The 4 W’s: Where

Note — hmm, just got an idea to make this a (sorta) series.  The Who, What, Where and Why of a story…I’ll have to think about that one a bit, but I kinda like the idea.

I finished writing at the brewery the other day, then got into a conversation with some of the regulars. Now, these regulars are people I have known for a long time. They know me pretty well, and they have no hesitation about asking questions. Sometimes they ask a lot of questions.

Now, usually, those questions are pretty funny…but sometimes they actually get into more serious, substantive areas. Like whether Cascade hops are evil, or debating the relative merits of malty versus hoppy pilsners…

You know, the important stuff.

Oh yeah…and sometimes writing comes up, too.

Keep in mind: these are the people who got me to admit that my characters talk to me. As you might imagine, that particular little nugget still gets a ton of mileage in the taproom…

Well, the other day, one of those friends asked me about settings. “You make shit up, right?” he asked.

“Well…uhh…basically…” I stammered, still coming back to earth after a writing session.

“Where the fuck’s it come from? The weird sci-fi shit, I mean. The places, the atmosphere.”

Good question, that.

John Scalzi still has my favorite sci-fi quote of all time, and it fits for this topic just as it does for so many others {I’m paraphrasing from memory, mind you}: “They say you should write what you know. I write what no one knows.”

So…settings. My writing tends to be very visual, tends to focus on the immediate snapshot of a place. More than that, the look & feel of a place tend to focus very much on the contrast* inherent in the setting: the contrast of light and dark especially, but also those social and economic and personal contrasts that mean so much to my writing. I love dissonance in my settings just as much as in my characters…

*Remember, one of my “outside” loves is photography…mostly travel and nature stuff, but I will tackle almost any topic through a camera. When I take pictures, I intentionally look for the contrast in light & shadow…and also in subject matter. Those impulses, and that “eye” I use, affects my imagination and my writing a great deal.

The biggest settings are obviously made up out of whole cloth: from settled planets to FTL starships to massive space stations. These are the “big ideas”, the conceptual frameworks that hold together the “real” places where scenes actually take place (a room, a bar, a plaza, etc…). These “big things” are influenced by reality, but mostly just in terms of the feelings I want them to evoke:

Dockside was inspired/influenced by places like Marseille and Long Beach and Boston. Working ports with gritty, dangerous areas close beside areas of wealth and privilege.

The destroyer that is the centerpiece of an old “trunk novel” of mine (that may see the light of day in a completely re-worked fashion) was inspired/influenced by the old WW2 Fletcher-class destroyers…and by modern US nuclear subs.

But those are the “big things”, those are not the things of everyday settings and scenes…the places that help define the feeling of a story.

The smaller and more intimate places where the scenes take place, the “real” settings…well, they are based on places I know, on places & things that have had a very real affect on me.

Dockside’s res-holds are those tight, crowded, loud neighborhoods you see in Hong Kong and Manila and Bangkok and other massive Asian cities. But, and this is a big but, they also have a huge dose of the crowding and crime, and the grinding poverty, of the Brazilian favelas, as well as the southern European migrant “camps”.

A handful of scenes I am currently writing are set in one of the grimmest and most depressing places I can come up with: a place based on the old Soviet-era, Stalinist apartment blocks you can still find in central and eastern Europe’s old industrial areas. I once took a walk through one of these behemoths just a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall…and, well, holy shit. Let’s just say, to a kid who grew up in Southern California, there was no place more alien…nor more unsettling.

From small, crowded izakaya in Tokyo, to beach front clubs in Spain…

From huge, luxurious mansions to tiny, filthy apartments that aspire to be called “slums”…

From corporate boardrooms to back-alley drug dens…

Pretty much every setting I create has at least an inspiration, if not a very real basis, in real world places I have experienced. And that experience, that reality, is important to me: every setting I use is intended to evoke certain emotions, and to communicate certain things about the characters, and the particular plot points, involved in that scene.

I could never hope to communicate the emotion of an overwhelming, monolithic concrete apartment block — and it’s depressing central expanse of a concrete courtyard — had I never stood in the middle of just such a place and experienced its reality.

All that being said…my friend was right: I make shit up. I make a lot of shit up. But — and this is the important but — even the stuff I make up is built around certain nuggets of reality. Every place, every setting, that I use has to have a feeling to it — has to have an honesty — in order to support and serve the tone of the scene itself.

