropes and breaking them becomes part of this process, based on the kind of tropes that exist in a particular storytelling culture. There is a particular rhythm to narrative structure.

Unfamiliarity with a storytelling tradition from a different culture can make it unpredictable.

Storytelling is not always a straight line, but can be a winding ball of narrative.

If you are retelling a Cinderella story, readers who know the myth allow you to play more with the story. If you have unfamiliar readers, you will generally need to hew closer to the original.

The stories we tell generally maintain a balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. This brings us back to Jed Hartman's idea of "author points," which are a kind of trust credit between the reader and the writer. You need to keep a minimum level of points so that the reader won't give up on you. Keeping some things realistic can allow you to make other things less so.

Of course, we then run into the problem of dragons versus people of color in a fantasy scenario. People seem to have an easy time spending their points on dragons, and much harder time spending them on people of color (because of racism). So the use of such points is not as straightforward as it might seem, but is also culturally influenced.

People who mention potatoes and chocolate in fantasy settings are generally not thinking about whether there was a Columbian exchange or similar event in their world. People in fantasy often have spices but don't necessarily think about the countries those spices came from.

Reality is less predictable than the narratives we tell about it.

We can play with reader expectations, but doing simple flips on discrimination (what N.K. Jemisin calls discrimiflip) is generally problematic because simple flips tend to leave out a lot of underlying pieces, and implications are often under-explored.

Ann Leckie asks the question "what if hands were the thing you weren't supposed to expose?" This defeats our expectation that bare hands are unremarkable, and is a subtle way to play around with those expectations.

When you are accustomed to a homogeneous culture, you can imagine that some things are unusual when they might be much less so. Look further afield to other cultures to help expand your ideas.

People tend not to appreciate it when they are called predictable. Why might that be?

We really, REALLY want something like gravity to be predictable, because it causes enormous problems in our lives if it is not.

Unpredictability is stressful.

Grounding in a story is something we expect and don't want to change. Then there are gray areas, and then there are the things we want to be new.

Paul talked about it in terms of wonder and novelty vs. comfort.

Character behavior is one place where readers often prefer consistency and comfort. If Superman starts doing bad things, it's jarring.

Bertie Botts unpredictable jelly beans are great if you chose to eat them, but much less so if you have them handed to you.

What do we do to set expectations in a story? Very often we can make use of point of view and a character's judgment to set up guidelines about what we want readers to learn and to expect. Why is something familiar or different to the character?

The same story can be comforting or uncomfortable depending on the context. What if your shoes fit? It could be normal, or it could be wildly weird and suggest that shoe gnomes had come to your house.

Morgan noted that predictability varies depending on the scale you are looking at. We can predict a child will grow, and make some predictions about the final result of that growth, but we have very little ability to predict that growth on the shorter term.

Paul remarked that we have good modeling to predict the weather in the next few days, but far less to predict it on the long term. Chaos and unpredictability should be built into a world on some level. Climate change is bringing stressful unpredictability.

People find all sorts of reasons to throw over phenomena they find upsetting, and may deny the actual causes of events in favor of comforting narratives.

We then talked about how we feel about spoilers. I prefer hearing spoilers because I like to pay close attention to a narrative without feeling anxiety about the outcome. Paul says he thinks spoilers sometimes get you excited for the book. But is it robbing you of the chance for wonder, or is it prepping you for what you want? Depending on how you feel about it, you may love or hate spoilers.

What about in your writing process? Do you need to know where the story is going? Morgan said she likes to have a place for it to go, but she doesn't necessarily know how it will get there. Some people have told me they get shut down if they know where the story is going because they feel like they have already written it and are no longer motivated. Sometimes you can wrestle the story into where you need it to go; sometimes you can follow.

A story contains lots of incidental details. Sometimes those details are important and sometimes not. You may realize, after you've written a lot more of the story, that some of those details are more important than you thought they were.

If you come to a story with genre expectations, you will tend to have a set of trained expectations that a non-genre reader might not have.

When you approach a door, what is your expectation? That it will pull open? That it will push open? That it will slide aside, or go up, or dilate?

Working in the kitchen can be predictable or unpredictable. Planned recipes are generally predictable, while working with leftovers is unpredictable. Working just by taste has a whole new dimension of unpredictability.

Predictability and unpredictability are localized in the individual's expectations.

Kat noted that when we watch mimes or clowns we have an assumption that they won't get hurt, which is important to their success. In the real world, we'd have much more fear of injury.

