Dawn was a gradual affair. One moment couldn’t be separated from the next, but the stages had some distinction. First the realisation that black was not black but blue, then the world below the tiptoeing sky turning greyish, then splashes of colour on cloud—and then, frequently, everything all at once.
The Tesco trolley wasn’t aware of the sky changing. It stood on frosty ground, wheels planted, and by the time it became aware of its surroundings—became aware that the world was no longer blackness cut by yellow streetlights—it was utterly exposed. Sometime during the night it had been deposited at the very centre of a white-dusted field, no more than a hundred feet from the Tesco Extra where it lived. Now it faced the eastern sky alone as if in penance. The ominous bulk of the Tesco jutted out behind it, looming, to be sensed but not seen. Gradual as the dawn had been, it was too late now for the trolley to escape its master’s notice.
I’ve been reading (well, listening to) Ready Player One this week, and it’s made me think about settings. Okay—lots of things make me think about settings, but the book is what inspired the blog post.
Ready Player One takes place in our world a few decades from now. The world is pretty crummy—natural disasters, recessions, energy crises, etc—but it includes an expansive virtual reality world that almost makes up for the real world’s crappiness. In the virtual world, you can mute other players, design your own avatar, and explore a whole universe of fantasy and sci-fi worlds. You wouldn’t want to be in main character Wade’s real world, but a shot in that virtual reality? Sign me up barring the fact that you apparently lose all progress when your avatar dies which is pretty much the lamest rule ever and can only be there to increase story tension but that’s another matter entirely. Shh, self.
AHEM. Anyway, I’ve always considered myself more of a characters person than a settings person. I never got through the Silmarillion; I couldn’t bring myself to care about a book that seemed to be just world-building—but of course there’s no such thing as a “just characters”-person. People don’t exist in empty white rooms. The way I see it, settings in escapist novels can entice readers in by having attractive qualities, or they can force readers to relate to the characters by being so soul-suckingly horrible that readers root for the main characters to change the setting. For instance, the setting for the Mistborn trilogy is grim, but there’s a cool magic system that pretty much allows characters to fly, and it’s set up in a way that makes it seem real—and the main characters are trying to change the world for the better. The characters in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall universe have to fight against oppression and foreign invaders, but they live magical lives that include facetime with gods and goddesses, who are always awe-inspiring. Lastly, horrible as it is, the pageantry in The Hunger Games makes for an engaging read while readers wait for Katniss to triumph against the odds. Setting is the backdrop for any scene, and much as I didn’t want to accept this when I was still finding my footing and only wanted to write “the good bits”, it matters. A lot.
When creating a fantasy world, or even depicting a real-world town, I think it’s important to give readers something to hold onto. The changing weather patterns above Hogwarts’s Great Hall might not be essential to the story, but they add a kind of glamour people remember. The same is true for any other fictional place, even when it’s set in the real world—and even when only the story is fictional. What’s special about the place? Why would people escape to it? I think it’s important to know why you’re creating the world you’re creating, and what purpose it serves in the story. If it could be replaced by a green screen or persistent fog, wouldn’t it be better to add something else to draw people in? I think so—but then, I am a fulltime, grade A escapist. This player one is always ready to head for the fictional hills. Some flicker of hope is vital to my favourite escapes, and I prefer some scenic backdrops along the way. What’s essential to your favourite fictional places to go?
In November of 2014, I moved further north than I’d ever lived before—to Dundee, on the east coast (ish) of Scotland. There were a lot of warnings about the weather, and how oppressive it could be in winter, but my husband and I were pleasantly surprised. “Manageable,” we concluded in the spring of 2015. “Not that bad.”
Fast-forward to last winter, when suddenly the place I lived felt less like Dundee and more like The Pit Of Eternal Night. There seemed to be two types of darkness: day-dark and night-dark. It shook me to feel so disconnected from nature, even though I don’t consider myself a particularly outdoorsy person. Seasonal affective disorder reared its ugly head, and I clung to my blue daylight lamp like a lifeline—even though it strengthened the impression of being on some spaceship where light from an actual sun was a distant dream.
Given the opportunity to write about an oppressive (not snowy—oppressive) winter, I could easily call specifics to mind. The days that barely dawned, the damp feel of the air, how grey a city can look and how little the yellow streetlights do to combat it. Each time I move somewhere, there’s a different feeling, a different way of life, a different slant to the seasons—in short, a different everything, and it makes me leery of writing about any place I haven’t lived, and even about places that I have. My memories of the Netherlands are all cycling, school, train stations. Do I know what it’s like to live there now, as an adult? Could I write it convincingly? Does Alexander McCall Smith ever worry if he’s getting Edinburgh “right” in his books?
