8 Sentence Sunday #5: The Aethercraft

For this week’s “8 Sentence Sunday,” I wanted to share one of Voi’s big, exciting moments in my WIP. It’s probably the most “dieselpunk-y” of my snippets so far.

As a pilot, Voi gets to fly a very experimental plane known as the “aethercraft” that was designed by her newest employer, Captain Neverri. After the basic mechanics of this craft are explained to Voi while they stand in a hangar, the captain reveals it to her for the first time.

This is what she sees.

The Snippet

No one spoke as Voi drew near to examine the machine.  She found herself holding her breath in reverence; surely Colonel Snipes was correct in comparing it to one of Ramboit’s controversial abstract masterpieces.

Its polished metallic body was exceptionally streamlined and much flatter than that of an ordinary plane.  A gentle bulge ran along the length of its almost nonexistent fuselage, which was smoothly riveted to conjoin with its swept-back wings so as to seem comprised entirely of wings.  Here, within this bulge, was also a cockpit enclosed by a clear canopy—perhaps an acrylic construct, Voi guessed, knowing the captain’s penchant for innovation.

Propped up low on its landing gear, the aerocraft reminded Voi of a slick, thin manta ray—like the ones her mother used to take her to see at the Aquiriem du Habour Tuccila in Tryste as a girl.  So sinuously crafted were the wings that Voi was very much left with the striking impression of a work of art…if she dared venture that far in her opinion of a metal aerocraft.

Well, the captain certainly has an eye for aesthetics.

What do you think?

What kind of aerocraft does it look like Voi is getting ready to fly? Can you tell some things that might be different in Voi’s world as compared to our own? Also, is there anything new you can infer about Voi’s character–her attitudes, beliefs and such? (I feel like I’m writing a lesson plan or something, haha.)

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Portraying Cultures & Peoples In Speculative Fiction

Normally I only post on Wednesdays (every other), but…I came across a blog from a writer who was new to me and she had a very interesting article that really got me thinking about some things.

I was actually doing a search on Twitter for other writers who are into the dieselpunk aesthetic and found Sophia Martin’s blog by happenstance.  Not long ago she wrote a post on dieselpunk–which, of course, I couldn’t resist.  Though, there’s a whole lot more packed into her post than explanations on what dieselpunk is.

Sophia asks some really thoughtful questions, I think, that could easily apply to all sub-genres of speculative fiction.  A substantial part of her post regards the problem of Orientalism, which she describes as “the representation of [non-western] cultures (most often Middle Eastern, but it’s just as valid for various Asian areas as well as any other part of the world where people are predominantly brown, in my opinion) through the filter of western ideas, desires, opinions, prejudices, etc.”  It has a negative connotation because these portrayals of non-western cultures tend to be heavily romanticized, prejudiced and/or grossly exaggerated.  Sophia also lists some examples of where this has been done, namely in movies.

I started writing up a response to share some of my thoughts, but then I realized it was practically going to be an entire blog post in itself, haha.  So instead of making a ginormous post over there, I decided to just blog about it here in a question-answer format.

Sophia Asks Writers:

“How do you portray a culture respectfully while simultaneously making it mysterious, sinister, and, in many cases, somehow mystical?”

I actually think this is part of the problem: (1) some writers try too hard at attempting to portray an entire culture rather than the individuals that contribute to it, and (2) they automatically settle for lumping an entire culture into “good” or “bad” categories.  The problem is that real-life cultures, like individuals, are way too complex for such simple treatment, so I don’t see why it should be any different in fiction that aims for at least some measure of verisimilitude.

When writers attempt to do these things, it tends to get especially hokey when they develop gross caricatures to represent cultures or focus too much on certain (often superficial) aspects of characters and take things too far—i.e. the writer harps on the same point over and over again in attempt to establish the “otherness” of someone/-thing: “He had an Italian nose…” (Which I think is a terribly lazy description, btw!)  Then the reader starts thinking: “Okay pal, you mentioned his nose several times in the first, second and third chapters.  How many more times do we need to be reminded of his ‘Italian’ features?  What is this obsession?!  We are capable of remembering details, you know.”

That kind of focus is too narrow, imo.  There should be many different aspects about a culture (cuisine, gestures, common verbal expressions used, customs, etc.) and yes, even an individual (quirks, speech pattern, thoughts, beliefs, etc.).  Of course, within the confines of a novel, you can’t list too many of these aspects or else it gets out of hand–yup, that elusive art/design principle of balance.  Still, these aspects should be given ample thought by the writer, and I think peppering–no, that implies superficiality–placing them into a story over time, preferably at different times, and refraining from putting too much focus on any of them in any given scene (unless a plot point hinges on them for some reason) would help alleviate this problem.

