Story Worlds

Pondering the possibilities You get better at writing by taking a good, hard, look at what you don’t do well, right? I found something I want to get better at. During the novel-revision process I’ve discovered that I can dive into a story and have people (interesting people, I hope) do thing (interesting things, I hope) and discover that everything is happening in a white room…or maybe out in some kind of unspecified outdoor spot. For me, the problem is the same whether I’m writing about real world settings or imaginary ones. I may always have to go back and flesh out the setting; there are many writers that work that way. However, as long as I continue to do some pre-writing and outlining–which I prefer, especially for novels–I  might as well get a jump on setting. So I started to ask myself some questions. There’s a lot of help out there on the interwebs and elsewhere with research and world-building. Almost too much. To keep it manageable, I decided to start from scratch with my own way to approach world-building and research. Once I can handle these relatively simple questions, I might be able to move on and sample some of the wisdom that’s out there. My questions began like this: What do I absolutely need to figure out before I start writing?
  1. Where do people live? How many of them live in one place, and what are their houses like, from richest to poorest (if they have such distinctions, or any notion of some folks being more elite or worthy than others)?
  2. What do people wear? How do climate, social mores, occupations, religious beliefs, and class distinctions lead to variations in dress?
  3. What do people eat? Is there a particular culinary tradition associated with their culture, and if they are aware of other cultures, how would they characterize the differences? What is their special (holiday, for example) food like, compared to everyday food?
  4. What local resources—animal, vegetable, and mineral, magical—help determine answers to questions about shelter, clothing, and food?
  5. How is society organized? Are people in tribes, city-states, nations? How are people’s settlements arranged? Who is in charge? How are disputes arbitrated, both within the community and with other communities?
  6. How do people acquire things? What kind of trade occurs, both within the community and with other communities?
  7. What common occupations exist? What kinds of things will my main characters do, and are their occupations typical, or unusual?
Okay, that just might be enough to start with. Going forward, these are questions I plan to address early on. It’s got to be better than plunging into my next story world only to discover someone forgot to fill the pool!

#EndJapaneseElves: An extremely belated con report

In May of 2014, I attended WisCon38, the annual feminist science fiction convention. In addition to feminism, WisCon is concerned with justice and equality in all forms, particularly as they manifest in science fiction and fantasy – the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world isn’t, but could be. One of my favorite panels was called “Not All Aliens Act Japanese: Writing Exotic Cultures Without Exotifying Real Ones,” featuring Diana M. Pho, editor at Tor books and multicultural Steampunk activist; N. K. Jemisin, author of two outstanding fantasy series and one of WisCon’s guests of honor; and authors Eleanor A. Arnason, Emily Jiang, and author and editor Sophie Werely. They offered some great discussion and advice, and as I look forward to this year’s WisCon, I’d like to share some of that with you.

As the panelists pointed out, it’s very difficult – maybe impossible – to make up something out of whole cloth. Most fantasy worlds are based, however loosely, on something from the real world. This isn’t bad – after all, it’d be hard for a reader to get a grip on the story if there was nothing familiar for them to latch onto, either. But it does mean that we as writers must tread carefully when treading on someone else’s culture.

The more you know about different cultures, human and otherwise (Eleanor Arnason once created a culture using African hairless mole-rats as a basis), the better off you’ll be when creating a culture of your own – but remember that there are no human cultures that exist in complete isolation. One group of people interacts with another one, and they both change. Similarly, all cultures have a history, events and circumstances which have changed them over time: culture is never frozen.

Culture is also not always consistent. America is often described as a Christian nation, for instance, but there are plenty of non-Christians who live here, and exactly what “Christian nation” actually means is a matter of much debate. Emily Jiang discussed the importance of individuals within the culture – is your particular character a conformist or a rebel? How they interact with their own culture can help you to describe both of them at the same time, but it will change the picture your readers get as well.

While building a foreign world can seem intimidating, Sophie Werely quoted Nalo Hopkinson, writer and instructor of the “Writing the Other” course, who says that the reader will trust the writer’s unshaking confidence and authority – sometimes just diving in will pull people along with you. Character, too, is always a good starting point – people love other people, and will follow them into exceedingly strange places.

