Thursday, November 28, 2013

Worldbuilding: Rituals for the Dead

I've gone over this before, but it bears repeating: cultures have rituals to mark almost every important occasion: marking adulthood or marriage, for example.  Or, it the case of the Minbari of Babylon 5, every single thing possible.

And then, of course, there are the rituals of death.

I've been thinking about this as something of a necessity for Banshee.  Without going into spoilers, various aliens die, and treating their bodies in a respectful manner for their cultures is important to the survivors.  

In coming up with rituals for the dead, be they for secondary-world human cultures, demi-human cultures, or alien cultures, you need to consider the purpose they serve.  On some level, you should address three elements of purpose.

Practical: The body itself must be dealt with.  Preserved, interred, cremated, otherwise kept from rotting on the floor.  It can be as simple as burial, as complicated as mummification, or somewhere in between.

Spiritual: On some level, the ritual should consider the intangible element of the deceased, matching the faith of the culture.  Does the lack of a proper burial mean the dead's spirit wanders the Earth, unable to reach the afterlife?

Emotional: Ultimately, rituals of the dead are for the bereaved.  They are how grief is processed, either publicly or privately. 

Ideally, your rituals address all three elements, or even better, integrate them into a unique whole. 

Consider, for example, the mummification rituals for the kings of ancient Egypt.  The actual mummification itself preserved the body, and it was interred in a tomb, designed for the purpose of giving the king everything he would need for the afterlife, allowing the people to process the death of a person they worshiped as a god, knowing that his time on earth was only part of his journey.

This is a pretty heavy-duty one, though.  You might want to come up with something simpler for the average person.

How do your cultures deal with their dead?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Perils of the Writer: NaNo No No No

Right now, on November 25th, the rough draft of Banshee stands at 54,932 words. 

If I were doing NaNoWriMo, that would be pretty impressive.

But I'm not doing NaNoWriMo, and I started writing this book in earnest in September.  I've been writing at a steady pace that, while hardly breakneck, has been working for me.  And it's the fastest I've written a rough draft, with the exception of the one year I did successfully did NaNo.

And that novel is an unreadable mess.  Even with a post-NaNo re-write.

This novel?  It's a rough draft that will need a strong editing hand when its done.  But I feel like I'm laying a solid foundation of character and plot to make that editorial work far more rewarding than I could ever have done with that NaNo project. 

Part of that is because I'm a stronger and far more seasoned writer than I was when I did that.  That NaNo project was part of the process of learning how to write a novel, and I think it is a fantastic way to do that.  When it comes to those Big Question sort of things about "Can I write a novel?" "How do I write a novel?" "Am I really a plotter or a pantser?", then an exercise like NaNo is a great way to test yourself.  An old friend of mine recently ran a 5K, more or less to see if he could, to figure out what his currently fitness level is.   NaNo is the same sort of thing. 

Plus there is the emphasis on "winning" and "losing", and keeping that pace.  I know personally, nothing is more discouraging to my writing than failing self-imposed deadlines.  More specifically, when falling behind makes making said deadlines feel more and more impossible.

Now, this is different for everyone.  If writing at a 1500-2000 words a day pace works for you, if you can manage it without your pulse hitting 180 and your lungs burning, go for it

But it's not for me.  Especially since having only one month as "novel writing month" doesn't work for me.  Every month is novel writing month.

Which means its time to jump back into the word mines.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Worldbuilding: Origins of Herbs and Spices

Food is a crucial part of worldbuilding.  This is a point you can be certain that I will keep coming back to.  And all foodstuffs, while helping define a culture, has a point of origin. You shouldn't just throw in a few herbs and spices at random and say, "There!  Food as worldbuilding. Done."  You should think about where these foods have their origins, and apply that sort of thinking to your own world.

Now, that doesn't mean you need to give pure one-to-one correlation.  Vanilla has its origins in the Americas, as do peppers and potatoes... but don't feel like you need to create a psuedo-Americas where all three come from if you want all in your world.  But you should make deliberate choices, and you should be aware of the real-world origins of foods. 

And, of course, cultures can import and fully adopt herbs and spices from other areas, and that's a crucial element of worldbuilding.  Cultures do not exist in a vacuum; they bleed into each other.  By making the herb or spice originating from one region of the world a critical element of the cuisine of another region, you've already told a lot about that culture.

So, in the interest of "I'll make your research a little easier", here's a quick list-- but hardly exhaustive-- of various herbs and spices and their areas of origin.  Hope you find it helpful.

