Monday, July 30, 2012

Camp NaNoWriMo

As any writer who is serious about their work knows, it isn't necessary to wait until November to have  a month of writing madness. You can it any time (or all the time) commit to any sane or insane writing schedule you like and pound out your next great work in a month (or for the really ambitious, there is Fast Draft! 5000 words a day and finished draft in 2 weeks. Yikes!)

Honestly, my writing system doesn't work very well for a NaNoWriMo or FastDraft, by the time I've got a 50,000 word draft, I've written at least 3 times that many words. But I love a challenge, work better under a deadline, and really like having other writers to cheer me on and that I can cheer on.

So I signed up for the August session of Camp NaNoWriMo. I'm about done with the prep work for Mongolian Steampunk and ready to get to some serious writing. With luck and some hard work, I'll have a solid start on it by the end of the month (even if I don't make the 50,000 word goal). I'll be posting updates from time to time on my progress.

Wish me luck!

Edit: I'll be using NaNoWriMo to expand My Mistress, instead of Mongolian Steampunk  - some research turned up a few major/minor issues in my world building that require going back to drawing board. So I'll be trying to get a finished first draft (expansion 4 at least) for My Mistress by the end of the month instead.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Steampunking Mongolia

How far does technology permeate a culture? How ubiquitous does it get? Okay, I know it sounds like a stupid question to more folks who, like me, live in America (land of the free and home of the iPad/Blackberry/Smartphone in every pocket). But take a look:

How would you steampunk this?
Original image by Chris Feser
There are people in Mongolia today getting around the steppes on motorbikes. And there are people today who are still riding in the same type of saddles their ancestors probably used when they decided Europe wasn't worth conquering.

Most of these people are not stupidly clinging to old traditions - they are sticking with what works. Because if you run out of gas in the middle of the steppe you are shit out of luck, but if your horse gets hungry you can probably find some grazing. And a wooden saddle is a lot easier to repair or replace than a fiberglass rig. When you get away from the cities and manufactories, and into the wilderness, going old school just tends to make sense. (Which does not in any way negate the value of having a satellite phone tucked away in your saddle bag.)

My Challenge: Steampunking Mongolia
All of which leads to my current conundrum. In my imaginary revised history of a powerful Mongolian Empire run on steam and full of punks, how far do I go?

Does Naran, warrior woman from  a traditional clan, have a steampunked saddle? (I can tell you right now that traditionalist or not, her father has a steam-driven self-erecting ger.) If she does have a steampunked saddle, how would you steam punk a saddle? If she doesn't, how would she react when her mechanically minded friend Ahn gives her one? And how would he steampunk a saddle?

As much as I do not want to be lumped in with the odious 'throw some gears on it' crowd, I'm really not sure what can changed except for aethetics in terms of steampunking a saddle. Metal frame, instead of wood, maybe. The saddle blanket and other leather-type stuff whose names I don't know (research question!) really have to stay leather or similar sturdy, flexible material, for a variety of reasons (starting with the well-being of the horse and rider).

So, should I steampunk this thing, and if so, how? Repeat the question for a wide variety of everyday items found throughout Mongolia and my re-imagined Yuan Dynasty. (Okay, the hair, as previously noted, is kind of a gimme - how could I resist steampunking that?)  And does it matter?

Why Setting and Silly Details Matter
Basic reality of fiction - this story could be told without any steampunk elements. It could be told in a world of pure fantasy, or science fiction or even set in the Revolutionary War with no speculative fiction at all. As Joseph Cambell and many others have noted - when you look at the barebones of a plot, most stories are variations on a handful of old classics.

But if the story could be told anywhere, why bother with steampunk, or fantasy, or anything at all. Why wrack my brain to find new, ingenious ways to do what's been done a hundred times before?

Silly little details create the experience. 

Seriously, go watch Hamlet - rent an old version, catch it at your local community theater, whatever. Now revisit your childhood and check out the Lion King. The basic plot is identical. I can sum them both up in one sentence. The king is killed by his brother, and the heir spends way to long having an emotional melt down about it, then decides to take revenge, and kills his uncle. That's it, the plot of Lion King and Hamlet in one sentence. Yet look at them - they are totally different experiences. Why? Because the characters are different, the setting is different, the side plots (I much prefer Timon and Pumba to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, don't you?) are immensely different.

I can tell a good story in 5 minutes and much less than a thousand words. Join me around a campfire sometime and we'll swap tales until the coals stop glowing. With a few words, and some classic stories, I can weave magic. And as wonderful as those stories are, they are just that: stories.

A novel is more than a story, it has a depth and dimension that no storytelling outside of an epic like the Iliad or Mahabharata attains. That depth, that dimension, that experience is created by those silly little details. By the way Timon and Pumba mix fart jokes and philosophy, by Hamlet's gut wrenching self examination. By the sweeping vistas of the African veldt or the grandeur of a Danish palace.

By airships and electrified arrows and steamcycles roaring along beside Mongolian ponies. By warrior women riding on traditional saddles against mechanical monsters and shamans summoning spirits to take sides in a battle between ancient cavalry and flying armadas.

So yeah, it does matter. It matters a lot. And I think Naran will be riding a traditional wooden and leather saddle when the armies meet. But, she is a traditional Mongol warrior woman. So don't be surprised if she has something subtle and devastating you would never expect tucked away somewhere. A girl's got to have her secrets, right?

Friday, July 20, 2012

My Voice

I was reading a blog post recently with advice for authors on building a blog to help promote their work. I read several blogs like this, and they usually have good, or at least interesting advice. It doesn't always apply to me. Sometimes it doesn't apply right now and I'll bookmark it for going back to when and as I am ready for it.

This particular blog post went a bit beyond not applying to me, though. What I took away from this post was 'You're doing it wrong!' And that bugs me enough that I'm going to talk about it.