Children often don't share an adult's sense of the ordinary or normal.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! Dive into Worldbuilding will meet tomorrow, September 17th, 2019 at 4pm Pacific to discuss Story Elements and Worldbuilding. How thorough and interconnected should our worldbuilding aim to be, and how many things does it influence?


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Julie Czerneda and The Gossamer Mage

We had a delightful visit today from author Julie Czerneda, who came on the show to talk about The Gossamer Mage, her twentieth (20th!!!) novel, which is coming out on August 6, 2019.

I asked her where the idea for the book started, and she said it started with a pen - and proceeded to show us the pen in question! She brought a lot of cool props to show us, so I encourage you all to check out the video if you're curious about them.

One of the things that Julie explored while writing this was the history of ink. Battles were fought over areas of the world that provided good ink ingredients, and pirates stole ink as well as other things.

I've always found constrained magic systems very interesting, so I asked her to tell us about the magic system she used in The Gossamer Mage. Julie said she agreed with me that she liked constrained systems. She said she liked it when everyone knows how to use the magic, but wait, it's not so simple. This particular magic system is constrained in part because it requires writing, which means it requires a particular type of scholarship. You have to be able to write words that are not human words, and to intend them. Further, this magic can only be done in the one place in the world where magic remains. One important ingredient here is that magic used to be in more of the world, but is no longer present except in one region, ringed with mountains.

Thus, magic is constrained physically, and it is constrained to scholars. The other important ingredient here is that you almost feel sorry for the mages. Every time you use magic, the Deathless Goddess (source of magic) takes a part of your life. If you meet a very old mage, it doesn't mean that person is necessarily particularly old, but will depend on how much magic that person has used. Each time you use magic, you get a bell that you can put in your hair or on a wig or hat. Julie told us the bells are "good advertising." If you have twenty bells, you're a student. If you have 100, you know what you're doing. If you have 300, why are you still alive? I asked Julie if mages lived to a hypothetical fated life length, or just as long as the Deathless Goddess wanted them around, but her answer was more interesting: "You are around as long as you have the will power to be around."

One of the very tricky aspects of being a mage is that if you have this power, you have a lust to use it, so it's difficult - particularly for young mages - to stop themselves from using it again and again. The mage school is "a home for those who are helpless against magic." It sends its students out to do magic and earn money for the school.

I really appreciate when authors consider social implications of their systems, and Julie is doing a great job of this in this book. She told us about families whose sons become mages, and what it means to them. One family is just really happy and sends their son off, but another considers this a family loss, because it means their son will die so much earlier.

Julie told us about how much she likes to describe real objects. She showed us a Murano glass pen that was the inspiration for one of the important pens in the book. She also showed us a 100 year old ink pot that was designed so it could be screwed down and attached to a surface.

I asked Julie how she reconciled working with objects from our world in the context of a created world. She says she wants to create a world that is seamless for readers. The world of The Gossamer Mage has some medieval aspects, but is more like 18th century England.  The Murano glass comes from a place that is foreign, a nearby island. The ink pot also plays a critical role in the story. Julie says tying real things into the fantasy makes it more concrete.

Julie told us that this book is a bit unusual in that it has no chapters. It started as a series of novellas. Before each of the novellas is something called a Fundamental Lexicon, a 1-2 page history that gives context for the piece that follows it.

The Lady (the Deathless Goddess) does not allow travel.

Once, non-humans ruled the magical land of Tananen. When humans came, they interpreted what they found. What would we do if we came across a fount of magic?

Many people in Tananen live in Holds. Though each hold is ruled by a Holder, the land is held by the Hold Daughter, and she has the power to eradicate the entire population of the Hold if she feels like it.

The use of magic is gendered in a really interesting way. Men become mages, and women become Hold Daughters. Julie told us she looked to matriarchal societies from Earth history, where women owned and controlled property. In the society of Tananen, women are the tenders of magic, and men are the users.

Cliff mentioned that it seems as though Julie often visits themes of longevity and gender in her work. He asked if this was a conscious decision on her part. Julie said "It's more that they've collided." She described herself as always being an educator, and wanting to portray strong women. She's also a biologist, so she uses the definition "if it reproduces, it's a female." She says that she doesn't pull punches in The Gossamer Mage.

This book has a gorgeous cover, in a different style from those of her previous books. DAW was looking to produce more iconic covers. Julie said her husband made the original concept art using the pen that they had. Once he turned in that art, the art department came back with the cover art in less than a day!