Basil – India / Southeast Asia
Bay Laurel - Mediterranean
Chervil – Eastern Europe
Coriander/Cilantro – Southern Europe/Northern Africa
Dill – Europe
Epazote – Mexico / Central America / South America
Fennel – Meditteranean
Garlic – Central Asia
Lavender – Western Europe
Mint - Mediterranean / Western Asia
Marjoram – Cypress/ Southern Turkey
Oregano – Western Europe / Mediterranean
Parsley – Mediterranean
Rosemary – Mediterranean
Saffron - Mediterranean / Western Asia
Sage - Mediterranean
Savory – Western Europe
Sumac – North America & Africa
Tarragon – Europe & Asia
Thyme - Mediterranean / Western Asia
Wasabi – Japan
Watercress – Europe / Asia   

Achiote / Annatto  - South America
Allspice – Southern Mexico / Central America / Greater Antilles
Anise – Eastern Mediterranean / Western Asia
Cardamom – India/Nepal/Bhutan
Caraway – Western Asia / Northern Africa
Chili – Americas
Cinnamon – Southeast Asia
Clove – Indonesia
Cumin – Mediterranean / Western Asia /India
Fenugreek – Persia / India
FilĂ© – Eastern North America
Ginger – South Asia
Horseradish – Southeastern Europe
Juniper – Mediterranean
Mace / Nutmeg – Indonesia
Mustard - Mediterranean / Western Asia
Paprika – Americas
Pepper – India
Tumeric – India
Vanilla – Mexico/Central America

Monday, November 18, 2013

Heroes, anti-heroes, and misaligned moral compasses

A degree or two off course doesn't lead you wrong at first.  At least, not too wrong that you can't self-correct.

But eventually that wrong course, that misaligned compass, leads one too far afield, and there's no way back to the place you thought you were going.

A misaligned moral compass can take your characters to interesting places, regardless of if you are writing heroes or anti-heroes.  Of course, then one of the biggest challenges you have is making it clear that you, as the writer, are not advocating said moral failings.  It's a story about a flawed person. 

Take, for example, Ken Connell.


OK, it's not the most famous example, but roll with me.

Ken Connell was the main character of the flagship title of Marvel Comics's fascinating failure, The New Universe.  The underlying concepts behind the New Universe were interesting, but much of the execution was disorganized and flawed. 

The Star Brand was essentially combining Superman and Green Lantern into one concept: a tattoo-like power source that could be given to another, granting the owner incredible power only limited by his or her imagination.  Possessed by the right man, it could be an incredible force for good.

Ken Connell is not the right man.  But he really wants to believe that he is.  He totally sees himself as a good guy who could do more and be great.

In other words, he's exactly the guy to buy into his own hero-destiny narrative.

In truth, Ken is kind of a loser.  He works in a auto-repair shop, and is constantly talking about how much smarter he is than anyone else around him.  He's got a lovely girlfriend who dotes on him, whom he consistently cheats on with a teenage girl who is so enamored of him that she happily slips out his back window in her underwear when his actual "girlfriend" shows up unannounced.  (It's worth noting that he hides the StarBrand power from his girlfriend, but tells the teenager on the side all about it.)

He's that guy who is constantly complaining that life never gave him "his shot", but even with nigh-infinite power he doesn't do much to change his life.  He does keep trying to do "good", in an abstract way, but he really isn't the good man he wants to think he is.  When confronted with an "unstoppable" villain-- a soldier whose body has changed to be indestructible, and has decided to just walk into Russia and wreck the place*, Ken tries to do the "right" thing to stop him.  But he can't stop him, so he just picks him up and flings him into space. 

And also, Ken destroys the city of Pittsburgh. Not out of malice, but because he was too lazy to fly all the way to the moon to do an experiment with his power that he knew would be explosively dangerous. 

But a lot of people believed that Ken was being presented as some sort of ideal, some sort of personal-avatar by then Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Jim Shooter.  This mostly because Jim, like Ken, is tall and from Pittsburgh, and also because a lot of people did not like Jim and wanted to paint him in a bad light.**

The New Universe failed for a lot of reasons, but I think partly because audiences at that time weren't interested in "heroic" characters who were so flawed, so ordinary.  It's funny, because plenty of stories like the New Universe and StarBrand have come up since.***   Characters who do the wrong thing for interesting reasons, and end up where they never wanted to be, and are only heroes in their own mind.

Ken is not a good guy, and is never presented as that.  He never understands that he's not the hero of the New Universe, but it's most dangerous villain.

*- This was 1987.
**- In fact, having Ken destroy Pittsburgh was a decision made after Shooter was ousted, essentially a "Ha, we're having your hero destroy your city" pettiness.
***- Though, to be fair, with better overall execution and coherence of vision.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Drinks and Weapons

All right folks, here's where I lift up the hood and show you the cheat codes...

Er, that metaphor is rather mangled.

The point is, I'm going to show you some inner-workings of worldbuilding, based on my research, to give you the simplest tools to set the technology level of your fantasy world.  With those building blocks, you can focus on more interesting elements.  That, in turn, should help you avoid "generic medieval" or "generic steampunk".

