Worldbuilding Wednesday – brief deadline hiatus

Hey, lovely readers. I missed posting this week’s Worldbuilding Wednesday because I am on such a tight deadline that I have no brain for anything else until this draft gets done.

My apologies.

I have a lovely post on Tropes by Juliet McKenna. It will go up next week. In fact, I’m going to set it up and schedule it right now.

YA Scavenger Hunt (Spring 2016) + Hosting Erin Moulton + Giveaway

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Welcome to the YA Scavenger Hunt Spring 2016! This bi-annual event was first organized by author Colleen Houck as a way to give readers a chance to gain access to exclusive bonus material from their favorite authors and a chance to win some awesome prizes! The Spring 2016 YASH runs from March 29 (12PM PST) to April 3 (12PM PST).

Team PurpleI am part of the PURPLE TEAM. You can view the authors participating, all nine teams, and each team’s full list of prizes at the YASH main page.

Each author for each team will be posting their own clues (along with exclusive content) for the hunt. Below, you’ll notice I’ve hidden a SECRET NUMBER. Collect and add up the clues for each author on my team to enter to win our prize — a book from each author on the Purple Team!

YASH PURPLE TEAM SPRING 2016Once you’ve added up all the numbers, make sure you fill out the form here to officially qualify for the grand prize. Only entries that have the correct number will qualify.

YASH is open internationally, but anyone below the age of 18 should have a parent or guardian’s permission to enter. To be eligible for the grand prize, you must submit the completed entry form by APRIL 3, at noon Pacific Time.


Fireworks on Google Android 6.0.1Fireworks on Emoji One 2.1Fireworks on HTC Sense 7
I am hosting the amazing Erin E. Moulton for the YA Scavenger Hunt.
Fireworks on Google Android 6.0.1Fireworks on Emoji One 2.1Fireworks on HTC Sense 7

image6Erin is the author of Flutter (Penguin, 2011), Tracing Stars (Penguin, 2012), Chasing the Milky Way (Penguin, 2014) and Keepers of the Labyrinth (Penguin, 2015). She graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook. Check out her website for more information.

keepers When Lilith Bennett heads to Crete to track down the truth about her mother’s death, the last thing she expects is to be thrust into a deadly labyrinth and a quest of mythological proportions…

EXCLUSIVE CONTENT
Take a sneak peek into Erin’s journal from her Keepers of the Labyrinth research trip to Crete, Greece!
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And don’t forget to enter the contest for a chance to win a ton of books by me, Erin, and more! To enter, you need to know that my favorite number is 27, which is why it is also my secret number. Add up all the secret numbers of the authors on the Purple Team and you’ll have the secret code to enter for the grand prize!

 To keep going on your quest for the hunt, you need to check out the next author: Joe Beernink! Click here to continue the journey!

P.S. BONUS GIVEAWAY!

In addition to the YASH prize, I am doing my own giveaway. Enter below to win a COURT OF FIVES audiobook, narrated by the fabulous Georgia Dolenz. You have until April 3! Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Court of Fives_Elliott_CourtOfFives_HC-LOIn this imaginative escape into enthralling new lands, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family she can be whoever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best contenders. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between two Fives competitors–one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy–causes heads to turn. When Kal’s powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test her new friend’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.”

Rostam and his Horse Rakhsh (Shahnameh Reading Project 10)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh

Synopsis: Rostram chooses a horse that was foretold to be his.

TG: This was a nice, short episode to dig into, and I was most struck at what an important role the mare had. She protected her foal for his destiny by attacking anyone tried to take him like a lioness, and even though she doesn’t have a name, she was the first horse described in this section, and described beautifully.

Interesting to me that the horses are linked to lions and dragons — I’ve read some in the past about war horses, and they truly are vicious when trained for war.

My favorite part of this piece, though, was the line “the price of this horse is Iran itself.” The horse is quite literally priceless, but also costs a very important promise. I love the symbolism of this exchange.