I asked Julie about what she'd previously said about how the people of Tananen don't travel. Tananen is ringed by mountains referred to as Her Fist, and has one port, and a waterfall known as Her Veil. Any animal created by magic within Tananen turns to dust if it passes through Her Veil, and strangers who try to enter exhale, and then can't inhale again. This is a pretty effective deterrent to travel, especially given that the people of Tananen aren't sure they won't also turn to dust if they leave their home.

Julie then announced she couldn't go on without talking about the beards. The beards in the story are an example of the trivial use of magic (thus, the trivial use of people's lives). People put ornaments in their beards that sing, or have a smell, or have other magical properties. Women will glue beards to their faces in order to be able to participate in this fashion. It's a fashion of the rich, since most people in the country are working people who don't bother with much ornament. It's a fascinating view on how magic and its users are trivialized in some contexts.

I asked Julie about the language she uses in the story. She told me first about the different dialects of Tananen. In the lowlands is where you find people who are wealthier and speak a high-class "civilized" dialect. Up nearer to the ring of mountains, you find a different dialect. Then, in the mountains themselves, you have still another dialect. Sometimes people in the story use their native dialect to be obscure, even to insult someone without them entirely understanding and being able to take offense. Julie said she wanted a sense of the difference in how we speak when we travel vs. when we speak with our families. I always love to see code-switching in a book!

In fantasy, language is very important. Julie said it's important to recognize how quickly language changes for isolated groups.

I then asked her about the name suffixes. These are fascinating pieces of language that acknowledge a mage or Hold Daughter's relationship to the Deathless Goddess. The suffix -eonarial is for mages, and means "Debtor to the Lady."  The suffix -ealyon is for Hold Daughters and means "Promised to the Lady."

Julie told us that when she was working on the three main Tananen dialects, she consulted with her son, who is a linguist. Mostly people throw in different words, or drop letters. As for the untranslated pieces of language, these she termed "echoes of the past." A lot of these names are names that were already there when people first arrived in Tananen. She said it would be like calling a place Thor's Hammer if you didn't know what a hammer was, or who Thor was.

One of the really interesting pieces of the story is a character who believes that they can't have the magic continue, because he doesn't want to see young men's lives sacrificed to fashion and horses with night vision.

I asked Julie about the "made animals," and she said one of the things that people do with magic is create horses who don't have the limitations of real horses, i.e. they function like machines and can go without eating or doing all the normal things horses do. Another interesting made creature is called a "maul." It looks like a dog, but stands like a man, and mauls often serve as guards. Magic can also be used for subtle things, like changing the seeds of a crop so that it will be immune in the next generation to a disease it is currently suffering from.

The language of magic is only spoken by Hold Daughters, but even for them it's painful, because it's not really being spoken by them; instead, they are being spoken through by the Deathless Goddess herself.

Julie offered to show us "something else that's real," and showed us a picture of buildings in the Cotswolds region of England. This was the architectural inspiration for the Mage school. Julie also showed us the original map of the Mage school. I asked her for a moment about the hedges at the mage school. She said they were useful because they were cheap, sturdy fencing, and had wildlife in them. They also allow for eavesdropping or peeking through. In the story they have a key role as wind breaks to stop the students at the school while they fish for carp!

Julie told us she likes practical things.

The main door of the Mage school is a made swan whose wings are the doors. (Such a cool image!)

She said that most of her research was into ink and pens, particularly into the question of how to make in. She also researched the speed of barges so she could gauge the scale of her map on the basis of how long it took people to travel from one place to another.

I asked her about whether her training as a biologist had applied directly to this book. She said that mostly, it influenced the way she observes the natural world. As an example, she told us about a scene in which there are rings of ice around the base of the cattails, suggesting that there was a freeze the night before. This kind of detail is a wonderful way of simply conveying that this is a climate with extremes. She also has a character who travels from the sea coast to the interior, finds gulls there, and considers them inferior because they are smaller and have other slight differences. It is quite common to find gulls inland, however!

She says this book stands alone, because "there can't be" further books. Julie described it saying that in this book, "I ask a question, and I answer it to my satisfaction." The book is meant to linger with a reader.

Julie also showed us the original version of the map of Tananen, both right side-up and upside-down.

Morgan passed on a question from her daughter, which was "Why do you keep making me cry?" Julie couldn't answer that, but did tell us that she considers emotional catharsis important. She never sets out to manipulate people. As she describes it, "My emotions go through the wringer first."

This was a delightful and fascinating conversation. Thank you so much, Julie, for coming on the show!