How Important is

The blog post I'm talking about included the advice that you need to find your voice, and make sure that voice comes through consistently in all your writing. On the surface, that's good advice. We read authors whose voices we enjoy. And if you read my blog, enjoy my voice, and know you'll find the same enjoyable voice in my published work, you'll probably be a little more likely to buy that published work.

At least in theory, an authors voice is one of her most important commodities - her signature that is not just on the front page but imbued in every word she writes. Every author, in theory, has a unique voice and many faithful readers can identify a paragraph written by their favorite author whether or not the byline is present.

In general, voice is considered to be pretty damn important.

But what if you have more than one voice?

None of us is one dimensional. We are all complex beings who can't be easily pigeonholed, and I doubt finding a consistent voice is easy for any new author. Finding your voice, I expect, is rather like finding yourself - not a simple project.

However there is an assumption built into the idea of finding your voice. The assumption that each person has only one voice or should restrict themself to a single voice.

And here is where I am 'doing it wrong.' At least, if I listen to conventional wisdom. Luckily for me, I've never blindly followed the conventional wisdom yet, so I doubt I'll start now.

A Chameleon? Or a Variety Show?

When I was still going to college, I took a psychology course which talked about the way other people affect our behavior. In particular, I remember one class when the teacher explained how studies show that some people behave pretty much the same no matter where they are or who they are with. Other people are less consistent - their behavior changes depending on the circumstances.

We all do this to a certain extent - you probably dress differently for a day at work (if you have a 'regular job') than you do for going out with friends. A lot of people are more comfortable talking about their sex lives with friends then their mother. These are ways the vast majority of people change their behavior depending on where they are and who they are with.

By Florent HARDY, CC 3.0
Some people take it a step farther. Some people's behavior changes so much that they may seem to have a completely different personality depending on which group of friends they are hanging out with at the time. I don't know where it came from, but the term 'social chameleon' stuck in my head for people like this.

And I suppose you could say I'm one of them. At least, my old psych teacher probably would have said so. The thing is, from my perspective, I am always consistent with myself. Myself is just pretty complicated, and sometimes I'm crazy and silly and wild, sometimes I'm quiet and watch and listen and absorb what is going on. Sometimes I'll hold nothing back, other times I may be discrete in what I share and why. Is the quiet serenity I show when entering a forest any less 'me' than the giddy nut who has dice-throwing fights and stages random tickle ambushes on her partner? Is the fun loving mom any less me than the obsessive writer? Is the woman who when truly upset about something can curse like a truck driver more or less 'real' than the woman who almost never curses, because what's the point?

Who I am doesn't change depending on who I am with. I don't act differently to blend in with others the way a chameleon changes color to blend in with the forest. I just am different. I am multitude and I am one. I like having a complicated personality and being just as comfortable in a meditation group as I am squealing over some great piece of steampunk or dancing in the middle of the street, just because I like the music the busker on the corner is playing.

I'm not a social chameleon - I'm a walking, talking variety show. Stick around me long enough and you'll see just how varied it can get.  Yet each different 'segment' is all me - just a different side of me.

So how does a person who's theme song is Meredith Brook's "I'm a Bitch" find a consistent voice to express myself?

I don't.

My Voice is a Symphony

I'm not playing a single instrument here, I'm the entire band. My voice will change depending on my topic, my feelings, and my audience. Each time I write, I am adding a new note to the song. And it is the interplay of the different notes - the fact that my voice is not consistent, but is instead varying through the scale of who I am - that makes my voice mine.

My Voice:

In this strange woodland, the trail is a dark brown blaze against a riot of green. I'm sure there are leaves beneath the verdant growth, but they are hidden by vines, bushes, and saplings. If I were to step off the trail two feet I would not be able to see the trail, because it would be hidden by this overgrown jungle. Assuming I could step off the trail, without a machete to hack my way through the undergrowth. It is almost disturbing to know that if I stumbled back onto the trail I would recognize it immediately.

And western culture follows that pattern. Again, partly out of necessity. Would I prefer to be able to refer to the spirit-workers (yeah it's a shit term, I'm trying to avoid 'shaman' and IMO 'medicine man' is just as bad) of each Native American tribe, African tribe, Amazon tribe, etc, etc etc by their proper names? Yeah. Do I have any way to learn those proper names? At most, a handful. And no equivalent term exists in English. So with apologies, I will probably continue using the word 'shaman' (actually, spirit-worker is kinda growing on me) and if I meet anyone from those cultures I will tell them "I'm sorry, I don't know the word I should use. I'll be happy to use the word in your language if you can tell me what it is."

Marie’s eyes narrowed as she saw Paul and a strange woman laughing and holding hands outside the movie theater. She stormed up to them and slapped him. Hard.
“What the hell!” Hand to his face, he growled at her, “Marie, what is your fucking problem.”
“Fuck you,” she said, “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on. My sister is marrying you next week and you have the fucking balls to be out at the movies making kissy noises with someone else?”

Deep in the dark earth, all was still. Nothing moved, nothing lived. In the deep cavern, hidden from the world, there was silence.
Until a heart began to beat.. barely perceptible, it was still almost overwhelming. A subliminal thunder.
A moment later a new sound entered the hidden world. The quiet rush of breath filled the cavern.

Gearge didn’t know why Franj had insisted on the strange name for the ship, but since he didn’t much care, he went along with it.. Out of curiosity, he tried looking up the name in on the planetary ‘net. All he found was a song, from several centuries back, about baseball. Catchy thing, he’d caught himself whistling it several times that week. He might even hit one of the re-enactor events on their next leave, see if he could figure out what made baseball so wonderful.
Didn’t help him figure out what the crazy name Franj had come up with.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Things are Different Here

This Saturday, I went for a walk in the woods for the first time since moving to Memphis. It was an uncomfortable and bewildering experience. For the first time since moving here, I truly felt that I was in a strange place. A place I am not sure I belong.