I went looking for some images of Rakhsh, and they’re plentiful, but very interestingly I also discovered that Rakhsh is the name for an Iranian armoured truck.

Some of my favorite images of the horse Rakhsh:

Sleeping_Rustam (Image from the British Museum)

http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/story/shah/Rostam’s%20horse%20Rakhsh.jpg Here’s another painting from one of the illustrated versions of Shahnameh! This one on a webpage through the British Library. Interesting that the horse is painted in a pattern like a leopard or giraffe! that is not what I was imagining by the description of “saffron petals, mottled red and gold” but I can see how that’s near what they meant.

Rostam's horse Rakhsh

 

KE:

The price of this horse is Iran

This line is everything. This is why I read. This is why I write. If a story started off with this sequence it would be nice but it wouldn’t mean anything special; it wouldn’t have weight and resonance. It’s only after the build up of episodes, after the disasters of the war with Turan and the lack of a king, that it hits with all the power and majesty that I want from a story.

I actually read this section and the next one right after finishing the Turan/Iran war section because I was so filled with adrenalin and with all the “what happens next!” feels. We are really headed into the famous meat of the tale.

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Next week: Rostam and Kay Qobad

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan

Writing Women Characters into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas (Worldbuilding Wednesday 12)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

This week I have a 9000 word essay going up on Tor.com, so I’m linking to it as my world-building Wednesday post on the principle that 9000 words is a novelette and thus equals 2 or 3 or even 4 posts.

 

 

Ranavalo_Manjaka,_reine_de_Madagascar,_et_ses_heritiers_presomptifs

Here’s the introduction:

The cold equations of “realism,” some claim, suggest there is little scope for women taking an active and interesting role in epic stories set in fantasy worlds based in a pre-modern era. Women’s lives in the past were limited, constrained, and passive, they say. To include multiple female characters in dynamic roles is to be in thrall to quotas, anachronisms, Political Correctness, and the sad spectacle and dread hyenas of wish-fulfillment.

Is this true?

Let’s leave aside the argument that, in fantasy, if you’re going to include dragons you can also plausibly include women in a range of roles. That’s absolutely correct, although it veers uncomfortably close to equating women’s presence in epic narrative to that of mythical creatures. As an argument to include women it’s not even necessary.

Of course there are already many fascinating and memorable female characters in epic fantasy, with more being added every year. So, yes, write women—write people—however you want, with no limits and constraints.

More importantly, any cursory reading of scholarship published in the last fifty years uncovers a plethora of evidence revealing the complexity and diversity of women’s lives in past eras and across geographical and cultural regions.

I’m not suggesting the legal and political situation of women has been universally equal to that of men across world history, much less equivalent in every culture. And this essay is not meant to represent a comprehensive examination of women’s lives (or what it means to be called a woman) in the past, present, or cross-culturally. Far from it: This represents the merest fractional fragment of a starting point.

women writing GR-E

My goal is to crack open a few windows onto the incredible variety of lives lived in the past.  How can women characters fit in epic fantasy settings based on a quasi-historical past? How can their stories believably and interestingly intersect with and/or be part of a large canvas? You can model actual lives women lived, not tired clichés.

Here, mostly pulled at random out of books I have on my shelves, are examples that can inspire any writer to think about how women can be realistically portrayed in fantasy novels. One needn’t imitate these particular examples lock-step but rather see them as stepping stones into many different roles, large and small, that any character (of whatever gender) can play in a story.

 

You will find the rest at Tor.com.

 

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Next week: An introduction to tropes, by guest author Juliet E. McKenna.
Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives, Writing Outside Your Own Experience, Narrative Maps

Narrative Maps (Worldbuilding Wednesday 11)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

As readers and as writers we often rely on narrative maps to navigate the rhythms and structures of a story.

By a “narrative map” I don’t mean a map of where the character goes during the story, although that is one definition of a narrative map.