Please be aware that Dive into Worldbuilding is going into its summer hiatus between now and August 20th. I will let you know on August 19th whether we will start meeting again on the 20th or the 27th. Thank you so much for your support, and please visit my Patreon to support the show more directly!


Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Cadwell Turnbull and The Lesson

We were all really excited to meet Cadwell Turnbull and talk to him about his new novel, The Lesson. This is a first contact novel featuring aliens in the Virgin Islands. It takes place five years after the alien Ynaa integrated with humans, and examines the tensions and conflicts between humans and Ynaa. Cadwell told us it deals with the murky relationship between the two groups, and the social, personal, and cultural effects of having highly advanced aliens living here.

Cadwell explained that the Ynaa have one basic technology. "Reefs" are intelligent cells tht manage body health and also change the Ynaa's physiology so they can fit in. They can also be used for technology, ships, cities, and other things. The reefs can build themselves. This technology can also be used to kill people.

I asked him what the initial seed of the story had been. He told us he had a nightmare where there were highly advanced aliens integrated into a small town. They looked and acted like humans. One of the features of the Ynaa is that they have a culturally mediated response to threat, and that response is disproportionate. They respond with lethal force to threat. In his dream, an alien was being bullied by a group of people, and killed all of them.

He explained to us that he didn't do anything with the idea for a while, but it stuck with him. He started working on his MFA, and was encouraged to set the story in the Virgin Islands. Cadwell grew up there, and his family is still there. He moved away for school, but as he explained to us, it still feels like home. "I feel comfortable, like I understand." He says it's a feeling he doesn't get anywhere else.

Cadwell told us that for a long time, he didn't write about things connected to himself. When he decided to set his novel in the Virgin Islands, the things he researched further for the book included "a lot of dusty history books." In particular, he focused on the Akwamu slave insurrection of 1733. He read a dissertation about the events, and the origins of the Akwamu. Initially, the Akwamu were a group of people on the west coast of Africa who rose to prominence by placing themselves as middlemen in the slave trade. Initially their group had been of mid-low status, but once they became middlemen, this gave them prominence. It also gave them enemies. At a certain point, their neighbors took over their city and sold them into slavery, and they were sent to St. John. One of the fascinating things Cadwell told us about this was that when they rebelled, their motive was not necessarily selfless. He tried to make sure that was clear in the book. These historical events are used as a parallel to the events with the Ynaa.

Cadwell told us he doesn't like to separate plot from character. He considers Ursula K. Le Guin a major influence, since he really admires her work on character. He says he's mostly motivated by character. Sociological themes are important in the book along with larger themes. He strives for a diversity of perspective, using lots of different lenses to examine a complex situation.

I asked Cadwell about his use of point of view in the book. It's a speculative book, but character focused, so he uses third person limited point of view, looking from different characters. There are nine points of view in the book. That came about by accident, Cadwell told us. "I didn't have intentions to make it a novel." Once he'd written it, other people suggested it was a novel. "I wanted to maintain that diversity of perspective." Among these diverse perspectives, there is one Ynna perspective that's very big and important.

When I asked him about his approach to worldbuilding, he called it "pretty much a mess," but in fact, it's a really interesting in-process development strategy. He says he takes a piece of something if it's very interesting, and from that piece he explores outward to other pieces, looking for connections. Instead of trying to render the big idea, he starts with a piece of the big idea, and puts it together like puzzle pieces. Then there will come big moments when he feels "this actually fits together and makes sense."

He describes a larger-scale cosmology "in my brain" that takes up more space. The Lesson is a piece of it. He says this larger cosmology helps him cope with the immensity of writing anything.

I asked Cadwell if his worldbuilding has changed a lot for the book. Some was written during the phase when he felt it was just short stories. He discovered that the short stories kept needing to be explored in a larger context. The plot started to develop out of smaller pieces. He applied logic, asking, "What would this lead to?" Some of the worldbuilding developed after the decision to turn it into a novel.

I asked him about the characters that were unique to the book. The character of Jammie was intended to show that heroism doesn't always come from a predictable place. Cadwell says he'd really like to develop him more. The character of Patrice is a person who has questions about love, relationships, and faith. The character of Henrietta is devout and looking at aliens from a religious point of view. Mera, the Ynaa ambassador, is a really interesting character because she has been there far longer than any of the other Ynaa. Some of the historical pieces are in her point of view. You get to see how she has changed over time, and examine her sympathies for humans, and how they developed. Cadwell describes her as very central to the cosmology in his head. The Lesson is her introduction because she's very important.