N.K. Jemisin pointed out that this is also the best way to do diversity in fiction. Empathy, she said, is the crucial difference between real and superficial diversity, and our culture does not emphasize empathy with everyone equally. “We are all capable of comprehending each other,” she said, we just don’t always try very hard. Werely emphasized that what publishers are pushing for is for the marketplace as a whole to become more diverse, not necessarily each and every book – no one wants to read a checklist.

When asked how to avoid cultural appropriation, Jiang reminded the audience that no culture is a monolith, and everyone who is a part of it or has a stake in it will not necessarily have the same opinions. What’s fine with one person might offend someone else. Understanding the significance of a particular thing to the culture overall is a huge part of being respectful. Werely also emphasized that many reactions people have to cultural borrowing or appropriation are less about the specific thing done in that instance and more about the overall shape of the culture – cultures who have suffered oppression are more likely to be sensitive about even the most well-intentioned gestures.

From a marketing standpoint, truly unique worlds seem to do better in science fiction – Jemisin recounted the difficulty she had with selling her Dreamblood duology, which is fantasy based on Egyptian culture. She wasn’t able to sell it until she’d established success with her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series, which has a more traditional fantasy setting.

Diana Pho also mentioned that there’s another aspect to all this, and that’s how you handle criticism once it’s all finished and out there – and there will definitely be criticism. Arnason mentioned the research she’s been doing on Iceland, saying she’s been reading about it her whole life and she still doesn’t know enough to write about it, and she’s come to terms with the fact that some Icelanders will read her work and be sarcastic about how she got it wrong and that’s okay. What it comes down to, she said, is the oldest question there is in writing: is it okay to write about anyone other than yourself?

Jemisin and Arnason both agreed, though, that there is only one good response when you’re criticized for doing something wrong, being insensitive, or falling into a hurtful stereotype: “Thank you for telling me what I did wrong.” Try to learn from your mistake, try never to do it again, and never, never defend something you did that hurt someone else.


Registration is now open for WisCon39 at the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, May 22-25, 2015. If this sounds like the kind of thing you’d love to spend a long weekend doing, I’d love to see you there!

Number 9 – A story written from an inventory

I never do this. So, I was reading Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terribleminds. He is wont to post writing prompts for his readers, in case they want to write something but can’t get started. Getting started is never my problem; finishing is. But I was intrigued by last week’s challenge. To participate, one needed to tweet the word “inventory” to the Twitter bot @YouAreCarrying, then use every item listed in a story of 2000 words or less. I couldn’t resist. I tweeted. My story inventory turned out to be: a crowbar, a broken timber, a medical robot breastplate, a medical report, a large knife and a hunk of brogmoid ear wax I had to look up brogmoid, but that was the extent of my research for this story, which follows.

