Saturday, 20 September 2014

On Worldbuilding - Guest Post by Lesley Smith, author of 'The Changing of the Sun'

In my previous post, some of you may recall me making reference to my friend and fellow author Lesley Smith, who publishes her debut novel, 'The Changing of the Sun' on 7 October 2014.  I'm thrilled to announce that Lesley has agreed to give away a paperback copy of her novel to one lucky reader of this blog, so if you'd like a copy, please send a message containing your email address to my Facebook page or my Twitter (a DM is fine in this instance) by the end of September.  One entry will be drawn at random from those received and the winner will be notified shortly after.

On Worldbuilding

My inner architect loves world building, it’s an ordered, logical process which pays off if you do it well.  If the foundations are strong, are balanced, it pays off later on.

The starting point for my whole trilogy was a solar storm.  Here on Earth we’ve had a few over the last couple of years and we know what they are and the damage they can do.  But how would an alien planet with a technologically-inferior society survive?  How would they even know what was coming … what if someone remembered seeing the event during a future time? What if someone the locals might think of as a deity decided to walk in a mortal skin to lend a hand?
I did my degree in theology and religious studies, with a year doing Classics as well.  I learned about other people’s faith even as I was finding my own and, I think, had my gender been different or I was born somewhere else, I would have become a child of the cloisters or a priest.  I went to Japan and was bowled away by the beauty of Shinto but also by the balancing of religions within their society, there’s a saying which says you’re Shinto when you’re born, Christian when you marry and Buddhist at death.  I’ve always liked that idea that you can be whatever you want to be without needing to hedge your bets or support one faith or another, each has its place within society and life.

My roots of Kashinai culture came from Japan: I visited temples in Kyoto, Shinto jinja in Sendai and Tokyo, a church in Takatsuki and the holy city of Tenri, founding place of a New Religious Movement called Tenrikyo. 

My first sight of the real Japan actually was on the bus from Narita. It was a simple torii gate and the melting pot of religions left an indelible mark on my soul: I went further into Kamigamo Shrine than even the Emperor of Japan, I listened to the yamatonokotoba, the ancient ritual words, walked in the womb of the earth under Kiyomizudera and, after a spontaneous invitation by a kindly young priest, watched a small child being named and presented to the tutelary kami.

Religion, faith and ritual, they will always find their way into my fiction.

So why did I make my seers, and my main protagonist, blind?  There are lots of blind seers in Classical mythology, characters like Tiresias or Odin, who lose their vision (either partially or completely) but gain supernatural knowledge.  It’s a trade off, in some ways, and while in Japan I discovered native shamanesses called itako (巫子): young women, usually blind, who could speak with spirits, who could act as barriers between the world we live in and the ones beyond.  They learned scriptures by rote, they led aestic lives and had positions of respect in their communities.  Now, the vestiges are left by miko, who still do sacred dances, the last shadows of their original roles as powerful religious leaders.

When I started writing Changing, I knew I wanted to make this idea of blind female seers, the Oracles of Aia, an important part of the story.  I knew the basics of the mythology and, while it’s briefly mentioned in Changing and the prequel, once upon an age before there were dozens of oracles, living amongst their own communities and guiding them independently. 

By the time of the novel, however, the Aian Order has become strictly institutionalised.  Validity means being tested, meant living with others in a tower away from those who they served, appearing only on the holy days at new year when the sisterhood would walk a prescribed route through the city.  The last oracle to refuse to come to the capital, to the city of the Disembodied Goddess, met an unpleasant fate because the current High Oracle can’t face the idea that, one day, she must pass the mantle on.

Changing is about stepping up when you want to run away, about speaking when everyone wants you to be silent.  The role of an oracle is never an easy path, there will always be people who either want to doubt or can’t face the truth, but if enough people work together and have faith, then they might just be able to save themselves from extinction.  The Kashinai made a leap of faith, most of them anyway, and it’s going to ripple down through their history and the second and third books in the trilogy.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Location, Location, Location

Picture two people having a conversation.  In this theoretical situation, you can see their lips move, but not hear what they are saying.  What are they talking about?  Is their mood upbeat, sombre, reflective?  How do you know?