We asked if his bookshelf was like the character Derrick's bookshelf. He says the character of "Derrick is better than me" in terms of his taste in books! Derrick is young, but has lots of speculative fiction on his bookshelf that Cadwell says he didn't read until much later. He also has posters from Firefly and Stargate and other things Cadwell watched years ago. He's interested in mythology, too.

One fascinating thing about the novel is that the aliens have changed the media. Giving Derrick reference points in speculative fiction affects how he interacts (disastrously) with the Ynaa.

The character of Jackson is an English professor, and has a very systematic way of distinguishing literature from speculative fiction. Literature only references news clips about the Ynaa, while anyone who writes about the Ynaa directly is considered speculative. Cadwell asked "how is the media changed post-Ynaa?" Subverting expectations is fun, and being aware of media is really important.

Kate remarked about how Cadwell dealt with the question of slavery, especially when the received wisdom in the US is so often that "Africans sold each other." No one says "Africans didn't just lie down and let them do it. It's important to have that part of the dialogue, and to understand that more deeply, which is an opportunity that The Lesson affords readers.

Cadwell responded that he wishes he'd done more with that because he really wanted to explore it more. The tribes of have their own cultures, beliefs, and languages, just like the distinctions between the tribes of Europe.

Any really powerful outside force entering a space where it hasn't been seen before destabilizes the tribal and social makeup of the area. Some people decided, "Not me, do it to those people over there." Europeans of the era were aware that they were creating conflicts. The results of this were multifold. When the Akwame, who had used the slave trade to gain prominence, were themselves sold into slavery and came to St. John, they met many people who they had earlier victimized. The book Night of the Silent Drums by Lonzo Anderson goes into detail about the hierarchies and fraught relationships among slaves. The Akwamu in their rebellion were trying to make the Akwamu nation again.

These narratives need to be told, and explored, in greater detail, so we see the decisions that were made, and why they were made. African tribes have in fact discussed this, and they realize it's disingenuous to say  "they did it" about any other group.

Kat remarked how prevalent the narrative of "When the aliens come, we'll join together to fight them" is, and how inaccurate. In a real situation, that's not what happens.

Cadwell told us he wants to write another story about this, and read some more - perhaps to read the dissertation again.

When the Ynaa come, there is no great uniting among humans. What happens when you do unite? Often the marginalized get thrown first against the enemy, and often whatever unity gets achieved is thrown out again and the differences re-instituted after the common enemy is gone.

We should be honest about what really happens. Who wields the power in a united front? If you want to achieve real stability, the power should be distributed.

The Virgin Islands were a convenient spot to place this narrative because the rest of the world is used to ignoring them.

Cadwell told us that he often gets asked why he doesn't deal with the rest of the world. He says it's because he wanted the Virgin Islands to deal with things on its own.

He is working on a new series right now. This series also takes the approach of looking at a speculative thing and how it affects individuals and culture over time. In this series, there are preternatural beings of different origins: creatures from Caribbean, American, European, and West African folklores. They were hidden for a long time, and he asks why that was. What were the political and social reasons for hiding them? There are social movements, as monsters advocate for civil rights. He looks at intersectionality and monstrosity, as for example the intersection of class and monstrosity, and culture and monstrosity. The vampires, for example, are high-class and can hide more easily than some others. Culture of origin affects monster success. Cadwell describes himself as taking a magically real approach to how people accept monsters. Marginalized groups are the most visible, and receive the most prejudice, and he gets to explore these things, and look at shadowy things under the surface.

Cadwell says he does see himself as someone whose work falls under the umbrella of Afrofuturism.

Kat asked Cadwell whether he experienced a moment when he rejected writing characters unlike himself, and Cadwell said in fact it was an adviser of his who told him he should do that more. When he started doing it, something clicked. He says his stories took on a human quality that was missing before. The question of how identity affects character became really important. This happened around 2012, and gave him more grounding as a writer.

Cadwell says he wants to to pursue the Ynaa character Mera a lot more, and do other parts of her personal history, as well as other characters who he describes as having second and third lives. He wants to return to them in different modes, like a quilt.

All our greatest thanks to Cadwell for coming on the show! We really enjoyed your visit and were fascinated by the discussion. Thanks also to everyone who participated. Dive into Worldbuilding meets today at 4pm to discuss Predictability and Unpredictability. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Character Backstory

Many authors love to get engaged in the back story of characters, and explore the lives their characters led before the story began. What does that have to do with worldbuilding? It's possible to find books in which characters feel well-grounded, and those in which they feel less well grounded. Sometimes I've run across stories where the protagonist in a medieval setting feels like their behaviors and values were imported straight from the 20th or 21st centuries! This would not be natural for someone who grew up in the world in question.

