April 1st, 2012

On fantasy world building

I'm thinking back to the last few world building courses I have taught and also to a good few of the novels I have read in the last couple of years. Where the writer/student does a really solid base in one place (including geology, geography and how they affect daily life, including trade and personal space and other key cultural elements) they're likely to see the need for basic checks along these lines. This means that if a character starts in a well-built world (even if it's only the space of a one room cottage) they're more likely to continue travelling in a well- built world than if they start in a vaguer or more generic setting. That's the good news.

If they don't know enough about the world (or don't know enough about the physical structure of places or about people or about houses or about land use) they're more likely to design in patches. Give a character a house that sits on a lonely hilltop, for instance. Make the lonely hilltop bleak (for atmosphere) and brutal (no water, not much usable land) to give the character a solid environment. Then put a town in a fertile valley not a hundred years from this lonely hilltop. And, on the other side of the lonely hilltop, have an equally lonely road where no-one passes. It's a road, though, not an almost-invisible track, even though there is no government (despite the town, which is on a different road anyhow) and despite the fact that no-one passes. And then, suddenly there is an inn. With enough food at all times and with company (perhaps jolly, perhaps dangerous). Thinking about the scene in terms of a fantasy novel first and foremost, can lend to this patchiness.

This is because thinking first and foremost "I am writing a fantasy novel" can lead to world building from stereotype. "I need a fantasy world so it must have these characteristics." Given enough solid thought and the road can dwindle to a shack and the inn can disappear and the valley with its town can be further away and in a different micro-climate underpinned by quite different rock types*.

Some of this, however, is something else. It's building different aspects of the world on different pieces of paper without bothering to see if they fit. I evilly tested this on my students last Tuesday, and it was a lot of fun. For me it was a lot of fun, but not for the students. One group suffered questioning from me when their lowland house with its stream running underneath ended high on a granite hillside, for instance. This is a very good and thoughtful class, which made the source of the problems particularly obvious.

Until recently, I thought that the problem was with lack of knowledge about the basics of world building and the resort (through lack of knowledge) to fantasy tropes. That's the problem for some people.

For others, though, the problem derives from the simple mechanics of how they went about their early world building. If you start (as I made my students start) with your main character's home, then put the page aside and start designing the town, it takes a conscious effort to realise and define their relationship with each other.

And that's my thought for the day. I can now turn my brain off.

*And the solitary resident on the bleak hilltop can have a well, for life is not tenable without water. Though more than one writer-in-training in most classes is not sure of this.

Women's History Month - special final guest post - Samantha Faulkner

Women’s History Month – Nurturing your own strong black woman !

As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman who has been my inspiration? Upon reflection over the last couple of days, I thought back to how I came to love the written word which led me to answer this question.

Growing up on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait I remember my grandfather buying Phantom comics and reading these. They were sold at the local shops and new editions would come out for sale on a regular basis. My grandfather would buy these and pass on to me and my sisters to read, and these comics would be added to his growing collection contained in large cardboard boxes hidden under our beds.

At first I didn’t read the word bubbles, but looked at the pictures instead. I liked what I saw, a guy in a purple suit fighting crime, in the jungle with a strong female role model, Diana who was beautiful and intelligent working at the United Nations. I also liked Hero, the horse and Devil his wolf-dog.

Diana wasn’t mentioned much at first but she came into her own with the character developing over time. She married the Phantom, they had twins and continued to live in the skull cave and also in a tree house (this was very appealing to a girl who liked to climb trees). Diana still had a career which was at times dangerous, yet she balanced that with her family, supported by a tutor and nanny for the kids.

I wasn’t interested much in school, English and the written word. I grew up speaking Creole as a first language which was like a broken English and included some island languages and Malay words.

Moving to the mainland in the 80s, I started reading Trixie Belden books, which were stories of a young female detective. My friends read these and we would read and share books. I was also watching television programs of the Famous Five at the time.

As I grew older I moved onto Agatha Christie novels and I don’t think I’ve ever tired of these. Who can beat the history, adventure and romance of her writing? Her central characters of a Belgian detective, Poirot and a retired older lady Miss Marple were not your average people. It was amazing that murder occurred almost on a daily basis in an English village! However, she made it work. Agatha Christie transported me to those local and exotic places and I went along for the journey.

My journey continued with seeking strong black woman as role models. Today, I belong to a group of strong black women writers with Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Jenni Kemarre Martinello, Lyndy Delian, Lisa Fuller and Jeanine Leane. The group welcomes Indigenous men and we have one man at the moment who actively encourages and supports us.

I admire writers such as Anita Heiss for her tenacity and determination to do what she loves and keep pushing the boundaries. I love the poetry of Ali Cobby Eckermann.

Who has been my inspiration? My mum, aunty and grandmother have been my inspiration thus far. My sisters and friends continue to support me. I’ve found that the search for the strong black woman must start from within. You must nurture your own strong black woman, for yourself but also for your peers and the next generation. We owe ourselves that much to be the best that we can be.