Picture them at the top of a penthouse suite above a vast metropolis.  Not just anyone can afford to travel to big cities, and access to penthouse suites is generally reserved for those with the deepest pockets.  So, we immediately know something about our characters before we have heard them speak a word - possibly they are relatively wealthy, are here by accident, or are here as a result of nefarious design.

Now picture them walking through a tribal village on the fringes of a desert.  How are their mannerisms, their appearance, different in your mind from those in the first example?  Immediately we can see that the topic of their conversation is likely to be different from the characters in the first example, even though we can't hear what they are saying.

This example teaches us that setting in stories can be a powerful tool for a skilled author.  Want to write a romance?  You need a setting where romance is feasible to your readers.  There's a reason why Mills and Boon tend not to set their stories in dank catacombs or sewer systems.  If you are writing a noir detective novel, your gumshoe's office had better be a dingy office with heavy blinds (intense sunlight doesn't help capture the mood.)

So in much the same way that the first impression of a character can be defined by their appearance, their name or their actions (often all three), the first impression of the mood of your story is defined by the setting.  This gives you the chance to employ the reader's senses to pull them into your narrative.  A good writer can capture the autumnal shades of New England, stand besides you as you listen to the bond traders calling to one another on Wall Street, or make you wrinkle your nose at the smell of Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market.

Of course, many authors embrace their setting, creating entirely new worlds from scratch with a quick shift in their imagination.  Many readers will be familiar with the geography of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, or know that Rivendell is an Elven outpost in Tolkien's legendarium.  My friend Lesley Smith is set to shortly release the first book in a new fantasy series, 'The Changing of the Sun'.  The new worlds from her imagination feature their own unique calendar system complementary to Earth's, and necessitate a small band of heroes setting out across a desert in order to secure their survival from a forthcoming cataclysm.  In her novella, 'The Whispers in the Desert', the rawness of the desert bursts forth into lush cities built around water, and the characters feel natural in their environments.

Just setting an alien story on a alien world isn't enough to guarantee a devoted reader base.  The worlds we create must have their own logical consistency to be believable - unless the intention is to make them deliberately nonsensical, as is done to great effect in Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'.  Assuming that we wish readers to believe our setup, we must understand a few of the basic tenets of world building.  People unite into countries and develop their own shared sense of values.  Cities form for reasons - those of necessity, trade, religion or geopolitics.  This isn't to say that new authors should be afraid to create, but readers will be more inclined towards places that are logically consistent.  World building is a topic that deserves a longer post in its own right, and I may decide to explore this in more depth in future.

Writers who prefer to focus on characters may find it easier to use existing locations, and with good reason.  Modern romantic fiction (particularly that within the 'chick-lit' subgenre) tends to focus on character, and for that reason it makes sense to use an existing location that readers know or aspire to visit.  Popular locations for such books include Paris, city of light and love, London, with its long cultural history and New York, with the perpetual glitz and glamour that comes with being a regular fixture in Hollywood movies.  One need only mention the names of these cities and shopping, cocktails, high fashion and classy debauchery all spring instantly to mind.  For readers looking for a path less wandered, there are many exotic joys in writing set in Asia, Africa or South America.

You may not be from exotic locales or well-known places but you may still wish to set your story in a location that you know and love.  Literature has many examples of books that have made otherwise anonymous locations into world-famous destinations - probably the most famous is Victor Hugo's 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', which turned the humble cathedral on Île de la Cité into one of the most famous religious buildings in the world.  One of the central themes of the novel is that way that mankind passes ideas down the centuries through art and architecture, and in doing so, Hugo makes Notre Dame a character within the novel.

Setting, as the Hunchback makes clear to us, is about far more than the building, country or world your novel is set in.  Setting also gives us our sense of time, and can be used as a lens through which to view societal and cultural norms.  Much of the conflict in classic novels comes from characters with minority backgrounds who generate conflict simply by existing within these spaces - think Tom Robinson from 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.

We've seen ways to use locations to drive your stories, and even how you can you can use your stories to make somewhere close to your heart known to your readers.  We've also seen that setting isn't just a backdrop, it's a powerful tool for anchoring your characters in a particular place and time, simultaneously allowing us to explore their motivations and create the conflicts that drive the narrative.

Where will your next story be set?