Saturday, August 1, 2015

But It's Realistic! The Delicate Issue of Rape in Fantasy

If the title of this post isn't a warning, I'm talking about a very unpleasant topic today, one that can be a trigger for some people.

Rape is an unfortunate and disturbing facet of human behavior. In a world where a significant percentage of women (and a number of men too) have been subjected to one form of sexual assault or another, it makes sense that it would make its way into fiction, including fantasy.

It is a real thing, for both men and women. It happens in war, in prisons, on the streets, and even in people's homes and private lives (in fact, with most sexual assaults, the victim knows their assailant). I don't think it should be off limits, either as a story focus or as a plot device. I learned about how horrible it was by reading some stories where characters were raped (a couple were even issue books, aimed at teens) and also learned something about the problems victims have with shame and self blame and so on. These novels dispelled some myths about rapes, gave me some information about how to protect myself from it, and helped me develop more empathy for victims.

In the first draft of the novel I'm querying now, my female main character was a rape victim. It felt so natural to do this. My story isn't set in a sugar-coated fantasy world. I wanted a bit of grit and realism. Plus, a past sexual assault gave her a reason to be hyper-vigilant, focused on her work, and leery of intimacy. And it gave her a traumatic past that would allow her to empathize with the male main character's outsider status.

But then I started to think about my choice in more detail, and I began to wonder if my unthinking gravitation to rape as backstory for this character wasn't problematic. Here's why:

1. It's the ultimate crime of erasure and un-personing, and it's just about the worst thing a person can do to another without killing or mutilating them. It is a very powerful thing, and it shouldn't be trivialized. Yet is often is in fiction. Did I want to make the issue of rape a specific focus of this novel? No, I really didn't, but if it's handled in passing, then it suggests I think it isn't all that weighty.

2. Adding insult to injury, rape (or other indignities) committed against a female character are often used as a motivator for a male character. It's not about her, it's about the "real" character, who happens to be her lover, husband, father, brother or whatever. It's a form of the infamous "women in refrigerators" trope first identified in superhero comics, but also in movies, video games, and books. Was her rape really there to be something the male main character would have an emotional reaction to later? I didn't like the answer to that question.

3. It's often used as a cheap way of showing how evil someone is: cardboard villain rapes character (or threatens her with rape). It's just been done so darned many times. Same for using it to show how dark and unjust one's fantasy society is. But aren't there other ways I can make a villain thoroughly unpleasant or show the reader how gritty things can get in my world?

4. There are a lot of real, live people walking around who have been victims of sexual assault. Reading about it in a book can cause them to relive their own experience. My character's rape was "off screen," but even so, did I want to dredge up those emotions in some readers if it wasn't necessary for the story at hand? Not really.

When so many of one's potential readers have been a victim of sexual assault, it's a good idea to consider how it's portrayed, because it will affect them. Graph from Sarah Kliff's Blog.

5. It's often misunderstood. It's a planned crime of violence, humiliation and control, not lust that got carried away. This has been known since I was a kid at least, yet many people haven't gotten the memo yet. Rape is sometimes portrayed as something raiders or soldiers do because they haven't been with a woman for a while. It's also one of the only crimes where the victim is routinely blamed.

I did address victim blame, both self blame and blame by others, as problems for the character in the story. But did I really want to explore how that would play out and spend the time to make it clear this rape was a crime of control and anger, not misplaced passion, even if most of the characters didn't realize it? Again, the answer was no.

6. If a character who is meant to be sympathetic rapes or is accessory to a rape, then he/she will cease to be sympathetic to a large number of readers. If the writer wants a redemption arc for a rapist, their work is cut out for them. I call this the Thomas Covenant problem. It wasn't relevant in my case, since the proposed rapist was a villain, but it's definitely an issue in some stories. It's not impossible to make a rapist relatable to a high percentage of readers, even if he isn't on a redemption arc (Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange is a great example of this, as is Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns), but it's a hard needle to thread.

7. Rape portrayals might be titillating or erotic to some readers, or at least read like they're meant to be. This is a particular problem when the assault is shown as part of an actual scene, rather than summarized or recounted as back story. This wasn't really an issue for me in this particular story, but it's another thing that can come up. And more problematically, what's horrific for one reader might be titillating for another.