Characters have to interact with their world. They have to know it, and it affects their behavior. Kate said a character can talk about the world like they do with their pets.

Paul brought up the perennial question of "As you know, Bob" dialogue. Many readers of this blog will already know what that means, but essentially, it's having a character explain, in dialogue to another character, something about the world that both of them already know. I have one main technique for expressing this kind of information without having it seem clunky and incongruous: conflict. People will far more naturally utter words about things they already know when they are disagreeing with another person, or when they are encountering problems in the way that things are supposed to work.

The example I love is from Mary Pope Osborne's first Magic Treehouse book, Dinosaurs After Dark. A young girl is running down the road and yells, "Help! A monster!" and her brother replies, "Yeah, sure. A real monster in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania." When you are working in fiction, there's no necessary requirement that monsters be fake, but she lets us know this in one line. This is a critical piece of worldbuilding. Furthermore, she also lets us know where the kids live without having anyone say, "As you know, we live in Frog Creek..."

Recommended techniques for avoiding "as you know, Bob" dialogue:
1. Put in a character who is unfamiliar with the world
2. Have something go wrong
3. Have people in conflict (fighting is not necessary; disagreement is sufficient)

Having a character who is unfamiliar with the world will give you opportunities to have people who do know the world well explain things to that person. It is not always an option, however. In my world of Varin, all people are insiders and none are outsiders. However, I take advantage of the different castes and subcultures of Varin to create the conflict that allows the world to be illuminated. This is one of the reasons why I use multiple points of view.

With multiple points of view, you can ask, "Why does this person judge things the way they do? What about their past might have caused them to have these judgments? Why would they disagree with another character, or see things differently?"

What are the individual experiences that affect a character's backstory? Are they fitting with expectations or not? Do they meet the expectations of their family or not? Does their family meet the expectations of the larger society or not? Is this character well-aligned or misaligned, and in what way, and because of what kind of experiences?

Do you need to know that a particular character loved to wear pink shoes? Not necessarily, but we might want to know why their wearing of pink shoes was important. Were they gender non-conforming? Was it just the wrong shade of pink to be appropriate, somehow?

If your world is resource-poor, think about what that means for a character's past experience and expectations. Think about where clothes and other items would come from, and how likely the character would be to possess them.

Beware the danger of default assumptions that come with your own cultural background.

There are a lot of things in our own world that we may not know. Some of us would be able to say where Prince Harry went to school, but others might not.

Don't give six earrings to someone playing Mary, Queen of Scots.

A lot of backstory information is likely to find its way into the "Miscellaneous notes" pile rather than into the story. However, you will find that the more you know, the more the story will take on dimension. The things you know will show in how you write your character's narrative.

Kat said she's often dinged for not being cinematically descriptive. You don't need to write this way, necessarily. It's better to get your details right than to go for total physical immersion.

Kate told us about a podcast on bad books where she would hear passages and wonder "what mobius size and shape is this room?" or "how many arms are there in the orgy?" Some authors have written about rooms where the sun is always streaming in the windows... forgetting that the sun moves over the course of a day. The constellation of Orion is not in the sky all year unless you are migrating with it.

Kat said she has had the experience of driving all night and watching the sky wheel. Having a character who notices that, or doesn't notice that, is part of their backstory.

What does your character know? What kind of information can they access? What is normal to discuss? What is not normal to discuss?

A lot of a character's psychology forms between the ages of zero and seven. Did anything happen to your character during that period? Did they form natural expectations of attachment to others, or not?

Try not to be simplistic when thinking about how past experiences influence a character. Kate told us about a book where test tube babies were compared with womb-grown babies, and the authors made the test tube babies more distant. Be careful that you don't fall into this kind of essentialism. Having lots of people in your parenting system may be healthy or normal.

The point of view of the writer is not always congruent with the character's point of view.

We also talked about narration style. How is backstory included? Kat talked about how omniscient viewpoint explaining the backstory can be useful. Many modern writers have been taught "show, don't tell," but this admonition is not necessarily helpful, and has drawbacks. Anything "shown" requires more work from the reader. Some kinds of information are best told, and if you can "tell" beautifully, it may be very successful.

Think about who the narrator is, and what they know. Some narrators have a colonialist quality (intentionally or unintentionally). This is one reason why you want to know who the narrator character is, and what their backstory is.

