Archive for April 2013

Writing About Sex: Love Through Other Eyes

April 16, 2013

This week, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?

As always, nrlymrtl asks questions that go down to the center of the earth; and also as usual, my keyboard runneth over. After driling down into the question of  how a woman can write  man’s sexual experience with any sort of confidence, I’m looking at the issue from a broader perspective: how can we as writers write anybody‘s sexual experience, and what can we do with it from a storytelling point of view?

I don’t write erotica, and I suspect much of what I’ll say here does not apply in that venue. As a writer I don’t shy away from intimate sexual detail, but I’m not writing to arouse: when I follow characters past the bedroom door, it’s because what will happen there advances the story, develops character, or–hopefully–both.

First of all, what is sex good for in terms of building story? First, and maybe most importantly, conflict. As writers we know conflict is the engine that drives stories and scenes: internal conflict, external conflict; there are dozens of different types. The writer who takes time to think about it can find endless sources of conflict in a character’s sexual impulses and actions, starting from conflict between what he desires and what he thinks he should desire and spanning the distance to a character whose sexual desires puts him in conflict with society itself.

In The Shadow of the Sun, Ellion’s sexual impulses create sticky situations for a variety of reasons: his philandering has been the cause of a high percentage of the duels he’s fought and his attendant reputation as a man prone to slice others up; in the Tanaan lands, he brings his cultural assumptions about the loose morality of Tanaan women along with him and must constantly talk himself out of his culturally-entrained assumption that any woman who gives him any notice whatsoever is actually coming on to him, whether or not it’s true; he maps his culture’s near-mythologicization of the sexual charms of Tanaan women onto Letitia, rapidly muddling the person who simply needs protection with his culturally-etnrained sexual fantasies. Which, of course, generates further conflict between Ellion, Letitia’s father, and Letitia’s intended consort: not least because she’s got her own reasons for responding in kind.

Another source of conflict that arises from sex: there are well-documented biochemical changes that take place in people who have sex together: biochemical processes that create emotional bonds. A character who might not otherwise have allowed himself to become fully embroiled in a conflict can’t help but respond when his lover is involved. Once they’ve made love, he’s all in, even if his mind knows it’s stupid. Even, sometimes, if their sexual reltionship is over.

Sexual encounters are also a terrific way of revealing character: it is during those periods when humans are at their most open and vulnerable. The private time after sex is likely to be a time when people are fully honest, or as honest as they ever get. And how a character thinks about a sexual partner and about the act itself arise from whatever other emotional baggage they’re bringing along.

A character of a romantic bent, which oddly enough my philandering Ellion is, filters his perceptions far differently from a person of shallower thinking. When I write sexual encounters through his lens, what he sees and thinks arises naturally from how he sees and responds to his partner: a brief dalliance with someone he has just met shifts from a conversation between professionals (in this case, he has just met a female bard, and their meeting begins as shop-talk) to a nearly clinical comparison of the experience to what the stories he’s heard had led him to expect: there’s no emotional involvement to speak of.

But a later sexual encounter, with someone he has developed real romantic feelings for, is almost entirely about the emotions: even his perceptions of her beauty and of the sex act itself are filtered through intense emotion. One of my early readers said, after reading that scene (and no, I’m not telling you who his partner there is: that would constitute a spoiler) that she finally felt she understood Ellion. Because in the course of opening himself up in that encounter, he finally let the reader in far enough for her to understand all the little mysteries he carries around.

What comes hard? nrlymrtl asks. For me, what’s hard is writing sex without throwing the reader out of the moment. There’s no time when it’s more important for the writer to disappear into the cracks of a scene: every word must connect the reader intimately with the character. I work intensely to choose words and images that reflect how the character would experience what’s happening: to stay true to his voice rather than allowing embarrassment to make me reach for euphemisms or a desire to titillate make me reach for detail that doesn’t serve the story. I have to pretend no one but me will ever read the scene, and concentrate on getting it right–and then just move on to the next, to the conflicts whose stakes I have strived to raise while the characters involved forgot to notice the longer-term meaning of what they were doing.

In general, I write sex scenes like I write fight scenes: at their best, I believe, neither is about the physical stuff, but rather about what it means to the characters involved. It’s important to write believable, so as not to distract the reader from the important work we’re doing in these scenes; but if I’ve done my job correctly, at the end of such a scene you know a little more about the character than you did before–and he’s a little deeper in trouble.

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The Sex Lives of Male Characters: Our Cultural Assumptions in Action

April 15, 2013

Today, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?

My editor for The Shadow of the Sun was my dear friend Brett Shanley. We’d worked together on a number of projects by the time we came around to this one, though this was the first time he had edited me. One of his first observations, made in his usual quietly introspective fashion, was,

“Um, Ellion’s kind of a whore, isn’t he?”

Which made me laugh, and which I had to admit was true–but which I found an intriguing reaction to a male character, particularly from a male reader. Brett’s response was a valid one, and shared in prticular by women–but it stood in opposition to our cultural norms. That sort of deep thought and ability to look past our assumptions were among the things that gave Brett power as an editor, of course.

I find writing the sexual life of a male character surprisingly easy. It’s true that I am and always have been female (at least within the confines of this particular incarnation*), but I’ve got plenty to work from when it comes to the inner sexual lives of male characters. I believe, rightly or wrongly (and research does tend to bear this out, for what that’s worth) that the internal lives of men and women are largely the same: that where we differ stems partly from inborn traits but mostly from socialization. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is in the area of sex that the most data about the inner lives of the male of the species is most available. We need only look at 99% of what we receive through popular culture for clues.

Entire volumes and thousands of blog posts have been written on the male gaze and its effect on the way women perceive themselves; it’s not my intent to recapitulate that here. But if you want a broad sampling of what arouses men and how they process sex and female beauty, you need only watch movies, particularly those made to appeal to the male demographic. I don’t mean to assert that all men see women the same way, think the same things, etc.–but movies written and filmed by men for other men, which is most movies that are not romantic comedies, give us a good window into the areas of general agreement among that half of the species in Western culture.

Further, as a woman who has absorbed those images, I have absorbed, whether consciously or not, the same set of ideas about what is arousing. All women, whether conscious of it or not, who participate in popular culture have learned to see other women as sexual. Most heterosexual women map those images onto their psyches as things to be achievedthings we want to look at rather than people we want to touch, but we still know what is considered sexy: i.e., what men as a demographic want to look at and experience in their sexual lives. Most of us spend our lifetimes trying to measure up to those things. That, of course, is a somewhat different topic.

So, to drag this back around to the original question, I find it surprisingly easy to write a male character, even when it comes to his sex life, because I have access to an entire cultural heritage, have absorbed it as fully as any man. It’s actually far more difficult for me to stretch my brain around the rest of the experience of being male, because the clues popular culture gives us for those things are harder to access. Those are the areas where I must do the most research and extrapolation.

As usual, nrlymrtl has tossed me a question worth intense unpacking, because I still haven’t touched on how I write another person’s sexual experience. And that trick (no pun intended) is one of endless interest to writers (and readers, it seems!)–so I’ll roll that question over to another post tomorrow.

* I don’t believe in reincarnation. I don’t disbelieve in reincarnation. Neither truth would surprise me. As Alice said to Dorothy, “I’ve seen some weird shit.”

That’s Not Even a Real Word! How I invent languages for my fiction

April 9, 2013

This week in the continuing (and penetrating) discussion of The Shadow of the Sun on her Week Two readalong post, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

You have used language throughout the book as a way to sew culture clash, create bonding, and swear creatively. How did you go about building the various languages into your story?

The master of the invented language, of course, was J.R.R. Tolkien. I am not fit to dust his dictionaries. But even for those of us whose artistic talent & impulses don’t run towards inventing languages, the development of language is a useful tool for fantasy & SF. Languages both arise from and reflect cultures: words and phrases so commonplace we don’t even hear them are profound indicators of our culture’s assumptions and norms. And the etymology and linguistic underpinnings of a language tell the story of where a culture comes from, what other cultures it has encountered, and what its problems and conflicts are.

You just made that up,
didn’t you?

Nope. A couple examples to get you started thinking about this:

Gender assumptions:

In English, we say “men and women”; where gender is mixed or uncertain, we use male words to cover all the unknowns. When we speak of both, we speak of males first–except when we’re being self-consciously courteous, as in “Ladies and gentlemen”, which embodies reasoning too convoluted to get into here. These habits reflect entrenched patriarchy. In The Heart of Darkness, the sequl to The Shadow of the Sun, some of the point-of-view characters I’m writing come from a matriarchal society. Maleness is not their linguistic default. The choices I make when my matriarchal characters speak about mixed or indefinite gender tell a story about their assumptions: right down to the fact that where my human characters say “priestess” to apply to a member of the Danaan clergy, the Danaan characters say “priest”. Because in their culture all priests are women, so there is no need to specify gender.

Swearing and Insults:

How we swear, what is considered profane or taboo, bespeaks our religious and moral norms. Americans, who as a group tend towards religious fundamentalism and puritanism to a much greater extent than some other cultures, find great shock value in blasphemy against Christian religions, sex, and bodily functions. How we insult others speaks to what our culture values and abhors. Because we tend to be very narrow-minded about sex lives that are in any way different from our own (see also: fundamentalism and puritanism), Americans can be heard using “gay” as an insult.

In other cultures, notably pagan cultures in which magic is mixed in with the religion, there is frequently a strong taboo against speaking the nmes of gods aloud, particularly in the presence of nonbelievers: because the names of the gods confer power. It may also be considered inappropriate to use the names of gods outside the context of prayer and magic, whether in the presence of nonbelievers or not. (That’s a tradition that carries over in modern Christianity as well, at least in the U.S.) I’ve made some use of both of those taboos in The Shadow of the Sun: my Beallan (human) characters, both of whom are deeply religious, rarely speak the names of their gods outside the context of religion, and certainly never in front of the Danaan, who have their own gods; and the Danaan, who believe themselves to be in a collective state of disgrace before their great goddess, no longer invoke her name outside the context of prayer. It’s the lesser goddesses and the great goddess’s consort with whom they feel themselves sufficiently close to swear by their names.

But as nrlymrtl notes, swearing is a bonding activity. People love swearing, and in swearing together we relieve the tension both of whatever made us want to mouth off and of the transgression of swearing itself. Learning one another’s swear words is a moment of cross-cultural bonding, a means of building bridges between our cultures. Kumbaya, baby. We see that in The Shadow of the Sun, too, in the moment when the Danaan mock Ellion because he is unable to pronounce one of the sounds common to their language and he turns around and challenges them to swear in his–and then they all laugh at the results.

So where did you get
those crazy words?

If you’ve been reading along lately, you will be unsurprised to learn that I stole. A lot. To reinforce the cohesiveness of the cultures I had built on a basis of ancient Irish myth as history, I drew heavily on ancient Irish and Gaelic languages and naming traditions, with a bit of Iberian thrown in for development of the Essuvian names and words. Where I could, I lifted words whole; where the word I wanted either didn’t exist or was too hard for someone with my VERY meager command of those languages to track down, I started with the etymological roots of those words in that end of the human language genome and built new ones. I also drew on ancient Greek and Egyptian sources for words that are, in the context of my tale, of yet more ancient vintage. In the course of developing the traders’ culture in The Heart of Darkness I stole from Basque and Romani language and naming traditions. And the ubiquitous profanity fouzh, which Ellion can’t get through an entire page without, was invented out of whole cloth: I wanted something evocative of the “f-bomb”, as it is delicately styled, which would be satisfying in the English-speaking mouth but wouldn’t require me to litter the pages with something that makes a significant percentage of readers flinch, not to mention bringing our cultural norms into an entirely different culture.

I love playing with language, maybe even more than I enjoy playing with the rest of reality. And I adore taking apart the components of our culture, looking at them, and putting them back together in entertaining/disturbing ways. It helps me think, and I hope it gives readers the opportunity to think some thoughts they would not have otherwise. It was probably inevitable that I write speculative fiction.

Place as Character: Using Worldbuilding to Develop Story

April 1, 2013

HumanandTanaanRealmsMap

In her Part 1 post for the Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, Amy of Just Book Reading asked me a question about how I imagine the world I’m writing:

I ‘see’ this world very clearly in my head. In fact, I tend to read in pictures, active imagination and all that, when reading fantasy. When you’re writing, what do you picture and how do you keep the world so vivid? There is a map at the beginning of the book as well. Do you use maps to picture the world?

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Warning: Geek Content

If you’re not into serious worldbuilding geekery, this might be good time to look elsewhere. Here is a picture of my cats.

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The Map is Not the Territory.

But it is part of the story.

Maps are one of my most important tools for imagining a story world. I use a mapping program called Campaign Cartographer, which was originally designed for role-playing games. The maps I create become essential not only to the development of the world but also the development of the story.

Campaign Cartographer doesn’t build pretty maps, at least not for people who aren’t equipped to really tweak the program (read: amateurs like me). But what it does, brilliantly, is provide “real” data about the map’s territory. Once the map is built, the distances and potential routes between story locations are set—which keeps me honest, and requires the characters to deal with real obstacles. In order to facilitate the plot I’m planning, frex, I may want to have it take two days for a character to get someplace—but the truth of the world as constructed may be different. This tension helps to drive the development of the story, because it takes me out of what comes easily into stuff that makes me engage my “A-game”. It also helps to keep things feeling “real”.

Maps as Story

I’m also having a lot of fun with maps as a storytelling tool. I have the rare privilege of working with the artist Ari Warner on the maps for my books. He takes my amateurish, just-the-facts maps and develop them into maps that help tell the story of the world. Each of his maps is an exercise in worldbuilding: the glorious maps that grace The Shadow of the Sun are designed with the conceit that they have been developed by professional cartographers. Within the context of the story, each of the maps the reader sees comes from a particular collection: a couple of different royal libraries, and the collection of the Harpist Gorsedd in Ilnemedon. The inaccuracies in the maps represent misconceptions, misunderstandings, and confusions on the parts of the people who assembled the data–and those errors feed back into the story in the form of misunderstandings with which the characters who rely on them are walking around.

In the forthcoming The Heart of Darkness, the sequel to The Shadow of the Sun, Ari has outdone himself: we’re creating a new series of maps that originate with the kharr, the rebels in the war that encompasses both these volumes. He’s using a completely different style for these maps, one that reflects their less exalted and more practical origins. And the ways the kharr maps contradict the loyalist maps developed for the first volume carry part of the story as well.

Another tool I use in developing worlds is theft.

That seems to be a theme around here lately.

I stole elements of a lot of places in developing my story world. The geography of the Danaan sacred isle of Ilunmore came out of the legendary geography of Atlantis. The Ruillin Basin has its origins in the Bay of Fundy and surrounding waterways, right down to the shameless theft of the reversing falls on the St. John River, which became “Bormo’s Well” in The Shadow of the Sun. I used Mt. St. Michel in France twice: the island of Aballo is one part Mt. St. Michel, one part Bru na Boinne in Ireland, situated on Half Moon Bay in California. And the tidal accessibility of Mt. St. Michel became part of daily life for the island of Bealingas.

Theft committed in the name of worldbuilding can’t stop at window-dressing and yield a world that feels real. If stealing these places brought a wealth of details to the world that help to create the experience of a real place, that real feeling can only be maintained by following the facts of the places borrowed wherever they may lead. The tides on the Ruillin Basin with which the characters in my world must contend arose from the interaction of the true facts of the Bay of Fundy with the influence of my world’s extra moon. It created bizarre obstacles to travel in that region which in turn drove the development of an arcane “technology”, windcallers: wizards specially trained to harness winds and weather for the purpose of making it possible to sail in otherwise unnavigable waters. And those obstacles to travel fed back into the action of the novel.

But I am getting ahead of myself, for a post intended to accompany the first seven chapters of the novel. And the extra moon and all the baggage it brings to the party are a topic for another day.

/geekery

All the Myths I Stole

April 1, 2013
Cú Chulainn in battle, from T. W. Rolleston, Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911; illustration by Joseph Christian Leyendecker

Cú Chulainn in battle, from T. W. Rolleston, Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911; illustration by Joseph Christian Leyendecker

In this week’s installment of the Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

The ancient Irish myth of Cuchulain is woven into the ancient history of this book. Are there other, specific myths that you pulled from in creating this work?

The short version of the answer is that I stole all of Irish mythology, and then went rooting around in the rest of the human mythology tradition for additional toys.

The Irish Myths

As nrlymrtl observes, I snagged Cuchulainn* from the Táin Bó Cúailngethe greatest of the ancient Irish myths. But once I got there, I didn’t stop with him. Cuchulainn is only one small part of that sweeping epic, and I am also using the overarching war in which Cuchulainn is a late entry: notably the story of Fergus.

I also pilfered the Conquest of the Sons of Mil, in which human men conquered Ireland. This is one of my favorite parts of the Irish myth-set, especially for the wonderful wizard Amergin–who, remarkably, I have not (yet!) co-opted to my tale. From this myth came the tale of the goddess Eriu, who in my story is the founder of Letitia’s ancestral line.

Not content with those thefts, I moved on to the First and Second Battles of Maige Tuireadh, which are two of the wars of conquest of ancient Ireland. In the First Battle, the Tuatha De Danaan  conquered Ireland, wresting it from the control of the Fir Bolg. In the Second, the Danaan, having fallen under the oppression of the Fomorians, fought to free themselves. From these tales came the tale of the many-talented hero Lugh of the Long Arm and that of the great healer Dian Cecht, whose magical cauldron could bring the dead back to life. His “technology” is the basis of the Basghilae, the undead warriors in The Shadow of the Sun. And Lugh’s unstoppable Spear, the Gae Assail, became the great treasure of Fiana.

But of course I didn’t stop there. By now you will recognize that I am an intellectual kleptomaniac. I started thinking bigger: I moved on to

The Atlantis Myth

If you dig deeply into the myths of the Tuatha De Danaan and Atlantis, eventually you will begin to notice certain overlaps. The names of the Danaan realms, for example: my Fiana/Finias, Faill/Failias, and Muir/Morias are lifted straight out of that area of overlap. The nation of Banbagor should properly have been named Gor for correct correspondence with the original myth, but early readers noted that the seeming reference to the Conan stories was a distraction, so I wedded that name to the name of the goddess Banba of Irish myth.

Likewise Hy-Breasail: this is one of the multitude of names of Atlantis in ancient myth, and I stole shamelessly from sources attempting to locate that place.

The Gods

Oh, I stole gods. The Irish/Celtic ones are easy to spot, notably Dana, Beal and Esus. But you can’t swing a dead cat in my story world without bumping up against a god or something named for a deity, and many of them are pilfered from elsewhere: notably just about every body of water, which follow the Celtic tradition of naming them for goddesses that supposedly inhabit them. But it wasn’t just Irish/Celtic gods I stole. I had my way with the Germanic and Greek pantheons and some of their myths as well.

The Afterlife

I stole not one but two of these myth-sets: the Irish, including the paradisal House of Donn; and the Greek, albeit with considerable embellishment. Of the veritable buffet of after-life options in the novel, most of it began, er, life elsewhere.

*

Why did I steal all these things so brazenly? Now that you see the framework of the amusement park ride I have created, what does it mean?
Those questions are left as an exercise for the reader. 🙂

*Did you notice I spelled it differently than nrlymrtl did? Neither of us is exactly right, as far as I can tell. There seems to be a lot of variation in people’s attempts to render the old Irish as English. I’ve been typing it that way for too long to stop now, which only means I had my formative experience of him with a different source than nrlymrtl.

The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along

April 1, 2013

The Shadow of the SunBeginning today, out in the wild places of the interwebs, a group of intrepid book bloggers is beginning an experiment so crazy it just might work: a Read-Along, or group reading, of The Shadow of the Sun.

This escapade is part of a planned series of read-alongs of Mercury Retrograde Press books, and I am delighted and humbled by their interest in our work–and unreasonably excited about the planned conversations. Participating bloggers include:

A Dab of Darkness
Coffee, Cookies, and Chili Peppers
Just Book Reading
Little Red Reviewer

What is a read-along, you ask? And how can I play? In short, a read-along is a sort of online book club that operates primarily on the blogs of people interested in participating. They seem to be most fun if you have a blog of your own on which to post your thoughts, but a good time can still be had by stopping in to participating blogs and joining in the conversations there. More detailed information on the Mercury Retrograde read-along series is available here.

There will be a list of links to the various posts in the read-along available on the Mercury Retrograde site, here, and we’re going to try to keep up with the read-along and all its various links as it evolves. It should be noted that this is the first read-along most of us have been party to, and we’re feeling our way through it. But if we come up with a better way of keeping interested readers informed, that information will be posted on the same page as well. So that page is probably the place to check in.

This particular read-along is being led by nrlymrtl, host of the Dab of Darkness blog. Here is the

Planned Read-Along Schedule

April 1st: Chapters 1-7
April 8th: Chapters 8-15
April 15th: Chapters 16-21
April 22nd: Chapters 22-28
April 29th: Chapters 29-END

Don’t have a copy of the book? Not to worry. For the duration of the Read-Along, you can download your free eBook here.

nrlymrtl is a master of spinning interesting questions–and she’s instituted the extra-juicy addition of a question specifically directed at me in each of her weekly lists. This should be a great conversation. See you around the blogs!