8. Men get raped too. It's actually quite common in warfare and torture situations, yet rape of adult men seems to be omitted from most stories where authors justify female rape for its realism. Funny how my "go to" rape victim was female. I had actually considered rape of a male character at one point, but I abandoned the idea, because I feared it would make him too unsympathetic or unmanly in the eyes of some readers. Why is this, and why didn't I fear the same thing might be true for my female character? The answer is pretty uncomfortable.

9. And it's been used by so many writers (especially in fantasy) in such lazy, clich├ęd ways as the life-defining trauma for female characters. Or it's presented as a sort of comeuppance or life lesson for adventurous, naive, or "careless" female characters who presume to go out and risk themselves in a man's world. "Silly girl! Don't you realize all these rules and restrictions that hamper your freedom and agency are really there for your protection? So now you've been raped (or threatened with it). Hope you've learned your lesson and find a man to protect you!" I absolutely, positively did not want to send anything approaching that message.

For all these reasons, I realized that even careful and realistic portrayals of the rape trope can feel (to female readers, at least, but maybe to some male ones too) like being poked over and over in the same patch of deeply bruised flesh.

I decided it might be fun to write a story where the main female character has some other past trauma or dark secret for once

And I really think the one I ended up going with actually works a lot better for her as a character and for the way things unfold between her and the male main character.

I'm not saying rape should never be used by authors, of course. Just that I think it's best to proceed with care and to carefully consider one's reasons for including it.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Are the Little Differences So Hard to Imagine in Fantasy?

A fellow writer recently asked (on an online fantasy site) how people had sex in the olden days, when most people lived in one room cottages or huts. Surely the presence of a couple's children, in the same room, or perhaps even the same bed, would have put a damper on things, he reasoned.

As someone who grew up loving the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, there as a point (sometime around my own pre-adolescent period, probably) when I wondered something similar. How did Ma and Pa have sex when Laura, Mary, and Carrie were sleeping in the same one-room cabin on the prairie?

The answer, of course, is that people in different times and places did not (or do not) share our modern, post-Victorian sensibilities about having sex in front of the children. They probably waited until they thought the kids were asleep and had at it. And maybe, when the weather was fine, couples found ways to steal moments alone together in barns, thickets, haystacks, even churches.

Nowadays, many people think it's immodest, or even potentially harmful, for kids to overhear, let alone see, their parents making the beast with two backs. That attitude has hardly been the norm throughout history. Parents probably didn't sit down with their kids and  have "the talk" back then. Kids simply learned about sex via osmosis (and of course, most people in agrarian, nomadic, or hunter-gatherer societies were around animals a lot while growing up, so they almost certainly made the connection there too).

This article does a great job of discussing sex in the middle ages. In fact, people really weren't as prudish back then as many suppose.

In spite of what some people have been insisting (in light of the recent SCOTUS ruling legalizing and legitimizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states), sexual morality is a very fluid and variable thing across history and cultures.

This question got me to thinking, though. There are numerous fantasy novels that show people living in societies with attitudes where the big things--slavery, torture, sexism, public executions, a rigid class or caste structure--are very different from ours. Yet the things that we have trouble envisioning as writers and readers are often the little, everyday differences (like people mostly living in a single room and parents thinking nothing about having sex while their kids are present).

Imagine a romance or fantasy novel with a love scene where the couple is holding back their cries of passion so they don't awaken their toddler, who is sleeping in the bed with them.

Another example of a fact that freaked me out when I learned (sometime around middle school age, I think) it was that women didn't wear underpants under their dresses until fairly recently. The thought of walking around all day with one's most personal and vulnerable parts open from below, gave me the heebie jeebies.
Fragonard's The Swing: What is this fellow looking at?
Of course, I've since figured out that those heavy skirts and petticoats were unlikely to blow up or reveal one's nether regions, even when it was windy or their owner climbing ladders, but it still feels a bit odd to me. On the plus side, the idea that brassieres didn't exist before the 20th century turns out to be untrue.

One thing that's very hard to relate to is differing attitudes about personal hygiene. I admit I was very relieved to learn that all those tales about how no one ever bathed in the olden days were rather exaggerated (though, interestingly, westerners were at their most foul during the early modern era, not the middle ages), and in fact, clothes washing and periodic bathing have been the norm throughout history, even if people didn't always live up to modern standards of cleanliness.

