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History is Written By People: Conclusions on Building Fictional History

I read quite a bit of history, both real and fictional. In the last couple months, the historically oriented books that I’ve read and enjoyed have included (in no particular order) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the edited volume Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the fictionalized history text by George RR Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire. With all of this stuff floating around my head, and especially after talking about Jemisin and Martin’s work in my book group this weekend, I’ve been reminded of a conclusion that’s good to restate from time to time. That conclusion is this:

History is complicated.

A lot of what I mean by that is encompassed in the expression “history is written by the victors,” that those who come out on top in any conflict usually get the first and/or last say in how that conflict’s framed in official history books. That’s why Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America is still celebrated in much of the United States despite protests that the holiday commemorates genocide, and it’s why children in Vietnam learn that the United States sent colonialist forces to their country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But there’s more to the matter than that.

Good historians, like all social scientists, try to understand and present the past as completely and accurately as possible. But when we talk about history, we mean more than just the most accurate account of events; history’s a distillation of the stories a culture tells itself about the world. By its very nature as the collected experiences of individuals, set down by individuals, real history is never completely uniform, and it’s never totally complete.

First off, no official history ever goes completely unchallenged. One hundred and fifty years later, people still occasionally refer to the 19th-century conflict between the US and the Confederacy as “the War of Northern Aggression.” More than 45 years after network TV broadcast Neil Armstrong saying “one small step for man,” people still dispute whether there was ever a moon landing. Even the most authoritarian leaders usually can’t suppress opposing views completely – and even the most information-driven societies can’t be absolutely sure of the truth of everything in their archives. Not to mention the fact that the archives never hold everything.

Every historian’s work is based on analysis of data. The two “real” histories on my list from the first paragraph, Nielsen’s and Levine’s, rely heavily on first-person accounts, journals and letters from the time periods they’re interested in. But if a place or a people is destroyed suddenly (as happens sometimes in history, and is particularly prone to happen in genre fiction, where a god or an asteroid might wipe out a whole continent with no warning), there may not be much left in the way of records to consult. In Charles C. Mann’s 1491, distilling the latest theories about pre-contact American societies, the author makes the point that there’s a great deal that will never be known for sure about these peoples just because their destruction by the Europeans (through intentional and unintentional means) was so complete.

Finally, there’s the fact that those who set down the history are human beings, and as I tell my students in Sociological Research Methods, human beings can never be truly objective. Even a historian who had access to all the possible data on their subject, from all the sides of a conflict, would have to pick and choose what to include, and those choices would inevitably be guided by bias. Social researchers can try to be aware of their biases, and to work around them, but they can never escape them completely.

Having said all that about how I believe real history works, it probably comes as no surprise that I like my fictionalized history to follow these same rules.

George RR Martin is a master of this. Whether you believe A World of Ice and Fire is a worthwhile addition to the universe or a concession to fans chomping at the bit for the next book, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it’s a marvelously complex and human history that’s right in line with the way Martin is telling his story in the novels. Rather than an uncontested “behind-the-scenes” account of the events Martin’s developed for the history of his world, AWoIaF presents a contradictory account by a few well-intentioned maesters, who are drawing on incomplete data and writing in full knowledge that their work will be reviewed by the current rulers, and so they’d better stay clear of politically incendiary rhetoric (the title “Kingslayer,”  for example, appears nowhere in these pages). The book’s gotten some criticism from fans for not being “the official history of Westeros”; I’d argue that it couldn’t be more official, just as it is.

Another series that does this well is Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first one. When we enter the setting, we’re given the official version of its history – once there were three gods, but then one was killed, another enslaved. These are, respectively, the traitor and the fiend, while the remaining god rules alone in the heavens and the family that helped him win the gods’ war rule on the earth with wisdom and justice. Upon encountering this setup, I’d guess that any reader familiar with the concept of “mainstream” and “alternative” history will be suspicious from the word go, and Jemisin is quick to validate those suspicions. In a guest post she wrote for John Scalzi’s blog when her first book came out, she notes that the germ of the idea for the Inheritance books came when she read 1491, which made her think about the idea of “hidden history.”

The world of my novels has all kinds of hidden history. The era my hero lives in is (very roughly) something of a Renaissance period for his culture, the first years of peace and renewal after a long war that basically leveled the previous civilization. When I sat down to flesh out my worldbuilding, one of the first things I had to work out was exactly what happened in that war. So I did, and now I know the whole story – more or less – but as I wrote it out, I found myself taking first one perspective and then another. I told one faction’s version of what happened and then countered it with the other’s; I came up with names for what each group called themselves as well as what they called their enemies. And when I reference the war in the novel, a person’s answer to the question of “what happened” varies dramatically depending on their species, their regional origins, their age and other factors. No one person, no one group, has the whole story. I like it better that way.

