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March 2017

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bear by san

Medieval Dress 90210

Everybody who reads fantasy or historical fiction has read this book.

It's the book where, for vast tracts of the narrative--usually between loving descriptions of the fancy clothes, corsetry and codpieces--you can forget that the narrative isn't taking place in Southern California in 2003. The book suffers from a lack of texture and atmosphere, and the characters do not seem rooted in their time. Rather it's as if a modern ethos has been appliquéd over historical figures, and the result is strangely less than compelling.

These are books with no sense of place.

And there's a complex of reasons why this can happen:

Setting:

It's a dirty word for a lot of apprentice writers, like exposition, and it shouldn't be. What happens is that the writer, terrified of slowing down the narrative, winds up glossing past it, without creating any sense of space or time. There are Valid Artistic Reasons (as opposed to Reasonable Justifications & Handwaving, which are the things you come up with so you can leave in some bit of cool shit that might otherwise hit the bit bucket. (Cool shit is a technical term, BTW, c.f. skzbrust ) ) why one may choose not to create such a sense--to create a kind of anytown anytime feeling, for example, or to create an immersive and fast-paced narrative that relies for its impact, in part, on the illusion that this is the reader's everyday world--which can be very effective in creating a sense of believability. Robert Heinlein's a past master of this worldbuilding technique, and I tried with varying levels of success to borrow it in Hammered and associated books, because I wanted those books to feel like modern-day thrillers.

It's a trick for a tight POV: if one only comments on the things the character finds odd or worthy of comment, as one would in a first-person narrative, one is using this technique. However, to pull it off successfully, I think one needs to rely on other kinds of grounding. See below.

Anyway, back to why setting is not the Antichrist. First of all, setting can carry a book, if it's written well enough. That's not going to work for all readers, of course, and it's out of fashion now, but there are huge tracts of The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down and Shogun and Mervyn Peake's books and Neal Stephenson's books that are nothing but setting and exposition. I've heard this cited as a "problem" with the books, and I think it tends to make the reader doing that citing look a little naive.

It's not a bug. It's a feature. Because the setting in the above mentioned novels serves a narrative purpose.

The error made by the reader who cites those long passages of narrative as a flaw is this, and it's similar to the error made by the reader who believes that omniscient or objective POV is necessarily problematic: she is mistaking fashion for craft. Whereas, in point of fact, while both omniscient pov and narrative storytelling are currently out of fashion (though both seem to be making a resurgence, given a brief census of recent award-winners) they are both effective tools that can be used to great effect.

They're not easy tools to use properly, but then, neither is an automobile. Doesn't mean we shouldn't try to learn. And they make the difference between a surface, even superficial narrative, and an engrossingly real one.

That said, it also doesn't mean that setting (and exposition) can't be used poorly. And they often are. And because they're more difficult tools to use successfully than dialogue and action, the apprentice writer is often told, stopgap, to take them out. To only describe things as the characters interact with them, to only make note in the narrative of the things that the characters would notice. To present, in other words, a sort of tightly curtailed, reality-focused stream of consciousness as the narrative stream, and never to diverge from it, because diverging is bad.

Hogwash.

Because a thing is challenging does not mean it should not be done.

I react strongly to this suggestion, because I believed it for a long time, and wrote three books that could have been much, much better if I hadn't believed it so strongly. This is not to say that there is no place in fiction for first person limited or extremely tight third person limited omniscient narratives. There certainly is, and I believe that POV discipline is also a worthy skill, which a writer should avail himself of learning at any expense. I do not believe in dichotomies in writing. Rather, I believe that the responsibility of the mature artist is to master (or at least journeywoman) as many of the tricks of the trade as she can. Which means limiting POV as well as expanding it--they are different rhetorical tricks, with different narrative purposes.

But I digress.

I was talking about setting.