Given how itchy and stinky I am after just a couple days of days camping, I'll admit that a character who bathes but once a year and never cleans his/her teeth is harder for me to relate to than an assassin who kills people for a living. Brent Week's Durzo Bint? I had more problem with his garlic-chewing habit (I have a very low tolerance for garlic, even in food, and the smell of it on someone's breath makes me physcially ill) than I did his talent for slaughter. No fangirl crush on that character!

And speaking of bathing, anything resembling the Japanese tradition of families bathing together doesn't seem to be something that comes up terribly often in fantasy novels. I suspect that many modern authors have too much trouble stepping away from the notion that nakedness is an inherently sexual condition.

A print of this painting hangs in my hall bathroom.
Another social convention that few modern fantasy writers explore in their worlds are communal latrines. Outside of boot camp, modern western bathrooms tend to have locking doors or screens around the toilets, at least. Yet the Romans had communal latrines and public piss pots where people of both genders "went" in front of one another, and even socialized whilst they did. Especially revolting to me, however, is the concept of the shared sponges.

Toilets are definitely one of those intimate, everyday things with which we like to take for granted. Anyone who has been camping, or traveled in a country where facilities are designed differently, knows how disconcerting it is to adapt to a different way of answering nature's call.

Moving to the other end of the alimentary canal, I also have a hard time getting my head around the idea that toothbrushes seem to be a very recent invention (though unsurprisingly, the Chinese might have had something similar). However, people did indeed have ways of cleaning their teeth in the old days, and some research suggests that tooth cleaning sticks made from some kinds of trees or shrubs do an excellent job of promoting gingival health.

Habits of grooming or beauty aesthetics that are different from ours can be a jolt also. It's hard for me to imagine being attracted to a man with a tonsure, for instance, though those have existed in various times and places in history (and not just for monks). And when I saw the Kurosawa movie Ran many years ago, I was put off by the way the women plucked their brows to nothing and drew fake ones in way above their natural position. These looked odd to me. It's another one of those "small things" that wouldn't be very comfortable for me to imagine in a protagonist in a fantasy novel.

There are plenty of other "little things" that have changed throughout history and that vary between cultures. Taboos, habits of personal hygiene and grooming, even table manners (like using fingers to eat instead of utensils). Even though it can be a bit uncomfortable, I think authors sometimes miss opportunities to use these kinds of small differences as a means of reminding their readers that their characters aren't simply modern people wearing costumes. It's challenging, though, because for some readers, the ability to connect emotionally, even romantically, with a character is an important part of the experience of reading.

Feel free to comment and chime in on some of your own blind spots about history. What kinds of small, everyday differences have you tried to incorporate into a fantasy culture? Which ones put you off so much it's hard to relate to a character who practices them?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

An Article on The Lost Legacy of Many Female Fantasy Writers

This is a fantastic article on a topic I've been trying to get my head around for a while--the way great female fantasy and SF writers seem to fall off the cultural radar faster and more completely than male ones.

Most people remember Terry Brooks and other popular male writers from the 70s and 80s, but fewer people seem to remember writers like Katherine Kurtz, or even ones like CJ Cherryh and Mercedes Lackey, who are still writing today.

Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I'll post a link to the article here:

Fantasy, Female Writers, and the Politics of Influence by Tansy Rayner Roberts.

And as an interesting aside, did you know that Australia actually has more trade-published female writers of adult speculative fiction (and fantasy) than male?

Britain seems to have fewer, while the US is in between these two countries.

It's interesting how different English-speaking countries can be in this regard, but it does suggest that there's nothing innately different in the abilities of men and women as writers of speculative fiction.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Old Dog Stuff

My husband and I adopted Roxy back in the fall of 2000 to celebrate closing on a house. We already had one dog, Astra, and she was a social pup who loved canine company. But as habitual renters, finding places with even one dog (and a clowder of cats) was challenging.  I remember all too well the pain of falling for a dog and really wanting to adopt him but being told no second dog by a landlord.

So the first thing I wanted to do once we became homeowners was to adopt a dog. I was training Astra in agility by then, so I also looked forward to training a second dog in the sport.

When we went to the Sacramento Animal Care and Services shelter, I almost missed Roxy, since she was in a kennel with three other dogs. Doug pointed her out, and we fell in love at once.