Weaving connections

Women sit on the wide brown land
Out in the evening, sun going down
Slowly they work as time stands still
Talking and laughing, hand over hand
They thread the reeds, dry and green

Women babuk*, with the ocean in sight
Cool breeze caress their brown skin
As their fingers move quickly
With the palm leaves over ugamali*
Sound of the Mills sisters filling the air

They work quickly and quietly
Creating designs to use and to purchase
For family and visitors
Occasionally yarning of life in the past
And what there is to come

Stories exchanged and songs sung
Women have done this over the years
Relationships forged and culture learned
Elders to youth, women to women
Weaving connections, then and now.

Samantha Faulkner

*babuk – sitting cross legged on the ground
*ugamali – island dress

Samantha Faulkner is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman, with links to Badu and Moa Island in the Torres Strait and the Yadhaigana people of Cape York Peninsula. She wrote a book on her grandfather’s life, Life Blong Ali Drummond published by Aboriginal Studies Press in 2007. She recently had her poetry published in Etchings Indigenous: Treaty. She has a passion to share the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia with other Australians and the international community.

(no subject)

Last night I had a fabulous time meeting roller derby and discovering its extraordinary nature. It's the sport of geeks. I was going to tell you about it in enormous detail except... I have just had the most astonishing and wonderful afternoon.

silvanime has a father (as one does) and that father has a friend and he took me on a tour of his private rock collection. He's going to replace the very few items from my own rock collection (gypsum, calcite and quartz) that were missing - and the pieces will have stories attached (for he understands rocks and their stories) and I got to tell him about Hattah Lakes and about fossilised sea urchins (which were not in the same story). I saw the most amazing rocks and learned so much about them. And a hole that the burglary had left in my heart has healed.

Burglary isn't about money - it's about emotions and one's life history. The small pieces of rather interesting stone (I will show anyone who visits - you don't even have to hint hard) I was given (fossil and crystal - this was in addition to the replacements he's finding me - rock people are so wonderfully kind!) were worth more to me than any insurance payout.

There's only one small thing that I now must do. I've rediscovered my childhood ambition of owning an uncut diamond - a natural crystal like the ones that John probably lost in the Wash. I could use it for teaching...

(no subject)

Something's really bugging me tonight.

I'm back (finally) where I ought to have been and am engaged in research. Sounds good. It would be good...except...*

I notice that the treatment of novels - the methods used to analyse them and the very words used to describe them - changes according to whether the work is seen as a Special Literary Work of Genius or whether it's a a novel or whether it's a simple genre work. The tone of the text changes to match the type of text being discussed. The final summaries don't bring these disparities of analysis into account, but assume that they're entirely properly analytical ways of handling the subject of study.

The various tools for analysis in each case are perfectly fine. The problem is that apples are being mixed with oranges being mixed with baskets of fruit without us being told first "Look, they're fruit. This is how they're the same - now let's look at differences." No, it's worse than that. We're told that the big baskets are dull and that the apples are mass-produced and for mass audiences and that the oranges are delicate one-off subtle blends of flavour and scent and special petalness.

This may well be true, but it needs to be demonstrated. You know - evidence, examples, clear explanations. Pronouncing postmodernism and declaring metafiction and citing Barthes and Derrida isn't enough. Switching approaches without evidence and explanation of the different approaches is not a demonstration of difference in types of text, it's a demonstration of a scholarly belief in difference.

I might be tempted to think that this particular scholar has no understanding of how genres work or how writers work with and within genre constraints and where they break them and how they play with them and what these add up to for the best genre writers** and how these compare with the oranges. And you can't do this wild leaping between different types of analysis without admitting that some writers happen to do the PoMometasignifier thing from within the constraints of genre.***

In other words, one academic writer needs to sort out their premises.

And that was me having a temper tantrum. Ahem. I will return to the book and finish taking notes and move on. There is really a lot of good stuff in the book - it's just that the shifting sands made it hard for me to negotiate. It would have made several really wonderful essays.

*Today is elliptical therefore today I use ellipses. It makes sense to me. Other days I get dumped by life and things come to a full stop, so I use periods. When I feel punny, I find that comma comma comma comma comma chameleon picture, and send it to someone.

**Who are mostly baskets but who might be apples, depending on where the analysis is shifting from and to**** - this confusion is another reason why shifting ground without clear reasoning is really not a thing of wisdom.

***This paragraph is an example of writing so pretentious it needs translating into French to make sense. That's a critique of quite another scholarly work. The only thing it had in common with the one I'm currently finishing is a fascination with Derrida.

****I needed to footnote a footnote! By the end of the book, one of the apples and a whole basket of strange fruit turned out to be oranges, of the very wondrous special petal variety. No explanation was given as to how they modified their basic characteristics nor why most genre (but not this one set) was inferior. It was like a symphony by Victor Borge.

(no subject)

I feel I need to make it very, very clear that I do not share the genre views of the literary historian I was reading earlier tonight. Tomorrow I plan to dedicate my day to writers who either don't look at genre at all, or who have some basic understanding of it. Or I could read Oscar Wilde.