For as long as I can remember, I've been at home among the trees. Instinctively, I was drawn to the woods. A tiny patch by the local high school was a favorite hide out as a child. When I got my license, I would drive out to state parks and spend hours walking the trails. The forests of North Jersey were more home than my parents house.

Yeah, you heard me. I know for a lot of people Jersey equals 'Jersey Shore', Atlantic City and the Turnpike. Let me show you my New Jersey.

Red Trail at the Tourne NJ by Steven Reynolds

Terrace Pond Trail Clearing by Steven Reynolds

Jockey Hollow, by Karendotcom127
These are the state parks and reservations that can be found throughout North Jersey. In the south, is the giant pine forest known as the Pine Barrens - an area bigger than Rhode Island. No matter what you see on TV, NJ is a beautiful area. And even growing up by Paramus (mall capital of the world) and off G.S. Parkway exit 63, I am still a child of Appalachia.

My biggest worry about moving to western Tennessee, was leaving the mountains and forests where I feel I truly belong. The move was necessary, the right thing for my family. And friends assured me that even if there were no mountains, there were forests a-plenty.

Saturday, I entered one of those forests. With the feeling of a weight lifting from my chest, I returned to the trees. I knew that in the green depths I would be welcome, and at peace. I knew it wasn't the woods of Appalachia, but it was a forest, and that, I thought, would be enough.

Instead I stepped into an new world.

In the forests I am familiar with, the trail and forest alike are carpeted with leaves. Trails are marked with small signs 'trail marks' - usually just a square of paint - on the trees. The trail marks aren't close together - you can usually only see one at any given time. If you walk a dozen paces off the trail, and lose sight of the next trail mark, you can cross the trail a dozen times looking for it, and never know. The trail is an invention of man, and except for the trail marks, no different from the rest of the forest floor.

In this strange woodland, the trail is a dark brown blaze against a riot of green. I'm sure there are leaves beneath the verdant growth, but they are hidden by vines, bushes, and saplings. If I were to step off the trail two feet I would not be able to see the trail, because it would be hidden by this overgrown jungle. Assuming I could step off the trail, without a machete to hack my way through the undergrowth. It is almost disturbing to know that if I stumbled back onto the trail I would recognize it immediately.

The mountainous parks and reservations I am used to are filled with granite outcroppings, low ridge lines, dried water courses that turn into raging streams in the spring melt. The underbrush is thin unless the forest has been disturbed - the wide branching trees block the light, greedily crowding out their lesser siblings.

Here, tall, narrow trees stretch upwards, with no branches or wide limbs. A sudden narrow burst of leaves at their top makes them look like tiny umbrellas with huge shafts. The trucks of these lithe giants often twist and turn, reminding me of dancers frozen in place. They do nothing to block the light from their small siblings, and even the greatest tree is surrounded by a burgeoning court of greenery. Often the trees themselves are overgrown with vines, forming shaggy monstrosities that fit perfectly in their madcap world.

I am used to silent woods. In the dry seasons, one is accompanied by the crackle of leaves beneath ones feet. Occasionally a bird will call, or a squirrel with disturb the underbrush before darting up a tree. Otherwise, all is quiet. It is a good place to hear God's whisper

This forest has a voice that never stops. Frogs sing in constant counterpoint to cicadas, whose drone rises and falls at unpredictable intervals. The bird calls, at least, are almost the same. But the constant hum of these woods is a pressure on my ears, a weight on my mind that disquiets me even while it sings of peace and life and growth.

I am welcome in these woods, among these trees. I feel, as I always have, the green things and those that live among them. Stranger that I am, they whisper that I belong here. That the paved and manicured lands in which I live are just a stopping place, and my true home is among the woodlands that call to my heart and soul.

Yet here, in the woods that call out welcome, I feel for the first time a stranger. I have been told, constantly, that things are different in the south. I felt no culture shock, no dislocation here. There were things that were different, but no more different than Pennsylvania is from Jersey, or both are from the City. Walking into the woods, the welcoming woods that whisper of home, for the first time I truly felt it - things are different here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Cultural What?

Following up on Friday's post with more thoughts inspired by the shit-fest over a writing on Steampunk shamans. I made this a separate post partly because Friday's post was already insanely long, and partly because here I'm stepping out of the realm of writing, and into the real world.


I have a problem with the way people use the term 'cultural assimilation'. It tends to be applied to a wide variety of practices, without much regard for how different they are. In my post Friday, I did the same thing, just calling everything that involved ideas and practices from one culture crossing into another cultural assimilation. That was the usage in the conversation that inspired my thoughts, and I wanted to stay within that dialogue, not sheer off into a tangent. That being done, here's the tangent.

I see what is generally called cultural assimilation actually being three different things.
  • If I adopt some aspect of another culture into my life and habits, if it changes my thoughts and the approach to life this is cultural assimilation.
  • If I seek to make a living off of copying another culture, to use its 'exoticness' as a way to get attention, of just to make myself look cool this is cultural exploitation.
  • If I try to dictate what is 'good' or 'bad' about another culture, or if I apply terminology from one culture to another, different culture this is cultural paternalism. 
Anthropologists are often guilty of cultural paternalism. The use of 'shaman' is a classic example of this. In a way, they don't have a choice. As scientists, they need to have a common terminology that they ccan use to discuss similar practices in a wide variety of different cultures. So they take a term that they understand, and that has a somewhat broad definition. Then they are able to ask questions like 'how is marriage among the ______ people of ________ different or similar to marriage among the ________ people of ________' Is it cool that they take terms from one culture and forcibly apply them to different cultures? No. But they are kinda stuck in a linguistic bind, since the other option is for all anthropologists to learn the languages of all the people they are studying, so they can use the words from each individual culture. And there are way to many languages in the world for that to be a realistic option. So yeah.