Roxy doing agility: Ann Clayton Photography
She's a border collie-chow mix, and in spite of the bad reputation chows and chow mixes have, she's always been the sweetest, most tolerant dog imaginable. When she was younger, she was a fairly enthusiastic agility partner and won some titles, including a NATCH and a CATCH. But as she became middle aged, her enthusiasm waned. Unfortunately, chows don't have the most athletic build, and the sport was starting to take its toll on her knees and shoulders.

So I retired her and concentrated on doing the sport with Wiley, my kelpie.

But she remained our special baby. After Astra passed away, we adopted a younger dog, Flick. Flick is a bit of a, well, the name for female dogs applies as a commentary on her character. Lovable but mercurial in her moods, and nervous enough we have to be careful with her and strangers. But Roxy, even as she grows old and creaky, never shows anything resembling temper.

And this is part of what's making it so hard as she gets older. With a dog who is so calm and undemanding, how can we tell when her quality of life has passed into the unacceptable. It's pretty clear that Roxy, at 15 1/2, is in her final approach. It's not just because her old peer group of dogs (ones who were in beginning agility class and were at their peak at around the same time as she was) have been dropping like flies lately. She's been arthritic for a while, and her muscles aren't as strong as they once were, but it's gotten worse lately. Until recently, she got enthusiastic about her walks, though they'd become shorter and slower than they once had. And painkilling and anti-inflammatory meds (Adequan and Metacam) seemed to help.

Roxy as of about a month ago.
But over the past week or two, she's been pretty reluctant to get up when she's been lying for a while, and if Flick jostles her (which Flick does often, being a galut), she falls over. She can still get up with help. I've tried one of those dog harnesses that allows us to assist her, but she really doesn't seem to like it much. She's still got a good appetite, but she's not always so keen to get up and out of bed in the morning, even though she's hungry. She's never been one for playing with toys, so that's not a very good gauge of her overall level of enthusiasm for life. She still likes having her ears scratched.

The hardest thing is travel. We cancelled a planned trip this summer because of the uncertainty over arranging for her care (she can't be boarded and needs a live in pet sitter who will be around a lot, but most leave the dogs for 8-10 hours and are only there at night), while Flick must be boarded in a special care program at a kennel that has trainers to work with stranger-wary dogs that can't just be tossed into their twice daily group play mash up. So needless to say, arranging for pet care for a week-long trip is astronomical--greater than our hotel costs would be, actually (Wiley is sitting here saying, "I can go either way, Mom, I love pet sitters and don't mind boarding kennels!")

And we have a day trip to Carson City coming up, because some relatives will be in town there we never get to see. For normal people, popping across the pass for a day is nothing. But with one dog who can't come for a visit because she's not reliable around kids (and so must be day boarded, since we also can't have them in our yard when we aren't there to supervise), one who can come along cheerfully, and one who can't be left home alone for 10 hours but may find the long car ride and extra stress very unpleasant, well, argh! Roxy is coming, but we'll have to be gentle with her.

This is nothing to what most people have to deal with re caregiving for kids or seniors in their human families (especially special needs family members), since we can at least go out and leaver her for 3-4 hours at a time, but since Roxy is "only" a dog, people tend to be less understanding when we say that traveling is challenging right now

So we're making a vet appointment later this week for assessment and hopefully suggestions about how to keep her quality of life acceptable, and also, when to know that it isn't. In her case, if it gets to where she just can't walk anymore, I think we will know it's time for sure. There are carts and so on, but I don't think one would be comfortable or easy to adapt to for a dog her age.

The hardest part is not simply being to ask them what they want. Doug sometimes jokes that Roxy is still alive because of her separation anxiety issues (this was something we had to deal with when she was a pup, though it became manageable as she matured). She simply doesn't want to leave us. But in all seriousness, when do the aches and pains of being so old overtake the pleasure she derives from our company? I wish we could ask her.

It's the hardest thing about having animals.

Monday, June 1, 2015

That's Not For You, Flick!

I haven't blogged for a bit, and one of the reasons is that this is actually my 100th entry, and I was hoping I would have something marvelously significant or insightful to say. But I really don't. Just as we were celebrating the end of classes a week and a half ago, we had a bit of a medical scare with Flick, the youngest (and greediest) of our three dogs.

