Friday, April 26, 2019

Lost Worlds

For the last couple of months, I’ve been working with fellow Five Directions Press author and New Books in Fantasy host Gabrielle Mathieu as she revises her latest novel, Girl of Fire, for publication. It’s a historical fantasy set on a planet other than our own—somewhat medieval, somewhat magical, but not directly connected to anything on Earth. In return, she’s been helping me with Song of the Shaman, due out next year.

One question we keep batting back and forth is where the boundary lies between too much and not enough information. But that question is really a subset of world building. How does an author convey the rules and substance of a world outside the reader’s experience? More specifically, how does one convey information without stopping the action cold?

Obviously, authors of science fiction and fantasy have to deal with world building. But so do historical novelists. By definition, a world that existed decades or centuries before we were born lies outside our experience. How do we make it real for ourselves, then communicate that reality to our readers?

We research, of course. We read documents and studies; we search the Internet for images; we visit museums or watch films and TV shows to get a sense of the physical objects associated with the period; we look for diaries and letters and, if we’re lucky and aren’t working on an era too far in the past, talk to people who lived then. We can’t expect to shed our modern perspectives entirely, but we can, and should, do our best to explore the differences between past approaches to life and present ones.

All fine and good. The difficulty lies in the doing. Lengthy descriptions deflect attention from the story, and as a general rule people don’t talk about things they take for granted (known among authors as the “You know, Bob,” problem—as in having a character say something like, “You know, Bob, that girl who grew up in our house—the daughter of Mom and Dad?—she’s our sister”). No, really? Who’d have guessed?

But if people don’t say things that seem self-evident to them, they do interact with their environments pretty much nonstop. And those actions and assumptions reveal a lot about how characters believe their world should work and therefore how they perceive its underlying rules. These assumptions inform even the most basic details of characters’ lives. And detail is the best way to convey them. Let’s take a simple example. 

A character picks up a cup and notices it’s empty. He looks around for something to fill it. What will he choose: wine, beer, milk, tea, cider from his own orchard? The choice reveals something personal about this character’s tastes, but also about his circumstances and values—whether he’s wealthy or poor, whether he lives on the land or not, the part of the world he calls home or the possibility of trade or even the time period, since tea and wine and cider weren’t always available everywhere. The drinking vessel, too, tells a tale: a crystal glass conveys a quite different message from a goblet chased with gold or a cup roughly formed from unfired clay.

Perhaps the cup is cracked. The character could try to fix it herself or summon a repair person or, moving up the social ladder, ring the bell to call someone else to summon the repair person. That person may race to respond to the summons, if it comes from a wealthy household known for its generosity, or shrug and dismiss it out of hand. After all, she’s worked for this person before and it didn’t go well. 

If she accepts the job, she must travel to the house—hut? castle? apartment? cottage?—by whatever means of transport characterizes that society. She may go quickly or slowly, motivated by urgency or reluctance, respect or disdain. She may believe she has no choice but to obey. She may jump at the chance to prove her skill. She may want to undercut the better-known or more senior artisan in town. Each motive has different consequences and reveals different assumptions about this character’s place in the larger society.

Characters will also have views about how the cup ended up empty or broken, which they can share with other characters or, if they don’t trust those around them or anticipate ridicule, keep to themselves. Careless servants? Mischievous house elves? Thirsty children? The interpretations say a lot without elaboration.

That’s just one routine element of life, but there are many. How often have you said, to yourself or someone else, the equivalent of “Oh, it would rain on my special day!” or “Of course all the traffic signals were red. I was running late!” Well, characters can do that too. Some may blame the weather, others their own sins; some call on God, whereas others perform spells or ride winged horses into spiritual realms. Still others favor logic and deride all statements of otherworldly intervention.

The mental explanations your creations provide or the dialogue they exchange reveal how they think: no detailed explanations needed. Ground a setting or an experience or even the weather in a character’s unique view of the world, and you can get a lot of information out in chunks so small and painless that readers won’t even notice them going down.

And when those options fail, you can always fall back on that old chestnut, the “fish out of water.” People inside a family, a group, or a society don’t ask basic questions about how it operates—although you can throw them a curve ball in the plot that will force them to re-examine what they think they know. But those from outside the sub-world—whether they are young and uninformed, elderly and forgetful, or accustomed to operating by different rules—must seek explanations for behavior that puzzles them if they are to succeed at their goals. And the people who have to deal with those newcomers will ask questions too, if only at the level of “why on earth didn’t you” [fill in the blank].
So break it up, make it personal, and above all, keep it relevant to your characters’ concerns of the moment. That’s how you get around the dreaded information dump and bring a lost world to life.
For an example of an author who handles this task particularly well, read Elsa Hart’s mystery series, set in early Qing China and discussed in my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction. It went up too late for a discussion in this week’s post, but check back next Friday to find out more.

Images: Khokhloma ware © 2009 Politkaner; Goblet © 2013 Jonathan Cardy; Clay cups © 2017 Sidheeq; Waterford crystal glass © 2008 TR001—all Creative Commons 3.0 or 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

And as I’ve mentioned before, if you have been my friend on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), that will be the main venue for my writing-related posts going forward. I’ve deactivated my Catriona Lesley account, so if you search for it, you will not see my profile. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and @NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.

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