And, yes, before you ask: the taproom at “my” brewery has made its own appearance…

Micro vs. Macro; or, It’s Not The Size Of The Lens, It’s What You Do With It

I’m thinkin’ about themes, and the subtextual messages we (well, most of us) try to communicate in our writing.

Well…more precisely, I’m working on the underlying themes for a new & totally unrelated project, and that got me to thinking…

Now, starting to conceive and develop a new project (however slowly) when you’re only halfway through your current one may not be the smartest thing in the world…but no one ever accused me of being smart. Honestly, at this point the important part is that the new project gives me different dynamics and pacing to use.  It also, it must be said, gives me the opportunity to play with some themes & ideas that have no place in Connor & Oz’s universe.

But…the question that kept coming up in the back of my mind as I worked was this: just how do you know when you reached that saturation point?  How do you know when enough is enough?

Okay, okay…so, even I know the answer to that one (with thanks to Julia Child for this): “when it is done.”

Part of the answer, I think, is just what are those themes you are trying to communicate. There is a certain amount of room & latitude for the small lens — for the personal — but far more for thoughts and insights through a bigger lens.

Literature in general, and science fiction in particular, have always been around to communicate far more than they say. Hell, for at least a century, sci-fi has been the go-to resource for social and political commentary on the problems and events of, err, “today”.

Don’t believe me? Read Brave New World, or The Forever War, or War With The Newts…hell, go back to Wells’s Eloi and Morlochs. Nope, no message there, no light shining on his contemporary society…

Ahem.

Sorry, about that — almost got started on a rant…and a reading list that might never have ended.

If anything, I would argue that today’s sci-fi and fantasy don’t have enough to say about the “big things”. Oh, there are all kinds of stories in the small-scale, but the number of books that criticize and argue — err, effectively criticize and argue — about the biggest things just isn’t anywhere near as large as it could be.

And…well…I’m part of the problem. My current project (Connor & Oz) is very much at the micro end of the scale. It is focused on the personal problems — and growth — of a troubled kid who is very much at the wrong end of that old truism that “shit rolls downhill”.

Thinking about that, and about Connor’s story as it evolves and grows, has me looking — looking very hard — at those bigger elements and threads that I’ve included in the world-building, but haven’t actually developed.  It’s got me thinking, at least a little bit, at the macro end of the scale.

I can’t complain about folks not tackling the “big picture” stuff if I won’t do it, can I?

Nope.

There are problems and challenges in the world today that just aren’t going away anytime soon — and certainly aren’t going away in the timeframe in which these stories take place (300-350ish years in the future). The trick and the challenge is to keep the focus tight and personal on my protagonist, but to use the end results and impacts of these issues on Connor to (hopefully) shine a light.

Oh, and before you ask: nope, the changes ain’t gonna make the tone any lighter. Repression & control, exploitation, elitism, the ever-present power of corruption and vice, and the willing heartlessness of “the many” that allows all that to prosper and grow…

Nope, not gonna get any lighter…but it will be fun*.

*And a hell of a lot of work.

I should probably add that Connor’s story was originally designed and intended to be purely personal, to be the reality of two kids who never had a chance. It is only lately that I’ve begun to think that, perhaps, looking at the universe through that small lens might not be enough…

I Never Did Listen Well

I’ve been told I shouldn’t do these, I shouldn’t post snippets.

“Don’t give your stuff away, even if it’s an initial draft.”  “Too many complications, just keep it to yourself.”

Screw it, I don’t care.  I write…that’s who I am.  I write so people can read.  I write to share characters and stories, to share emotion and thought.  Everything else is just noise.  So…a snippet:

The guitar was a part of Connor, body and soul. The words and the music even more so. All of his emotion, and all of his memory, had been pouring into his music for the better part of two hours.

Connor did not lay himself bare to strangers. Hell, Connor did not lay himself bare to himself. The memories of those that mattered were too sore, and too near, however, for such control when he was playing.

Into every word and note of his music went all of the pain and loss – and the guilt and shame – that bore the names and memories of his ghosts: of his dad, of Marie and Vin…and of Oz. Always of Oz.

A final line sung about the price always waiting to be paid and he bowed his head, listened to the diminishing notes of the music. The heat on that stage, and the effort of his performance, had almost as much sweat pouring from him as emotion. The small, packed bar echoed with the crowd’s cheering applause, but Connor couldn’t hear them. The memories, and the unshed tears, were too loud.

A few breaths, a few precious seconds to gather himself, and the spotlight faded.

Thank you, Spog. I wish you’d sung to me before.

How did you answer that?

You remembered, and you felt, that’s how.