Successful setting is successful for a complex of reasons. It does more than sit there looking pretty; it complicates the narrative and it reveals clues, hints, thematic details, bits of character and plot as it's examined. It is important to the story, an organic, functioning muscle that assists in driving the narrative forward. It does not exist for its own sake, but rather it does all those things that a well-crafted scene (even a well-crafted sentence) should do.

(Ideally, any scene and--in fact--any sentence in a narrative will do two or three of the following things: worldbuild, create and/or resolve tension, illuminate character, and progress the plot. Hey, nobody ever said that this was easy.)

In any case, successfully written narrative, whether it's exposition, setting, action--ideally, a mix of all of the above, as necessary, to the point where it becomes invisibly multifunctional) should engage the reader both intellectually and emotionally. It's not easy to do, of course, and it requires both reasonably good prose skills and an organic control of one's storytelling... and an engaging voice really doesn't hurt either... but well-managed, it can help create that elusive sense of place that keeps the Viking princess from coming across as a Valley girl.

Voice:

It sounds really silly when your 15th century warrior talks like a modern high school student. It also sounds silly when he speaks in a contrived dialect full of mis-used thee's and weird interjections. Conversely, nothing creates a sense of place like well-managed voice, both in narrative and in character.

Of course, we can't all be Anthony Burgess. However, we can certainly strive to capture some of the rhythms of speech that bring to mind a certain era. If one is writing a medieval Chinese fantasy, for example, one could read translations of Chinese poetry and literature and fairy tales, and soak up the metaphors and the manner of thinking.

A subset of voice is character assumptions. As I'm writing in Elizabethan England right now, I have a buttload of these to deal with that will seem rather offensive to the modern reader. For example, the general authoritarianism of the era (rebellion--whether against the church, one's parents, or one's soveriegn) was not, in particular, glamorized the way it is in modern America), or the prevailing attitudes toward corporal punishment of wives, children, apprentices, dogs, and carthorses. Too often, I see fantasy protagonists who Of Course are knee-jerk opposed to slavery, or the indenture of servants or apprentices, or mouthing off about personal freedom, or feudalism... without any cultural context to carry their opposition. And somehow, it often seems to me that the writers who pen these stories haven't actually paused to think about what purpose feudalism serves, or how it benefits as well as restricts those who live under its strictures.

Likewise, they offer a world of easy medieval brawls and beheadings, of lawlessness and roguery without any understanding of the legal systems of previous eras. (And no, the idea of government existing to provide law and order so as to ensure life, liberty, and/or the purfoot of happineff is not an American invention. See "King's Peace," etc.)

Political systems exist and endure for reasons, and they're overthrown for reasons, and our own Western 21st century assumptions as to what makes a good government and personal satisfaction are cultural artifacts, not divinely ordered. It's wise to understand that, indeed, there is a particular logic in the Chinese family authority system (and the semisacred bureaucracy that's apparently the only way to actually run the country, no matter who happens to be in charge), and that there's also a logic to the Elizabethan system in all its strictly ordained and regimented structures. An Elizabethan housewife who wallops her recalcitrant maidservant one isn't abusive, by the lights of her society, and neither is a schoolmaster who paddles a recalcitrant child. And the servant or child in question isn't likely to see it as abuse, but rather the normal order of things--just or unjust, as the case and the victim's temperament determine.

Which is not to say that there are no rules in such societies. But rather that the social contract differs from ours, and it's wise to understand that and understand why it differs, rather than assuming that ours is superior and that any right-thinking man of that era would necessarily have modern ideals. (Although certainly some progressive thinkers will have other ideas, because so is social change engendered. But the chances of those ideas being thoroughly modern and politically correct are slim.)

It's also not wise to assume that because there is a hierarchy in place, those who are on the lower rungs of it will be unequivocally cowed and brutalized. I give you the intelligent and often obstreperous women of Shakespeare as a type example, as well as Samuel Pepys' wife, so often commented upon for good and ill in his diaries. While their position in the social order is unmistakable lower than that of men, they have ways of making their voices heard.

