The Drowned Suburb

The Sunken Palace of Cleopatra at Antirhodus  

The Sunken Palace of Cleopatra at Antirhodus

 

And now it's time to practise what I preach. This final post features a passage from one of my bigger world building projects; a very rough first draft, but hopefully it demonstrates some of the concepts I've been chatting about thus far. Below that, you'll find a few more fun primers. Remember to always read, write, and explore with care; always create with a warm heart and an open mind.

Good luck out there, in all those myriad worlds.


Santa Gonzaga was a joke the City played on the Lago Salina Hybor, year after year.

The old suburb had been built almost seventy years ago, to put up the Hybor that came in from all corners of the country to work on the Cap City Reservoir. Nobody had the knack for canal-works and artificial lakes like the folk of Lago Salina. The City fathers had provided cheap dormitories for the workers, but the Hybor were the ones who took it upon themselves to build the shrine of Santa Gonzaga, establish markets and council halls, and rear their children with the understanding that though they worked for the City now, their real provenance belonged to fabled salt flats in a far-away province.

The young people almost always went back to Lago Salina for the salt harvest, but salt mining was less of a vocation for their generation than it had been for their ancestors. Increasingly they associated the City with modernity and progress, and the salt flats with backwards traditionalism. The city fathers rewarded that kind of thinking with gifts and educational bonuses, and the number of Hybor leaving to mine the salt dwindled each year.

The year of the flood, half the community—the half lovingly built by Hybor hands—was submerged and remained submerged, in a new lake that was thereafter called Lago Lagrima: another salt lake, after a fashion. The irony was lost on nobody.

And where were the city fathers when Santa Gonzaga was flooded? Where was their generosity when the community lay ten feet under water? They were looking towards their other neighbourhoods and boroughs: Palladia, of the broad avenues and row houses; the Haarl, of the theatres and markets; St. Horne-In-The-Fields, of the Royal Mint and the turkey-necked bureaucrats. Santa Gonzaga was forced to shrive for itself as the reservoir trembled before gushing torrents of raging river.

You could still row a boat through the old neighbourhood. The ruins of the dormitories rose up out of the water like chalky white bones, and the spired roof of the shrine rose out of the lake like a breathing tube. The Hybor who favoured Gonzaga took their rafts and longboats to the old shrine for prayers and tributes of smoke and sweets.

The streets of "New Gonzaga" (another joke, in very bad taste) were narrower than the old ones…

 



Eleanor Fogolin is a student of writing. She holds a master’s degree in literature from Memorial University. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Cactus Heart Press, and Drunken Muse Press. She currently resides in Ottawa. Her pastimes include mythmaking, over thinking, and coffee-drinking.

Eleanor (Pyrlian) Writes | Twitter | LinkedIn

The Dark Mirror

Detail: Narcissus, Caravaggio, 1597-1599

Detail: Narcissus, Caravaggio, 1597-1599

As I stated my previous posts, world building is more than just fun maps and fantastic creatures. Your new world will have a tendency to budge up against our own in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Echoes of real conflicts and real oppression will find their way into your newly born countries. The problems of our own lives will be reflected in those of your characters. This is a natural side effect of creating a world while also living in a world. No work of art exists in a vacuum: everything you create has been influenced by your personal beliefs, biases, and cultural background.

Knowing this, there are many ways to build worlds. One method is to use fantasy as a mirror; reflecting some of society’s direst problems, and critiquing them in a new way. N.K. Jemisin uses a combination of both methods in her novel The Shadowed Sun, where she considers rape culture in an otherworldly setting. Similarly, Saladin Ahmed deftly creates a new allegory for the treatment of Muslims in Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy, his re-envisioning of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen.

Yet another method is to build a world contrary to everything we know: for example, dissolving accepted binaries of gender and sexual orientation to make a society where everyone is agender and asexual—as in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hugo-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness. You might wish to create a world where same-sex marriage is taken for granted, and homophobia is simply unheard of, as in the exceptional American small town of David Leviathan’s Boy Meets Boy.