So how do you make a culture seem mysterious to a primarily western audience?  Study non-western cultures (especially rare ones)–which may include interviewing and interacting with people from those cultures–to inform your portrayal of said cultures in stories set in our world.  Or, in the case of secondary worlds, use that gained knowledge of other cultures as inspiration in order to derive new ones that will then, hopefully, seem “different” to your target audience.  (Easier said than done, right?)

Those are my amateur-writer thoughts, anyway…

(You know, author Kameron Hurley actually writes some really good posts that are related to this, namely her worldbuilding posts (see Worldbuilding 201: Normalizing the Absurd for an example).  I really think this lady knows what she’s doing and talking about when it comes to creating and successfully portraying unique cultures.)

Sophia Asks Writers:

“But how do you write about exotic lands without othering those people the main characters, who by nature of being dieselpunk characters will be westerners, will encounter there?”

Well initially, when anyone encounters something (or someone) that is unfamiliar to them then that something will automatically be “other” until they can get past the newness and are able to accept it as just another aspect of their reality–or, in the case of fiction, the story’s reality.

But that’s the whole appeal of adventures like in Indiana Jones or Star Wars and lots of other speculative stories.  Viewers/readers are always being introduced to new worlds, characters and cultures that may be very “other” to them, but hopefully, after having experienced the entire story through the eyes of the locals (characters), they’ve gained a better understanding of these things (assuming they’ve been accurately portrayed to begin with) as well as an appreciation for them–lessening the “otherness” and bringing about a sense of familiarity.

Also, I think you could still write a main dieselpunk character(s) who isn’t a westerner, per se, in the same way that there can be Asian-influenced steampunk, for example.  It’s just not typical to see here in the West.

And then there’s the potential for racism—which, if it’s an important part of a story… I mean it isn’t really bad to incorporate it if you’re going for some realism, but it’s different when it stems from a character rather than the author, if that makes sense…  But yeah, I won’t even get into that right now, haha.

In the end, I think all of this comes down to, well, (1) knowing what you’re talking about in the first place, (2) learning how much focus to put on any one thing in a story and (3) figuring out how to tastefully and artfully balance all the elements of your stories—kinda like art.  Though, like with art, measuring the success of the execution of these things is pretty subjective, so what works for you may not work for others and vice versa…

So yeah, those are my thoughts. 🙂

What Do You Think?

Have you encountered Orientalism in your writing projects, or seen it in fiction you’ve read/seen?  How can it/should it be addressed?

Setting Reflects Character Reflects Setting

Last week Sue Healy wrote a post about the connection between character and setting, which I thought was interesting.  To demonstrate how settings can reveal different aspects of people’s characters, she put up two chair portraits painted by Vincent Van Gogh portraying fellow artist Paul Gauguin and also himself then asked readers to imagine the character of the users of the chairs in the paintings based off their observations.  It makes for an interesting study.

I liken this to interior design (which was my field of study, for those who don’t know).  I think a good designer or decorator will have a knack for being able to study their clients and intuit what sort of things they like by using tools such as interviews or the observation of their existing spaces (if possible).  Emily Henderson is especially good at this, imo.  On her HGTV show Secrets From a Stylist she interviews her clients, in part, by placing an array of various objects before them and asking them to choose some.  She then asks them to explain why they chose those objects.  (Usually she is doing this with two people who live together and are trying to find a happy balance between their differing styles.)  Emily can then use this information to help her determine their unique style, which she even gives names for; some of her most recent style prescriptions have been titles like “Graphic Antique,” “Retro Polynesian Kitsch,” or “Untamed Modern Funk.”  (It never ceases to amaze me what crazy names she manages to come up with each week.)

Spaces As They Pertain to Characters

When it comes to writing about our characters and getting to know them, I think writers can take a similar approach.  In a way, we are the designers of not just our characters’ surroundings but their entire lives; what tremendous freedom (and responsibility)!  When getting to know your characters, I think it can be fun, and useful, to try different things like interviewing them (really) and seeing what kind of answers they give back.  Who knows, you might even discover some of their quirks in the process!  (As an example, by using another method mentioned below, I learned that my protagonist dislikes certain rigid, cold and metallic objects–which actually affects her character beyond issues of setting but also in her interactions with certain personality types.)