And western culture follows that pattern. Again, partly out of necessity. Would I prefer to be able to refer to the spirit-workers (yeah it's a shit term, I'm trying to avoid 'shaman' and IMO 'medicine man' is just as bad) of each Native American tribe, African tribe, Amazon tribe, etc, etc etc by their proper names? Yeah. Do I have any way to learn those proper names? At most, a handful. And no equivalent term exists in English. So with apologies, I will probably continue using the word 'shaman' (actually, spirit-worker is kinda growing on me) and if I meet anyone from those cultures I will tell them "I'm sorry, I don't know the word I should use. I'll be happy to use the word in your language if you can tell me what it is."

Actually, the whole shaman thing is small potatoes compared to some of problems anthropologists have causes with casually flinging words around. I don't mean to denigrate the upset it has caused people of other cultures, and you have every right to be upset with the word 'shaman' being applied, willy-nilly, to your traditions.

But you want an example of cultural paternalism that has caused real damage, take a look at the word 'marriage'. For the most part, when we talk about marriage in another culture, it's a translation. Whether you are talking China, India, Germany or Mexico, there is a word that means basically the same thing as the English word 'marriage'. So when we talk about people in Japan getting married, we know that in Japan they call it something different, but it's a similar idea of people making a commitment to live and raise children together (plus sex, right?).

Now, take a look at the Musou walking marriage. It sounds like a neat set up. Yet is has nothing to do with what any Native English speaker would define as marriage. Yet because anthropoligists have applied the word 'marriage' to some arrangement in every culture, regardless of how well it fits, we have people assuming that marriage, as the word is defined in English, exists in every culture, and making statements like this:

"In every society we find the following type of community: men and women committed to sharing their lives together, in the sort of community that would be naturally fulfilled by their conceiving, bearing, and raising children together. This is marriage. That such a community does exist in every society is indisputable."
by Patrick Lee
That's right, anthropologists being too lazy and culturally paternalistic to bother learning appropriate terms for the way different cultures organize their family structures when they don't include lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, enables idiots like this.

Let's step out of linguistics for a minute and look at politics. Am I the only one who thinks there is something fucked up in the US obsession with forcing democracy on the rest of the world. I got nothing against democracy. It's worked well for over 200 years here. But Great Britain has done pretty well with itself as a constitutional monarchy. As did Thailand for hundreds of years. I am just as much against tyrants and autocrats as any properly indoctrinated American - but come on people, democracy is not the only functioning form of government and forcing it on other cultures is just another form of the privileged, paternalistic attitude that has been pissing the whole world off for the past several decades.

Yeah, cultural paternalism usually sucks.

Why I don't have an issue with Cultural Assimilation

Okay, I think (hope) the problems with cultural exploitation should be obvious. Anytime you are using someone else for your own gain, it's just a shit thing to do. So I'm not going into a long spiel on that point.

But what about cultural assimilation?

I've looked at this from every angle I can think of, and if there is an aspect of privilege in my thinking I'm missing, feel free to whack me upside the head. Ultimately, I don't see the problem with this one.

I don't see a problem with American comic books and cartoons making their way to Japan, inspiring manga and anime, and they in turn making their way here and inspiring a generation of geeks.

I don't see an issue with fusion cuisine, or my friend who decided that Buddhism made more sense than any other religion. I don't think there is anything wrong with learning the folklore and mythos and beliefs of cultures from around the world and sharing the ones I find meaningful with others.

Cultural assimilation is the natural exchange of ideas. There is always a risk, when there is a power imbalance between two cultures, of ideas being forced on a culture or exploited to another cultures benefit. And it is important for those of us from western culture to be aware, to not inadvertently overstep the bounds of respect and mutual exchange.

And yet, the only way cultures grow is through learning new ideas, new ways. In and of itself, I don't think there is anything wrong with cultural assimilation. In the world we live in, I am entirely in favor of it. I would like to see my culture grow, and learn new ways. I hope we can learn from cultures around the world and change for the better.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Steampunk Shaman, Cultural Assimilation, and How Not to Be a Dick

While is hasn't been obvious in anything I've posted, there is going to be a shaman as a main character in that story. In an effort to avoid Mikado-fail*, I am doing as much research as I am able to on the traditions, practices and culture of the people of Mongolia and the Mongol Empires (which are not necessarily the same thing). Because I want to tell (as much as it is possible for any outsider) a story of Mongolia, not a Western story set in Mongolia. I may fail at this. I know that I will get some things wrong, because I am human, and because the only way to even begin to fully learn a culture is to go and live among it, which is not an option for me. But I am going to do my best.


Gilbert and Sullivan took a quintessentially English story and characters, put it in a pseudo-Japanese setting, and created Japanese sounding nonsense words for their characters to use. It is a fun play, but a good example of what not to do when using another culture for inspiration. To be fair, G&S probably did the best they could with the info available to them.
Some of my research has been less into Mongolia and more into steampunk. I love steampunk, but I'm new to it. I'm also not good at visualizing how something might look. So I take advantage of the amazing folks who have been doing steampunk for years before I knew steampunk existed, and use the creations and re-imaginings I find on the web as visual inspiration for how steampunk technology and ideas might fit in with Mongolian culture and esthetic.

Partly for this research, and partly just out of curiosity, I googled 'Steampunk Shaman' to see what re-imaginings others might have come up with.

Which is how I stumbled on the massive argument over steampunk, cultural appropriation and the word 'Shaman' that broke out this past April.

Here are a few links, for anyone interested in the original kerfluffle:

Which got me thinking in several different directions.