Doug had commented earlier in the day (it was Saturday afternoon) that she seemed to be eating something in the side yard. Well, we keep our trash bins over there, so I simply shrugged, assuming that she'd gotten something that fell out when we were emptying the kitchen trash. A couple hours later, he let the dogs out again, and told me that Flick had something green, and he couldn't tell if it was something from the kids' birthday party next door and showed me this. "Do you know what it is?" he asked.
The remains of the block Flick was eating.

Something about this stuff gave me a bad feeling, so I googled, "What does rat poison look like?" And lo and behold, several pictures of very similar green or blue-green blocks popped up. Not good. So to the emergency vet we went.

They made her vomit and fed her activated charcoal, and gave us the run down. Without knowing exactly what brand and formulation it is, we needed to treat for the three kinds of poisons used to kill rodents in California:

1. Bromethalin, which causes uncoupling of oxidative phosphorylation in liver and central nervous system mitochondria. This results in a reduction of ATP in these tissues, and ultimately ends with an inhibition of ion channels that causes potentially fatal cerebral edema (brain swelling).

2. Anticoagulants, which cause animals to die from internal bleeding.

3. Cholecalciferol, which is vitamin D3. This toxin leads to something called metastatic calciferation, most notably of the kidneys, heart, GI tract, and liver. It typically causes death by renal failure.

The details about the different kinds of rat poisons and their toxicity are detailed here for anyone who wants to learn more.

So we got to go home with subcutaneous fluids (and instructions to make sure she drank lots and lots of water) to flush out any and all of these toxins, but especially to keep her kidneys happy in case it was cholecalciferol, two more doses of activated charcoal to absorb any toxins remaining in her GI tract, and a month's worth of vitamin K to counteract any anticoagulant effect if it was one of those kinds of poisons. We also got to make three repeat trips for blood work to make sure her kidney and liver values are good, and when she finishes her vitamin K, we are to return to the vet to make sure her clotting factors are good.

We're calling this Flick's "thousand-dollar snack."

Flick has already forgotten her unusual snack.
The good news is that a week and a half out, she's doing well. She's a nervous dog, and not always as gregarious as we'd like with strangers, but she seemed to weather her treatment with good humor (better humor than most of us probably would if we were peacefully enjoying an unusual snack, and someone gave us a shot that made us puke and made us drink this black slurry and kept poking us with needles).

The bad news is that we have no idea how this block (at least one, possibly two) of rat poison ended up in our yard. I don't keep or use rat poison anywhere on the premises. It's possible that someone in the neighborhood is using it loose (outside of the locking, plastic traps for which these blocks are intended) and a rat or some other critter dragged it into our yard. It's also possible that some truly horrible human being is tossing blocks of rat poison over the back fences of people who have dogs.

We have, as far as we know, good relations with all our neighbors, and we don't leave our dogs out to bark at all hours, and we always keep them on leash and pick up after them when we walk them. So I don't think anyone would target us in particular. If it's intentional, it's most likely a random wacko. But it's still pretty disquieting, and we're checking out the yard on a daily basis, and checking out the side yard by the back fence before we let the dogs out.

We put fliers up around the neighborhood (and talked to everyone who shares a fence line with us) to let people know that this happened. As upset as we are about what happened and the cost and hassles associated with treating Flick, this could have gone a whole lot worse if Doug hadn't noticed her eating something strange.

A reminder to other people with "furkids" to keep an eye on what they're doing and that it's probably not safe to leave pets out in the yard unsupervised these days, even for short periods of time.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Reading as a Writer

So many books, so little time
One thing about writing is that it really eats into one's reading time. I used to devour a good book in 2-3 days, because I'd sit for hours with my nose buried in it. But writing (and yes, the siren's song of social media) means that I don't have hours of free time to lose myself in novels. It's been a while since I got sucked into a book I couldn't put down until it was finished, and the last time I did (the book was Robin Hobb's Fool's Assassin, by the way), I felt guilty that I did no work on my writing for a couple of days.

Another issue is that I have a very long list of novels I "should" be reading. Instead of seeking out books by old favorites (like Robin Hobb), I'm trying to read newer secondary world fantasy, especially successful debuts and top sellers from the past few years. And of course, there are also those award winning novels, or classic novels that everyone and their brother is talking about or recommending yet somehow fell through the cracks of my own awareness until recently.