The third method is one I don’t personally recommend. Well-meaning writers are fond of envisioning worlds where the victim casts their master into the role of slave, thinking that this will encourage their reader to see things from the “other” perspective. This convention is demeaning to individuals who face prejudices daily, and shifts the focus away from their lived experiences and onto the hurt feelings of those who are relatively privileged. In short, these stories often backfire in an explosion of Unfortunate Implications.

A story can always reflect something you didn’t intend. Read carefully, look deeply, and write consciously.


ELEANOR FOGOLIN

Eleanor Fogolin is a student of writing. She holds a master’s degree in literature from Memorial University. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Cactus Heart Press, and Drunken Muse Press. She currently resides in Ottawa. Her pastimes include mythmaking, over thinking, and coffee-drinking.

Eleanor (Pyrlian) Writes | Twitter | LinkedIn

On Foreign Shores

Detail from Portrait of Omai, Joshua Reynolds, 1776

Detail from Portrait of Omai, Joshua Reynolds, 1776

In our last post, I encouraged you to stray beyond the borders of typical fantasy settings – leaving the castles, forests, and shires behind in search of new stories in new cultures.

However, when creating new societies, it’s not enough to simply cherry-pick aspects of some real-world community. Before you attempt to create a fantastic culture, learn how to write respectfully about different cultures. In that vein, I'm going to introduce you to the basic practices of Writing the Other. These tools will help you avoid mistakes a writer can make in creating fantasy cultures that mirror real communities.

1.     Learn the stereotypes.

Familiarize yourself with the prevalent perceptions of that culture. Try to understand the community within a cultural context: What are the tropes and character tics that might reinforce pre-existing prejudices?

2. Seek out authoritative voices.

Plenty of smart, informed, and erudite individuals hail from the culture you’re aiming to write about. They write blogs, make speeches, and review representations of their culture for how they succeed or fail. These people are providing you with valuable insights into how to approach their community respectfully.

 3. Pay attention to your own biases

We all have our own preconceived notions about other cultures. Unlearning harmful prejudices is a life-long effort, but I believe that learning to write sensitively and consciously is a good way to start.

If you’re like me, the thing you might struggle with the most is the daunting task of honouring another culture in a way that is appropriate, honest, and respectful. Most writers don’t deliberately set out to create racist caricatures, but when we do, we are rightfully called out, and the experience is, of course, embarrassing. On the other hand, failing to address representation in fiction contributes to a culture of erasure in which many readers are alienated and ignored. As writers, how can we reconcile ourselves to this problem?

Ultimately, as Shawl points out, “any connections [you] make with unfamiliar cultures must be more than one way.” Having drawn on a cultural source, you now have a duty to recognize that source, to learn from it, protect it, promote its interests, and prevent the spread of misinformation.

To remind you of the importance of representing many stories (and cultures) in fiction, watch this TedTalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

 


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ELEANOR FOGOLIN

Eleanor Fogolin is a student of writing. She holds a master’s degree in literature from Memorial University. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Cactus Heart Press, and Drunken Muse Press. She currently resides in Ottawa. Her pastimes include mythmaking, over thinking, and coffee-drinking.

Eleanor (Pyrlian) Writes | Twitter | LinkedIn

O Brave New World, That Has Such People In It!

Hours of Charles of Angoulême, Folio 50, France  (c. 1475-1500)

Hours of Charles of Angoulême, Folio 50, France  (c. 1475-1500)

This one is going to be a two-parter.

In our first post, we considered the effect geography and environment can have on a story. Climate, landscape, and seasons will have a profound impact on our next project: the people of your new world.

As an architect of this world, you’ll spend most of your time building the communities, cultures, and societies from which your characters and adventures will spring.

From my perspective, the best way to build is from the ground up.

Let’s use what we learned last time, and start with our geography: Does your story begin on an arid, grassy steppe, or are your characters in the shelter of a mountain peak? Now extrapolate: When would the community’s seasons be? Do they have particular methods of irrigation, herding, farming?