My Character

A few comments in that debate mention the origin of the word 'shaman' being a tribe in Siberia. A smaller number mention the Turgic tribe that anthropologists originally learned the word from. I say it that way because as far as I can find in my research, the languages of the tribes in that region were very similar, and the word 'shaman' was used in several if not all of them, rather like the word 'priest' can be found in America, England and Australia, and none of those countries has sole claim on the word.

I spent some time trying to track down what relationship, if any, there is between the tribes the word 'shaman' came from and the Mongols (which is difficult as 'Mongol' can apply both to a specific groups of tribes or all the tribes which united under Gengis [Chinggis] Khan to form the Mongol Empire). What I have found is that modern shamans in Mongolia and Siberia (and the distinction between the two is not hard and fast, especially culturally, however clear it may be nationally) refer to themselves as shamans, and reference shamans as being part of the Mongol armies, as well as having important diplomatic functions in the Mongol Empire.

So I am comfortable using the word 'shaman' for my character.  And yes, I did all this research before finding the above mentioned kerfluffle.

Cultural Assimilation and Writing Fiction

 I am going to try and address this topic and how it relates to fiction and fantasy writing. At the same time, I do recognize how offensive many people of other cultures find it when idiots from the culture that destroyed theirs go around cherry picking beliefs and traditions for whatever reason. There is, unfortunately, a difference between A) recognizing your privileged position, B) being aware of your privileged attitudes and C) avoiding being offensive. So, I have A down, I am working on B, and for C I need to rely on other people to tell me if I screw up. Please accept my intention to deal with this topic respectfully and feel free to point out any attitudes of privilege or offense that I am unaware of so I can bloody well learn from my mistakes.

Cultural assimilation is a fact of human existence. I'm not referring to the wholesale culture-stealing of Victorian and Edwardian England (which is an historical fact), but of the way cultural assimilation has been going on since the beginning of recorded history (actually, since before then, but I'll stick with historical examples). Anyone out there familiar with the fun Hanukkah story about he band of brothers who overthrew the evil overlords forbidding them to follow Jewish traditions? Here's a part of the story you probably hadn't heard - those evil overlords weren't the usual conquerors that had been overrunning the kingdom of Israel every other book of the Tanakh (that would be Old Testament for the goyim out there). The evil overlords in the story of Maccabeus were Jews who had assimilated Greek culture, and wanted to force everyone else to do the same.

Cultural assimilation in your living room.
The examples of this are endless.
  • Mongolian hairstyles becoming the fashion for the courtiers of Korea, 
  • Japan 'stealing' from China lock, tea and writing system. 
  • China adopting religion and culture from India. 
  • Half the words of the English language.
  • Fusion cuisine. 'Nuff said.
  • Christianity - beliefs from Judaism, holidays from pagans and the Catholic Mass came from the Romans
  • Speaking of Romans, how about Rome assimilating the gods of every frigging people they ever conquered
Personally, I think one of the craziest examples of 'cultural assimilation' ever would be the Vikings raiding monasteries for monks. They burned the monasteries (and their libraries) down and then sold the monks as slaves to Norse nobles who wanted to learn Christianity. (We're going to burn all your books, drag you home, and force you to teach us what was in those books. Right, that's perfectly rational.) On the other hand, we're talking humans. Someone, somewhere, has surely done something crazier. (And if you find it, please send me a link!)

The point here is not that cultural assimilation is necessarily good or bad. The point is that it can't be stopped. Until and unless all humanity has one single homogenous culture (and if you believe that is possible, I've got a great piece of lunar cubage to sell you - half off this week!) cultural assimilation will always happen. When people meet they exchange ideas, they change each other, and each becomes something different, something new. This is true on the scale of individuals, communities and cultures.

If you write fiction in any setting other than your hometown, and even if you don't, you will one day come across an idea, a tradition, a myth, a fashion, from another culture and go 'Oh! I love that. I wonder if I can use it in a story.' On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this. It is inspiration, it is creativity, and it is wonderful, but...

It is also part of someone's culture. A connection with their ancestors, a sacred trust, a reminder of their past, a treasured memory from their childhood. And I really hope that no one reading this blog has any desire to be a literary graverobber; a modern re-creator of Victorian mummy-opening parties, with no consideration or concern for the people we use for our entertainment.

I'm not saying you shouldn't use those inspirations and ideas. I am saying, be thoughtful. Be respectful. Try and understand how the idea fits with in its culture. Don't take sacred imagery and use it to create your villian. Don't make a mockery of a treasured myth. If you can, try and talk with someone from that culture.

I'm saying that other people, other cultures, and their beliefs and traditions don't exist for our entertainment and shouldn't be used as entertainment. If you want to use a tradition, an idea, a myth, use it because you think it is a wonderful idea that is worth sharing, use it because it touches you and changes you. Because you think it will touch others.

Seriously, there is nothing wrong with being inspired by another culture. Creativity is fed on new ideas. But by all that is holy remember that it is not your culture. Think of how someone from that culture might feel about your portrayal. Remember that while US and European artistic tradition has made mocking everything sacred something we expect, many other cultures do not share or appreciate that kind of attitude.  Hell many Americans get pretty twisted out of shape about other Americans mocking/misrepresenting/etc American culture. Now think about how people who have been shat on for years by Americans and Europeans will feel about having their culture misrepresented, mocked or desecrated? So don't do those things - be respectful.

Okay, ranting aside, some practicalities. How do we go about being respectful of the cultures that inspire us and whose ideas and traditions we want to include in our writing?