A Room with a View, by Alexei Butirskiy. I wonder what kind of person might live in this space?

Some questions to consider of your main character(s), especially, might be:

  • What kinds of things are in your bedroom?
  • What are some of your favorite objects in your house, and why?
  • What things don’t you like about your home?
  • Can you alter those things to better suit your tastes?
  • If you can, why haven’t you?

People in real life have the power to shape their surroundings; so do your characters.  Put another way, settings can reflect the character of their users.

One thing to keep in mind, and I’m sure you can relate to, is that sometimes people just get stuck with things they don’t like in their surroundings and are forced live with, given the circumstances; we can’t control everything.  (Therein lies an opportunity to create tension or conflict, however big or small.)  In this way, settings have the power to shape the habits and attitudes of their users, or characters.  (Maybe a homeowner or tenant has to jerk some of their doors in special ways for them to open during especially humid and/or hot parts of the year, when a material like wood can swell.)  In other words, characters can sometimes reflect or respond to certain aspects of their settings.

Setting reflects character reflects setting; it’s a two-way street!

If your story doesn’t actually ever take place in any of your character’s homes, however, you could always use this approach for the important public or nonresidential spaces in you story’s world.  Consider the function and look of the space but also the nature of the users.  You can ponder on or ask questions such as:

  • Who uses this space?
  • How do they use it and for what purpose?
  • Does the space work well for them?
  • If it doesn’t, how does this effect the user(s)?

Ever been to a public space that just bugs you for some reason, even if you’re not quite sure why that is?  (Maybe the lights are too bright or too dim, or the colors are too exciting for the purpose of that particular setting; maybe there isn’t really any color in the space to begin with and you find this depressing.  Perhaps it is even the people who maintain this space that bug you–poor customer service, sparsity of available personnel, etc.)  I bet you people who design spaces for a living think about these things all the time!  It’s their job to improve spaces, after all, and to do this they need to understand why they don’t work in the first place.

Problematic spaces can create obstacles and negative experiences.  In the story world this translates as possible sources for tension and conflict.  These can be used in just about any setting, provided there is a need for environmental conflict to begin with.  Otherwise it might not make sense to draw attention to the nonfunctional or negative features of a space.  Though, maybe your protagonist is rummaging around at nighttime looking for clues in an old attic and the lights aren’t always working properly or the structure itself is unsound.  You never know if or when that subfloor might give out!

The interviewing approach isn’t the only way to get these answers out of your characters.  You could also just take the  “discovery writing” approach and become the observer in the sense that you’re learning to “see” what it is your characters surround themselves with or are surrounded by.  (Personally, this is my preferred method because I feel I get more natural results.)  Stick ’em in a particular room or space and let them roam and idle about, just to see what details pop out at you most or come naturally to you.  You could get a potential scene, or at least a scene idea, out of this exercise.  I know I certainly have!  (Granted, this isn’t exactly observing, as you are continuously filling in details arbitrarily and “designing” the space as you go, but the focus is on learning to envision the spaces your characters use.)

Don’t Just Stop There!

Okay, so you’ve figured out your characters’ settings, but how do they matter in the actual story?  Designers can rely on tools such as paint, fabric and other materials as well as structural components to give life to their concepts and ideas; writers simply have words.  How, then, can the words you choose to describe your characters and their surroundings work to your advantage so that the setting becomes not just a prop but a tool for complementing, amplifying or providing contrast to your characters?  I have some more thoughts on this, so I’ll save them for next week.

How important is setting in relation to your characters?

Is it something you consciously consider as you write about them?  Also, what kinds of exercises have you done in the past to better get in touch with the settings in your stories?

Worldbuilding: Magic Systems

“Elemental Evolution” by bdotward.

This is part of an ongoing series about worldbuilding.

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I have to be honest: I am running out of steam with this series.  So today, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna be a little bit lazy.

If you’re writing fantasy, read this article by Brandon Sanderson, if you haven’t already.  (And here is a continuation of the concepts in that article.)  I think it’s the best I’ve come across on the topic of magic systems and will be basing the rest of this post on it.

What kind of magic system(s) have you worked with?

I’ve been experimenting with what Brandon Sanderson calls a “middle ground” magic system, with an emphasis on the soft side.  There are no fancy spells or long drawn-out rules, though there is consistency.  There is some explanation as to how it all works, but I generally want it to be a mystery to readers.  An elementalist can only use their powers if their element is present in their surroundings.  (And in the case of fire-wielders, they must use matches or lighters to produce and work with a flame until they’ve become advanced enough to make things “spontaneously combust.”)