There are certainly good books that connect their story’s main events to precise, unambiguous history. But the more I read, the more I’m convinced that if a writer wants their fictional world to have the ring of authenticity, they’d best take a little time to think about how that world views its past. What evidence has been preserved for contemporary people to use in understanding the past? What stories do the people in power want taught and highlighted? Who would have the incentives to counter those stories?

That’s why I read so much history; because the real world is wondrously multifaceted and complex, and the story changes depending on who’s telling it. I think the best fictional worlds are those that have this feeling to them, like Martin’s, like Jemisin’s. That’s what I try to do when I tell stories in my world.

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Believing Impossible Things: Magic and Fantasy, Part I

Quick, now: what makes a fantasy story a fantasy story?

When I’m asked the well-meaning-but-terrifying question “what is your book about,” my shortest and most general answer tends to take a shape kind of like this: “Oh, it’s a big fat fantasy novel. You know, with swords and monsters and magic.”

With these three elements, I like to think I can narrow my story’s scope enough that potential readers will know if they want to hear more. The “swords” part probably suggests that my book’s got some things in common with historical or quasi-historical stories (like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books); the “monsters” part probably indicates that there will be invented creatures of one kind or another (though it’s certainly not only invented settings that can depict monstrous things). But the part that I suspect most clearly marks the kind of story I’m telling – that I know from experience is most likely to make someone lean in or turn away – is the word “magic.” Because I’m increasingly convinced that magic is the marker of fantasy stories.

But what are we talking about when we talk about magic?

The first definition to come to many people’s minds is the kind of magic showcased in the Harry Potter books and in your average sword-and-sorcery novel or MMORPG. This is the wizard in the D&D party casting Magic Missile: very showy, often involving formal words and gestures, most frequently (though not always) formally taught, and common in the culture it’s a part of. But it’s not the only model out there.

About 6 weeks ago, author Kazuo Ishiguro went on record in an interview with The New York Times expressing his concern that readers of his new novel, The Buried Giant, “are… going to say this is fantasy.” Setting aside the ideological debate that sprung up in the wake of his comments, consider the content of the book in question: according to Goodreads, it follows an elderly couple as they wander around the ruins of their not-quite-British homeland, shrouded in a mist that makes people forget their pasts. Is this magic?

Both Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Carey’s Kushiel books are the product of an enormous amount of historical research, although neither is set in the “real world” that readers know. Both series also have elements that are generally accepted not to exist in the real world (in no particular order and without differentiation: dragons, murderous shadows, precognition, and shapeshifting). These elements are seen as generally remarkable by the characters living in the setting, and their existence is not well-understood or explained; but they’re there, and they’ve always been there. Is this magic?

What about the feruchemy and allomancy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books? These powers are openly stated to have a genetic basis, and they’re fairly common in their respective populations, if not completely taken-for-granted. The time travel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series seems to follow similar rules: successful time travel has a genetic component, it’s linked to particular places and times, and there are other factors that make it easier to travel safely. Magic? Or science?

What about Star Wars’ the Force? Magic? Does your answer change if you’re considering only the three original movies versus all six extant movies (which offer a pseudo-scientific explanation for it)?

When we hear the word “magic,” what do we expect to see?

This question’s been at the forefront of my mind lately, as the first “really magicky” parts of my novel have come under the knife for revision, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Last April, I read a Locus interview with author Daryl Gregory where he said:

Readers will read something as science fiction if the characters are engaged in the process of science. In fantasy there’s no fiddling with the rules. You pull a sword out of a stone, and that makes you King of England. There’s no, ‘But what if I put a sword into the stone?’ In a science fiction novel, everybody would be trying to figure out how to make more kings by inserting more sharp objects into rocks! A fantasy novel is almost distinguished by not asking those fundamental questions about what is going on. A science fiction novel, no matter what the rules, is always asking those questions.

At the time, this really resonated with me – perhaps because my fantasy-worldbuilding kept being disrupted by sci-fi-loving Husband asking questions like “but where does the magic come from?” – but as I get a little more distance from it, I find myself wondering. I’ve encountered fantasy stories where people attempt to figure out where their magic comes from. It seems to me like the final climax of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is all about taking control of the fundamental processes of magic (and basically inserting sharp objects into rocks). If a character in Harry Potter attempted to ascertain where their magic came from, would that make the story into science fiction? Or would it only be science fiction if it was discovered that the cause was genetic manipulation or radiation?