I don't claim to have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts:
  • Language - If my story wasn't set in Mongolia, I wouldn't be calling my character a shaman. I would use what ever term he would have called himself. It doesn't matter how similar you think the traditions of this tribe from North America are to that tribe from Africa - don't stick the names and terminology of one people onto another people.
  • Do your research - the factoids floating around the internet and pop culture are rarely reliable. Dig up historical sources, articles and information written by the people of that culture today. Check out Project Gutenberg. They have thousands of free files of historical source material.
  • Be true to the tradition - So you want to break away from the Norse-based fantasy world Tolkien popularized? Great, go for it. But remember that part of why what Tolkien did worked was that he knew the original myths and was true to them within the bounds of his creation. Did he take a lot of artistic license? Hell yeah. Are his elves and dwarves recognizable as the creatures of Norse traditions? Also hell yeah (or should I say Hel yeah?) 
  • Hel: Misused and ticked off about it since the first millenium
    • Want to explore the Leopard shapeshifters of Africa? Don't just apply lycanthropy to leopards, see what you can find in your local library systems myth and folklore sections. Those buggers are scary.
    • Like the old Val Kilmer movie "The Ghost and the Darkness"? Do your research, and you might find that the people who lived there thought the lions were Kings in lion shape trying to stop the invaders. (no, I don't know if the info on Wikipedia is accurate - would be very grateful to anyone who can confirm)
  •  Is there a myth that you think would make a wonderful fantasy novel? Find as many original sources for the myth as you can. Learn the way the myth varies between local cultures and tribes. If you are going to change it out of recognition - change the names and don't claim it is the same myth. If you are trying to stay true to the original, acknowledge your sources, keep it culturally appropriate.
Alright, this has run on long enough, so I'll wrap up here. If you're interested, Monday I'm going to be taking a look at cultural exploitation, and cultural paternalism; and how all of they are giving assimilation a bad rap.
In the mean time, do you have any thoughts on ways that ideas and traditions from other cultures can inspire and/or become part of the stories we tell without being offensive to the original culture? If you do, please share them in a comment.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Three Shorts for My Mistress

A great deal of the time I spend on Second Life, I am hanging out with some of the writer's groups doing prompt exercises. The group leader chooses a word, and we have 15-20 minutes (depending on the group) to write whatever we can, inspired by that word. Since I'm typically taking part in 2-3 prompt exercises a day, that makes for a lot of shorts. You can find some of them on my Tumblr, updated every weekday.

The last few days, at least half of the prompts have led to scenes from my work in progress "My Mistress." I don't know if any of these snapshots will make it into the final draft, but they were fun to write. For lack of better ideas, I thought I'd share a few of them with you.

Inspiration: Inchoate

Parlen sat on the floor, legs tucked neatly under his long skirt. "It's not going to work you know."

Jahleen, sprawled on the couch with am arm over her face, answered with a distracted "Hm?"

"The plan. It's not going to work."
Jahleen bolted upright, and started pulling her long hair back into a braid, "Explain."

"We're relying on Lord Oeloff doing what we want him to," a raised eyebrow.

Jahleen groaned, "You're right, damn and blast it. You are right." She focused on her hair for a few minutes. "I can't think of anyway to make the plan not rely on him. We need to catch him interfering with my household. Which means we need him to be interfering with my household. Since he never stops causing us problems, I think it's a safe enough risk."

Parlan didn't reply immediately. His hands automatically smoothed his skirts, his eyes narrowed. "We can't really rely on Mattin either. If Brit can't get him trained well enough-"

Jahleen sniffed, "Brit will manage. He has never failed me."

You've also never asked anything like this of him, Parlen thought. Aloud he said, "I might have some ideas to push Lord Oeloff down our path. Let me think about it."

Jahleen accepted that with a nod.

Inchoate: Just begun and so not fully formed or developed; rudimentary: "a still inchoate democracy". Rather like Jahleen's plans.

Inspiration: Control

Mattin pulled at the collar around his throat. The high neck of his shirt kept it from being obvious to others, but he knew it was there. Knew his life was no longer his own.

"It's a fair bargain," he thought again, "My life for my sister's."

Which didn't do anything to make him like the situation. Taking a deep breath, he step out of his sleeping closet to face the day.

To his surprise, he saw Brit had been about to knock on his door. "Good, you're awake. Something's come up," the older man said, "I need to ride into town. You're on your own today, so try not to get into trouble."

The old man jogged out of the room, His voice echoed back, calling for the Goon Squad.

Mattin stared after him.

A day to himself? A day where he could do whatever he wanted?

What would he do?

The thought brought him too his knees. Less than two weeks of having his every moment dictated, and already he was forgetting what it was like to be in control of himself and his own life.

What would it be like when he'd been here for years? Would he even remember what freedom was like? For long moments he could only kneel there, tears running down his face.

His belly rumbled.

He looked down at himself in surprise. Then laughing through his tears, he got to his feet. Cook would have breakfast ready soon. And at least he knew now who was really in control around here: his stomach.

The ending of this one took me by surprise. Not at all where I expected the scene to end up. At the same time, I have little patience for extended angst (which Mattin is extremely good at), so . Also, have you ever noticed that in real life major emotional scenes are never like they are in the movies? The moment always gets interrupted. Someone has to sneeze, or go to the bathroom, or 'butt burp' (as my kids would put it). Bodily functions just don't stop for our dramatic interludes, ya know?

Inspiration: Masquerade

Jahleen examined the room from behind her mask. Mattin was in his place, two paces behind her. Really, Brit had done a surprisingly good job on his training. To bad the material was inherently flawed. "She'll be here. Wait until the music starts, then allow yourself to become separated from me. They'll find you."

"Yes, Lady," Mattin murmured, "I'll follow the plan."


Sweeping out into the ballroom, knowing he would stay right behind her until it was time for the game to start, she smiled. A masque within a masque. It would be an interesting, and hopefully victorious, night.