With fantasy, local knowledge problems don’t exist in the same way. You come up with a world and a climate and you stick with it. It’s inspired by the real world, or what you imagine the real world to be, but it isn’t bounded by it; that draws me, but lately I’ve been enjoying books set in the real world too. Moving around hasn’t made me any less curious about all the other places out there, and reading books by authors with local knowledge is the only way I’ll get to experience them. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng sent me to Malaysia; Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought me to Nigeria. The fact that they were novels—not nonfic, which I still don’t have the stomach for—kept me invested. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write a book like that, one that sets the reader firmly in one locale, expertly written—but it’s interesting to think about.
Could you write about your town, city, village, if you wanted to? Would you want to? And how much complaining about the weather would there be?
Coming up with fantasy place names that haven’t been used extensively elsewhere is an ongoing challenge in my writing life. I don’t want to name my glittering empire after a quiet village in England, after all, but I don’t want to use so many hyphens and accent marks that my names are unreadable, either. So what’s the happy medium?
Well, apparently—at least for me—it’s Dragon Age names. Since a false start on the first game last year, the various place names in DA keep occurring to me when I’m trying to use the fantasy place name generator known as my brain. My fantasy place name generator is pretty flawed to start with—it likes to just throw syllables and bits of various languages together until something sounds right—but to make matters worse, often when something sounds right it’s because I’ve already seen it.
These days, it’s because I’ve seen it before in Dragon Age. Who can blame me? It’s got a lot of great, atmospheric place names. Here, don’t believe me—see for yourself:
There’s the empire of Orlais, a world of high fashion where a lady once kept a live songbird in her birdcage-hair, the kingdom of Ferelden, drab and full of dogs, the forbidding-sounding Tevinter Imperium, and all the little places in between and within. Being surrounded by these names as I play settles them in my mind until I (apparently) can’t distinguish them from my own creations. It’s a pain! But it does help me think about my name-creation process, and decide what I like about certain fantasy names and not others.
When it comes down to it, the thing I like about DA names is the simplicity. When coming up with names of places or characters, the realer they sound, the better—assuming the “point” isn’t to set these characters or places apart from human society. But eventually, won’t every realistic fantasy name have been used in some story? There are so many worlds like the DA one: in books, movies, games—you can only put letters together in so many likely ways. So won’t we run out?
I think we will, to be honest, so I try not to worry too much about using the same place names as obscure fantasy novels from the 70s—but it’d suck to accidentally use the same name as some big-name author or big-name game. My process is the following:
Look at a lot of maps
Write down real place names I like
Keep in mind likely additions to place names (“X Castle” “Y’s Reach”, “Z-wood”)
Alter them subtly or throw them together
Google the result!
Creators can always try their luck with online generators too, though I’d warn against comical results like “Fieldbush”. Usually, the answer isn’t in the generated content but somewhere between twenty other options. When I’m writing a story and can’t think of a name, I often write “XXX” in the text to find and replace later. With how long it takes to come up with a good name, who can blame me?
Anyway, that’s my process. I’d be interested to hear what others do to come up with names—and whether they have also been victimised by media like Dragon Age stealing names they would have liked to use. Sigh. Oh well—I guess BioWare got there before me… this time.
[add] I have just been informed by a friend that Thedas is short for “The Dragon Age Setting”—the perfect fun fact addition to this post!
Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff tells the story of a book critic whose childhood love of language has been spoiled by a lifetime of reading. We had to read it for senior honors English, and nothing has been the same since. Okay—I’m joking, mostly, but the whole not-loving-the-stuff-you-used-to-love thing is one of my greatest fears. Sometimes when thoughts about predictability and consistency and a million other things keep me from enjoying a book or movie as much as I might have if I was thirteen again, I want to bash my head against a wall until all prior knowledge falls out. HOWEVER, there is a flipside. A beautiful, high-shine side of the coin:
Seeing things done well, and being able to recognise when it happens.
“Is that all they told you?” Van Atta asked in astonishment. At Leo’s affirmative shrug, he threw back his head and laughed. “Security, I suppose,” Van Atta went on when he’d stopped chuckling. “Are you in for a surprise. Well, well. I won’t spoil it.” Van Atta’s sly grin was as irritating as a familiar poke in the ribs.
Too familiar—oh, hell, Leo thought, this guy knows me from somewhere. And he thinks I know him… Leo’s polite smile became fixed in mild panic. He had met thousands of GalacTech personnel in his eighteen-year career. Perhaps Van Atta would say something soon to narrow the possibilities.
I was a little confused when I came across this in my camera uploads because I generally only take pictures of passages I love. And I do love this passage—but not because it’s poignant or anything. Instead, I love it because it shows one of my favourite authors laying down a subtle hook. Bujold’s Falling Free didn’t start out with explosions or robberies or dramatic tension; it started with a routine check-up, but still managed not to be boring. With the revelation that Van Atta is someone the main character should know but can’t remember comes sympathy—who hasn’t been in that situation?—and interest. How do they know each other? And what’s the thing Leo is about to be surprised by?