And oh, God, I need to be reading more short fiction too, so maybe I can get over the block that stops me from coming up with short story ideas more than once in a blue moon.

The problem is, when I'm doing something because you "should" be doing it, even when it's something you enjoy and the book in question is really good, I have a harder time staying focused on it. Especially when I've got a couple of new novels I'm trying to get cracking on.

I thought I'd toss out some of the things I've read (or been reading) recently, however, as well as some books that are on my ever-growing to-read list.

Books I've finished recently

Lascar's Dagger by Glenda Larke: I loved her Stormlords books, so I was excited to see she had something new out. Interesting characters and world, though I didn't get quite as drawn in as I did with her previous trilogy. It's a little more standard-issue fantasy, though the interplay between the main characters is intriguing.

Shards of Time by Lynn Flewelling: The last novel in her long-running Nightrunners series. I've been reading her work since the early 2000s (when I discovered the Tamir Triad), and I love her characters and world. Sad to see it end, though I thought this one was maybe a bit flatter than some of her previous books about Alec and Seregil. Ending a long-running series is hard, though.

Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan: A Gunpowder fantasy set in a society where the monarchy has just been overthrown. An unusual magic system and meddlesome gods (one with a penchant for cooking) adds a nice touch to this debut. The writing's a bit  klunky (as if the author couldn't quite decide if he wanted the pov to be omniscient or limited third), but it's a first novel. The dysfunctional, love-hate, father-son relationship between two of the main characters is fascinating as well.

The Thousand Names by Django Wexler: Another fantasy set in a society that feels like the late 1700s. Interesting world, though it feels like a lot of novel one is set up. Some nice surprises, and I like that the relationship between three female characters is important to the story. This is a fantasy debut, but I believe the author has published in other genres previously. A friend of mine from Cascade Writers says he's in her critique group and is a really nice guy, so I definitely wanted to give his book a read.

The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato: A debut steampunk novel by a writer I met at a workshop (Cascade Writers) three years ago. I don't read a lot of steampunk, but I enjoyed her setting, characterization and the romantic arc. Reminded me a bit of a Joan Aiken novel for grownups (I loved Joan Aiken as a child) Her protagonist is a healer, and I thought her healing system was really fascinating. Thankfully very different from mine.

Books I'm reading:

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: Just read first couple chapters. Looks to be a court intrigue fantasy stories, and I need to read more of those, since court intrigue figures heavily in my Umbral series, especially book 2 (which I'm working on now). Also, it's a Hugo contender, and I'm voting in the Hugos this year. The writing is really good and lyrical, though the pov (third person, pretty zoomed out with omniscient parts) is more distant than my preference.

Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg: A few years old now, but I'm reading it because I discovered that the main character is addicted to a pain-based magic, which should be familiar to anyone who's been beta reading for me. The particulars are different, though her stories and characters are similar to mine in some ways--broken heroes with plenty of internal conflicts and flaws, and she puts them through hell. I like the first person narration and main character, though I'm halfway though, and so far, the story is a bit slow. It takes place in a monastery, and I'm only just getting a feel for the stakes. She's a fine writer, though who is very good at description and scene setting that doesn't break pov or bog the narrative down. It makes me sad that her work is often overlooked by people discussing good modern fantasy writers.

Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley: About halfway through this one, and it's really intriguing. Different kind of world building. I wouldn't call it Grimdark, but it's definitely got a body count and its share of gray-scale characters. She tosses you into the world and culture with very little prompting, and you have to figure out what's going on as you read. Some people have commented that this is difficult to do, but I've been tracking things so far. The main issue I have with it is that the large number of pov characters makes it hard for me to follow or attach myself to any one story (a bit like Martin's work, though she sets things up differently, and I believe the different character arcs intersect more). Fantastic writing, and it's a shame it didn't net a Nebula or Hugo nomination this year.

Cold Fire by Kate Elliott: The second book in the Spiritwalker Trilogy, (first was Cold Magic, which I enjoyed). Sequels have been more on my back burner lately, but I want to get to this one. I enjoyed her world building and characterization in the first one. Also, the focus on a relationship between two female cousins is nice. So often, female characters are stranded in a sea of men in fantasy novels and don't seem to have any important friends or mentors who are women.

Dragon Soul by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett: Loved the first two books in this series, and I'm about halfway through this one. Hoping the boys find the remains of ol' Havemercy and get her going again.