Kat says she notices when an omniscient narrator is pandering to a person who is not her, but she knows a lot about the context from her own experience that doesn't match the narrator's knowledge.

Always ask who your reader is.

Sometimes, insiders to a culture may find it interesting to look at an outsider's viewpoint on their culture. Kat told us about Americans living in Finland who vlog about Finland in English, and how many of their fans are Finns who enjoy the outsider perspective on their home.

Many TV commentators like Trevor Noah or even Johnny Carson have been outsiders to the culture they are commenting on in some sense. They bring in their own cultural assumptions, however, because everyone does.

Don't underestimate the power of the outsider-insider distinction in allowing you to explain things. Backstories are a key ingredient of this.

Some people in a culture are expected to be in a state of learning, like children. People in this state can also be useful for writers and narrators.

A person's idiosyncratic backstory can make them feel like they don't fit in interesting ways.

What if you were socialized to inhabit a different gender from the one you feel? What does it mean to have society tell you you're an outsider?

Even ordinary people have backstory. What backstory makes a character "ordinary" as opposed to "extraordinary"?

Whose backstory is relevant? Are the backstories of non-important people relevant? Why would those people not be important?

Thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion. Dive into Worldbuilding meets today at 4pm Pacific with guest author Cadwell Turnbull to discuss his new novel, The Lesson. I hope you can join us!


Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sam J. Miller and Blackfish City

It was a pleasure to have Sam J. Miller on the show after I saw him at the Nebulas this year.

I asked him what the seed had been for his Nebula-nominated novel, Blackfish City. Sam said, "A woman showed up in my brain, with a killer whale, and demanded my attention." He told us that he had seen the documentary entitled "Blackfish," and cried. He wanted to spend time with orcas, but couldn't do it in real life "because they'd eat me," and this book allowed him to do that.

The floating city of Qanaaq appeared in an immigration parable story called "Calved" that appeared in Asimov's in 2015. Sam told us that a number of different pieces fell together for Blackfish City to happen. He takes things he loves, things he finds upsetting, and things he's mad about and puts them in a pot together.

Qanaaqis a floating Arctic city in a future 100-300 years in the future, after catastrophic climate change. It's a boom town, a giant floating oil rig housing a million people, which is shaped like an asterisk with arms 10 kilometers long. Some of the arms house rich people, and some house people of many different backgrounds.

Sam explained that he has a background as a community organizer working for police reform, and has experience learning what kind of people cities work for or against. This is a critical piece in the creation of Blackfish City. Sam imagined a mass exodus to the north as cities in the south burn. The First Nations, including the Inuit, have adapted to the environment of the north, and so they play a critical role and become global cultural leaders. People who are immigrating to the area take on much culture from where they arrive. In the book the First Nations influence is a backdrop. Sam said that he did a great deal of research on the practices of these peoples, but didn't feel he knew enough about the ramifications to go really deep and still do them justice.

He described the city as "very much New York City," inasmuch as there are many issues in the book that he has encountered in New York. Frustrated by talking to robots, he created a city where Artificial Intelligence makes most decisions. Sam told us he's done a lot of work on open data. Every city agency keeps information in different ways. The way the fire department views a region is very different from the way the city planning department views that same region, and the information they view as critical differs. Trying to bring the two together becomes very messy. In the book, the AIs are not friends or enemies, but they are supposed to make it difficult to solve problems.

We discussed the food people eat in Qanaaq. Sam described it as an assortment of cuisines adapted to circumstances. People eat a lot of vat-grown meat, and have farmed protein sources. Because the city floats on the ocean, there is aquaculture, so they have farmed fish and shrimp. Shrimp have been genetically modified to make the shells edible. Most people rely on a minimalist set of foods, but the rich have floating greenhouses.

Sam said he wanted a lot of inventiveness in the way that the people of Qanaaq solve food problems. He said he looked at Hong Kong and Kowloon's walled city to see how people solved food problems there, since both places are really densely populated. Sam described how Kowloon produced massive amounts of fish balls in small DIY spaces. He was also inspired by his 2015 trip to Thailand, where he saw how food was made, prepared, and sold. He was impressed by stalls that flash-fried noodles really quickly.

I asked Sam how he set up the way the different arms of the city worked. He said his technique was basically, "Let's try this and see how it works." He put the wealthy people on the south side because the weather conditions on the north side would be harsher due to Arctic weather patterns. The city is built over a geothermal vent with a pyramid structure to capture energy.