Hopefully Jahleen isn't being overconfident, but given her discussion with Parlen... well, maybe she put the time Brit was training Mattin to good use and came up with a more complete plan.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Importance of High School English

I recently saw a tweet about a newly published werewolf book. I love werewolves, so I immediately went to check it out. The cover grabbed me immediately. It was totally different from any other werewolf cover I've seen. It said 'this is something different' - and when you've read every werewolf book you can get your hands on, something different is a big deal.
So, I was really excited when I opened the preview. Mentally checking the budget to figure out when I could squeeze out a few bucks to treat myself to a new (and different) werewolf book. The excitement died with the first sentence. By the end of the first paragraph all interest was gone. I figured that the author may have been playing for an unusual writing style for the prologue, and pushed through the first chapter. Then I closed Amazon and chalked it up to another self published author who needed to go back to high school English, or maybe just had a crappy English teacher (because, hey, there are way to many of them).

Three Keys to Good Composition (Courtesy of Mrs. Cs 9th grade English class)

There are three mistakes that I see self published authors doing over and over again that kills their work. Three rules of composition that are getting totally forgotten. These mistakes are actually easy to avoid, but can also become huge habits. And yeah, mistakes I made for years, until experience and a couple of patient freelance clients gave me refresher on stuff Mrs. C had already spent 9 months pounding into my head, once upon a time.

So, with out further ado, here are three basic rules of composition that make a huge difference in your writing (and are a deciding factor in whether or not I drop money on your book).

Over Use of 'to Be'
'Be' and its conjugations are very useful words. However, overuse of them gets boring quickly.

Anytime you have a sentence with either of these words, try and figure out a way to rework it so they aren't necessary. Sometimes they are necessary, and sometimes a sentence is stronger with 'to be' and its variants. But 'Is,' 'was' and other 'to be' variants are being verbs. Sentences with them are statements of existence, but telling a story is about things happening. Action, not existence, is what grabs the reader.

Ivan was stopped at the light. 
Ivan waited for the light to turn green.

Janice was playing with the other children.
Janice played with the other children.

Can you see the difference?

You will often see overuse of 'to be' confused with passive voice. Passive voice involved a lot more than use of 'to be' or its conjugations. Wikipedia actually has a good explanation of passive voice. Meljean Brooks has a great post about the difference between 'to be' and passive voice.

One Idea per Paragraph
God how my teachers pounded this into my head. I still struggle with it - Why should I use 3 or 4 sentences when one does just well?

Except... one doesn't do just as well. The best structure for a paragraph really is one idea and several sentences expanding on it. Take a look:

Alice got off the train. A steward handed her her bags. Looking around, she saw a strange woman holding a sign with her name on it. 'Thank must be the governess,' she thought.


Alice got of the train. Hesitantly she looked around trying to figure out where she should go. Nothing was familiar.

A steward handed out her bags. He was emptying the baggage car, but he paused a moment to ask if she needed anything. She silently shook her head and he went back to work.

Looking around, she saw a strange woman holding a sign with her name on it. The woman was severely dressed, in strict black with no hint of decoration or enhancement. Her eyes twinkled with merriment, a sharp contrast to her clothing, and her cheeks rosy.

'That must be the governess,' Alice thought. Taking a deep breath, and a tighter grip on her valise, Alice started walking towards the stranger. It was a relief to know she hadn't been forgotten.

The same four ideas, but when they are lumped together you have a recital of events. When each is given its own paragraph and supporting sentences, you have a scene. In this case, a far from perfect scene, but a scene.

Show, Don't Tell
Arthur got angry every time Blue talked about Barbara Sue, but he tried to stay calm.

Arthur felt his hands clenching and barely stopped himself from growling, he wanted to pound Blue into the mud for talking about Barbara Sue. Instead he took a deep breath and forced his hands to relax. 

Do you see what I'm getting at here? ;)

Show, don't tell is actually very similar to active voice. Both are about using words to create a sense of something happening.

Basically, go for visual imagery, or get inside the character's head so we know what they are thinking. Instead of stating was is happening, describe what is happening.

Obviously, there is a lot more than this to writing a novel (or short, or flash, or...); there is structure, plot, characters, theme, phrasing, dialogue, this list goes on a while. Unfortunately, you can have the most amazing plot, the best characters, as many superlatives as you can imagine, but if your writing isn't good enough to get your reader through the first chapter, what you have is a draft.

Writing Challenge:
Take a look at your current work in progress. Read the first three paragraphs and see if they follow these three rules of composition. If they do, that's great! The rest of your writing probably does too. If it doesn't, rewrite them following these three rules, and post a comment about the difference it makes.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Romance and Rape Culture

I made a decision last month that I am not happy with. It is the right decision, but I wish I didn't have to make it.

I will no longer be buying, or reading, books from my favorite romance author, Nora Roberts.

I have been a fan of Ms Roberts since I was in high school. Her characters are well developed, her worlds interesting, and her plots well written, if often unoriginal (hey, it's romance, there is only so much you can do). But there has been part of Ms Roberts' stories that I have been increasingly uncomfortable with.

Man and woman, in a romantic setting. Both are clearly attracted to the other. The man kisses the woman. She responds, hesitantly. He begins to fondle her. She pulls away, tells him to stop. He tells her that she wants him, that if she'll just accept and admit her feelings, everything will be perfect. She is hesitant, is attracted, but still wants him to stop. He kisses her again, fondling her breasts, and overwhelming her with sensation. She melts in his arms, and they have passionate mind-breaking sex.

Does any one else see the problem here?

I don't blame you if you don't. When I first heard the term 'rape culture' I thought it was ridiculous. A bunch of people making mountains out of molehills. It's a little thing, right? Just a scene in a romance novel. What's the big deal?

Here's the big deal: she said no, he didn't stop, and this is being presented as the way romance is supposed to be.