A narrative map can also be defined as the structure of a story. Aristotle wrote that tragedies have a three part structure: beginning, middle (complications), and end (resolution). This is a narrative map used so commonly in Western stories that readers and audience who are accustomed to it may have a hard time engaging with stories that don’t follow its basic outline. It is by no means the only narrative map in terms of internal structures. “Beads on a string”–an episodic structure–is another way of structuring story, although the individual episodes may (or may not) use an internal “three act” structure (as per Aristotle, above). People get used to these rhythms and feel their absence if they are lacking even though other story structures are just as legitimate.

A narrative map may also be defined as a familiar plot form or plot outline. There are seven basic plots, or maybe it is eight, or there is a universal monomyth that follows a known pattern, or folktales repeat similar patterns of departure, journey, and return. All of these can be true at the same time without being the only truth, without being universal. I’m a huge fan of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale as a way of thinking about structure, but it isn’t the only way. These general plot-outline theories are ways of comprehending and analyzing narrative and how it functions within the human psyche.

Another way to think about narrative maps is as landmarks. Most of us walk through familiar terrain every day as part of our ordinary lives. We navigate by means of landmarks we have become so accustomed to that we half forget they are there. Turn right at the gas station. Drive past the statue of Napoleon. The foothills rise to the east.

When it comes time to give directions we often use landmarks; they are easier to grasp and identify. In older times, before GPS systems, printed maps, and copious signage, people relied on landmarks and knew them well.

As readers we come to rely on landmarks as well. A happy ending or a tragic one, depending on the tone of the story. The expected point in the tale where the good guys suffer a terrible setback. When a couple meets cute, or meets in a hostile manner, we recognize the terrain: after a series of obstacles they will find a way to be together. Character types who will behave a certain way or fulfill specific roles within the story make us feel welcome and comfortable.

Readers may feel a story fails if it doesn’t meet their narrative expectations. If characters behave in ways that go against common tropes readers may feel cheated. They may read past problematic elements if expectations are otherwise met. Often problematic aspects of a narrative are part and parcel of its map, so embedded that the story doesn’t really function without them.

Do we contest biases that are embedded in the text if they are so familiar we have come to expect them? I’m reminded of this every time I see a children’s feature cartoon in which 80% of the voice actors are male, with a single lead female actor and one or two minor roles for women. I’m reminded of this every time I read a science fiction or fantasy novel or watch a tv show that features numerous prostitutes and strippers: space hookers, tavern wenches, brothels, rape towers, strip joints doubling as important meeting places for plot developments. It’s remarkable what a high percentage of women in the narrative universe are involved in sex work, and how often readers and viewers simply let it flow past without remark, because it is the landmark they expect. This comment is not about sex work, by the way, but rather about the common narrative expectation that women-as-characters are most important in terms of their sexual availability and attractiveness to men. Another example is the increasing narrative use of violence to solve problems rather than solutions like competence, negotiation, debate, bargaining, and so on. Recently my spouse and I watched a European film and he kept expecting violence to break out but it never did; he was watching the film as if it had been made in Hollywood, in which case random acts of violence would have been used to ramp up tension and to settle the conflict. It’s sobering to realize how violence-as-appropriate-solution has become embedded in our narrative map.

These narrative maps are the ground we walk on. As writers we can use familiar maps to guide people through our stories. We can strive to create narrative maps that incorporate familiar elements but let them branch off into new directions, or twist back in unexpected ways. It is difficult and perhaps impossible to write a story (within a larger cultural setting) that touches no known landmarks, offers no accustomed landscapes or understood patterns. But by examining context and thinking about what narrative maps we may be walking through without conscious thought, we can vary and complicate an otherwise standard story.

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Next week: Either a guest post by Juliet McKenna about tropes. Or an extremely long essay by me on writing women characters in epic fantasy without quotas. Which will it be? Check back next week!

Coming soon: More on tropes. Invisible context. Cultural ecology. Writing past gender defaults. And I know some of you are waiting for the next practical example.