Grounding:

I promised to talk a little bit about this in setting, above. To my mind, this is where the real magic of writing comes in. This is the mysterious telling detail, John Gardner's infamous fictional dream, the art of description that puts the reader in the scene and keeps him there. It is the opposite of genericism, and the bland cannot live in its presence.

Grounding the reader lies at the heart of good fiction writing. It's the writer's attention to the kinesthetics of the viewpoint character--the way his body moves in space, the way he holds his head, the way the cold in the room soaks through the soles of his socks and the sweater doesn't keep that thin line between his hair and the top of his turtleneck warm. It's the exact color of a blown-glass sphere--not mauve, or purple, or lavender, but the color of a dusky sky along the rim of the horizon. It's evocative and it's a kind of super-reality, the way the golden light lies slanted over the Vermont hills at four o'clock on an autumn afternoon and likewise the different way the brutal ultraviolet of an uncompromising sun hammers perpendicular on the metal roofs of packed cars on a Las Vegas freeway.

It is not resorting to symbols, as apprentice writers too often do, as children draw symbols of trees (a brown twig and some green puffs of scribble) rather than the real living broken-backed oak before them.

Not a room. But this room, in 4th century China or 16th century Japan or 12th century Africa or 1920's America. This room. This place. This city. What stone are the stone floors? Are those wall hangings tapestries, draperies, or painted cloths? Are the swine Middle Whites or Landraces or Yorkshires?

Not generalities, but specifics. Not a bridge, but the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Golden Gate Bridge. Not lunch, but a tuna sandwich on stale white bread and the mayo's not the kind you like. Not a Southern California high school student in fancy dress, but a runaway princess in a torn kirtle, a blister on her nose from unaccustomed sun, her needlework calluses no help at all when the reins cut her hands.

This. Real. Now.

Comments

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Great essay. Thanks. And regarding what you said about voice, here's a quote for you:

"I became attracted at an early stage of my education as a historian to eschew what Edward Thompson describes as “the massive condescension of posterity”: That is, the common habit of writing off the mental worlds of those of our ancestors who, we think, took a wrong turn while that march of progress was going on or who, more broadly, demonstrated that irritating habit of not sharing the values which we have come to think of as important."

—James Sharpe, The Instruments of Darkness

(Talking, in this case, about European witch hysteria.)

This is one of those things that has always bugged me--the notion that everything that happened before us was wrong and that homogenization of our characters to fit modern preconceived notions. Fie!
Yes. Yes. Yes. Thanks for this, Bear.
Short form version -- "Be particular." A _particular_ sandwich, as you say, not just a car but a 1965 SAAB station wagon with that weird-ass three cylinder two-cycle engine that sounded like an infuriated sewing machine*...

*Yes, I owned one.
Thank you. That helps.

--bonnie
I needed this. *memories*
what a dense and thought provoking essay. because I find what you've said so interesting and useful,I wanted to ask you why you chose "setting" as the keyword here. Is it to distinguish it from the term "worldbuilding," used so often to talk about the project of fantasy? And I'm wondering if it's because you think setting has a particular relationship to realness, which seems to be the big lightbulb at the end (in my head, anyway). This is not just a problem of temporarality or place, though I think you're right about both in you apt portrait of Medieval Dress 90210. What I found myself thinking about more was your critique of political/social systems and their values, which might also be seen as a function of culture. Travel to an unfamilar place swiftly reveals that even in the modern world, apparent universals (from high concepts to simple daily activities) are in fact utterly local, even in the context of "globalization." Setting certainly gets at this, but it's not the first word that would have leapt to my mind, so I'm interested by your use of it here. Anyway, all of this is to say, very well put--thanks for sharing these thoughts.
I used setting as the keyword because it is the word that described what I meant.

Worldbuilding is something else.
Bridge of Birds.