There are some utopian elements in the story as well as dystopian ones. A lot of energy problems can be solved. The city uses methane generators to produce light. They also don't need militarized police. Sam remarked how any place can have both utopian and dystopian elements depending on who you are. To the people who live in the Capital, the Hunger Games world is a utopia.

I asked if this book was strictly speaking science fiction or whether it had fantastical elements. He explained that it is a science fiction story, but that he uses nanites to do things that might seem magical. The nanites allow some humans to bond with animals. That bond could seem fantastical but it has technological underpinnings.

There are people called orcamancers. Sam explained that the origins of the orcamancers are  with illegal pharmaceutical testing that happened in the period between the present and the time period of the novel. Rival drugs were tested on people at different times. This accidentally led to a form of bonding with animals that Sam compared to the daemons in The Golden Compass. He explained that cultural practices regulate why you would bond with particular animals.

Sam told us that all of his work takes place in a shared universe that can be cross-referenced to itself. He described it as "a sort of general arc to the future that I'm imagining."

In Blackfish City, Sam makes the end of America a sort of background noise by featuring a news report that talks about the 17th American government falling.

Sam told us about a short story he wrote called "It was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes it All Right," in which there was a fundamentalist government that had outlawed musicians (among other things). He said he often writes about things that he's pissed off about, or scared of. He says that given what he is seeing with migrant children right now, he tries not to be gleeful when he writes something about the people who are causing this atrocity becoming refugees. He likes to imagine that the scales will tip.

I asked Sam about the influence of Octavia Butler's fiction on him, because I'd seen him mentioned in an article about her influence.  Sam explained that he can't quantify her influence on him, but that she freed him to think about bringing together social justice and science fiction. He says his favorite of her books is Mind of my Mind, because he says if you did have telepathic superpowers, by and large it would be really rough for you to be surrounded by horrific suffering.

He likes to see old assumptions being shaken.

Sam says, "I love so many kinds of books." He told us he probably should write only one kind of book, but he doesn't stick to one genre. Right now he has a book called The Blade Between coming out from Echo Press. He speculated with us about writing an epic secondary world fantasy, or a sex thriller. He said he had zero interest in writing epic secondary world fantasy because he was turned off by the restrictive visions of many past books, but then he read Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy and thought to himself that maybe it would be possible. He says, "I'm all over the place." He's writing a hard science fiction short story and a horror story at the moment, trying to be a jack of all trades.

Paul asked Sam about his use of point of view in Blackfish City. He told us that he was fascinated by the main character as an agent of plot, but that her influence is mostly having an impact through other people. She only gets to narrate one chapter at the center of the book. Sam explained that the model for this was actually Faulkner's story "As I Lay Dying," which features one section at the center narrated by the dead person who is being transported. Sam said that he really likes to look at the low and high of how people live, so the four points of view in Blackfish City represent the spread of lifestyles in Qanaaq, and each has an equal role and agency in the plot. He acknowledged that managing the logistics of four points of view is tough, and takes both skill and a good editor.

I asked Sam to tell us a little about The Blade Between. He told us that it's set in his hometown of Hudson, New York, a town in the rust belt that grew and waned with industry, and now is being revitalized by wealthy people building second homes and antique shops... but that this gentrification is very difficult for people who live there. The Blade Between is a nightmare vision in which a gay artist who moved to the city and then returned to his hometown fights back against gentrification. He said the question behind the book's premise is "What if gentrification came to a town with a secret?" This town is haunted by the ghosts of whales, who died when whaling was a major industry in the town. The whale ghosts (mostly sperm whales, whose bones fill the harbor) are manipulating people to resist the gentrification. They have a sort of ghost hive mind, which Morgan suggested could be called a "pod mind."

Sam told us that on July 2, he has a book coming out called Destroy All Monsters, from Harper YA. He calls it a combination of gritty contemporary and fantasy YA.

Sam described his worldbuilding as saying a bunch of crazy stuff, putting it on a page, and hopefully it coheres into a world that works. He says he's a half-pantser, in that his characters fill in their own logic. When a character needs to get coffee, he then asks what coffee looks like. If he discovers he never worked out what gender equality looks like or how magic impacts sex work, he goes back and figures it out. He says any worldview is projection and an attempt to make sense of chaos.

It was a real pleasure having Sam on the show. Thank you so much, Sam!

Dive into Worldbuilding meets this week on Tuesday, July 9th at 4pm Pacific to talk with author Cadwell Turnbull about his new book, The Lesson. I hope you can join us!