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Is the only difference the way that the story frames the unbelievable elements, that “magic” is unbelievable things that come from outside of people, where “technology” is people-derived? When Hermione Granger develops a new spell, is she using magic or technology or both?

A few months ago, I attended a Google Hangout interview with NK Jemisin through the Dive Into Worldbuilding series where she talked both about the new novel she has coming out later this year and about her philosophy on world-building. The two things that struck me most from this conversation were her points about assumptions she tries to avoid in her readers. First, she noted that people generally assume that science and magic don’t coexist, that the practice of science in a fantasy setting (or even the use of scientific language) is a rare commodity. But the thing that really resonated with me was her explanation for why she doesn’t use “magic” as a term in her books. The reason, she explained, was because “magic implies… differentiating between magic and mundanity.”

I think that might be my new favorite explanation: that when people use the word “magic,” they’re drawing a line between what is normal and what is uncanny. This can be different for your setting than for the real world – in fantasy, that’s often the case – and it can change over the course of the story. But “magic” as a concept carries undertones of something rare and precious and bizarre. By that definition, the mysterious stuff of Carey and Martin’s books is undeniably magic. The everyday conveniences of Harry Potter’s world, on the other hand, start to lose their rights to the title. Something that’s common – that’s just part of how the world works – wouldn’t quite be magic, not to the characters. Even if it’s never been seen before by the readers.

Of course, all this musing hasn’t done much to tidy up the definition of magic, or of fantasy — but as I tell the students in my sociology courses, definitions are always problematic, and people get uncomfortable with edge cases (like the Force in Star Wars, or Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, which are always identified as “technically science fiction”). For most readers, I suspect that Harry Potter-style wizardry falls neatly into a different category than the more pseudo-scientific approach to weird powers taken in Mistborn or Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. But are there other distinctions? Does the purported source of uncanny powers matter? George RR Martin offers up both religious and secular magic, some clearly magical creatures and some human mages and some whose nature isn’t entirely clear. Is a dragon always magical? An elf? A dwarf?

I suspect I’ll be thinking about this for a while longer. What do you think? What puts Ishiguro’s allegory about societies recovering from atrocity in the Literature section of Barnes & Noble, while Tolkien’s goes in the Fantasy section?

Do You Want a Stroll or a Road Trip? On Reading Standalones and Series

I’m a creature of habit. That may be one reason why my list of favorite books includes so many series: once I’ve gotten comfortable with a setting and a cast of characters, I’m inclined to settle down in their world for as long as I can. Fortunately, long series are a pretty common element of epic fantasy, which by definition encompasses big stories; the tale I’m telling is currently slated to span ten books before it’s done. I’m the sort of person who’ll never roll my eyes upon hearing that a beloved series has expanded to encompass another book. And yet, when I’m testing out a new author, I’m inclined to look for standalones.

Of course, this is at least in part for efficiency reasons: if I’m unsure about an author, it’s easier to get a sense of their storytelling skills if I can see how they plot out a whole arc. But I think the main reason is because the big stories told by series have at least as much potential to let down their readers as they do to bring joy.

On the simplest level, this is because the nature of series writing leaves the author with many more traps to avoid. If you’re writing a series, whether you’re telling a succession of effectively standalone tales like the ones in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files or Seanan McGuire’s October Daye books or, like Stephen King in The Dark Tower or NK Jemisin in The Inheritance Trilogy, a story that’s basically one long novel stretched over a few thousand pages, each book needs to be crafted individually. Whether individual volumes are meant to stand on their own or not (which is a different discussion), readers come into a series expecting that each volume will have its own plot arc, its own mini-journey, and in all but a few of the most loosely connected examples, it’s also expected that each book will contribute something to the overarching plot of a bigger story. That’s something most series readers love and look forward to; it also requires authors to carry two different plot valences in their heads from the very beginning, and means that the odds of writing yourself into a corner go up exponentially. If JK Rowling had decided two-thirds of the way through her tale that Harry Potter shouldn’t live with his horrible relatives anymore, she would’ve had to jump through more hoops to get him away from them than if she still had the whole story sitting in front of her, unpublished and accommodating.