So, the course of civilizations has many, many benchmarks that you can use, but on some level, the easiest are what people drink and what they fight with.  With that, you can break down the pre-industrial era into six basic phases.

Phase One: Beer and Bronze.  Beer, of course, pre-dates bronze.  Beer is one of our oldest inventions.  The origins of beer and bread are intertwined; historians aren't even sure which came first, but both involve grains, yeast and fermentation.  But it does go hand in hand with bronze age, dawn of civilization stuff.

Phase Two: Wine and Iron. Wine comes about with the classical age, the drink of choice for thinkers of distinction.  But it also represents the point where civilization strives to be a bit more than just collective survival.  And it's good for a setting of "civilized" people who think they're above the "barbarians" around them.

Phase Three: Spirits and Steel. Transition from dark ages to Renaissance, this is what you have.  Probably the most traditional thing to use for a "fantasy" novel. 

Phase Four: Tea and Canons.  This is where you might transition to a "wider world" level of fantasy-- sea trade and expansion of thought. 

Phase Five: Coffee and Muskets.  A more civilized, controlled version of the previous version, but also more revolutionary.  Coffee was often connected with subversive thought, the drink of choice for folks who would stay up late discussing ideas away from the mainstream.  Well, that still hasn't changed.

Phase Six: Soda and Pistols.  This is simplifying things, but if you're going steampunk, don't forget that carbonated beverages were drank as early as the late 1700s. 

Now, of course, that doesn't mean that you can't cheat, cheat like CRAZY on this stuff.  Because that's how good worldbuilding surprises us: taking what we expect and subverting the hell out of it.    Don't just wedge your story somewhere between Phases Three and Four because that's what "fantasy" is supposed to be.

Further reading, for the drinks side of things here: A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage.  Good worldbuilding research book.  Check it out.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Heroic Support and Infrastructure

Most of what I write essentially involves one or two key characters who, through choice or circumstance, have to go out and do hard, heroic things.  Of course, sometimes these hard, heroic things aren't exactly heroic.  They might be self-serving or even downright criminal. But the key thing is the characters themselves believe in the fundamental rightness of what they are doing, no matter what else the world tells them.

However, in most cases, they can't do it alone.  Even the most die-hard of "loner" characters have a deep bench of help and support characters to get the job done.  Batman can't Batman if he doesn't also have Alfred, Jim Gordon, Lucius Fox, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson in the mix with him.

I've been thinking about the archetypes of these support and infrastructure characters, how I've usually expressed them in these works.  It's not been a conscious thing, a checklist of, "Oh, I need this"-- but when I look back at each works' set of dramatis personae*, I see most of the archetypes represented.  Of course, each of these things aren't limited to one character each: one character could fill many roles, and some roles can be fulfilled by multiple characters.  This is hardly a fully representative list of "this is what you must have". 

A Hero needs someone who knows the things they don't. Heroes that know everything are not particularly interesting.  It's good to have someone in their corner who gives them information they specifically need to figure out what do to.  Not necessarily someone to put the pieces together for them, but someone who can say, "Here are the pieces for you."

A Hero needs someone to tell them hard truths. Any hero that's worth reading about is going to stray from their path, get their moral compass out of alignment, or otherwise have a blind spot.  Someone needs to be there to smack them across the head and tell them the thing they won't tell themselves.  Things that they don't want to hear, but probably need to.

A Hero needs someone with authority. Much like the previous point is about keeping the hero in check, I think a hero needs to have to answer to someone, in one way or another, to keep them from just having carte blanche to do whatever.  An unrestrained hero is also uninteresting.

A Hero needs someone to patch them up.  This is twofold: someone to physically heal them when they get hurt, and someone to pull them out of the abyss when things go wrong.  The first is just common sense, and doesn't even necessarily involve a character so much as infrastructure.  But a specific character is probably more interesting.
Do not use this as a checklist: that would probably get you in a lot more trouble.  I may use the word "need" a lot in this, but take that with a grain of salt.  Above all, a story needs what it needs. 

There is one deliberate omission, something I was going to put, and then erased, but it's worth mentioning: Someone with loyalty.  I mostly erased it because, to a degree, that loyalty is implied in all the other elements.  But I also erased it because it implies that the loyalty to the hero is something that is deserved rather than earned.  The hero must earn that loyalty.  The hero must KEEP earning it.

Plus, the conflict that arises from a rock-like loyalty being shaken?  That's real juicy stuff to write.

*- I always write up a Dramatis Personae for each book, mostly because I need a quick reference for the names of minor characters. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Writing on Shuffle

I am not a NaNoWriMo person.  I don't think it's a bad thing to do, per se, but I do think it sets an artificial ideal of breakneck pace over, you know, writing a good novel.  But I do think it's a good way to learn about your own writing habits and needs, and to learn how to write a novel. 