However, because I’m using a “softer” system, I tend not to use magic to get my characters out of a tight fix, as Brandon’s article talks about.  If they win a battle it isn’t always because they were better elementalists.  It’s usually because they were smarter about the way they used their abilities and/or their environment or had some other skill which gave them an edge.  (They aren’t at all like your all-powerful Jedi Knights.  Well, with the exception of two secondary characters, but they’re just extreme freaks of nature–exceptional elementalists at their prime.)  Maybe they even had the element of surprise.

(The biggest problems in Element 7 cannot be solved with magic anyway because they are problems of human nature.  The ability of those few who are able to manipulate the elements is one of the greatest problems in the first place.  How do you live in a world beside people with such an ability?  Could it ever be safe?)

These are the kind of things I like to consider before I decide to use magic.

How about you?  If you are writing fantasy, what kind of magic system do you use?
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Worldbuilding: Languages

>This is part of an ongoing series about worldbuilding.

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I think this is something I’ve always played around with as a kid.  I used to create interesting-looking writing characters and put them to the English alphabet.  Never did a whole lot with them, though.  (I did actually create a new font type using Fontifier once.  That was a lot of fun.)

But really, languages go waaaaay deeper than characters and alphabets, as I’m sure you can appreciate.

Confession!

I have a confession to make: I am a horrible citizen of the world.  I’ll learn a new language, oh sure, but don’t count on me to actually use it on a daily basis or, heaven bid, speak it fluently.  I took about four years of Spanish in high school, but I don’t actually use it a whole lot now (except occassionally at work, when people are trying to figure out what stuff to buy; I can generally pick up what they’re talking about and make recommendations for them).

What a waste, right?  Guess I’m just your typical American in that way, trying to earn some college credits to make life easier down the road.  I was an honors student (still am–magna cum laude, yo!); the GPA game, inevitably, took precedence.

It’s just I’ve always been fascinated with people who can speak other languages; it’s a mystery to me.  Though I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to become one of those people (as stupid as this may sound) because then the mystery of it all would be gone.

Call it a silly form of idealism.

I don’t know.  I think some people have a gift for speaking in different tongues and others don’t.  (Excuses, right?)  But I don’t think those four years and AP credits were a complete waste of my time.  In fact, it wasn’t wasteful at all.

Building a Language (or two, or three, or…)

If you speak Spanish, then you already know that the syntax rules are a bit different from those in English.  For example, if you want to say “the fat cat” you wouldn’t literally say “the fat cat;” you’d say “the cat fat” (el gato gordo).  Not to mention, words in Spanish actually have gender associations, so if you wanted to say “the fat girl,” it wouldn’t be la chica gordo but instead la chica gorda.  (But don’t go spouting that one around!  “Ey, chica gorda–ven aquí!” *slap*)  Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, further complicating things.

Anyways, I always thought this was interesting.

These two rules about Spanish are just the little, easy things to catch on to.  We haven’t even brushed verb conjugation!  (Good lord.)  I can’t properly imagine how languages like Japanese or Arabic might work, but I bet it’d be fun to learn (if only out of curiosity).  In any case, it’s stuff like that which you can incorporate into your own make-believe languages to make them more life-like while sounding foreign to the English-speaker’s ear.

There is an entire world of languages out there from which to derive inspiration and to serve as models for any languages you decide to create.  Even if you haven’t taken lessons in another language, you can at least look up phonetics and phonology or listen to audio and video clips of people talking in tongues that are foreign to you.  Honestly, being a musician, a lot of times I just go by the general sound that I want a certain language to take on, and I only develop enough of it to get by.  (If I didn’t, I would have never gotten around to writing the first draft in the first place!)

To create a new language, I would recommend getting a feel for the sound of it first by brainstorming sound combinations for words (which don’t necessarily have to have meanings just yet but can later) then establish the alphabet and “rules” while developing a vocabulary that you think you’ll want to use in your story as you go along.  Of course, you can get really in depth with this, but you don’t have to because the rest, as they say, is just gravy.