The Dagger's Path by Glenda Larke: Sequel to Lascar's Dagger. Lots of cool stuff, and it appears that the main characters are traveling to the Va-Forsaken lands in spite of the best efforts of 2/3 of them. I've heard that the author modeled them after Malay, where she lived for a long time (and her husband is Malay also), and the setting is very well developed. The only thing I'm struggling with is the addition of two new new povs who have sort of taken over the portion of the story I'm on right now. They're likable and compelling, and I'm guessing their stories will interweave back into those of the three main characters from the previous book. I assume she's telling the story chronologically, so we're not getting anything on these other characters while they're uneventfully on a ship, but it's a bit disquieting, as if they've disappeared from the story. There's no perfect way to do a novel with multiple pov characters (and where the story takes place on different fronts) however.
Books I'm currently stalled out on, though I hope to plow through.

The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan: Sequel to Promise of Blood. Torn on this one. The increasing pathos of one of the pov characters (Taniel Two Shot) and his developing relationship with the enigmatic Ka Poel is interesting, but I'm not connecting well with Adamat this time around (he was less interesting to me than the other three povs in book one also). I can't put my finger on it, but the writing feels more distant and stilted with him, maybe because the author uses this character's proper name in almost every sentence and filters a lot, instead of trusting the reader to know that anything described in one of Adamat's chapters will be what Adamat sees, knows, hears, thinks or feels. I like the story and magic system, however, so I plan on getting back to it.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch: I should love this one, and I suspect it targets a similar demographic to my own novel (being in a sort of early modern era setting and somewhere in between heroic fantasy, noire, and fantasy of manners) but haven't been able to get past the first few chapters. I think it's the omniscient pov. I'm much fonder of first person or a closer limited third these days. But darn it, Lynch has a good reason for wanting to distance the reader a bit from Locke, and there's a lot to like about this world and these characters, so I'm definitely returning to it.

Books on my to-read list

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Because it's a Hugo contender and has gotten some great reviews. A SF novel set in China (and written by someone who is Chinese) is intriguing too.

Ancillary Sword By Anne Leckie: The sequel to Ancillary Justice, the winner of last year's Hugo and Nebula awards. I read AJ, and enjoyed it. The writing was clean and crisp but the author did a good job of capturing the setting and a very unusual pov character. Since AS is a Hugo nominee this year, I'll need to read it by July. Same thing for the other books on the Hugo and Campbell lists, and the short stories that are nominated. My general system for reading for awards is to read until I lose interest, and vote accordingly.

Star Crossed by Elizabeth Bunce: A YA fantasy novel that's categorized as manners fantasy because of its emphasis on intrigue again. While I don't think my own work is quite in that classification (supposedly, magic and combat aren't supposed to figure into fantasies of manners much), I do want to read more of them to see how writers who are good at intrigue spin plausible motives and dilemmas for their characters. I also need to read more YA. So it's in the queue.

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie. A YA fantasy novel by the master of Grimdark. I enjoyed reading his First Law trilogy, and I really liked the way he created very different narrative voices (in limited third) for each pov character. I'm curious how he approaches a YA novel (written in limited third and not the usual first) and how he's evolved as a writer since his first trilogy (haven't gotten to his interim books yet) and what his new world is like.

 Finn Fancy Necromancy, by Randy Henderson. I don't generally read much UF or humorous fantasy, but I know the author slightly from Cascade Writers, and he's a nice guy with a great sense of humor. The premise looks intriguing and rather unique, so this one is definitely in my queue.

Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith: Looks very interesting and a non-standard fantasy setting, neither the contemporary world, nor a quasi-historical society.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal: The idea of something that's like a Jane Austen novel with magic is really intriguing.

The Shadow Throne by Django Wexler: Sequel to The Thousand Names.

The above lists can be added to or rearranged without notice.

So, how do other writers who also have day jobs keep up with their reading? Have you found that you read differently since you've been serious about writing fiction? How do you decide which books to read and how to prioritize them?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Writing Stories Set in Societies That Aren't Ours

 Writing from the point of view of someone who isn't like oneself. This is an issue faced by most fiction writers, of course. Most of us don't want to write stories with different versions of ourselves over and over and over. But writers of historical and speculative fiction have a special problem: they're writing in settings where the characters are likely to have very different sensibilities from modern readers.

