adventures in dysthymia

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Showing

‘Show, don’t tell’ goes the oft-repeated writing advice. It would be good advice, I suppose, if it actually meant much of anything. Writing is telling, after all — storytelling. Movies show things.

What we are talking about, I would say, are two separate facets of writing: imagery and action. The first of these, imagery, is what one is likely to think of when we speak of ‘showing.’ Modern writing is rather big on the image, much more so than that of an earlier day, and the concrete image has become, perhaps, over-emphasized. This is true not only in fiction but also poetry (and song writing).

There can be a tendency to include too much concrete imagery in the attempt to make things more ‘real’ to the readers, to immerse them in the setting. Sometimes, it has the opposite effect — it pulls them away from the narrative, distracts from the story itself. It is a fine line and one which one learns to draw only from experience. I know I put in too little imagery in some of my early work; that was at least partly due to coming from a nonfiction background where one needed to impart information concisely.

As in poetry, a balance is necessary. Too much imagery overwhelms the reader and the plot; too little makes the writing flat and boring. I would suggest reading critically to see how this plays out in the work of other writers. Do they go too far one way or the other? Does the imagery they include actually have any reason to be there or is it nothing more than the author’s self-indulgence? Chekhov’s advice about showing the glint of moonlight on broken glass is all very well, if there is a reason for the glass to be broken.

Then there is action. To me, this is the more important — and more difficult — part of showing. The goal is to provide exposition through things happening, rather than static description. Don’t simply say the flowers are blooming, no matter how well one might describe them, no matter how many concrete details one might be able to throw in. Rather, describe a character’s reaction to them, how he or she notes their scent, their colors, what memories or thoughts they might bring up. Make it personal. Reveal things through interaction rather than observation.

This applies especially to characters. Let them show us who they are through their actions. That makes them more real than paragraphs of description every could. Think of how Becky Sharp was introduced in 'Vanity Fair.' The things she does in those first few pages of the novel draw a far better picture of her than mere description might.

Again, anything can be overdone. Sometimes straight description is fine, noting something and then getting on with the story. Indeed, the bulk of ones narrative might go that way, with imagery and action thrown in as the occasional accent. Too much of either can fatigue the reader. As for that matter, can too little. Change it up. Find the balance that works for you (and, of course, for your audience).

Find the balance that serves the story. Remember that the story comes first. All else serves the story, helps one tell it. Showing is a tool for telling, nothing more, so learn to use it as such, not an end in itself.

What the point might be of telling a story is, however, a completely different discussion. Some other day, perhaps.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Ethnicity in 'The Way of Wizardry'

Though I do not dwell on it, I describe my wizard and wizardess, Im and Na, in ‘The Ways of Wizardry’ as having dark skin and curling blond hair. Genetically, they and the people of their city Hirstel are essentially aboriginal Australians. The Tesrans, whose city and nation they seek, derive from the same stock, long separated. The blond hair thing does crop up among those of that genetic background and in the isolated city of Hirstel it had become universal.

The god Xido is not exactly of any ethnicity, being, after all, a god. He, too, I described as dark or as black. As are his pantheon’s primary worshipers, Xido is more-or-less Melanesian. Or, we might better say, he looks Melanesian — when he doesn’t turn into a crocodile. Although none of his people play a role in ‘Ways,’ they are know as the Bazu and are referred to as occasional visitors (and sometime pirates).

The Ildin are vaguely Mediterranean or Mid-Eastern. I see them as having a quite varied heritage, as do most populations in their part of the world. There is some Iranian (in the broadest sense) ethnicity involved but certainly others as well. The lighter-skinned ‘Charcha’ (who later become the Sharshites of my Donzalo books) are also a mixed lot but might include Greeks among their ancestors, along with many other groups.

All this stems from the idea that all human ancestors in that world came from other planes, the bulk of them from this world of ours. There are two ‘gates’ leading from ‘here’ to ‘there,’ one in the South Pacific — through which only boats are likely to pass — and the other somewhere in the vicinity of the Ural Mountains. This latter is likely to have admitted only one or two individuals at a time, over thousands of years, so we do not have any large-scale entry of one ethnic group or another there. In the Pacific, not quite so — a boat might carry several people and the Mora are recorded as having arrived in nine large canoes. However, passage would be a lot less frequent occurrence in the middle of the ocean!

In both instances, it requires a manifestation of physical power to pry the ways open, such as a large storm. Not everyone came in that way, of course; those were just the two easiest doors to the world. Some of that is explored in the novel.

This leaves only the Dwarfs. Well, we know what dwarfs are like, right? Mine are sort of that way and sort of not. From a genetic standpoint, they are somewhat diminutive descendants of the Neanderthals. So I described them as such; we have a fairly decent idea as to Neanderthal appearance these days, thanks to having their genome sequenced. Light skinned, some of them redheads, stocky, heavy brow, and every bit as bright as other humans. Or as stupid, sometimes.

So that is it. Of course, it is a big world and there are plenty of other populations elsewhere, developing in their own ways, sometimes mixing and merging, building cultures, borrowing ideas and languages from their neighbors. Just as in our own world.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Festival Murder Mystery

I must work up one idea or another for the mystery-set-at-a-folk-festival novel I’ve been planning to write for some time. Originally, I thought to set it at the Florida Folk Festival the year it was thick with smoke from forest fires (2001) but I folded that into my Cully Beach series, to appear as an element in the third book (probably to be titled ‘Smoke’). That works with the chronology of the series as well as its overall concept.