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives, Writing Outside Your Own Experience

Podcast: Fantasy and Worldbuilding with Kate Elliott, Helen Lowe, and Courtney Schafer

Enjoy the latest podcast from The Skiffy and Fanty Show, in which Kate Elliott, Helen Lowe, and Courtney Schafer join Paul Weimer in a special discussion of what makes their fantasy novels (Black Wolves, Daughter of Blood, and Labyrinth of Flame respectively) tick, from worldbuilding, language, style and much more.

The Skiffy and Fanty Show is a Hugo-nominated podcast that covers anything and everything related to the science fiction and fantasy genres, with commentary on controversial topics and news in literature, film, and interviews with authors, scientists, and filmmakers. Their current theme is “Women and Non-Binary in SF/F.”

The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan (Shahnameh Reading Project 9)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan

Synopsis: Manuchehr dies, leaving his crown to Nozar, who briefly loses farr which leaves an opening for Persia’s enemies to attack. During the long campaing, Nozar dies and Persia is left in danger of being conquered.

battle shahnameh

TG: I confess this might be my favorite section so far! I love war fiction and descriptions of massive military campaigns, especially when I’m invested in the players, and that is all these pages were! And because we’re so many weeks into this reading, I’m getting better at keeping track of who is who and who I care about, and why.

I’ve loved Qaren ever since he captured the castle of Alans for Manuchehr by tricking his way in and massacring so many of his enemies he turned the surface of the sea “black as tar.” I was seriously worried he was going to die early in this war, especially after his poor brother died (ah the wise Qobad! Alas!) and he went for revenge against the much younger Barman and Afrasyab. But he made it, for now at least. He got to be getting pretty old, but I continue to be delighted by his prowess and that Zal, too, relies on him to lead the armies of Persia.

(It was interesting that since the good guys were centered around Qaren and Qubod this time, the bad guys also had a brother duo, one a powerful warrior and the other known for his wisdom – though Aghriras never seemed so wise to me. They didn’t trust each other the way Qaren and Qubod did, which was, of course, their downfall as brothers.)

There was a lot of advice in this section, too, starting with Manuchehr’s advice for his heir Nozar, on the fleeting nature of rulership and life. That was the theme throughout both the advice and the narrative itself, as several warriors speechified on how they belong to death, that this earth is no more than a “cradle for death.” It smacks of destiny, though that’s not how it’s really presented. More like the inevitability of death, especially for warriors who work for death, as death-makers.

It was fascinating that Nozar could not only lose his farr (in the typical way), but regain it so easily. There’s not much narrative dedicated to him getting it back. We just learn the nobles explained to him how he lost is, and voila, he has it back.

Also fascinating: that Zal does not become the king of all Persia. He clearly has the farr (I think Simorgh saw it in him?) and when he hears good news of battle he celebrates by giving money to the poor and giving away his own coat to the messenger. If that’s not farr I don’t know what is! But instead they go searching through all Feraydun’s direct descendants and end up with an 80 year old, who does great, but only for those 5 years, and now there is no king!

I was worried about Mehrab for a moment, there: was he truly playing both sides, or was he only putting Shamasas off by pretending to be on his side until he could warn Zal?

I hope that after Rostam joins the battle, Qaren gets a great death in the next part of the war. If Zal is bent and old, Qaren must be incredibly white-haired, as they’d say.

 

KE:  The constant discussions of death also intrigued me. Like you, I did not see this as a comment on destiny but rather more like the perspective in Ecclesiastes.

I too was worried about Mehrab because of his connection to Zahhak but so far he has proved steady and loyal, appropriately so for the grandfather of the future hero Rostam. But what a great reversal!

In fact this section more than any of the others had the narrative urgency of uncertainty. I really had no idea what was going to happen. I was prepared for anything and anyone to die, to be betrayed, to lose, or to win. The earlier sections have all had a sense of inevitability to them, in the sense that there wasn’t much sense of turning the pages to find out what happens next. You kind of know, or can guess, and it is more a matter of seeing how it plays out, or enjoying the descriptions, or being edified by speeches and erudite conversations between kings and councilors, and so on. So this was quite exciting as story, and actually the big plot feels as if it has scarcely begun. In a way I feel like everything that came up to now has been a prologue of a sorts leading up to the opening of this war.