Answering these questions will answer further questions, such as what kinds of rituals a community might have at different times of year, what their growing seasons are, and what can be grown in such a region—which will help when you want to describe that scene where your protagonists stop at a local inn while on their journey.  

What elements of the landscape might feature in their mythology? This will become imperative when asking yourself questions about your peoples’ value systems and language. You don’t have to be a linguist like Tolkein to give your fantasy community distinct vernacular and phraseology. Actually, a friend of mine (who is a linguist) recently pointed out to me that much of the English language reflects our capitalistic culture. For instance, the way we spend time on a project, or the way we wish to repay people’s kindness. The Innu, meanwhile, have extensive metaphors and phrases based on the weather. Language reflects values, and values often reflect the way a culture interacts with their environment and climate.

Other considerations, such as education, social structure, and transportation will also be highly dependent on the land you’ve designed for your people.

Keep in mind that real-world research makes for a fuller, more credible fantasy world. It’s okay to let real world communities and locations guide your creative choices—but that’s not an excuse to go cherry picking from this or that culture in order to build your own. Real cultures don’t exist just to provide you with inspiration, and I’ll talk about that more in my next post: On Foreign Shores.

World Building 101: Peopling Your Planet

The Writing Cafe: World Building Considerations

The Arts in Worldbuilding


ELEANOR FOGOLIN

Eleanor is a student of writing. She holds a master’s degree in literature from Memorial University. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Cactus Heart Pressand Drunken Muse Press. She currently resides in Ottawa. Her pastimes include mythmaking, over-thinking, and coffee-drinking. 

Eleanor (Pyrlian) Writes | Twitter | LinkedIn

We're Going On a Quest...

The Book of Miracles, 1552

The Book of Miracles, 1552

Which is to say, we’re on a trip, and we’re going to build our way there. Like they told you in the classic fantasies, you’ll need your compassion, your intelligence, and your courage, and quite possibly, a map.

For most fantasy writers (and readers) maps provide the foundation for understanding worlds of adventure and magic: the aerial views over Rhovanion and Gondor; the compass rose that points the way to Narnia and the north; the archipelago of Earthsea awash in a brightly shining ocean.

Fantasy fans love maps, and usually embark on personal world-building adventures by sketching their own: sow an irregular landmass with mountain ranges, throw a kingdom here and a forest there, add a few borderlines, toss your characters down in a farm hamlet or a kingdom ruled by a mad king, and hey, presto -- fantasy world!

The problem with world-building is that by the time you’re finished, what you have created is a grab-bag of fantasy tropes and clichés -- but nothing that looks or feels like a world that works.

Let’s consider geography. Fantasies set in medieval kingdoms and chateaux, or in dark forests and Celtic islands, are as common in fantasy literature as swords and sorcery; but the real world isn’t so uniform that all stories must take place in a location that “looks like Europe, but different.” Have you ever imagined the fantastic potential of salt-pans and geoglyphs? Or wizards who sew magic in the muck of an oyster bay? The geography (and even the planet) to which the story belongs can have a profound impact on the shape of the story.

Suppose your story is about a young noblewoman pulled from a life of luxury and stifling etiquette, and thrown into a plot involving magic, danger, and betrayal. It’s a standard plot; but what if, instead of a noblewoman in a shadowy metropolis, the character begins as the only daughter of a lighthouse-keeper? The plot can remain the same, but the character develops new traits, and makes different decisions, based on her environment. It’s not a question of writing an entirely new story, but of imagining what could happen if a fundamental element of the story changed.

That’s small magic, but it can open doors to worlds you never dreamt of -- and that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

 

Some World-building Primers:

Worldbuilding 101

Weather and Worldbuilding

 


 

ELEANOR FOGOLIN

Eleanor is a student of writing. She holds a master’s degree in literature from Memorial University. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Cactus Heart Press, and Drunken Muse Press. She currently resides in Ottawa. Her pastimes include mythmaking, over thinking, and coffee-drinking. 

Eleanor (Pyrlian) Writes | Twitter | LinkedIn