And I couldn’t really see a good way to work a murder into the events of that weekend! So I came up with another scenario, set at an old resort hosting a festival down in the southwest part of Florida. Lots of possibilities there and I came up with a number of variants on characters and crimes. But I ended up cannibalizing that setting into another novel (to be published under a pen name so I won’t talk about it here). It was just too attractive a creation to use for this. And there were, again, some problems wrapping to wrap a plot around it.

Now, I’m a little closer but still trying on different stories and settings. The story is going to revolve around a couple, one law enforcement, the other a musician and/or artist. Haven’t absolutely decided which is which! The guy will probably be of Florida ‘cracker’ background (though I’ve considered Cuban too), the woman mixed heritage, with hippie parents (probably craftspeople who will show up at some of the fests). And the setting of the first book (which is tentatively titled ‘Broken Strings’)? It will be a festival named ‘Strings at the Springs,’ but I have not quite decided where ‘Twin Springs,’ the venue, is located. Up near Gainesville, like Ginnie Springs, maybe? Or further south? I don’t want our protagonists living too far apart if they are going to become involved!

And, of course, there is the crime itself. I’m not going to attempt to baffle anyone. I don’t do convoluted, hard-to-solve mysteries. A break-in and robbery masked by the festival is most likely, but what is worth stealing there? I’ve also considered something hidden in the springs, but that could be retrieved anytime, couldn’t it? (But it’s a good place to dispose of a murder weapon!)

Oh well, I’ll keep thinking on it and something might pop up soon or it might take some time, and I’ll write other stuff first. I certainly have enough projects ready for my attention! I tend to look these over, hoping to come up with ideas; sometimes one will just stand up and say, “This is how it will go. Write me!” So I do. The others can wait their turn.

Count On Me, a song

Count On Me

I have ten fingers and ten toes,
so you can count on me!
Two arms, two legs, but just one nose,
yes, you can count on me!

Tally up each body part,
list them, put them on a chart;
just remember that my heart
always belongs to you!

I have two eyes to see your smile,
so you can count on me!
Two feet to walk that extra mile,
yes, you can count on me!

I’ve all my parts, I can attest,
and in this I have been blessed,
but that one heart in my chest
always belongs to you!

Stephen Brooke ©2018

A little song-thing. It would surely become tedious if I attempted to stretch the idea to more lines.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Origins

World-building — it is a part of all fantasy, all speculative fiction. In fact, all fiction, period. Every story is set somewhere, after all. But it is more obvious in fantasy and science fiction.

So where are the roots, the origins, of the worlds I have built? I was ever the sort as a kid to create scenarios for my friends. Or for myself. These borrowed from many sources and perhaps got a a bit supercharged when I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs! But I was never the sort to set my imaginary adventures in other folks worlds, though I was certainly influenced by Burroughs, Doyle, Tolkien, and loads of others.

I became moderately obsessed with prehistoric man fairly early. Neanderthals showed up in some of those scenarios of mine (and maybe ape men and varied ‘savages’). I had a thing for ancient India, too, for some reason. But none of those imaginings gelled into later world-building (though I know they influenced it).

The actual ‘birth’ of it all I can set to a couple years later, maybe when I was thirteen, fourteen — a little more sophisticated. It was essentially a shipwreck and castaway thing, a lifeboat to — where? A strange and different world. Not an alternate Earth thing, exactly, not yet, but more of a hidden world in the Burroughs tradition. I can honestly say that my six books in the Malvern and Mora series started there. I actually kept the map I had drawn up at the time, and adapted that.

But then there was the apocalyptic thing — post-nuclear war, maybe (I varied on the concept), and set pretty much where I lived in my teen years, southwest Florida. This one I did develop, and continued to develop, into a somewhat complete history. And, over time, it underwent fairly radical changes, the most important being that I moved it all out of our world. I created a universe of my own and messed around with it for a long time, without ever attempting to write much in the way of fiction based there. A few rather bad stories — I wasn’t ready yet.

Inevitably, the ‘castaway’ world was drawn into that one. All the fantasy (well, most of it) now draws from one cohesive world-building effort. I’ll just mention that there is also a fairly extensive fictional Florida I have created for my mainstream fiction; that required a sort of world-building of its own. My first novel, the YA ‘The Middle of Nowhere,’ is set in that Florida, as are my Cully Beach novels and a number of short stories.

But back to the fantasy. My first fantasy novel, ‘The Song of the Sword,’ was set in the world I had been building so long. More followed, three to finish the Donzalo’s Destiny sequence, those six novels that derived from the shipwreck scenario, and three more that fit into the millennia that lie between the two series. Loads more are planned, of course!

And ultimately, they do all go back to those two imagined worlds of a kid. I do have ideas for some more mainstream stories, down the line, that borrow a little from my fantasy universe, as well. There were certain ideas that either didn’t quite fit or would never be developed in a fantasy direction, but could work in our own world. I have lifted a certain character bodily out of the one world and set him in the other, to live a life as a spy and adventurer, through the history of the Twentieth Century. Still developing things, there.

None of this precludes creating and building new worlds. Not fantasy, almost certainly, but science fiction, as well as historical fiction. Or anything, really. And maybe I’ll borrow and cannibalize from older stuff or maybe build it all new. But it does all start with my bed serving as a lifeboat, heading off to an unknown land of fierce warriors and beautiful women. I’m thankful I finally reached it.