But you eventually reach a point where every month is a NoWriMo, and you've got to run that at your own pace. 

Which is what I've been doing with Banshee.  Since mid-September, when I really officially "started" it (I had had about 4,000 words and copious notes already), I've been writing 500 words per day as a minimum quota.  Every day*, I've written at least that, sometimes more.  Now, on no day did I write the NaNo minimum (1,666), but that's probably a good thing.  A. I've got other stuff to do, and B. that could burn me out.

Burn-out pace is no way to write. 

That said, I've hit several walls.  Several times I've hit points where, on any other project, I would get stuck, and spin my wheels, stare at a blank screen, etc.  But here?  I've been jumping around.

Now, I've jumped around before, but usually it's along the lines of, "I'm stuck here, so I'm going to jump ahead to THIS PART, and then come back to fill in the gaps between later" or "I need a scene where X happens somewhere down the road, so I'll write it now and figure out how to get to it when I need to."   In other words, I'll jump, but remain fairly linear in my jumping. 

This is not what I'm doing on Banshee

I am jumping ALL OVER THE PLACE.  I mean, I know the general outline, so I know how the plot goes from A to B to C to D.  And most of my shuffling has been between A and B.  So far A involves setting up a bunch of dominoes, and B involves rebuilding after knocking them all down.  Both are fun in their own way.  Both are frustrating and blocking in their own way.

So I'm jumping around. 

Which can be very helpful, because I can write something in B, and think, "Oh, I need to properly set this up", and slip it in something in A. 

On the other hand, it can be confusing, because I sometimes forget what I need to set up, or what I've already set up.  For example, last night, I started writing a bit where one character talks about needing to ask another character to do something.  Except I already wrote the bit where he asks, and that bit takes place before the bit I was writing.  It was utterly redundant. 

And that's where I run into trouble: I'm not quite sure, at this stage, when I'm reiterating or reinforcing a key point, or if I'm just repeating it. 

Not to mention, I get confused about how my main character feels about certain characters at any given point.  She has a fair amount of trust in one character at B that she wants nothing to do with in A... and sometimes I screw that up and the trust retroactively bleeds into A.  Whoops.

It's a rough draft, of course, but it's shaping up to be a far rougher rough draft than I typically write.  Which is okay.  That's what editing is for.

*- To be fair, on Saturday I only hit 300ish words.  But I also was doing a ton of prep work and organization for a huge event on Sunday, while also hosting a house guest.  Frankly, only failing quota by a small margin under those circumstances was pretty damn impressive, in my humble opinion.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Perils of the Genre Writer: Prophecy and Inevitability

Given my frequent mentions of Edding as, if not an influence, at least an inspiration, it’s no surprise that I think about prophecy as a tool in the fantasy writers' box.  It's a troubling and challenging tool to use, of course.  Make prophecy too obscure, and you're filling the page with strange semi-poetic rambling which doesn't make much sense, often followed by a post-game debriefing where characters thread the needle of explaining how the prophecy made perfect sense, or otherwise telling the audience what the symbolism meant.*   Make it too direct, and you're just dragging the characters by the nose from point to point, with very little tension or doubt.

Some of my earlier storytelling attempts followed the latter approach.  To bad effect.

Prophecy can serve a lot of purposes, especially in a story where the relationship with the divine is more direct. It can be as literal as the gods themselves serving the Wise Mentor role, telling the protagonists what they need to do.  Or it can be a test from the gods, to see if the characters can figure out what they are supposed to do.

Now, being a bit of a classicist, I'm quite fond of the misunderstood prophecy.  Now, the most traditional form of this is one where someone hears a prophecy, and their actions to avoid it cause it to happen.  Oedipus's father leaving baby Oedipus in the forest to die being the most famous example.

But the other form of it is the one I really love, where the prophecy seems to be telling the protagonist the thing they want to hear; for example, Macbeth believes he cannot be defeated once he hears that "no man of woman born can harm Macbeth".

Of course, Macbeth wasn't being told he couldn't be defeated.  He was being told the explicit circumstances of his defeat:

                               Thou losest labour.
 As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
 With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed.
 Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
 I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
 To one of woman born.
                                         Despair thy charm,
 And let the angel whom thou still hast served
 Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb
 Untimely ripp'd.

Whoops.  Walked into that one.

Of course, the big questions you should ask yourself is, does your story need prophecies?  Or are you using it because it is an expected trope in fantasy?

*- While the third season of Babylon 5 is largely excellent, there probably was no scene more awkward or painful than the bit in "Shadow Dancing" when a few characters hash out the imagery of Sheridan's dream, scene by scene.