Tides of Christmas

So….

Once again, life conspired to get in my way.  Well, sort of.  In the real world, I entered into a little venture to cut my own firewood.  After a few days of ascending to 11,000 feet (or about 3350 meters) to cut down fire-charred fir trees for wood, I have a hefty appreciation of what our ancestors must have gone through.  And they didn’t have chainsaws or trailers to haul it in.

And then there was that NaNoWriMo thing.  I did it, successfully, which makes me three for three in NaNoWriMo attempts.  Rather than start something new, I tacked 51K words onto Princess of the North.

(Muse:  Yeah good of you to not start something *else* new and leave it unfinished.)

Quiet, you.  That puts me closer to my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of the year.

That rolls us right into the holiday season (for us Western-civ types).  I personally love Thanksgiving; what can be wrong with a holiday where the whole point is to enjoy family and eat yourself into a food coma?  I am less keen on Christmas.  Take your pick:  over-commercialized, pressure of buying stuff, hassle of decorating, I think the Grinch was the victim of brainwashing in his story, etc.

But it does bring up an important subject to consider in our writing and that is of holidays.  I think they are pretty universal in human culture and civilization – if not for the same reasons across culture, then by presence.  Longest days of summer, first day of winter, anniversary of an important event….  These are all big events for a culture and as such, should be celebrated.

I see a lot of proxy holidays in spec fiction, such as birthdays being referred to as “Life Days,” or “Day of Birth” celebrations.  I would like to see some more examples of non-Earth equivalent holidays in writing or to have them celebrated in such a way that we don’t expect.  Perhaps on a given world, on the character’s birthday, they perform small acts of kindness or give gifts to all the important people in their life, rather than vice versa.  Perhaps on that world, the character shows their appreciation and thanks on the anniversary of their birth rather than being showered in presents.

Perhaps on the anniversary of the ending of a grueling war, the citizens all stay home and make whoopie, to celebrate the surge of birthing that occurred after the war.  Or maybe in celebration of a monarch assuming the throne, that monarch rides through the streets handing out coins and presides over games as a way to thank his citizens for upholding his/her rulership.  Or on the first day of summer just as the sun descends over a far mountain peak, the locals all go into the field together with onions tied on their belts and sing off-key until their deity descends and grants them a good harvest.

The side-effect of having a different set of holidays for your milieu – and I know I beat this drum a lot – is adding a touch of unique flavor to the background of your world.  Among spec fiction, fantasy is especially about escape.  So why not actually escape to a world we don’t know?  Of course, being who I am, I read the examples I laid out above and my brain starts plotting all the bad things that could befall my characters during those events.  But I digress.

Endless possibilities here and some that could be more entertaining than the traditional birthday/yule/new-year’s stand-ins I see so often.  I know, I am as guilty as anyone but here’s to being more aware for my own part.

All That Glitters

So …

I got to thinking about something, which usually means trouble, and a lot of it.

(Muse:  No kidding.)

Quiet, you.  It started via a discussion with Mrs. Axe on the gold standard for American currency and the history of that.  Somewhere in the conversation, I at last said, “So what is so great about gold?”

She looked at me like I was a nutter.  “It’s … well, it’s gold.”

“Yeah, but what is it good for?”

This brilliant rejoinder was met with absolute silence and was pretty much the termination of the discussion.  But it did get me to thinking about gold, specifically, and fantasy currency, in general.  So let me start with this:  what is great about gold?  For much of human history, people have considered gold valuable and obsessed over it.  I understand that it is rare, it is malleable, doesn’t dull or corrode, and resists dissolution in acids.

So what?  It is also flimsy (unless alloyed with other metals) and possesses few real uses in a pre-modern world.  Even in our modern world, where gold is used in some electrical applications, most of what is produced is still used for jewelry or investment purposes.  When you get down to it, gold really is useless as a metal.  Anyway, this got me thinking to what makes a currency valuable and why people think about gold as valuable – and then what else they might consider valuable.

I get that many authors don’t want to sidetrack their story or get bogged down in details.  Still, I think it would be nice to see more currency of practical value.

I read an article in Dragon magazine many, many years ago, describing alternate currencies.  I will paraphrase the set-up as best as I can recall:

A culture developed in an area where salt was in very short supply, so it became the natural currency for barter.  Someone developed a harmless paste that, when mixed with salt, could be formed into 1-in cubes, which could be separated back to their components.  People began leaving one side of each block tacky and sticking eight of the blocks together to make bricks.  Soon, however, no one wanted to carry around massive amounts of salt to buy things, so banks opened where people could store their salt in exchange for “brick notes,” which could be redeemed for the eight-piece blocks of salt as needed.  Before long, the salt notes – commonly called “bricks” – themselves became accepted medium of exchange, drawing the interest of the king, who nationalized the salt banks and declared that only salt notes issued from the royal depository would carry weight in the kingdom.

