Far-Out Settings, Down-Home Comforts

Consider this: You’re writing a sci fi story. It’s set in a world of your own making in a time far removed from the present. You’ve built the physical environment, engineered the societies occupying it, and crafted the characters born from it. Your protagonist wakes up one morning and puts together breakfast. Does he make himself a cup of coffee? Pour a glass of orange juice? Or fry up some taorkiki and top it with whipped henuvia?

In this made-up world of yours, does its denizens enjoy the morning ritual of coffee? Do oranges even exist? Maybe your protagonist doesn’t need to eat breakfast but rather injects himself with a nutrient serum.

When writing spec-fic, it can be easy to focus so much on creating the big-picture aspects of the setting that the everyday details are forgotten—until you’re facing your hungry protagonist in the morning with nothing to eat. And you can feed him only once you determine  how much of your made-up world should be made up.

It seems unreasonable to imagine every last detail of your setting. Sure, your world can sport a few unique fruits and a sense of fashion all its own, but you don’t have to rebuild the entire kingdom of plantae  or redesign the concept of clothing. There’s no need to reinvent every wheel. Because if you do, you’ll not only weigh down your story explaining every last detail, including your protagonist’s breakfast, but you’ll also overwhelm your readers.

Incorporating real-world details into your spec-fic setting can help ground your work. Readers will grab on to the familiar elements in an unfamiliar world and use what they know to help imagine and understand what they don’t know. Real-world details also provide a moment’s break for readers; they don’t have to work to imagine what a cup of coffee is like because they already know.

Don’t be afraid to use things from the real world in your spec-fic. You’re no less creative or imaginative for having a protagonist drink coffee for breakfast than having one who injects himself with his day’s nutrients. Your readers will appreciate the  sliver of normalcy, and the almost mundane qualities of reality in the fantastic will make your spec-fic more approachable and, most important, more believable. So start brewing that coffee.

The Old Curiosity Shop

The Old Curiosity ShopThe Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Rating clarification: 2.5 stars

Skip the first half of the novel. You won’t miss much. Dickens doesn’t come to the meat of the story until over halfway through, where the action turns lively, the characters develop and deepen, and the narrative marches forward with direction. Until then, Dickens flounders about, and the reading of it is a painful going.

The Old Curiosity Shop was first published as a serial, and according to the introduction of my Penguin edition, Dickens wrote each weekly installment just before it was published. This rush to throw together a story explains the wandering feel to the first half of the novel.

For example, a first-person narrator opens the first three chapters to “introduc[e] these personages to the reader” and then bows out so that the main characters can “speak and act for themselves” (p.35). In truth, Dickens had decided by that point that the narrator would not suit his story, and he excuses him in quick order.

Dickens has a tendency to spend time with characters who have a passing role in the story. Paragraphs to pages go by detailing interesting traits and backgrounds of characters who never appear again after those descriptions. While these characters may add richness to the setting, they end up cluttering the story as pointless tangents.

Skip all this in the first half, though, and the novel is okay. Dickens writes with a surprising wit and beauty at times and a narrative voice that colours the prose with personality. His outrageous characters live on exaggeration and yet move with simple motivations. Even an independent-minded pony brings great delight and charm to the story.

Perhaps if Dickens’d had the time to plan out The Old Curiosity Shop before serializing it, the novel would be shorter, sharper, and more focused. I probably would have enjoyed it quite a bit. As it stands, the lively second half of the story doesn’t quite redeem its dull and confused counterpart. I can’t help but feel relief that it’s over.

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Thingamabobs and Whatsits, or, Research and Writing

If I make everything up, I won’t have to do any research, so thought my teenaged writer self. Equal parts lazy and equal parts fearful of being inaccurate (i.e., stupid), I wanted to avoid doing research for my writing as much as possible. Creativity and imagination should be enough for spec-fic, right?

Of course I’ve learned over the years that even imaginary people, places, and things have some basis in reality, and those very real foundations require research. Sometimes the imaginative requires more research than the real in order to be grounded and believable. My teenaged self would be groaning from all the homework my writing gives me.

What I haven’t learned or figured out yet, though, is when to do that research. The first draft seems like a good time in general because the story is malleable. In the first draft I am discovering what the story is, how it’s getting to its conclusion, and who is taking it there. All its parts are moving and experimental; the story is easy to change if my research reveals it necessary to do so.

The question with the first draft is…

Before, During, or After?

Do I research most everything I need before writing? Use the planning and outlining stage to pinpoint what I need to know and then resolve it all before I write? The catch with this approach is that I need a solid and detailed outline for my story to begin with—and that rarely happens. Also, conducting copious amounts of research before I start writing will likely kill my desire to write. It will be homework.

Do I instead research as I go because I don’t know what I need to know until I’m writing? I had been following this method, and I have to say that it’s very dangerous. Every time I come against some detail or fact I don’t know, I stop writing to go hunting on the internet. Which is a huge mistake for two reasons: one, I interrupt my own flow and lose the momentum I had writing; and two, I can easily get lost in the internet and end up distracted by irrelevant tangents.