Besides the problem of juggling plots, there’s also the trouble of reader expectation. Readers who discover a series early in its publication history have lots of time between volumes to grow attached to characters, to gossip about plot twists and dream up the endings they want for “their story” – and sometimes, the ending the author chooses isn’t the one you’d have picked. This happened for me with Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, a guilty-pleasure choice of mine where I reached the final book having read and reread the others until I had sections nearly memorized, and then was left cold by how the author opted to end her story.

Obviously, the ways reader expectations are developed have changed dramatically since the advent of the Internet; George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books might be a too-obvious example of this, where any fan who wanders onto the discussion boards almost can’t help but be prematurely spoiled about the final picture Martin’s been slowly laying out with hints and prophecies. I’ve heard more than one fan say that if Character X ends up proving to be aligned with Interest C, as some readings of the clues suggest, they’re declaring the final books non-canonical (in the same way some people have done with the Star Wars prequels, or the new Star Trek movies). Giving fans more time with a story, and letting the anticipation build for its conclusion, opens the door to disappointment that can’t be there in the same way for something wholly contained in a few hundred pages.

In fact, time presents a whole set of problems for series writers. Sometimes, an author’s voice shifts from the first book to the last on a path that readers don’t want to follow. I had a difficult time with the last trilogy in Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange series for this reason; I found the final books, with their more “modern” slang and their constant references to heroes of old, to read like a caricature of what I loved in the earlier trilogies, and they didn’t find a permanent home on my shelves. Sometimes, as with Melanie Rawn’s Exiles trilogy, an author loses the muse that was whispering that story in their ear, and moves on to other projects: while I’m the first to agree with the argument that authors, as artists, should write what they want, and stop when they want (as Neil Gaiman memorably put it in a post on the subject, “George RR Martin is not your bitch”), I do understand the impulse to avoid all but completed series to avoid being left stranded in mid-stride. And (most) finally, like Robert Jordan/James Rigney, an author might die with their story unfinished. I’m not a big enough fan of the Wheel of Time series to have read the new books Brandon Sanderson authored using Rigney’s notes; my impression is that many fans think they’re better than they might otherwise have been (review links to io9 and includes spoiler warnings for the final book), but I’m sure there are others in the fan base who feel the story couldn’t truly be finished without Rigney there to write it.

And so, in short, it seems like series offer more risks to the reader, extra disappointment on a whole range of levels. There are extra responsibilities in place for the author who wants to write good series fiction; first, the responsibility of making sure that the seeds you plant in early books are tracked, of figuring out whether you want your books to have a grand arc beyond the individual volumes and of what pieces of that arc you want to fit into the smaller stories. As a reader and a writer, I’d also argue authors have some responsibility to make each volume stand as a complete story on its own. I don’t mean that readers should be able to dive into the middle of the series, but I don’t like cliff-hanger endings between volumes, especially when there’s going to be years until the next one’s released (I nearly turned my back on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy after the way the first book ended). Series have to do more work than standalone books to succeed in the story they’re telling: there are some authors who I count among my favorites, authors whose standalone work I read over and over again, who seem to choke when they’re faced with stretching a story over multiple books. Series can be tricky.

But when they work, in my view, they allow modern readers to fall into one of the best aspects of storytelling, the kind of storytelling that’s been around for a long, long time – of falling in with characters from legend, characters whose adventures are legion, and starting down the road with them knowing that there’s a long, long way to go. That’s why I’m writing one, and why I continue to embark on road trips with other authors familiar or otherwise.

Worldbuilding in a Nutshell: Martin & Dozois’s Rogues Anthology

Sipani, and most especially its moist and fragrant Old Quarter, was full of thieves. They were a constant annoyance, like midges in summer. Also muggers, robbers, burglars, cutpurses, cutthroats, thugs, murderers, strong-arm men, spivs, swindlers, gamblers, bookies, moneylenders, rakes, beggars, tricksters, pimps, pawnshop owners, crooked merchants, not to mention accountants and lawyers. Lawyers were the worst of the crowd, as far as Friendly was concerned. Sometimes it seemed that no one in Sipani made anything, exactly. They all seemed to be working their hardest to rip it from someone else. — From “Tough Times All Over,” by Joe Abercrombie, appearing in Rogues

Like many Internet-dwelling Song of Ice and Fire fans, I have at least a passing familiarity with George RR Martin’s blog, so I saw the many announcements about the release of his and Gardner Dozois’s new 2014 anthology Rogues. Although big multivolume epic novels are usually my format of choice, I sought out a copy of this anthology both because of the number of my favorite authors whose worlds made cameo appearances (most notably Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman and Martin himself), and because I’ve had a soft spot for rogues ever since building my first D&D character (3rd edition, 2001, a half-elven woman who stole 50 gold pieces from another PC in her first session. My geek roots run past sociology and novel-writing).

