Sunday, January 25, 2009

more links, more Lincoln (Ha. Ha.)

I think it was Doyle, at VPX, who talked about economics in worldbuilding. That artefacts exist because somebody made them, and somebody paid for them, and somebody transported them to the place they appear. And that you have to consider these factors. Not explain them on the page, as you know, Bob, but that you could explain them if you had to, and it wouldn't contradict what was written.

One of my gripes, when reading fantasy, particularly fantasy set in a pre-industrial world, is orphan artefacts. In Shannon Hale's book, The Goose Girl, set in a kingdom that I'd say approximates 15th-16th c. Europe, one character refers to another kicking a bucket into a crumpled lump of tin. So, there's sheet-metal technology here? Available to peasants living in the woods, but not to anyone else. Another peasant woman knits endless sweaters with metal knitting needles. Yep. Not wood, or bone. Steel. Wire-drawing is not elsewhere referred to. I must suppose that the peasant women are secretly running foundries and rolling mills in those deep forests, cunning vixens that they are.
I should admit that I enjoyed The Goose Girl (the original's about 3d on my list of favourite fairy tales, mostly for the oracular horse's head and the talismanic blood-spotted napkin), and I'm looking forward to reading Hale's Book of a Thousand Days.
But she also gives me the opportunity to gripe about another issue in worldbuilding: work. Not that life was unremitting toil in the pre-industrial world--read the complaints about how the number of church holidays in medieval Europe meant the peasantry weren't getting enough done for their masters--but that people, including children, worked hard and worked long hours. Hale has her goose-girl let off from herding the geese out to the fields because ... because it's raining. So she stays inside with the other servants, none of whom are doing anything much, because it's raining.
My mother used to say, "You're not made of sugar, you won't melt." I imagine the overseer of castle servants might say something a bit harsher. Certainly the geese won't mind the rain.

This is by way of preface to linking you to two excellent essays about getting things right (if historical) or believable (if fantasy):
Writing Backwards: Modern Models in Historical Fiction, an essay by Anne Scott MacLeod in The Horn Book (a source of excellent essays). This one addresses the pernicious 'character with 20th c. worldview dropped into historical setting', discussed elsewhere (I'll add other links if I find them--I know they exist).
Competency and work, one of the Fantasy Rants by the wonderful Limyaael, on how the people who do the work can be just as / more interesting as the Designated Heroes.

UK 08 Lincoln, continued. Lucia and I stayed at the Orchard Guest House, which I can recommend as being comfortable and clean, with a fine view over the town (Lincolnshire is flat fens. There's one hill, so they built the castle and the cathedral on it, presumably to avoid sinking and to keep the population fit.) and easy walking distance to the Castle and Cathedral, and not too far from the Strait and Steep Hill.
We had a wander around, and I tried to take photos of the ecclesiastical architecture but it was difficult to keep my hands steady. I also took pictures of trees, because England! Trees!

On the drive down I'd noticed a number of trees with tangly clumps of nests in them, and my brain had said, smugly, 'rookeries'.
Shut up, brain
, I replied, what do you know about rooks? Have you even seen one for sure?
"What are those clumpy nests?" I asked at lunch.
"Rookeries," said everyone.
'Ha, told you,' said my brain, even smugger.

We had supper at Brown's Pie Shop, though we weren't able to get a table in the haunted basement, it being booked for some family do. We were able to nip downstairs as we left, and to call gently for the ghost, "Humphrey, Humphrey?" but there was no response. The food was luscious. I had steak & kidney pie, Lucia had cheese pie. Food in UK restaurants has improved immeasurably since our dreadful experiences 20 years ago.

A couple of pictures that warn of what is to come:

A tree that I think is cool. Possibly a plane tree.

A bit of stonework that I think is cool, from the gate by the cathedral.


Bevie said...

Hi. I found you through Evil Editor.

Getting technology right in historic fantasy means a lot of work. I did some web-searching and was surprised to find that some products I assumed to be recent discoveries have actually been around for some time: rubber, steel, cotton clothing.

While it bothers me when things are historically wrong, what really bothers me is when 20th, and 21st, century conerns are imposed on cultures nothing like our own. It put characters out of character, in my mind.

batgirl said...

Hi Bevie, and welcome, fellow minion! (I'm not sure I fully qualify as a minion).
Yeah, it's surprising what's new and what's not. All sorts of slang terms turn out to be quite old, too.
The attitudes, as you say, are the hardest and most important to get right. It's difficult to write characters who don't share our belief system and assumptions. But one of the reasons for reading historical or other-world fiction is to experience those other ways of belief and thought.
The past is not the present in funny clothes. If it were, I might as well read histories of costume as of people.

Bevie said...

"It's difficult to write characters who don't share our belief system and assumptions.

It is. On one of my blogs I'm entering portions of backstory from an important background character. I keep worrying how it will be received because the culture in the book is so foreign to our own.

Do you ever struggle with that?

batgirl said...

Yes, that's the puzzle. How do you honestly represent a society's beliefs and attitudes when there's a strong chance your reader may find them bizarre or repugnant or just wrong?
The cheat is to make the bad guys be the upholders of the bad status quo, and your hero(ine) for some reason having modern attitudes, so your main character keeps audience sympathy. But it's more complicated than that. Societies aren't the same all the way through, and there's always dissent. It just isn't usually dissent that matches modern attitudes. The Spanish priests who argued against the enslavement and murder of South American Indians, and the whites who assisted the Underground Railway didn't necessarily believe in the same kind of equality that a 21st c. liberal might believe in.
And the easy answer is to say that if it's well written it will work, but that doesn't cover what 'well written' means in this case (which is why it's such an easy answer).
Yeah. How to be true to the time without losing reader sympathy. It's not easy. One trick is to show the characters doing things that are sympathetic or virtuous by modern standards, along with the things that make modern people twitch.
Or if you have a valid reason why the character might have _some_ modern attitudes, show her conflicted about them, not self-righteous. Look at what Mark Twain did with Huck Finn. He fights and fights against seeing Jim as a human being and not property, sees himself as a thief, not a rescuer.

Agh. Didn't mean to lecture. (Did my father teach English? Why, yes he did.)