I went back and re-read parts of the introduction to see if anything in these “legendary kings” section matches with known history but according to the intro the narrative doesn’t touch on any history that’s come down to us until a mention of the Achaemenid Dynasty right before Alexander is introduced. There is a suggestion that this king list could be from farther east of central Iran and thus part of a different regional tradition. This area of Central Asia has such a rich history and was such a center of scientific, literary, medical, and political civilization. It’s just fascinating. I wish I knew more about the history of Khorasan and Sogdiana and Bactria, this huge continental area that has always been a meeting point for cultures. I’ve read a bit but even so, much has been lost because of the successive waves of conquest and assimilation across the region.

Here an image of a Sogdian era wall painting from Afrasiab.

Sogdian paintings from Afrasiab

I haven’t even talked about the brothers! Aghriras is such an interesting character because he’s one of the rare men who is not a warrior. With everything and everyone up in the air at the end of the section, I’m quite excited to see what comes next.

 

Next week (March 18) is a BYE WEEK. We return on March 25 with Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan

 

Writing Outside Your Own Experience (Worldbuilding Wednesday 10)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

Is is possible to write outside one’s own experience?

I would say yes. In many ways the experience of writing stories is an exploration of the world outside our own self, and necessarily so lest we only write autobiographical fiction (which some do, and which is fine as a genre). A major part of all successful human interaction comes in learning how to anticipate and comprehend the behavior of people who are not us (that is, every person, even those we are closest to).

However, writing (and comprehending) outside one’s own experience does not happen in a vacuum. In reality we live embedded in cultural surroundings. We therefore absorb expectations and beliefs from our families, communities, larger linguistic and national cultures (not everyone lives in the USA!), and from popular culture renditions of what the world is supposedly like based on dominant economic and pop-culture models. These expectations and beliefs often reflect distorted and false views of communities that exist within or outside the dominant cultures.

In the wake of current and recent online discussions of appropriation, disrespectful or stereotypical representation of marginalized cultures and groups, and the publication of J.K. Rowling’s (fictional) history of North American magic, I wanted to say a few things about writing outside one’s own culture and/or group.

I’m not an expert and I have made and will continue to make mistakes. Own your mistakes. Learn from them. Listen to others more than you talk yourself.

Don’t take space from people whose voices are more marginalized than your own. Listen.

Act with the same respect you would wish to be shown. If you are going to research a culture that is not your own, listen to the voices from that culture. Don’t grab for received wisdom and “what everyone knows” and images most prevalent in popular culture, because these stereotypes are almost always harmful. Don’t only seek out outside views of the culture whose analysis is more comfortable for you, even if it is couched as scholarship.

Ask politely. Be humble. If people don’t have time for your questions, then retreat gracefully. If they do have time, pay them when that is possible or appropriate. Thank them. Don’t take people for granted. Really, truly listen to what people have to say. People willing to be honest with you are giving you a gift.

No culture is monolithic. Individuals within a culture do not hold the same views and beliefs. People also have multiple ways of understanding themselves, measured against and lived within different aspects of their lives. As in rhythm, the gaps between beats are as important as the beats. Listen to what they may not be willing to say to you.

Pay attention to the details, to the elements of daily life that are often derided as trivial or too unimportant for “important” fiction. I often find the best windows into other ways of living to be the day to day experiences of the world, and the habits, interactions, languages, and rhythms that characterize people’s lives. These spaces are where most life is lived.

Be aware that you will be hauling your own expectations and stereotypes down this path. I don’t believe we can fully rid ourselves of this baggage–the biases, prejudices, and errors-taught-as-fact–but we can try to be aware of where and what some of those assumptions are. Examine yourself. Each day we can try to build for ourselves a new understanding and new awareness that reaches past them. On an individual level we really can only dismantle our own personal wall of prejudice and ignorance one stone at a time. Be determined.