Number 9

Armando threw all his weight against the crowbar, levering it into the crack between door and frame. The old door groaned and finally splintered. If Madame Rue was inside, she must have heard it. Maybe she would finally come to the door, though Armando’s insistent knocking earlier hadn’t brought any signs of life from the decrepit cottage. Nothing. He continued his task, finally making a slit in the door large enough to see into the house. He put one eye up to it. It was darker inside the cottage than outside, but he definitely detected movement. The old bat was ignoring him. He bashed the crowbar against the door and yelled, “Hey! Madame Rue! If you don’t want me to finish breaking your door, you’ll open up!” The moving figure paused, then drew closer. It was short and wide. No one had told him that. Brilliant, reclusive, eccentric—that was how people described her. They also mentioned her gold tattoo. No one ever said she had the dimensions of an obese fire hydrant. He hooked the curved end of the crowbar into the slit he’d made when he heard the snick of a lock opening. Finally. He removed the crowbar and waited, but whoever had unlocked the door did not choose to open it. “I’m going to be sorry for this.” Armando put his hand to the knob and opened the door. Even before his eyes adjusted to the dim interior, he began apologizing. “Sorry, lady. I did try knocking first. I wouldn’t bother you, except for this.” He pulled his backpack off and reached inside for the medical report. He offered it to her. Then he stopped to look at the person before him. This squat green creature couldn’t be Madame Rue. It was neither human, nor robot, nor any sort of animal he’d seen before. It regarded Armando with dull eyes, its drooling jaw slack, seeming to possess no curiosity whatsoever. What it did possess was a massive underbite, two sharp, up-thrusting tusks, and a large knife. It advanced on Armando, waving the weapon at him. Armando jumped back. “Whoa!” The creature kept coming. Armando clutched his pack and the medical report to his chest, partly as protection and partly to keep from losing them. “Sandwich!” the creature said. Armando pulled himself up short. “What did you say?” “Sandwich! Sandwich! Sandwich!” The creature stood inches from Armando. As it was only as tall as Armando’s waist, the knife waving made Armando uneasy. “I’ll just take that from you, shall I?” Armando deftly snatched the knife from the creature. It waddled down the hall. Armando followed it until they emerged in a larger room. Light from a window revealed a kitchen sink and a table to one side. Light from an open refrigerator revealed a floor littered with broken eggs and jelly jars, packages of cheese and bologna, and a plastic milk jug. At least the milk jug was upright, with its cap still on. “Holy crap.” Armando picked his way past the mess to set his pack and envelope on the table. He located a broom, swept the worst of the mess into a dustpan, and then emptied it all into a trash can he found under the sink. He fished the bologna and cheese out, rinsing them in the sink and inspecting the packages for damage. They seemed fine. They would do for this creature’s sandwich, assuming he could find bread. “Unh! Unh!” Armando turned. The creature was jumping in front of the still-open refrigerator, its arms up in the air as if reaching for something. On top of the refrigerator was a loaf of bread. The creature stepped onto the lowest shelf of the refrigerator and grabbed for a handhold two shelves up. “That’s not a ladder!” Armando dashed to the refrigerator and pulled the creature out, then closed the door. “I’ll get your bread.” It kicked Armando in the shin. “Ow! Damn!” He glared at the creature. It paid him no attention, instead reaching for the refrigerator door handle and yanking it open again. Armando heard a distant banging. “What’s that?” The creature didn’t reply. Apparently stymied in its attempt to reach the refrigerator’s summit, it was swinging from the open freezer door. “Fine,” Armando grumbled. “You’re on your own. I’m checking it out.” He followed the noise. It might be coming from outside, except when he stepped out the front door, he could no longer hear it. He went back in and searched the house, opening doors. He discovered a bathroom, an unoccupied bedroom, and another room which might once have been a guest room. It currently just contained old junk. A treadmill was heaped with dusty clothing and several computer monitors and keyboards lay in a pile in one corner. The next door was more promising. When he opened it, the banging was definitely louder, and stairs led down. He descended. The dirt-floor cellar was even worse than the unused guest room upstairs. Holiday decorations, rusty garden tools, and broken furniture lay in jumbled piles. A partially disassembled medical robot sat in one corner, its legs splayed awkwardly in front of it. Its breastplate lay before it, leaving its tangled innards open to mildew, dust and cobwebs. Armando grabbed the breastplate, using Christmas ribbon to tie it to his chest. Waste not, want not. The banging noise resumed, now closer. There was also a muffled voice calling something that sounded like, “Help! Let me out!” Armando grinned. If that was Madame Rue, she’d owe him one. A wall opening led into a corridor so dark he couldn’t see more than ten feet into it. He rummaged in a nearby box, found a Halloween flashlight, and