Thinking back on other hooks I’ve loved in the past, I tend to enjoy the more in-your-face kind where a character is about to undergo a big change: The Reaping in The Hunger Games, or the girl running away from the farm (hey, that’s Bujold too), or some obscure ceremony like the choosing in Divergent. Keeping the main character a mystery helps too. Why is she running? Who’s after her? Questions like that, even if they’re nowhere near as subtle as “damn it this guy knows me—how?”
For others it might be different. I’m personally very tired of the “mysterious stranger walks into a dimly-lit inn” type fantasy starts, but there might be fantastic ways to pull that off too. The only thing I can say for sure is that if you’re a nerd who likes to see things done well, having your phone camera handy when you’re reading isn’t a bad thing. Learn by doing, yeah—but learn by seeing others succeed, too!
Anyway, getting back to the existential fear at the start of this post, I’ll probably never be able to enjoy books as indiscriminately as I would have if I’d stayed thirteen. On the other hand, when I was thirteen I was writing a book about a green-haired girl finding an enchanted egg in the forest and needing to bring it to the emperor. It had no subtlety whatsoever—or paragraph breaks—so I’ll take what I can get, and deal with that unwelcome analytical part of my mind that comes with experience. There are so many amazing authors out there that I still won’t have too little to read.
NaNo 2015 is officially under my belt! Despite a visit from my globe-trotting parents, I made it to 50k words this year and—most amazingly—continued to enjoy the story as I wrote it. Having a more fleshed-out plan was an absolute lifesaver, and while I’ve already got my eye on things I’ll need to change, the days of “where the hell am I going with this and who would ever want to read it” seem to be over; I don’t miss them.
The whole process of writing constantly baffles me. Somehow it’s always just as hard as it’s always been while simultaneously getting easier—and yes, I know that sounds like a contradiction, but I’m not sure how else to explain it. It takes just as much discipline and soul-searching as it ever has, but the years of experience do seem to be paying off. There’s the knowledge that I’ve done it before and can do it again… the knowledge that I’ll be able to change things I don’t like… the confidence that there are people who like my writing voice… etc. I’ve come a long way from writing two thirds of a novel then revising and rewriting those two thirds for years. Finishing something is the first step in getting to this point, but it certainly isn’t the only one. I’m reminded of that story about the pottery class where a teacher grades one half of the class on how many pots they make and the other half on their very best pot; without fail, the quantity side of the class makes the superior pots. This analogy probably has limited use, as revision is a necessary skill—one I definitely need to improve on—but I can’t help agreeing with the general premise. I learned a lot more from writing several complete first drafts than I did from polishing incomplete stories to death.
Anyway, the writing process still dips way too close to soul-crushing torture at times, but there’s comfort in knowing I’ve overcome it before. That’s what makes it easier, even when nothing makes it easier. One thing’s for sure, though: I’m gubbed from nano, and taking a break until Monday on that story. In the meantime I’ll be writing the synopsis & query letters for the book I finished in September. Wish me luck!
Christmas? No! Thanksgiving? Not even close! (Or, well, not quite.)
The most wonderful time of the year, in my totally-not-universal opinion, is November–National Novel Writing Month–and the lead-up to it. I did NaNoWriMo for the first time as a fresh-faced second-year at uni in 2010, and I’ve never looked back. I did skip the event in 2013, but I hated that so much I’ve resolved never to do it again unless the situation calls for it. There’s just something about gearing up to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month with millions of others that lights a fire under me. It doesn’t sound comfortable, and it isn’t, but it’s fun. And torture. In the words of Ron Weasley:
If you’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo before, you can read up on it here. I’m very evangelical about it, though of course it doesn’t work for everyone, and it draws some fair criticism. As far as I’m concerned, though, however you use the creative energy NaNoWriMo gives you is good, regardless of whether it’s according to guidelines. I personally never try to write a complete novel during nano because my novels are never 50,000 words; the shortest complete one I’ve written is 86,000 words, and I’m not even going to attempt that in one month.
To get back to the matter at hand—additional proof that this is the best time of the year—I have to admit that the American pumpkin obsession plays into my love of autumn as well. Anything that can pair sweetly with cinnamon and cloves, or be turned into a delicious soup made more delicious by the addition of soy sauce, is a star in my eyes. Yum. And the changing leaves & rain-lashed windows don’t make too bad a backdrop for staying in and writing either.
So: I’m feeling pretty good. And if you, like me, are gearing up for nano, might I suggest this hilariously written post on writing outlines? This year I’m determined to be less crap at planning, and I suggest any fellow bad-planners do the same. I’ll let you know how it goes!