Things that are wrong and bad and shouldn't happen in real life show up in fiction all the time. And you know what? 99% of the time, it's presented as something that is wrong and bad and shouldn't happen in real life. Harry Potter's Aunt and Uncle are abusive. The way they treat him is wrong. And JK Rowling showed us that.

Ms Roberts' heroes don't listen when her heroines say no - and that's good! Because if they stopped when they were told no the women would never accept their sexuality and live happily ever after. So women, it's okay when a man doesn't stop - he's doing it for your own good.

Personally, I'd have told the shithead to go to hell.

But it gets worse.

Just because a woman is attracted to a man doesn't mean that she will want to have sex with him. Just because she wants to have sex with them, doesn't mean she may not have good reasons to not to have sex with him anyway.

So here's the next fuckedup part of our scene.

Woman knows XYZ and knows that because of XYZ she should not get involved with man. Man does not take no for an answer, and overwhelms her with sensation, causing her to melt in his arms. They have passionate mind breaking sex. Later, man learns about XYZ. Man is angry with woman for having sex with him even though XYZ. Woman feels shame and guilt for deceiving/lying to/leading man on when she knew about XYZ.

So, man ignores woman saying no, because she is clearly attracted to him so it's okay to ignore her not wanting to have sex. Then finds out the reason woman didn't want to have sex, and both of them blame the woman for 'betraying' the man who refused to take no for an answer.

Are you seeing the levels of wrong here?

Now, to be fair, these kinds of things don't happen in all of Ms Roberts' books. She has some very strong heroines, and I love Eve Dallas (that woman knows how to kick ass). But these kinds of scenes do happen far to often. Sometimes they happen with the genders reversed which is just as bad.

This is rape culture. And I'm not naive enough to believe that scenes like this aren't being written by almost every romance writer out there. But I'm done reading them. I'm done borrowing them from the library. I'm just done.

But Being Overpowered is Sexy! (Or what Consent Culture looks like)
This kind of thing usually justified by the idea that woman want to be overpowered, want a man to force them to admit their feelings. That women want a man to overwhelm them and take away their ability to choose.

You know what? That does happen. There are women (and men, and non-gender binary folks) who like being overpowered, overwhelmed, taken, or however you want to phrase it. There is nothing wrong with that.

Over 15 years ago, I read a book that book that belonged to my father, a mix of corporate thriller and romance that involved the heiress to a huge corporation and a horse trainer. It was called 'The Gift', and if anyone can tell me where to find it or who the author was, I will be thoroughly grateful.

The first time they have sex, before they even kiss, he ask hers what she wants. She tells him that she wants him to take control, wants him to overpower her. He does. They have passionate, mind blowing sex.

Now that is sexy. And that's consent culture.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Virtual Writer's World

Short post today, but I wanted to take a minute to share some info on the Virtual Writer's World

Virtual Writer's World is an online writer's community that helps writers connect and grow over social media and other online outlets. They are active on Twitter, Facebook and Second Life, running daily writing activities like the the Writer's Dash, Word Scrimage, Open Mics and workshops. They host small writers competitions (vote on June's Competitive Dash) and publish a small ezine writers can submit fiction, poetry and non-fiction for.

Writing can be a solitary activity, and just taking part in the twice daily Writer's Dash, sharing the results and discussing writing with other writers, has made a huge difference in my focus and commitment to my writing.

If you are looking for a way to connect with other writers, I highly suggest you check them out.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Dreams and Nightmares (and Brit)

"A dream within a dream."
-The Princess Bride

Writing is, I think, putting a dream on paper (or screen). It's taking the stuff of visions and nightmares and random neuron firings that wake us up going 'OMG!' and making something the whole world can share and go 'OMG' with us.

Most of my best stories have come from dreams of one sort or another. And I have a few 'big fish stories' of waking up with my mind full of this dream that was beyond amazing, trying to hold on to the memory so I could write it down, and having it get away.

But if the story is the dream, than the process of creating, fleshing out, writing the story is another dream. The dream of our dream, if you will. I dream of sharing my dreams, of turning them into masterpieces of word and meaning.

Unfortunately, this dream frequently turns into a nightmare! Making the pieces of a story stand forth to be clearly seen and written as a coherent whole, resembles taking a handful of cotton candy and rearranging it into straight, even rows. Gah!

After years of ending up with cotton candy on my shirt, in my hair, all over my hands, and pretty much everywhere except the neat rows I was going for, I finally (and partly by luck) discovered some tools that have made the process of writing so much easier there are no words. If you are one of those lucky bastards and bitches who can turn your ideas into stories without major prep work, my hat goes off to you. I, apparently, am not.

Having discovered some great writing tools, it turns out I am having a lot of fun with them - finally, writing a story is not just a masochistic exercise in obsession, but something I am really enjoying.

The other day I was experimenting with the great Character Chart from Filling it out, I discovered something fun and kinda cute about one of my fave characters:

I know you have sausage.
Mattin had been looking all over the manor for Brit. He finally found the older man in one of the back corridors, crouched in a corner. 
Brit whirled around, eyes wide. A black kitten poked it's head around his boot.
"Mattin... I, ah..." Brit stood up, stuffing a piece of sting in his pocket. "You needed something?"
The kitten tried to jump for the dangling tail of the string. Brit pushed it away. "Pest, get out of here!"
"I thought you didn't like cats?"
Brit started, "I didn't... don't... can't stand the vermin." Brit strode off down the corridor, "What did you need."
Mattin shook his head, watching the persistent cat try and pounce on Brit's boot.
"I, that is, Mistress Jahleen is looking for you."
Brit nodded, and turned towards the Mistress' rooms. Just outside, he stopped to glare at Mattin. "Not. One. Word."
Mattin shook his head, and pretended not to notice the kitten, still following Brit into the Mistress' study.

Brit loves cats, but he refuses to admit it. Which doesn't keep everyone in the manor from knowing his 'secret.'