He could barely raise his arm, so much energy had he spent. But then again, he didn’t need much energy to drain the tumbler of whiskey at his elbow. There might be no forgiveness in alcohol, but there was numbness. He was going to need an awful lot of numbness after the music.

But not for anything would he trade that music. Nor the memories. His friends – his family – were dead, but they would always live in his music…and in his soul. They were something he could hold to, something he needed very badly.

Another drink was pressed into his hand, a babble of voices talked to him. He looked around, he answered and he drank. But it all took place in a daze, his body responding and functioning by the purest instinct and habit.

That daze didn’t end until a voice spoke; a voice he did not expect.

“You made me cry tonight, Connor. You promised never to do that again.”

He looked up. He couldn’t not look up, as hard as it was to do. No, he wanted to run away and hide. He wanted very much to hide.

It was Nat.

Connor hadn’t felt like this since the night he’d held Oz’s dying body: helpless and hopeless and beyond words.

Talk to her, Spog. Say something, you crazy ikiryo.

You could tell me what to say, he thought back to his dead friend.

Oz’s only answer was the faintest of laughs, and the memory of warmth…and of love.

[Edit: cleaned up the paragraphs…copying stuff from my usual writing program into WordPress can be funky sometimes.]

Sinners 3 : Saints 0

Last Friday’s post got me to thinking a bit.  Specifically, it got me to thinking about the future…and about my vision of it.

unicorn-poop-cookiesThe first stories I wrote were intentionally light and easy, largely positive/optimistic.  While I never tried to paint the Star Trek land of puppies and rainbow-shitting-unicorns, I also glossed over a lot of err, reality.  An awful lot.

In what I’m writing now, that “glossing over” ain’t happening.  I am focusing, very intentionally, on the darker side of life.  Corruption, inequity, marginalization, exploitation…you know, all the shit Gene Roddenberry said would be gone!

Now, one thing to keep in mind: I am a cynic.  Possibly even a borderline pessimist, some would argue.  I’m gonna stick with calling myself a cynic.  And no, the glass being half-full or half-empty doesn’t matter.  I just want to know which bastard stole my water!!

Ahem.  Never mind.

The thing that helps me most when I imagine the future?  Studying the past.

History is full of highs and lows, and the future will be no different.  I don’t, however, see the future as totally bleak and hopeless.  Quite the opposite, actually.  But I do see the centuries ahead continuing all the sins of the present.  We very much will continue to visit on our children and grandchildren all of our sins.  Just as our parents and grandparents visited theirs upon us, and their parents upon them.  Call it the birthright from hell.

Humans as a species don’t change much, and certainly not quickly.  Aside from utopian dreams and naive idealism, there is no realistic situation where human nature itself will change.  If we haven’t changed all that much in the previous ten millennia, what makes anyone think things will be any different a few centuries from now?

The technology and locations and names have changed, but humans are still doing the same shit we did back when Ramses thought throwing together a big pile of bricks would be fun.  Julius Caesar could step onto the scene today and have to change nothing but the language…

We will, quite simply, always have peace and war, saints and sinners, winners and losers.  And, yes, we will always have drugs and booze and hookers, too.  Just like we will always have art and literature and music.  Not to go all gnostic on you, but there is always bad to counter the good.

I’ve written in the past about the first items in those pairs I mentioned above.  In Connor’s stories, and in his world, I am writing about the second ones.  I’ve mentioned before that it is more effective and more interesting, for both writer and story, to write about broken people than it is to deal with the perfect (here’s a link to that post), and that very much still holds true.

I could be writing about suicide and alienation and hopelessness from the perspective of a quiet, wealthy suburban kid…but those stories would lack the power and visceral, immediate reality of writing about a couple of street kids.

Besides, in all honesty, it’s just more fun to write about the sinners than the saints…

What Does Mordor Smell Like?

Trying to get a blog post jotted down early. There is zero chance of me actually sitting down to write one on Friday morning, so if I don’t do it now it ain’t getting done. Plus, I have to do my Palahniuk-hour-of-writing today…I have no real intention of actually writing or working*, so the blog post will have to do for now.

*Saying that, of course, means I will probably spend four or five hours writing furiously…

I know I said I was doing all the character shit in order to get ready to actually, you know, write but I got sidetracked yesterday by working on the setting. That’s no bad thing, by the way. Your setting has to be real to you: you have to be able to see it, to smell it, to feel it. If you can’t do that inside your own mind, what do you think is going to happen with your readers?