went down the corridor. Way down; it seemed like forever. Was he still under the same house he’d entered? How much of an underground lair did the woman have? He finally came to a cave-in. A broken timber blocked his way: that and a whole lot of dirt. He used the short end of the timber to scrape at the dirt. “Hold on, Madame Rue! I’m coming!” Eventually he saw light on the other side of the hole. The woman holding the lantern resembled Marlene Dietrich. Not what he expected. Her gold tattoo, though—that was unmistakable—a caduceus glittered as if lit from within. “Madame Rue?” She shot him a look. “What if I’m not? Will you let me out anyway?” “Of course.” He resumed his work, making the hole big enough to let her wriggle through. “Are you all right?” he asked. “I’m thirsty, filthy, and starving. Pissed at the little monster who never came looking for me, but it’s not his fault. Aside from his congenital stupidity, he’s also going deaf.” “The little green guy? What is he, anyway?” “He’s a brogmoid. Ran across him on an expedition once. When he realized I had food, he followed me everywhere. So he’s mine, for better or worse. God knows what he’s up to now, without me to keep an eye on him.” “I think he’s making a sandwich.” Her jaw dropped. “You left him alone in the kitchen?” “Hey, lady, I was trying to find you. You were banging and calling for help. I thought that was more urgent than babysitting a green fireplug.” “Shit.” She pushed past Armando. He followed. When they reached the kitchen, it was no worse than it had been earlier. The brogmoid still swung from the freezer door, only now his teeth were chattering. Madame Rue gestured sharply downward. “Off!” The creature let go and dropped to the floor. Madame Rue closed the refrigerator and turned back to the brogmoid. “S-s-sandwich!” “Yes, you’re hungry. Big surprise.” She shook her head, then looked around the kitchen, noting the bologna and cheese packages on the table. She took down the bread and got to work. “At least you were neater than usual.” “I cleaned up after him,” Armando said. She looked up from trimming bread crust off sandwiches. “You want a medal?” Armando felt hot. “Look, lady. I’m doing my best here. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I came to see you.” She sighed. “Fair enough. What did you come for, anyway?” He found the medical report and held it out to her. She looked it over. One corner of her mouth quirked up. “Lost your mojo, have you?” He felt his face turn red. “You could say that.” “Well, I’m sorry to tell you, Ace, but I am fresh out of what you need.” “Can’t you make more?” “I could, except for one little problem. Einstein here—“ she jerked a thumb at the brogmoid— “likes to mess up my stuff. You might have noticed. Anyway, I can’t find the mink urine I use to make it. No idea when I’ll locate more.” “He’s just lost it, right? I mean, you don’t store it in anything breakable, I hope.” “No, I have special flasks, but—” “Why don’t you just ask him where it is?” “One, he has the attention span of a three-year old, if you’re being generous. Two, he doesn’t hear so well.” “Have you taken him to an audiologist?” “You try it. I can’t even approach his head without him going berserk. He might have blueberries plugging up his ear canals, for all I know.” “I take your point.” Armando’s shin still throbbed from its earlier attack. Still, brogmoid looked content for the moment, stuffing sandwiches into its toothy maw. Armando considered. Chance the creature’s wrath, or live the rest of his life with deficient mojo? He brightened. He still had the breastplate he’d snagged downstairs. He swung it in front of his shins and bent to look in the brogmoid’s ears. No blueberries, but they were definitely plugged. Armando used his pinky to scoop out a glob of yellow wax. The brogmoid looked up, startled. While it was still confused, Armando checked the other ear, and cleaned it out as well. He consolidated the twin harvest into one enormous hunk of brogmoid ear wax. That was when the creature head-butted him. Right in the mojo. Armando crumpled. “Bad Einstein!” Madame Rue stamped on the floor so hard it vibrated. The creature put its hands up to its ears, a look of confused pain on its face. Madame Rue rushed it. “Mink pee! Where is it?” The brogmoid howled and ran from the kitchen. She followed. From his fetal position on the floor, Armando barely registered brogmoid howls and repeated yells of, “Mink pee!” By the time Madame Rue returned with an armload of supplies, Armando could almost breathe again. “I’ll just mix it up right here in the sink.” She hummed, dumped ingredients, and stirred them with a broom handle. He sat up just as she brought a brimming mug to him. “Here. This should fix you up.” It smelled like turpentine and looked like India ink, but he choked it down. That was when he finally realized how beautiful Madame Rue was. He reached for her, but the brogmoid cut between them, using the broom to batter Armando. Armando considered the brogmoid. It was not unattractive. He moved toward it. “Okay, Tiger. Out!” Madame Rue held the kitchen door open. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” The brogmoid turned the broom so that the non-bristled end pointed toward Armando’s crotch, threatening to undo Madame Rue’s excellent work. With heroic effort, Armando departed. Somewhere out there was that special someone who would help him celebrate his rehabilitated mojo.