Or do I research after my first draft, putting in placeholders for things while I’m writing to then look into later? This method is probably the friendliest to my writing, insofar that I can write Insert spontaneous toaster combustion science here and then carry on with the story with no time lost. This approach, however, could have the same problem as the first one: a pile of research to do, only in this case between the first and second drafts.

Crucial Research

A larger issue with timing and planning research is, well, researching larger issues—things that are central to the story or that will appear numerous times throughout. If one of my characters is a wheat farmer, for example, I need to have a good understanding of wheat farming before I write this character. Otherwise, a majority of scenes with and about this character will be fill in the blank.

Some research beforehand is inevitable, then, but the question again is, how much? How much of wheat farming do I need to understand before I work on my first draft? How much do I want to research first? How do I know what I need to know about wheat farming before I begin writing?

Fill in the Blanks

For the novel I’m working on now, I’m taking a fill-in-the-blank approach because I got blocked at the planning stage. I could not outline where the story is going, so to push through my frustrations, I started writing. Now as I’m writing, I’m discovering things that I need to research. However, because my writing momentum has been rather precarious with this story and I don’t want to interrupt and lose my flow, I’ve been putting in fill-in-the-blank notes as I go.

So far, it’s been working. I haven’t encountered crucial points that I need to research, so my story can carry on unharmed without the details of wheat farming. I’ve even used the Insert [thing] here method when I get stuck on story details, such as a made-up name for something or a character’s witty reply.

Keep writing! has been my mantra for this story, and I won’t let details like facts or believability get in the way of my first draft. I can clean it up later.

What is your approach to writing research? Do you research before, during, or after your first draft, or do you follow a combination of the three approaches? What works best for you?

Thursday Boggle #150: Final Edition

This is the last edition of Thursday Boggle. It’s been fun hunting for those elusive seven- and eight-letter words and scrambling against the timer to beat past high scores. Unfortunately, maintaining the weekly posts is no longer feasible for me.

I’m sad to be saying goodbye to Boggle here on Speculosity, but I’m also glad that I’ve been able to share my love for Boggle with anyone who’s been willing to give the game a try.

Thank you for enjoying my Boggle boards, and I hope you continue Boggling when you can. You can always revisit past Boggle posts here if you want a quick board to play.

So, for the last time…

Give it your best go and share your score and most epic word below!

Don’t know how to play? Find out here.
Boggle 150

Fairy Tales, Fables, and Mythology

Classic children’s spec-fic has been on my to-read list for a long, long time, and finally, once I finish up The Old Curiosity Shop, I’ll be able to lose myself in childhood fantasy.

It’s intimidating choosing where to start, though, because there are so many classic books that, for whatever reasons, I had never read as a kid. My first thought was to limit myself to more recent classics of the last century, such as Peter Pan, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Matilda. Stories everyone knows and loves in one form or another.

But then again, everyone knows the stories of Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and The Tortoise and the Hare too. These fairy tales and fables are just as embedded in and important to our literary culture as are the standard-issue modern classics, so I can’t pass these up. I thus added some of the more “classic” classics to my to-read list—the fairy tales and fables of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Aesop.

Thinking of fables then led me to One Thousand and One Nights, the well-known frame story of Middle Eastern folk tales. Although the work isn’t a piece of children’s literature by any means (and really, many traditional fairy tales aren’t child-friendly), it is another piece of speculative fiction that has influenced and continues to influence other fables, fairy tales, and children’s stories. I added One Thousand and One Nights to my list as well.

The deep cultural roots of the Middle Eastern classic and its ties to Mesopotamian, Indian, Arabic, Egyptian, and Persian folklore shifted my search for “classic” children’s classics to a search for mythology. I mean the real classics here: Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Aztec, Chinese, Japanese, Norse, Celtic…the list goes on.

Any given culture or religion in the world has a rich and extensive mythology that has shaped storytelling in some way. At what point does my innocent search for  fairy tales, fables, and myths to read in preparation for children’s literature become a study in culture, religion, and philosophy?

I just want to read some of the roots of fantasy. Where do dragons come from? What does it mean to be a hero? What is magic? How did fantasy all start?

Typical me—in an effort to narrow down which classic children’s books I will read, I’ve split open my possibilities. Now instead of choosing between Winnie the Pooh and The Velveteen Rabbit, I’m choosing from among the entire world’s cultures. I have a lot of research ahead of me, and I welcome any suggestions for particular collections of myths. Please let me know if you have any recommendations!

Looks like I’m taking an extended detour in myth before I can get lost in children’s fantasy.

Thursday Boggle #149

Give it your best go and share your score and most epic word below!

Don’t know how to play? Find out here.
Boggle 149
Aside

The Boring Curiosity Shop Update

How embarrassing…I’ve been reading Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop since April. This one is taking me even longer to get through than the drudgery that was One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s just so boring. At least with Márquez I knew what the point of the book was.

But fear not—I will get through the book because my next set of reads has arrived and I am thrilled to read these books. Tomes, really (one of them is over one thousand pages long. Eek!). I’ll tell you all about them once I finish up with Dickens. Two hundred pages to go…