Imagine a reader from the group you are writing about reading your story. How might they react? Is that what you want? Who are you really writing for? Are you using a culture as a stage setting or as an exotic or dramatically harsh backdrop for a story that will almost certainly mostly be read by readers not from that culture or group who won’t know any of the nuances of that experience and will be satisfied with broad brushstrokes as well as oversimplified and probably offensive generalities? Do you want to build your entertaining story atop other people’s pain?

To quote Malinda Lo: Ask yourself why you want to do it.

Then ask yourself again.

Diversity is realism. Fiction offers every artist a vast canvas, measured only against the limits of each individual’s mind. There are good reasons to read and write widely, to let the imagination range, to challenge yourself, to follow the idea that has taken fire. Just be aware that there can be consequences that don’t devolve on you but on others. Be responsible. Pay attention.

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Next week maybe the long-promised post on Narrative Maps will finally appear. Stay tuned!

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny, The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives

Rostam, The Son of Zal-Dastan (Shahnameh Reading Project 8)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: Rostam, The Son of Zal-Dastan

Synopsis: Rudabeh nearly dies giving birth, but with the help of a wizard and the great bird Simorgh, Rostam is born to great acclaim.

TG:  At first I was very worried Rudabeh was going to die giving birth to Rostam, in some terrible metaphor about how he’s too great and strong for this earth, much less a human woman’s body. BUT not only did she survive, she named him, and named him after her own trial with death. She also is the first to acknowlege the farr in him (“she saw the signs of royal glory”). I was so glad she made it, and to see the return of Simorgh, who raised Zal, and that Sindokht was present, too. Even though the line of men is obviously the most important, the women are not only not erased, but they come back and are part of the family in a way that creates the future, too, not just holding the history.

But let’s talk about the doll baby for a moment: in any modern Western narrative that would be the beginning of a story in which the doll becomes Rostam’s ultimate weakness, or evil doppelganger – possessed by the devil or something. Part of me hopes that’s where it’s going (and that the doll baby will, in fact, return at all) but part of me thinks it’s just one more fascinating detail dropped in as part of the story, only there to highlight how great Rostam is and will be. Not foreshadowing or the promise of danger. We shall see!

Additionally, I’ve noticed before that when a great mass of people is brought together (usually an army) the descriptions say the ground grows black. In this section the lines are: “the earth turned the color of ebony beneath the cavalry’s hooves” and “the earth turned black as pitch.” I’m wondering what this is in reference to. The great shadow of a gathered army darkening the ground? That’s the best I can come up with.

KE:  Yes, how interesting and appropriate that although it was a male priest (who clearly also functions as a doctor) who performs the c-section, it was the Simorgh who saved Rudabeh’s life by explaining how to proceed. And how amazing to have a c-section described in a story written in the 10th century–in which the mother survives, too!
I loved a number of the poetic phrases present in this section:
I say pearls, but it was peace to the soul that she brought.
his face opened like a blossom
The doll struck me as intriguing (perhaps as odd but I am assuming if I knew more about Persian culture I would understand its antecedents better). Will it show up later? Because, like you, in a different story it would feature like the gun on the mantlepiece, needing to be deployed later at a dramatic moment.
So here’s a thing that interests me: Manuchehr clearly did not support the marriage between Zal and Rudabeh because of her dicey ancestry. And here Mehrab now confirms that Zahhak’s blood will, in its way, run true in him by turning him to do bad things (we assume). Yet Rostam also is a descendent of Zahhak. So how will this play out? And why on earth would Sam and Zal laugh at Mehrab, when we all know that laughing at someone usually just really pisses them off?
Oh, one last thing. I was very very interested that Rudabeh names Rostam in the same fashion so many children, especially sons, are named in the Bible. For example, when Sarah learned that God had promised Abraham that they would have a son, she laughed (because she was so old, past the age of child-bearing), the name Isaac (Yitzhak) means “he laughs” or “he will laugh.”
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Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh

The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives (Worldbuilding Wednesday 9)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

In a review of my short fiction collection, THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT, writer E. P. Beaumont identifies a worldbuilding aspect I really care about in terms of story, one I don’t necessarily see mentioned in fiction as often as I might wish.