To me, that is a relatively simple example of how an aternate currency might develop in a fantasy setting.  It doesn’t take a ton of set up but a little back story goes a long way – especially when there are multiple cultures involved and the characters are traveling between them.  How many complications could be compounded on a character when someone looks at them and says, “We don’t take Seaside bricks here.”?

What about a warrior culture, where valor and combat and things seized by the sword were more important than trade and mercantilism?  Would steel bars have more weight in such a kingdom – and if so, would human ingenuity have a way to substitute something easier?  What about seashells in a primitive fishing culture?  What about a post-nuclear culture that uses bottle caps?

(Muse:  Uh, that last one has been done.  coughcopyrightcough)

Yeah, yeah.  There’s a ton of possibility if you consider how your culture develops and what they might value.  Even if your world sticks to a gold standard, the royal crowns of one kingdom might have different weights, diameters, and history of debased metal than the imperial florins of another.

Just something to consider in your world building.  Little details making the difference, and all…..

(For more info, here is a thread on currency on Absolute Write and a blog post on the Writing Cafe discussing the issue.)

Okay, Your Setting is a Burned-Out Shell

So….

A while back, I referenced the show Naked and Afraid, and discussed how it tied into how humans would act when ripped away from the tools they would come to rely on – in other words, what would happen when people stopped having every modern convenience at their fingertips.

When I started writing Shattered Colossus for NaNoWriMo, I didn't really take the world-building into account, since it was more about getting words on paper than anything.  But as I kept writing, it became pretty clear that the world of Kareshiel was pretty damn apocalyptic:  an invasion from overseas that completely wrecked one of the seven countries of the confederation, followed by a plague that lasted for years and killed a third of the population, followed by a power-mad demi-god who laid waste to half the lands and plunged the rest into chaos.  The survivors were left with little food or shelter as governments fell and populations turned on each other.

And I have not even finished the first book.

Having said all that, I did some poking around, looking for resources on writing for "after the fall."  Here's what I came up with in a few moments of browsing:

This video, which History Channel aired a few years ago, about what would happen to all of mankind's wonders and civilization if we all suddenly vanished.  Sure, much of it is theoretical.  But it's a good basis for figuring out how far around the bend your world to be ten/thirty/ninety years after everything goes to pot.

– This set of photos on the website Distractify.  Pripyat (the town near Chernobyl) is shown in the second entry.  Pripyat is a real laboratory for seeing a city decay.  Since the meltdown, the entire town has been off-limits to the public, and is only accessed by scientists, journalists, and government officials.  Since the town was basically left in mid-stride, as people picked up whatever they were doing and fled for their lives, it is fairly preserved – and slowly being reclaimed by nature.  Peer around Google, see what turns up.

– This blog entry from the blog Writing is Hard Work.  It lists a handful of links to various calculators and such, detailing the impact of a meteor, the time it would take a plague to spread, etc.  I checked the links, they all seem to be good.

I'll try to post some more as I think of and/or find them.  In any event, y'all keep fighting the good fight, writing the good write.

The Value of Bedrock

So …

I wrote about a year ago about the value of having good world building and how that helped aid the richness of the tale.  Most of what I discussed had to do with defining cultural differences (naming conventions and the like) of the various states/kingdoms/empires ahead of time and how that added flavor to the world.  That's all good and still believe it, but there's more.

I have never been a big "outline" guy.  When I talk about outlining, I usually mean that I have sketched out a very quick idea of the major events of a story, just to get things sequential.  I don't get deep or keep a real detailed list of how the story will break down.  "Make it up as I go" is pretty much the rule of the road.  Much of that comes from writing short stories.  In a short story, I think you can get away with it; you have a limited scope and if things go awry, it is harder to paint yourself into a corner, because if you have to go back and redo 2K words, that's easier than 20K words.

But here is something I picked up:  there is insane value in having a well-detailed background for the world.

For my NaNoWriMO piece, I wrote a fairly detailed history of the world in which Shattered Colossus is set.  I started with omni-scale events that outlined how society kind of stood up and how it developed into the current setting.  The closer in the history I got to the story beginning – the more it affected the characters now living – the more detail I added in.  I sketched the timeline of the wars, the scale-up events, and the breakdown of the world.

Again, I kind of made it up as I went.  I wrote up the events, made up the names and let fly.  But this left me with several benefits:

1) It's consistent.  When the characters reference past events, including the ones that led to the protagonist returning home to find it deserted, they all refer to the same events, in the same time frame, and in the same understanding.  Having that on paper in advance made it much easier to keep all these babblers on the same page, which is not my strength.  Again, in a short story, because of scope, I can get away with it in my head.  In an epic, with many characters, it has worked out easier to pre-scope it.

2) It's organic.  Having the history of the world determined forces me to have the characters act consistently with that history.  Because of that, when they discuss the events, it blends with the story seamlessly.

3) It's a source for story material.  Having a twenty year history of wars, erupting rivalries between feudal lords, plague, and conquest by a despotic demon-conjuring insane emperor gives me absolutely no end of angles to attack this.  Every road the protagonist walks down, I have something to do to him, because something locally has gone wrong.

Granted, this is still not what I would call a hugely detailed list.  This is several thousand words in a few RTF documents, with notes on the nations, wars, and minor characters.  But it has made writing the novel vastly easier thus far.

So … am I coming around on writing an outline?  Not exactly.  I used to be hardcore against it.  But I am seeing the value.  I'm still too lazy to do a full one-

(Muse:  No kidding.)

-but so for this effort, it has been very helpful.  Food for thought, maybe it will be for you too.  Seacrest out.

Surviving in the Aftermath…

So …

Last night I watched the pilot of a reality show called Naked and Afraid on the Discovery Channel.  Essentially, the show's producers took two survivalists – one man and one woman – and dropped them in a remote area without supplies, food … or even clothes.  They had to survive twenty-one days in the wild with basically their wits.

(Muse:  Face it, you just wanted to see T&A.)

They blurred everything out except for the asses.  The two initial people – a 25-ish girl and 40-ish guy – did the right thing up front.  They laughed and said, "Well, we may as well check each other out and get it over with."  They gave each other a thorough eye-job and then pressed on, nudity forgotten.  After about five minutes, I forgot about it too.  I guess when you're cold, hungry, tired, and mentally exhausted, you stop worrying about being naked in front of someone.  There was no sexual tension, just serious tension as the two of them wore down.  I'd say the guy bitched a little more and the girl sluffed off a little more.  They struggled but managed to stay warm enough and eat just enough to stay alive, to be rescued after three weeks.

I thought about this a little further today, in the context of spec fiction.  Fiction set in the "after the apocalypse" has become really common in the last decade or so.  Wikipedia has entire list of post-apocalyptic fiction (nice, because it's a sortable list).  Whatever the reason, after the end of civilization, there is always the struggle to survive and carry on.  But watching these two trained survivalists struggle to even build a shelter and feed themselves (I think they ate a snake and a turtle between them in the course of three weeks), it makes me wonder if writers miss a prime opportunity to mine that ground.

Most people in the Western world have absolutely no idea how to light a fire without a lighter, tell whether a plant is safe to eat or not, or even collect water safely.  Faced with a loss of immediate essentials, I daresay most people couldn't cope.  Supplies of ready-made food (assuming they were safe and not affected by radiation or something) would vanish frighteningly fast.  Fuel would be gone almost overnight.  Animals around any population center would be hunted out in a matter of weeks.  Then what?  Barring a mass-depopulation (say, on the order of 95% or more), any post-apocalypse in the modern world that did not include mass starvation, spread of pestilence, or even desperate cannibalism feels like missed opportunity on the writer's behalf.  Think about a city like Phoenix.  Five-plus million population, in a desert with no water and no native food production.  It's held together by trucking and water piped in from the Colorado River – none of which would exist for long once transportation and power failed.  How long would those people last?  Not long.  I get that the survivors in such a world would have some advantages over the naked explorers above, such as access to tools and weapons, but that only gets one so far.  You still gotta know what you're doing.

In terms of resilience, comparing an advanced civilization to an older one is like comparing a modern computer to an abacus.  Sure, the highly-specialized nature of the individual parts allow the computer to function at a much more productive level … but it is also fragile.  An older, agrarian society would be more resilient in the event of mass destruction; most food and tools are produced locally and while communities might not be wholly self-sufficient, people in non-industrialized nations are a lot closer to that life than we are.  Any survivors in the modern world would learn fast … but the cost of that learning curve would be Pyrrhic.

Drop an abacus and other than losing your place, you pick it up and go on.  Drop a computer and it you are maybe better off building a new one than trying to fix it.

Anyway, just an interesting thought on disaster fiction.  Just don't forget the T&A.

Crowdsourcing Your Story

I apologize for another absence, though I have a semi-legitimate excuse this time.  I was in the hospital for a little knee surgery a few days ago and Mrs. Axe is visiting with the alternating purposes of consuming all my free time and taking care of me as I hobble about, or both at the same time.  The surgery went well enough but I am pretty doped up on goooood meds … so hopefully this post will be coherent.

I have seen a handful of projects out there where the author/editor is asking for folks to participate in writing a story in their world, or sets up a framework and opens the door for others to write into it.  Some call them "collaborative" writing or "shared stories."  Most of these efforts focus on providing the setting, doing the worldbuilding, and a loose timeline, then turning the author loose to write the worlds.

I am of two minds about this.  I get the point that a thousand minds collectively are more powerful at generating ideas and solving problems than one (the explosion of neat smart-phone apps in recent years shows that), so you can expect a whole bunch of authors working to produce a lot of good stories.  And if you have a successful license, it has built-in appeal; a lot of authors would leap at the chance to write something set in the Star Wars Universe, especially if they were told it would become canon.

On the other hand, I think it is really hard to maintain a clear vision when you start adding more and more perspectives.  I might be collaborating with someone in the near future but the production will be between me and one other person, with frequent in-person interaction and we are already basically on the same page to begin with in regards to this project.  I can't imagine doing it with dozens of other people, who I don't know.  There is a military theory called Unity of Command, that boils down to having one guy in charge for better or worse, as having bad orders is usually better than having conflicting orders.  Without tight control, these worlds can have some wildly divergent interpretations.  The guidelines on some of these efforts are restrictive and limited in focus but others are pretty loose – and some of the loose ones are looking for commercial sales success.  It feels counter-intuitive to me.  Without a firm guiding vision, I almost expect the result to be a slobbering mess of divergent information.

Maybe it's just me but I seem to be stumbling over more and more of these efforts – and I wonder what the wider trend is.  Maybe technology is just making collaborative efforts easier to do.

Here is a link to Shared Story Worlds, which has some more information which is undoubtedly presented in a more coherent manner than my own babbling.  In the meantime, I'm gonna take another pain med.

Where was that again?

So….

As I sat there thinking, as I do every once in a while, I started drifting into the idea of naming conventions – specifically, on how geography is named.  You know, what gets one culture to name their landmarks and cities after their famous people (like Pittsburgh) and other cultures do it based on whatever happens to be there (Kathmandu in Nepal, or "Wooden Temple") – or why in the American Civil War the Union named battles after nearby rivers and creeks (Antietam and Bull Run) while the South named battles after nearby towns (Fredricksburg and Gettysburg), and why did some names stick from both sides.

I did some very thorough research (about five minutes of Googling) and didn't come to any real conclusions.  I did find something slightly unnerving.  Back to that in a second.

This is something I never tried to do as a fledgling writer.  I often just slapped names on places and people and didn't give it much thought.  I still do in emergency situations, but mostly, I try to find some dynamic reason for why people and things are named as such.  I also try to give different cultures different conventions, that are somewhat consistent internally.  This is part of a good world-building, am I right?  Here's an example for my tabled Sheyla stories:

– In the Innorian Empire (a pastiche of medieval England and some Roman factors), the standard was for male names to end with consonants.  Female names ended in vowels or vowel sounds.  "Soft" letters, like "y" or "n" end either.  On the mainland, names tended to be made of up of harder sounds:  "v," "k," "j," "g," and "p."  On the islands, the softer sounds – "s," "l," "h," "w" – figured more prominently.  In the outlands, the barbarian riders – not of the Empire but of common peoples – usually had short names, where each tribe identified with a single letter which was incorporated in each name. 

– Save for Innoria, the town names tended to be English-style conglomerations – Stonebridge, Highgate, etc. – or Latin-ish pastiches.  (Gimme a break, at least I was consistent.)

Other nations and cultures had their own "rules" for naming.  I had not fully fleshed all of them out but just having those guidelines in place not only made naming my people and places much easier but I think it aided in making the stories more consistent.  (Note to longtime readers:  the versions out online no longer resemble the revamped versions, so I can't speak to their crappiness.)  A little thing, to be sure, but something that may help with world-building.  Building a richer world makes a richer place in which your story takes place and some of that background depth can't help but creep into the tale.

Back to Google.

I've been thinking about this topic for about two days now.  So in the course of my Googling, I found this article.  Tangentially relevant … but the scary part is the author.  I met her once.  She's married to a guy I worked with a few years ago.  She posted this the same day I was thinking of this subject.  Who says there isn't some mass human consciousness already in place?

Eat your heart out, Arthur C. Clarke.  We didn't even have to kill everyone to do it.