Writers of historical fiction have a more restrictive situation, since they're constrained by what we actually know about a period of history. If your novel is set in ancient Rome, or the antebellum South, you have to have slavery. And attitudes about everything from the role and status of women, treatment of children, treatment of animals, pluralism, class/castes etc. varied greatly with time and place, but they were usually quite different from our modern sensibilities. Fantasy writers have more leeway, as they can construct worlds and societies that are different from history. But it's still unlikely that the attitudes held by characters in a different society are going to mirror ours in all, or even most respects.

This leads to some questions about both world building and characterization. How do you portray your world and character in a way that's plausible, internally consistent and different without alienating modern readers?

The answer is complex.

First of all, one should do meticulous homework. This is vital when writing in a real-world setting, but it's important for writers who creates fictional worlds too. One shouldn't rely on what "everyone" knows about a given time and place. Some conventional wisdom is wrong, and even carefully researched history often ignores the perspectives or contributions of marginalized people unless you really dig for them.

On a lighter note, many modern readers assume that Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter represents an accurate view of 19th century German morality regarding child rearing, but in fact, the stories were very tongue in cheek, and cutting children's thumbs off was no more acceptable then than it is now. Hoffmann was an interesting mix of qualities, in fact, with some attitudes that were very ahead of his time, and some that weren't.

Secondly, people living in a given place and time aren't monolithic. History tends to focus on averages and blur distinctions between groups and individuals. I've often wondered how historians (let alone pop culture) of the future might portray the attitudes and norms of Americans during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I can think of several social issues that are currently very much in contention. Presenting an "average" way everyone thinks about them is impossible, even for modern pollsters. Anyone who has been in a conversation with friends and family (let alone online) about the divisive, or even not-so-divisive, issues of the day knows this.

Results from 2010 Gallup Poll shows how divided modern people are on many issues. The gap between what people say they believe and how they actually behave may be even wider on some of these issues, at least.

 People hold a wide variety of views and these views are even sometimes inconsistent or self-contradictory. Societal baselines change over time, but that doesn't mean no one in the past overlapped with modern views. Imagine a hypothetical future where nearly everyone (except an occasional depraved weirdo) is vegetarian and it's illegal to spank one's kids. Will writers of historical fiction insist that it's unrealistic to portray any early 21st century Americans as being anti-spanking or as vegetarians simply because the average person living in our times eats meat and hits their kids? And even more tellingly, would they insist on presenting everyone who eats meat and practices corporal punishment as having the exact same approach to or attitude about their own behavior?

Thirdly, one must consider who you are writing your story for, or to put it another way, what the purpose of your story is.

--Is it simply to entertain the reader by transporting them to an "exotic," yet still relatable time and place, a setting that's foreign yet fun? This is often referred to as "escapist" fiction. Some readers of historical romance, or fantasy want to enter a fairy tale (and not one that resembles the original darker versions of fairy tales either). Writers of grittier or more "realistic" fiction may poo poo this, but I don't think it's necessarily wrong.

--Is it to indulge a power fantasy that one might have about living in a world where their kind of person has a level of autonomy, acceptance, and control they probably lacked in real history, or might even lack in the world today? Another kind of escapism, I suppose.

--Is it to subtly explore a different perspective or world view in a critical way (or in a way that shines a light on our own)?

--Is it to create a "what if" scenario, an alternative world where history unfolded differently because of the speculative story elements?

--Is it to give the reader a chance to see what it would have been like, possibly, to be an outlier in a historical setting (for instance, to be an abolitionist in the antebellum South or a pioneering feminist during the Early Modern Era)?

--Is it simply there to show the reader how things really were once upon a time (maybe so that they're damned glad they don't live in the story world)?

--Is it to immerse the reader in a different world view or set of sensibilities and do it so seamlessly that they internalize them for the duration of the story?

--Is it to create characters that the reader can like and relate to on a visceral level?

None of these reasons is necessarily wrong, and not all are mutually exclusive, but goals and target audience will determine how a writer approaches a story with characters who have sensibilities that might be repellent to most characters. The thing to keep in mind is that no approach is likely to appeal to all readers. Their own experiences in life, and who they are, will determine what they're comfortable reading.

I have more thoughts on this issue, but I think this is a good stopping place for today.