Elliott’s great strength as a storyteller is in thinking about the labor that sustains her imagined worlds, and the dangers faced by those who do it.

I strongly believe we owe the continuity of our communities to the labor and experiences and of course literally the physical persons of so many unsung and trivialized people. Their lives are too often dismissed as “uninteresting” or “unimportant” even though they accomplish the mass of work out of which the rest are sustained.

The Big Narratives stand atop those lives. They can’t exist without them.

In my stories I do try to show labor and infrastructure (however it is handled within any given society) being performed by people as part of the background, and in some cases the foreground (Cold Fire’s boarding house sequence; Alain’s sojourn in the mines in The Gathering Storm).

Especially when it comes to writing about women I have grown increasingly more determined over the years to beware of the tendency to “elevate” a woman character’s story by allowing her to partake in a traditionally “male story.”

This is a short post so I’m not going to discuss here, today, the ways in which masculine and feminine roles differ between societies, much less how (in some societies and cultures) “male things” are deemed superior to “female things” because of which gender that “thing” is applied to rather than the thing itself. Nor am I going to discuss how important it is as you-the-writer to not universalize views of gender and society that are actually particular to your own society. I’m not saying don’t write however you want–please write whatever the hell you want–just realize, Horatio, that there are more things in heaven and earth than those contained in just one philosophy. Not everyone thinks about these things in the same way. In the past and in other cultures people had and have much more fluid views of gender than many of us have been taught.

In both my reading and my writing I enjoy flipping roles and subverting tropes. I adore women characters engaged in all the adventurous and political behavior that often characterizes the science fiction and fantasy stories I love. Of course women have historically engaged in many things people erroneously believe only men did “back in the day,” so writing a wide range of women characters participating in a wide range of activities really isn’t a stretch. Basically I’m all for writing people doing stuff without labeling the “stuff” as ineluctably “male” or “female” (which is one reason I applaud discussions that move away from gender–and binaries–in these contexts).

But over the years I have also had to caution myself not to diminish the lives so many women actually lived.

If the only way to make a woman character “important” is to allow her to be “like a man” or engage in “traditionally male” activities (as defined by the societal values of the setting), then we aren’t elevating women’s lives; we are just confirming and extending the prejudice that treats “traditional” women’s work and historical women’s experiences as lesser. If I can only write women as ‘free and powerful’ by freeing them from their ‘traditional’ roles, am I not then implicitly agreeing with unchallenged cultural assumptions that devalue women’s labor and women’s experience?

Conversely, if the only way to make certain work respectable or “equal” is to have a man engage in it (not just women), then we’re still saying we believe that women bring an inferior social position to everything they do. When, in Cold Steel, Cat cooks for Andevai but he never cooks for her, it can be seen as a hidebound stereotype perpetrated by the author, or it can be seen as a reflection of a cultural value in which cooking is a respected activity performed by women. If cooking only becomes valued if he also cooks for her, then where does that leave women?

It’s not that I think writers should be required or ought to include in their narrative the labor that sustains their worlds. But I do wish those who don’t think it matters would pause to ask themselves why they think that, and how it could be made to matter within the context of a story.

To a great extent narratives are culturally-agreed-upon maps whose landmarks readers and viewers of that culture are familiar with. Journeys that deviate from those maps sometimes do not succeed for readers not because the story isn’t good but simply because it doesn’t fit a stereotype, trope, or expectation.

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Next week: Writing Outside Your Own Experience

And after that a swim in the sea of tropes..

Previously: Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny