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Tag: storytelling

MisCon 28: Developing Cultures for Storytellers

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Developing Cultures for Storytellers
Panel members: Steven Erikson, John Goff, Ken Scholes
Panel description: In this panel we’ll learn how to develop unique cultures, economies, art, history, culture, music, language, expletives, etc. to fill your stories with juicy, realistic details. We’ll discuss how culture influences your characters, your world, and its history. Come learn from anthropologists, archaeologists, and writers.

KS: There’s rhythm for believable histories. In my five book series, there’s culture and conflict. In the beginning, the protagonists don’t know there’s another culture. That’s a mystery. All stories have their own world. Even in short fiction, you can’t suspend disbelief if you don’t have a culture.

SE: I recommend that beginning writers find an introductory anthropology textbook. Conflict comes from the clash of cultures. Geography dictates culture and history. Between my ninth and tenth books, I went to Mongolia with a group of Russian anthropologists. I observed the differences in culture between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians are bigger than the people in China. In order to understand why Europeans called them the scourge, you have to know that their diet of dairy and protein made them a bigger people. Understand what effects shape culture. Once we had farming, there was a consequence for not hunting food anymore. People started hunting each other–which became warfare.

KS: Is there any anthropological theory you like?

SE: I like the Neo-Marxist model, without the communism stuff. The hunter gatherers became sedentary and developed pastoral agriculture. Civilization expanded and specialized and increased in complexity. And with the industrial age, it all did damage.

Q: Was Mongolians versus Chinese like Romans versus the Gauls?

SE: Not really. The Romans collectively imposed their rule, but the Gauls (and the Celts) fought as individuals instead.

JG: I work for a licensed property so I build on what was already created. I work on Deadlands which is an alternative history of the American West. In this world, the Civil War grinds to a halt without a resolution and we discover that magic can only be used by certain cultures. This can play up the conflict.

Q: How do you view technology changing culture?

SE: It basically improves methods for people to destroy each other. When I was in Winnipeg, I saw some Lakota and Sioux artifacts and some what if questions became a story idea. What if the Sioux had the power to defeat the U.S. army? They would have still been devoured by the dominant culture.

JG: In the game I’m working on, there is a northern tribe that shuns technology and a southern tribe that embraces technology. In the end, it is the southern tribe that loses its culture. If you can visit a place in real life, you should go.

KS: Experience the world if you can. Stories are everywhere. Go places and experience the people. I went to France for my French publisher and I made friends with just my guitar. I let people tell me their story.

Q: I’m trying to figure out what western ideology that may be inadvertently ingrained in my world building.

SE: Ask yourself what rules you used to create the world. What if magic worked? Then decide if the magic is gender based or learned. Removing sexist language is hard, but consider how you created the world.

KS: I used to be a fundamentalist Baptist minister, but it was a slow path to what I am now as a secular humanist. Old preachers are a culture in themselves.

SE: Cultures are not monolithic. There are cultures within cultures.

JG: I also run into that in gaming. Try to be respectful. Call out the differences so players can build on it.

KS: How do you handle cultural appropriation?

SE: I grew up in Winnipeg which had the largest population of Native Americans in Canada, so I must include them. It would be a disservice to excise them. There are people in our country who live entirely different lives. Stealing myths and transforming them is not good.

Q: What’s your opinion on appropriation of myth?

KS: There’s a lot of stuff I had to unlearn with privilege, etc. So I still have to find my own way. Be respectful, don’t exploit.

JG: As long as you are respectful, then it’s fair game. There are a number of Japanese films that are westerns transposed to Japan. Then Italians transposed those films back into America, becoming the spaghetti western. As we grow closer together in the world, there’s a lot of cross-pollination.

SE: Karagawa does Shakespeare in Japanese.

JG: I don’t like The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves where the culture is only accepted if there’s a white dude in it. It’s not respectful. Marketing underestimates the audience.

SE: I recommend 1491 and 1493 for books on culture.

KS: When I had been a pastor, I saw Dances with Wolves and at the time I thought it was the tribe who redeemed him.

SE: When a white man went native, he got a bounty on his head because he was getting a better life. We carry many biases. What would you think if we replaced fifth century Greeks with the Congolese?

KS: I became pro-choice because of Cider House Rules and pro-gay because of Brokeback Mountain. There’s a fine line between outraged enough and not outraged enough.

Q: Save the Pearls is a novel about white people (pearls) subjected to black people (coals). What do you think of inverting race?

SE: Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book where disease wiped out the European population so the Europeans became slaves.

KS: In The Forever War the protagonist had to adjust when the culture became more gay than straight. It shook me up and made me think.

JG: A friend’s daughter attended a class where they did an exercise like that in order to teach how some people are still treated like second class citizens, but it backfired and made it worse.

Q: If you’re inverting the culture, be careful it’s not too heavy handed. Otherwise it would be more like a photo negative. Look at the point of view of that culture.

JG: Be aware of your biases.

SE: It’s an enormous can of worms with cultural relativism. There are many apologists for horrible things. You have to determine why they’re doing it. If a culture is on the edge of subsistence, they are more conservative. They want to keep the status quo or they’ll starve.

KS: Write with empathy.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 10

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Urban Camouflage for Storytellers
Panel members: Clay Cooper, John Goff
Panel description: How should your protagonist blend into a crowd? How should she act to attract zero attention from her evil overlords? Come and find out how to vanish right before their eyes.

CC: So what is everyone’s perceptions of urban camouflage?

Q: Blending in, looking like everyone else.

CC: Yes. It’s blending into the surroundings and not be different. At MisCon, you’ll have a hard time blending in.

JG: Even if you’re wearing a polo shirt, you’ll stand out at MisCon. It’s hard at a con to blend in. But when you’re at a class teaching surveillance, there’s always someone who thinks clown gear can help you blend in. It might work the first time, but the second time–no. Same with an ice cream truck. People will notice it when it moves.

CC: If you try to keep a wide berth from someone, they will notice. If you make eye contact, they will remember your face. So don’t look at people’s eyes.

JG: Stay far enough away that they don’t notice you. In psychological studies, they find that people look for faces in things. The worst thing you can do once eye contact is made is to look away suddenly. Instead, just smile or pretend to scan for someone else.

CC: Look past them.

JG: Or give them the vacant look. For clothing, dress to fit in. I like cargo pants with zippers and zip off sleeves because it makes it easy to change my appearance. Change so nothing sticks out. Glasses or contacts. No t-shirts with logos. Earth tones and dark colors are better. Blue jeans usually work.

CC: Unless you’re in an area where no one wears jeans.

JG: Khaki works both ways. Also hiking boots.

CC: Hoodies, when up, draw attention. Or wearing a jacket when it’s hot out.

Q: How about hats?

JG: It depends. If you want to be anonymous, avoid color, shape, style, anything that catches attention. It should be subdued. We tend to walk in a straight line, so don’t swerve.

CC: People get the creepy vibe when someone walks behind them.

JG: Psychologically, people have perceptions of their personal space. They have an awareness of it. Someone following is a predator. The posture gives away what they feel about personal space. In interrogations, one intimidation tactic is to move closer and closer. You risk drawing attention if you invade their personal space. So keep outside of that radius.

Q: Is there a difference tracking someone in the city versus a small town?

JG: Depends. On foot, it can be horrible depending on the number of people and cars. It’s hard to be unnoticed although it’s easier in a city. In a small town, it’s not an option. In a small town, everyone knows everyone. One time, a boss tried to do surveillance in a small town but it was complicated by the fact that the postmaster (who knew the target) also worked at the sheriff’s office.

Q: People in towns are so rude. They just look at you.

JG: It’s a coping mechanism to prevent you from impinging on their personal space. For example, when people get in an elevator, everyone looks at the door.

CC: Or what happens in the bathroom.

JG: In a small town, there’s less personal space and more connectivity. So give yourself a reason to be there that everyone accepts. Like being a surveyor. With a vehicle, it’s easier to go unnoticed.

CC: At 35 mph, you become invisible.

Q: What about construction vehicles?

JG: You can only use them once. And you can’t follow people with it. White vehicles are good. Ten years ago, everyone used SUVs, but now their popularity is down. However white vans can stick out.

Q: What makes it difficult to follow someone?

JG: If you get cut off by a train. If you’re in a tailing vehicle, you need some identifying marker to follow. It’s hard to follow a silver Camry because everyone has one. In heavy traffic, it’s the luck of the draw. In that case, you can stay far away if the car is obvious. It’s difficult if they’re going above the speed limit and if the person thinks they’re being followed. They could make illegal u-turns, sudden shifts, going onto off ramps, turning around in parking lots, or just stopping and sitting. It’s really tricky going from urban to rural on a highway because you need to keep visual contact.

Q: Does a dirt trail help?

JG: It doesn’t help so much.

CC: In a valley area, you don’t realize how close you are until you’re practically on top of them.

JG: If it’s wooded, it helps, but not in a wide open area. Country surveillance is difficult. You can use a ghillie suit as camouflage.

Q: What tech do you use?

JG: For surveillance? You should know where you’re going. A digital video camera, GPS, cellphone, and sometimes night vision gear although that may be legally complicated.

Q: If there were no rules and you were a bad guy, what tech would you use?

JG: Drones because they can hide by hovering at the edge of the treeline. Infrared camera. Theromgraphic equipment to detect heat signatures. Helicopters, however, are noisy.

Q: If you’re the protagonist, how would you avoid detection?

JG: Hack into security cameras. Avoid facial recognition technology by altering appearance.

CC: They can look through sunglasses, though.

JG: The Xbox Connect has a camera so they can detect your heartbeat and blood flow with certain filters.

CC: It’s the sort of technology they use to monitor babies.

JG: With all the things you can do with smartphones, it makes things easier.

Q: How realistic is the media, especially the show Person of Interest?

JG: I haven’t seen it.

Q: Can you clone a phone?

JG: If you have the right software. But that’s crossing federal law.

Q: With a Bluetooth, you could do it at a hundred yards.

JG: I use a prepaid phone to prevent that from happening.

Q: What would you do if you had a suspicion that someone following you wanted to do something to you?

CC: Find a way to turn it on them. Become the stalker to see what they’re doing. If you’re threatened, move to a large crowd.

JG: Simply confronting someone can break it off. Unless they want to cause you bodily harm.

Q: In a crowd, you could turn around and ask why they are following you.

JG: Make a scene.

Q: Some of the creepier technologies out there exist as software in vehicles. It’s possible someone could hack into the car computer and take control.

CC: Then get a manual car.

JG: People can’t break into keyless cars in a conventional way, but someone can follow you with an antenna to get the signal.

I Don’t Like Yappy Dialogue

I had only taken a couple of creative writing classes as electives when I was an undergrad.  In one class, the professor warned everyone not to write about spaceships in any of our assignments because the department head was going to read all of our stories. And he (the department head) hated spaceships.  The professor didn’t like dogs–so writing about dogs was out, too.

I remember these restrictions time and time again whenever anyone remarks that they cannot read a book because it contains topics that they cannot stomach.  Everyone has pet peeves and blocks.  I haven’t yet discovered my own–at the moment, I still believe that a writer can write well about difficult and unappealing subjects.  The reasons why I dislike certain books are style and craft, not the topic.  It could be that everything about a book is great–except for the fact that an author’s stylistic choices on word and syntax leave me wanting to poke my eyes out with a pencil.  Other times, the problem is the craft and world building.  For example–I dislike many books which contain time traveling and/or scientists, not because there’s time traveling and scientists in the book, but because the authors fails to make either of these two elements seem plausible even within the constraints of the story.

With the notion that a good story primarily relies on being told well and not on the subject matter, it is a natural extension to say that one genre is not better or worse than another genre.  So I usually get annoyed when someone puts down an entire genre–even if it’s a genre I don’t read–as crap.

I was pretty pissed this morning when I read this comment:

I write romance, regency as a sub-genre, sometimes contemporary. I couldn’t, wouldn’t ever dream of writing anything that smacks of literary right now because I know I’m not good enough, and truthfully I don’t have the energy.

The comment implies that the author doesn’t have enough energy to hone her writing for the literary genre which is assumed to be “good”.  It’s implied that at the moment, she’s too lazy to put any work into her word-smithing and that the half-assed job she’s going to do might as well just end up in the romance genre which has historically been derided as trash.  Or, more likely, she’s just giving an excuse to write a romance because what “serious” writer wouldn’t write literary fiction?

I wish people would stop following the critics’ version of the serious writer.  A serious writer takes his or her writing craft seriously, not because there happens to be some literary motifs in the story.

There is writing for fun and then there is writing for publication.  I don’t think that one reason for writing is inherently better than the other–just as there’s nothing wrong with skiing as a hobby or skiing at the Olympics.  Heck, I usually just write for fun and don’t worry if the piece I’m working on is internally consistent or not–if I’m not planning on submitting it anywhere.  But if you’re going for publication, there’s no halfway shuffling allowed, even if you’re writing a romance, a hard-boiled dectective mystery, or a sci-fi thriller about Captain Fluffy and his sentient spaceship.  Subject matter is mostly a secondary concern; if your storytelling is gold, people will notice.

Because if you don’t put in any effort to write well, who is going to want to publish your story, let alone read it?

* * *

Addendum: Someone else has the same idea.  The Olympics must be saturating everyone’s brains–

But when it comes to writing, the stakes have to be high. For your characters, and for yourself as a writer. You’re always trying to achieve that next step up on the figurative podium, whether it’s your first sale, your first award, or your first best seller. So commit to the big ideas, and throw your heart into them.