If your story takes place somewhere in the real world, that means you have to go there. You have to walk the streets/paths, smell the air, feel the pulse… One of those ghosts I have fluttering around is a story set in Prague. Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in Prague – I know that city very well. But if and when I start writing that story, I will have to return to Czech so I can re-immerse myself in the setting.

That is how you feel what you write, how you see and smell what your character is experiencing. If your setting isn’t real to you, it will be immediately apparent in your words: I once read a book set in medieval Samarkhand and it was very apparent the author had never been anywhere near the place. Hell, it read like his experience of the setting came from reading books and looking at pictures. That ruined the story for me.

On the flip side, I highly recommend you go read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. The city is very, very real in her books, and it is obvious just how much time she spent in Rome getting the feeling right.

Now, in my own stuff, I am not using “real” locations, I’m making shit up*. Hell, eight of the ten(ish) stories floating in the back of my mind involve making shit up. img_0019That doesn’t mean the setting can be cheap and pro forma. I refuse to write a story with a Star Trek setting of cardboard walls and styrofoam rocks. If it’s not real to me, it won’t be to anyone else either…

*One of the best comments ever on writing sci-fi came from John Scalzi: “They say write what you know. I write what no one knows.”

One trick I use is to base my characters’ surroundings on real world locales. Admittedly, that was kinda hard for dockside – how many places do you know where 60,000 people live crammed into cargo holds? – but that setting was very much influenced by the back alleys and tight spaces of certain real cities and countries.

For Silence I need a setting that emphasizes the tone and feeling I intend to carry through the story. Finding that right feeling is harder than you’d think*, but I finally have it nailed down. Cold, stark, desolate…an altogether uncomfortable world that exists only to make a small group of people very rich.

*In practical terms, by the time the prep work is done, I will have written something on the order of 10,000-12,000 words just on the physical details of the setting, and the same amount again on the cultural and linguistic side of things.

I love where this is leading me…mostly because Connor is gonna hate it. Hey, remember, it is his own fault: he made me write this damn story!

Different Languages, Different Visions

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela

Talking a bit (on Monday) about how I tried to keep the characters honest and likable, in spite of the dark themes, got me to thinking about setting and atmosphere. Especially the aspects of culture and language that are vital to how you illustrate your characters.

In Wrath I very intentionally chose a mix of languages and cultures for dockside that would create a sense of “other” and “alien” without resorting to, well, actual aliens. Using Japanese and Thai was a deliberate effort to distance the setting and characters from modern day America. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I actually speak Japanese (although I’m rusty as hell).

In Silence* things are more complicated. Considerably more complicated. This story is set on a planet, after all, not in the close confines of a dilapidated, aging station clinging to the very edge of a star system. And that planet, with its many, many times larger population (about 30 million), has three distinct cultural/linguistic groups with which I get to play. Did I forget to mention that I also have a passion and knack for languages and linguistics? Well, there, I just did. Oh yeah, and the slang glossary for this story is gonna be fucking huge.

*Screw it, I was gonna wait to reveal the new title until I was…you know…actually done, but I’ve mentioned it (in part) a few times now, so I might as well get it over with. The sequel is tentatively titled “The Silence That Never Comes”. The whats and whys of that title will have to wait, however, as I am just not in the mood to dive into all the symbolism and meaning behind it.

Now for the important question: why the hell am I making things so complicated? Wasn’t it hard enough to figure out what people were saying in Wrath, with just one (and a half, really) language for slang? Shou ga nai. That’s just the way it is, so deal with it.

I am a big believer that language and culture (and outlook) are inextricably linked. Language is fundamental to the human brain, and it helps to define everything. Oh yeah, and as a writer it is one hell of a tool to separate cultures/peoples in order to illustrate many of the things I want to emphasize and play up. Hey, at least I didn’t go full-Tolkien and make up my own damned languages. Never go full-Tolkien!img_0018

Silence is going to be very concerned with the differing “levels” of society, and the contrasts and similarities that define them. The language and culture that created each of those will play an important part in communicating their thought processes and cultural norms. As a small illustration: if you really want to understand the different dynamics of, say, France and Germany, you have to learn both French and German.  Trust me on that one; what each of those languages shows about how the cultures think and feel will open your eyes.

A final practical note: I speak a number of languages, but not nearly as many as I need to do what I want. Two of my new cultures I’ve got covered, but the third? Crap…now I have the added challenge of using (and “evolving”) the slang and cultural outlook of a language I don’t actually speak. And, no, Google Translate is not a legitimate option…