An Example

So right now in Element 7 there are actually seven languages which are made reference to.  (And no, that was not an intentional allusion to the seven elements in the story, though now that I think about it… Hm, I could really do something with that!)  Anyhow, those languages are:

  1. Windi (which is just my name for English, because it wouldn’t really make sense to use “English” in a make-believe world);
  2. Borellian (I use this one a lot, actually; it’s modeled after Italian and French and was meant to be a bridge language between the ancient Nolians, who spoke Windi, and the Trysteese, who were displaced from their homeland into Nolian territory–which is why it’s somewhat similar to Windi, or English);
  3. Heinu (only loosely developed at this stage; somewhat modeled after Japanese);
  4. Keshema (kind of inspired by Arabic, maybe?  Very loosely developed);
  5. Urzu (um…couldn’t tell you what that’s modeled after, though it’s certainly not Urdu; I haven’t used it much, at this stage);
  6. Qyowen (a weird mixture of Chinese maybe and early Mesoamerican languages, I suppose; it’s considered an antiquated language, so I haven’t used it extensively); and finally
  7. Trysteese (which originally was going to be modeled off of Greek, though it turned out to be something else; also considered an antiquated language).

*breathes*

Is it crazy that I’ve listed that many languages for one novel?  I hope not.  It’s not like I’ve fully developed them all, either.  For most of them, I’ve just given them distinct names and only use a couple of words from each in my character’s dialogue.  For some, it’s mostly just been useful for coming up with city and region names.

But anyways, those are my languages.  I am by no means an expert in linguistics.  Not even close.  I just like making stuff up (or mixing stuff, as may be the case).

Here is a snapshot of an Excel table I’ve created using Holly Lisle’s Language Clinic suggestions.  It helps me keep track of all the words and rules I develop along the way for Borellian (though, honestly, I sometimes just wing the rules or follow the ones used in Spanish, heh):

(Click it to see it full-size!)

A few examples of sentences in Borellian might be:

  • Ah, e Dammissi Román–noittro piolotti nouva!  (“Ah, and Miss Román–our new pilot!”)
  • Nes no saene viti dammene, no?  (“She isn’t very lady-like, is she?”)
  • Ouele, nes saelét cala fete fer tad tempe.  (Literally, “Yes, she has been like that for all time,” or more simply, “Yes, she’s always been that way.”)

Random, I know.  Only the first one is in the story now.  And here’s what Trysteese would look like if it was written out:

Voi’s name in Trysteese, though it’s spelled the approximated “Foi” since the letter V doesn’t exist.

Why Use Languages At All?

I think the number one reason would be just to make any cultural differences between your characters stand out and feel more realistic–particularly if they are incumbent on the plot.

Language is important in my WIP because certain world events have happened to certain peoples, which makes them perceive things differently than their neighbors.  (Vague, I know.)  The idea of the seven elements is one of those things which is understood differently between cultures in Element 7, and this colors some of the world religions.  Also, the word emelesia, which is the condition Voi has, has its roots in both Borellian and its predecessor language Trysteese.  And since Voi is half-Borellian…

It’s all very connected.  Let’s just leave it at that.  (Element 7 has first and foremost been a labor of love, people.)

Also, you can have a bit of fun and create language tics which can effect people differently.  For example, urche, the medication Voi takes, is a Borellian word by origin and is pronounced “oor-keh” in that language, though Windi-speakers tend to pronounce it as “yerk.”  This naturally annoys some Borellians to no end, as the two sound nothing alike; it entirely loses its Borellian flavor when pronounced the Windi way.  So sometimes I have one of my Windi-speaking characters use “yerk” to deliberately piss off a particularly annoying Borellian character.  (Voi’s name is another one–“voy” versus “vwah.”)

A minor thing, but I use it to build character.

Hey, what do you know?  My posts are still looking long!

Okay, so tomorrow I’ll touch on magic systems.  (I know Brandon Sanderson wrote a good article on this somewhere…I’ll have to find that.)

Qui aba vú?  “What about you?”

Okay, so that’s not actually 100% original at all because qui actually means a few other things in French and other languages like Latin and Catalan (but I really, really love that word and kind of want people to be able to guess at the meaning anyway, so meh).  And according to Wiktionary, vu means “you” in Ido.  Though honestly, I didn’t know about that last one.  (I just looked it up, heh.)  But aba doesn’t appear to mean “about” in any language I have access to, so hurray for that, I suppose.

That’s another thing you can do is Goggle the words you think you’re inventing to see if they’ve already been invented.  It can be crushing. *sighs*

So how about you?  Have you tried your hand at creating a new language, or do you think it’s just a waste of time?
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