I’ll confess up front, I didn’t read every story in this anthology: if a story didn’t grab me in the first five pages, I was apt to skim it or skip it altogether. But even using that cherry-picking method (I probably read about half of the 21 tales), I found several stories here that impressed me, and not just those from authors whose names I recognized. I’ll be looking to read more from Joe Abercrombie, Gillian Flynn, Scott Lynch and Daniel Abraham based on the stories they contributed to this anthology. And by the time I got to the end of the book and GRRM’s 35-page historical account of Targaryen history (which I, as a history geek and amateur genealogist, thoroughly enjoyed), I’d noticed a common element to the secondary-world offerings that I liked: they all did a very good job of presenting a complete setting in a comparatively small space.

For me, Gaiman’s story was an example of how not to do this. He wrote in an existing universe (the underground world of London Below from Neverwhere) and although I’ve read the novel, it was too distant in my memory to allow me to link the faint bells the story was ringing with the larger context of the world. Rothfuss’s story, on the other hand, largely avoided attempted tie-ins to the larger world it was drawn from and kept its focus on a few characters and a self-contained plot.

The stories that particularly impressed me in this regard, though (even more than Abercrombie’s, despite the quote that starts this post) were Lynch’s “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” and Abraham’s “The Meaning of Love.” I felt that each author did a very good job of establishing a unique and interesting setting, and that Lynch was particularly skilled at doing this while also introducing us to some compelling characters. After rereading both stories with an eye to how they did it, I’ve come to the following conclusions for those who want to world-build on a limited scale:

  1. Keep it small. Both Lynch and Abraham tell stories set in a single metropolitan location, and for the most part in one or two spots within that location. There are allusions to the larger world in which the city sits, hints enough to make us believe that the authors could tell us more if we asked. I was particularly fond of this quote from Lynch’s story, where the roguish protagonist is laying out her credentials: “I stole the sound of the sunrise and the tears of a shark. I borrowed a book from the library of Hazar and didn’t return it. I crossed the Labyrinth of the Death Spiders in Moraska TWICE!” (p.248). I suspect Lynch could probably tell us more about these deeds, just like he could about the backstories of the rest of his crew of ex-thieves, but he chooses not to. In this anthology, he tells a story about a thieving crew in retirement, and about Theradane. Which brings me to my second point.
  2. Make your setting a protagonist. Both stories do this in spades. Abraham’s setting, the unincorporated Sovereign North Bank (with a relationship to the larger city around it a bit like Vatican City’s relationship to Rome, if Vatican City were a wretched hive of scum and villainy), gets the first two pages of a 30-page story all to itself; we don’t meet the human protagonist, Asa, until the top of Page 3, and further city description takes the first paragraph of almost every new scene. Even more important, both Abraham and Lynch tie the characters’ goals in with the aspects of the setting that they want readers to remember. In Abraham’s story, Asa’s goal is to free a young woman from being sold into a life of slavery; both her status as chattel and his freedom to use any methods available to hand come from the fact that the Sovereign North Bank is “an autonomous zone where the law protected and enforced lawlessness” (370). Lynch’s city, Theradane, is ruled by a loosely aligned wizard parliament and offers a unique sanctuary/citizen program for lawbreakers: “Pay a vast sum to the Parliament of Strife, retire to Theradane, and don’t practice any of the habits that got you in trouble outside the city. Ever.” (253) Unsurprisingly, the first thing we learn about Lynch’s heroes is that they’re retired criminals; the first thing to happen to them in the story forces them out of retirement. Thus, my third point.
  3. Hook us quickly. This almost goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. In a novel, especially a fat novel like the ones I typically read, I’m often willing to read for 50 pages before putting the book down. I usually give a short story 2 pages, maybe 3. In Theradane, the first thing we see is the main character pausing before the soul-bound statues of those who crossed the wizards’ parliament and weren’t able to gain sanctuary, paying her respects to an old comrade and possible love interest. In Sovereign North Bank, the first thing we learn about Asa is that he’s secretly in love with the fugitive prince who’s sharing his tiny room. These are characters with things to gain and things to lose, and I was eager to read on in both cases.

So, that’s what I learned from my sampling of the Rogues anthology. I’ll definitely keep these thoughts in mind as I return to the age-old question of Whether I Should Attempt to Write Short Stories In My Setting. I’d recommend the book, too, and particularly the stories above. With 21 stories, there’s bound to be something that catches your fancy.

Worldbuilding from Real Life Without Leaving Home: Travel Guides

I’ve already mentioned here the Comic-Con video I found a few weeks ago where a group of epic fantasy authors discuss everything from overcoming writing anxiety to designing maps. In the conversation, the authors talk a lot about what to read to help you with building rich worlds, but there’s a technique I’ve recently discovered that they didn’t mention and which I’d like to share with you. So here it is, in brief:

If you want your world, or even a corner of it, to have the flavor of someplace you’ve never been, read a good travel guide.

In my own worldbuilding this year, I’ve been making a special effort to avoid the straightforward transposition of existing cultures. Some authors who use this technique do it brilliantly: Guy Gavriel Kay’s built a career on doing minor tweaks to real-world cultures and writing not-quite-historical fiction. Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline books also have cultures very similar to those of the real medieval world (in most cases). George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has not-quite-Mongols (though Martin notes that he was inspired by a range of nomadic cultures in developing them), and not-quite-Moors. But I wanted something that felt more original, something that readers couldn’t point to and say “obviously, that’s [England/Japan/India/Italy].”

However, like any good worldbuilder, I knew that I didn’t have to invent everything myself. So instead, I started reading. I read two books on Japanese history and culture; I spent a morning reading up on the armies of ancient empires that ruled over present-day Mali, Congo and South Africa; I have a whole bookshelf full of stuff on comparative religion. That’s all great iceberg work, but it doesn’t do a good job of giving me bits of flavor. Architecture, culture, customs, food… the sorts of things a reader would be interested in learning about. Or, y’know, a tourist.

The idea of using travel guides occurred to me in a bookstore a month or so ago, and so a few weeks back, I checked out two guides from my local library to put the theory to the test. I grabbed what looked interesting from what they happened to have available, and what I ended up with was Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and Fodor’s Scandinavia. Both were useful; the Lonely Planet one included substantially more cultural stuff, though I’m not sure whether that’s because Southeast Asia requires more cultural explanation than Scandinavia for the guidebook’s presumed reader (a questionable assumption for about a dozen reasons) or because Lonely Planet does better culture in general. I’m planning to do more research (and will post a followup comment when I do). But both books included sections on history, politics, food, cultural taboos, holidays, and the must-see places around the country. All things that you’d want to know about your fictional country just as if it were a real one.

Just for fun, a sample of fun facts I learned from these guidebooks, in no particular order:

  • Traditional Vietnamese puppet theatre is “water puppetry”; it was originally performed in flooded rice paddies with the puppeteers standing in the water.
  • In rural Thailand, you are likely to be awakened by a rooster crowing at any hour of the day or night
  • Some Finnish communities traditionally wash their rugs in the sea
  • Cambodian delicacies include grilled tarantula and cobra wine (wine with a dead snake in it)
  • A seaport in Denmark has a pair of ceramic dogs in almost every front window. Historically, when the dogs were facing each other, it meant that the man of the house was home; when they faced away from each other, it meant he was out at sea.

You get the idea. Details like this are appealing to tourists but can also offer a unique flavor to your fantasy world.

Of course, before incorporating any aspects from a real-life culture into a fantasy culture, you should spend some time thinking about the context in which you’re planning to use the elements. If you borrow too much or too distinctively from a single culture (an example of “distinctive” might be if you decide you want your culture to write with ideograms, something  associated in the real world almost exclusively with Chinese language and culture), you want to make sure you’re not encouraging readers to use perceived real-world stereotypes to draw assumptions about your world, or otherwise demeaning the real-world culture. The difference between learning about other cultures to generate ideas and practicing straightforward cultural appropriation can sometimes be subtle. And if you want to use a single culture as more comprehensive inspiration for your fantasy world, please don’t stop with a guidebook: take Nisi Shawl’s advice from Writing the Other and learn everything you can about the culture, ideally including conversations with people who are cultural natives.

Guidebooks won’t build your world for you, and they shouldn’t be your only resource. But they can be a great starting point to generate ideas, and a fabulous way to fill your head with images, smells, tastes and sounds from outside the cultures you’re familiar with.

Pat Rothfuss Says: Worldbuilders, Embrace Your Geekiness

After finishing a first draft of my novel around Christmastime, I spent the first half of this year going back through my series bible to fill in worldbuilding holes. As I’ve mentioned here before, worldbuilding for me is both less and more intimidating than writing. On the one hand, there’s less pressure to get the prose right; you don’t have to worry nearly so much about individual characters’ motivations; and you can reassure yourself with the thought that “I probably won’t need most of this anyway.” On the other hand… worlds are big. Like… big.

Last week, I ran across a fabulous video from Comic-Con 2014 featuring five epic fantasy authors (Joe Abercrombie, Diana Gabaldon, Lev Grossman, George RR Martin and Patrick Rothfuss). If you’ve got an hour to spare, I’d really recommend the whole thing — they talk about the writing process, about who their first readers are, about how they come up with maps, and many other glorious things — but there was one piece of it that really spoke to me, and that was a quote from Pat Rothfuss about traps to avoid when worldbuilding. He says (roundabout Minutes 22-25 in the video):

A lot of people following in Tolkien’s footsteps [will] think, “If I’m writing a fantasy novel, I need to have a bunch of created languages, because Tolkien did it, and it’s kind of become a tradition.” But Tolkien didn’t do it for tradition; he did it because he was a language geek and that was what he loved. And I am not a linguist. I need [languages] to make my world realistic, but I don’t geek out over it. I’m a geek for currency, and so I have [my world’s economy] all worked out, and that filters into my books… Nobody ever spends money in Tolkien’s books, because he obviously didn’t care [about it]. That wasn’t a thing for him. And so, when people ask [me] about worldbuilding, what should they do, I say, you’re a geek for something. And if that’s herbology, or the nature of the night sky, or plate tectonics… revel in your geekery. Roll around in it and make that a part of your world, because that will be really interesting to the people reading, because you’re interested in it. Whereas if you try to do something because you feel like you’re supposed to, I don’t think that’s the best way to really enjoy yourself and make a vibrant world.

I think there are two pieces of real wisdom here. The big one, of course, is that we’ve all got our geekeries. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be “geeks” have specialized knowledge, from their hobbies and occupations and life experience; author and scientist Dan Koboldt organizes a whole section of his blog around guest posts from experts in a wide range of fields. My personal list of random specialized non-writing-related knowledge and interests includes, in no particular order:

  • Ritual
  • Religion
  • Names
  • Language
  • Astrology
  • School curriculum design
  • Genealogy
  • Kinship and family relationships

I’ve got whole sections of my bookshelves devoted to these topics, and almost all of them have been at least somewhat fleshed out in the world of my novel. And for the most part, I had a great time doing it.

I think that’s the more subtle aspect of Rothfuss’s point. When you’re worldbuilding, just like when you’re writing, at least some of the time you should be having fun. There are always things about putting a world together that will be less-than-your-favorite-activity (one of my big ones is maps: I dislike drawing maps), but there should be parts of it that are fun for you, too. Rothfuss strongly implies that if you’re not enjoying yourself, you won’t make a vibrant world, and I believe this is true, in the same way that I believe that if I’m bored with the scene I’m  writing, it’s probably a sign that the scene isn’t working, or that if I’m not feeling some of the emotion my character’s feeling in an emotional scene, I’m probably not getting deep enough into it.

And I can vouch for the wisdom of Rothfuss’s words, at least in my own experience: when you’re working out the nitty-gritty details that readers love, if you love them, too, it’s going to show. Later in the same SDCC interview, George RR Martin reports that he really gets excited about heraldry. Let’s look at a little section from A Storm of Swords, shall we?

“There’s a purple flag with yellow balls.”

“Lemons?” Pod said hopefully. “A purple field strewn with lemons? For House Dalt. Of, of Lemonwood.”

“Might be. Next’s a big black bird on yellow. Something pink or white in its claws, hard to say with the banner flapping.”

“The vulture of Blackmont grasps a baby in its talons,” said Pod. “House Blackmont of Blackmont, ser.”

There are eight more sigils described in this sequence. Only one of them is a family of significance to the story at that time; most have no members who ever appear on screen at all. And yet, GRRM went to the trouble to create them all, because he thought it was cool and fun to do. And it makes the story feel richer.

You’ll never fill in all the parts of your world when doing preparatory worldbuilding. You’ll have to make some up as you go along, and even if your world ends up out in the Real World of published fiction, there will inevitably be parts of it that are still full of holes (GRRM has a great quote in the Comic-Con video about how he discovered the truth of this with his maps very late in the game). But if you take Pat Rothfuss’s approach and start with developing the stuff what you love, I think you’ll be well on your way to having a world that feels real to your readers.

The Sticky Business of Fanfic

Fanfic/fanfiction is a complicated issue that pops up in forums on writing (genre writing and otherwise) on a fairly regular basis. The question of writing original stories using someone else’s characters and setting is a tricky one. Most people I’ve spoken to about it seem to put it in the legal gray zone of “probably OK as long as you don’t get money for it or try to pass the characters off as your own.” On the other hand, several well-known authors, including some whose work I hold dear (GRRM’s take here) have made public statements to the effect that they find fanfic not only uncomfortable-verging-on-icky (because of their attachment to their characters) but a misguided endeavor for would-be writers.

Martin’s argument is basically that you can’t learn to world-build or to write by using someone else’s work as a safety net. Diana Gabaldon (whose work I haven’t read) goes on about the same issues at more length (note that this link doesn’t go to Gabaldon’s page, but someone else’s screencap of the discussion). I’d agree with both of them that if you want to become a “real” writer, learning to worldbuild (which is necessary to some extent in every genre) and to develop your own deep, well-rounded characters is an essential skill. And yet.

I have a confession to make, readers. My first published works were fanfic. They appeared on my flashy Geocities page, alongside all manner of webrings and other late-90s accoutrements. And I believe that they both made me a better writer and helped me develop the confidence I needed to attempt to “go pro.”

A little context first: I grew up in suburban New England, where the idea of a writing group or even a writing class for kids didn’t really exist. Although I started writing stories when I still counted my age in single digits, I’d never really imagined that anyone out there would read them. And then, around the time I was 14, the Internet happened, and I found my first newsgroup and my first fanfic page. And the thought occurred to me, reading the piles of stuff that was out there, that I could probably do a fair job at this fanfic thing myself.

So I wrote a story, in the universe of my favorite TV show; I publicized it on the show’s newsgroup; and I designed a website to show it to the world. And a few weeks later, I met my first editor. She wasn’t a professional, just another fan of the show — but she was a “grown-up,” (early 30s, I believe) and she’d read much more widely than I had. And she took my work seriously, and showed an interest in helping me make it better. By the time I wrote my third story (there were ten of them altogether, including the obligatory cross-over with my OTHER favorite series of the time), sending a draft to her before publishing it had become routine. I was getting used to the idea of getting feedback on plot, on character inconsistencies, on nit-picky things and big things. I’d never revised my work before: through writing fanfic, I came to understand in a visceral way that writing was a process. And I got critical praise, from a complete stranger, who believed that my work was good.

I don’t think it’s an accident that after about 3 years of writing fanfic, I started drafting the elements of what would become my first never-to-be-published novel. I wrote the book in a flurry, circulated it to some friends, even wrote a query letter for it (thank goodness, no agents or editors actually ever bit :)). And then I sat down and started working on my next project, another one based in original material.

I stopped being a fanfic writer almost half my lifetime ago, but more recently, I spent a lot of years working on a project that was similarly based on existing material: basically, it was a direct, no-additions adaptation of my weekly tabletop RPG. I would periodically feel embarrassed or awkward about what I called “the gamer-porn book,” because I knew it wasn’t “real writing” in the sense of something I could publish. It wasn’t meant to be accessible to a larger audience; it was an indulgence for the enjoyment of myself and my role-playing group. But one of my friends, another novelist, framed it this way: “This is what you’re writing to keep your muscles toned while you’re doing your PhD.” Hearing that, I felt better. And sure enough, when I had more time, I set my sights on writing a “real” book, a semi-collaborative original work that I’m intending to someday submit for publication — writer’s muscles intact.

I still know aspiring writers who write fanfic, and they’re often embarrassed about it. Even those who haven’t read the famous authors’ critiques of the subgenre sometimes talk about what they’re doing as not “real” writing. What I tell those people is a version of what my friend told me: if you need some justification for the hobby, think of it as honing your knife. For beginners, I do believe writing fanfic’s a way to improve your skills in some areas of the storytelling craft without having to worry as much about the others. And it certainly does keep the writing muscles in shape.

I would say that each fan has to make their own decision about whether or not writing fanfic is an avenue to wander down. Myself, I have some sympathy for the authors who say “please don’t do it with my characters”; if my stuff is ever renowned enough to be deemed fanfic-worthy, I will not be on fanfiction.net looking at the inevitable stories that will spring up from it. But I also don’t see myself issuing an explicit ban. Because I remember that 14-year-old kid working up the confidence to publish her first online stories, the thrill she got when she got her first real feedback. And because I think that if someone wants to write, sooner or later, they’ll work out the details and find their story.