I'm just sayin'.

In other words: Bullseye! Would the lady rather have the teddy bear, or take another three shots for free, and try to win the $25?

Why, yes, I have read too many things written by people who didn't have a handle on this.
That book completely rocked my socks off for all the reasons Bear mentions above.
Yes, wow. Great essay. Made my pulse quicken.
Are you comfortable with me citing your LJ in my book?
Um, wow. Totally. *g* I'm putting the dratted thing out in public, after all....

Thank you!
Standing ovation.
Yes, great essay.... Dorothy Dunnett, who's generally good at setting, tends to throw in long lists of descriptions when she's at a slow point in the narrative - there are large chunks of Pawn in Frankincense where she seems either bored or trying to drag things out to heighten the suspense.

And it seems to me that the way setting is handled is also a function of register - I read a lot of contemporary mysteries, where the setting descriptions are as terse as the dialogue; I recently picked up an "historical fantasy" novel that ran to pages and pages of setting and world-building (200 of them) before any actual plot got going.

Not generalities, but specifics

And not, please, cliches...

Just a wandering comment on Pawn in Frankincese...

I thought that all the description in the first 3/4 was tension-building, and in the last 1/4 it was boredom. The breaking point, of course, being the chess game.
Yeah, setting's something I have to come back and really work on in later drafts. Until then, tables are tables, carriages are carriages and I'll do the research later, dammit. Unless, you know, it's ultra important to the character. In which case, they'd react to the dingy-ness or otherwise of their situation ...

But um, yeah, what you said.

So long as it's there in the final version.
I totally agree about fashions and reader naivete regarding long descriptive passages. It's like thinking that landscape painting isn't political. So often it is!

About reading literature in translation - This is definitely useful but so is keeping in mind when it was translated and by whom. People often imitate translations of a particular time and think it is representative of Chineseness, or Latin Americanness; so that in poetry today there is a whole weird, painful subgenre of poetry that imitates bad translations of Neruda in attempts to sound "foreign and exotic". (Or think of how people might try to write about 4th century China by imitating Arthur Waley translations... sort of horrifying.) So it's really good to look at more than one translation, even if you just skim or compare two short passages of the same work.

Also, in some ways translating your French medieval character's speech into 90210-speak might make sense; better sense than having it be in fake-archaic English. Or - to put it another way, why does it NOT make sense to have the characters talk like people talk now? If they are 90210-ish equivalents of valley girl teenagers than maybe it does make sense - or at least not any less sense than it does to have them speak some kind of bland upper class "standard English". It is "domesticating" rather than "foreignizing" the speech. Or in an SF story where, say, Jesus timetravels to now; I could see a writer making him talk like the King James translation of Bible, but that wouldn't make any sense at all!

It's got absolutely nothing to do with realism and everything to do with stagecraft. You're creating an illusion for the reader and evoking a sense of place--dressing the set to assist him in suspending his disbelief.

One can choose to do otherwise for artistic effect, of course, or (more often) out of sheer laziness or ignorance. But the results can be erratic. As a lot of bad published fantasy will attest.
Bravissimo!
Cool. Your comments on the importance of specificity reminds me of when I was teaching drawing classes based around the exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain.

Most people start by drawing symbols of things: the cat is a small circle on top of a large circle, with two triangles for ears. I'd show people side-by-side views of a drawing of 'a flower' and drawings of a specific columbine blossom, a specific daisy, with some petals off-kilter and each carefully defined rather than drawn as careless loops.

All the drawing exercises were geared to get people to actually look at things: to note the specific shapes of the curves and dips and angles along the edge of your hand, the proportions of a specific face, the way shadows fall across a crumpled piece of paper, and how the density of shadow changes according to the angle of a particular plane.

I've thought before that these same sorts of exercises could be adapted for writers.
Yes, exactly. The genesis of a lot of my thoughts about how details work in narrative are from that book.
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