Time Traveling Through Fiction

I spend a fair bit of time frolicking about in Middle Earth, or Westros, or Narnia, or Discworld, or any number of other pseudo-medieval realms.  I like to time travel this way, and take a tourist’s visit through what seems like the past.  I enjoy the silly costumes, the fortified architecture, the bad food and worse sanitation, the lack-of-guns, and then I’m all too happy to return to the present.

Fantasy does a lot for me, but on top of the entertainment and metaphorized drama it makes me grateful.  Despite all our present troubles, we live in an age of miracles.  They might have bawdy taverns and nut brown ale, but we have electricity, flush toilets, and the World Wide Web.

Yet sometimes I want a more authentic experience.  I head back into history on the arm of someone like Diana Gabaldon, or Ken Follett, or Philippa Gregory.  Someone who has done his or her research, and is happy to introduce me to the celebrated places and persons of the past.  And it isn’t just us moderns who have exercised the time-traveling powers of good fiction.  Nathaniel Hawthorne and Alexander Dumas were both more interested in writing about the past than the present.  Victor Hugo was painstaking with his research for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, set three centuries before his own time.

But I’m fooling myself if I think I’ve really left history’s tourist traps this way.  For all their research and imagination, no author can really introduce me to a time older than their own.  They can only gloss, give impressions, or stereotype.  Hugo was making it up when he introduced me to 16th century Paris.

If I want to really time travel with Victor Hugo, I have to read Les Miserables.

Then history isn’t just a fun place to visit.  It becomes real.  I walk 19th century Paris with Jean Valjean, and see how our current conflicts between rich and poor, state and populace, are old conflicts indeed.  I read Othello, and learn that white men have feared losing their daughters to the arms of black men for four centuries.  I read the Bhagavad Gita, and realize that we have struggled with our own transience and purpose for thousands of years.

I’m no tourist then.  This is real time travel.  I’m living history on ancient words, and my empathy grows as I realize that we are, and have always been, only human.


A few words for Sir Terry Pratchett

“Fantasy isn’t just about wizards and silly wands. It’s about seeing the world from new directions.”

I came across the above quote as I looked over Sir Terry Pratchett’s Wikipedia entry, shortly after learning that he had died*.  It’s been awhile since I read any of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but I did read a dozen or so of them as a teenager and enjoyed them thoroughly.  They were fun and funny without being brainless.  There was a physicality to Discworld despite its ridiculous premise.  I could feel the solid bulk of those four massive elephants and the cosmic turtle beneath me as I read.


You always knew something exciting was about to happen when DEATH showed up on the page.  DEATH was funny.  DEATH was meta.  DEATH scared the crap out of the other characters on the page, and for good reason.  Despite all the wonders and magic of Discworld, DEATH was permanent.

DEATH is exactly the sort of big, serious topic that I want in any fantasy novel (whether I read it or write it).  I also like to explore racism, sexism, classism, and other sundry forms of bigotry, as well as self-acceptance — as do many other fantasy writers.  Pratchett wasn’t the only one using magic, wizards, and gods to wrestle with difficult concepts.  Drizzt Do’Urden’s biggest struggle is the color of his own skin.  Ben Holiday buys the Kingdom of Landover because his career, status, and wealth are meaningless and empty to him.  The House Elves of the Wizarding World are happy to work, just please don’t beat them.

And yet, I had a high school English teacher who flat-out refused to allow book reports on Harry Potter.  That same teacher first encouraged me to write — and then discouraged me by refusing to read anything I had written.

It does seem like the wall is starting to crumble, that sometime in the last fifteen years the excuses for excluding all fantasy from serious Literature started running out.  The Return of the King won an Academy Award, fer chrissakes!  But I still have people tell me, “I don’t read fantasy.”  And I don’t get it.

How else can you cope with DEATH, but with fantasy?  With fantasy, you can turn DEATH into a character, talk to him, get comfy with him.  With fantasy, DEATH might give you a peek at the other side.  With fantasy, DEATH becomes just one more adventure.

I don’t know where else you can get that but with religion — and hey, a lot of that is fantasy too!

Rest in peace, Sir Terry Pratchett.  And thank you for crafting such a fun place to visit when adolescence and depression had me down.

*Sir Terry Pratchett passed away on March 12th, 2015, after struggling for many years with a rare form of Alzheimers.  I only mention this because it wouldn’t be a proper Pratchett tribute without a footnote, now would it?

On Religion in Fiction

In honor of my cousin Eli’s Bar Mitzvah, this post is going to be about religion.

No, I don’t care what religion (if any) you practice.  But if you’re writing a novel, chances are that at some point you are going to write about religion.  And if you aren’t writing about religion at all, you should be, because religion is a big part of the human experience.  Wherever you fall on the spectrum, from fervently religious to mildly spiritual to militantly atheist, religion touches your life.  The religion of your society is going to affect your thinking, whether you ever set foot in a place of worship or not.

There ARE atheists in foxholes, but they’re going to cry out “Jesus Christ!” or “God!” just like everybody else when the gunfire starts.

To pick on J.K. Rowling a little more, the lack of religion in the Wizarding World puzzled me.  Her wizards and witches remember that the Burning Times happened.  Okay, so what is their relationship to Catholicism or Christianity?  Good, apparently, because they celebrate Christmas.  Alright, so when do they go to church?  Never?  That’s odd.  They do make a big deal over Halloween too, maybe they’re Pagan, or Druidic?  But Pagans and Druids celebrate Yule or Solstice, not Christmas.  Maybe the wizards and witches of Great Britain are all just pointedly secular.  After all, they’re little gods themselves with all that power.  All right, then why are they celebrating Christmas?

I know that plenty of secular Americans celebrate Christmas.  The culture of Christmas is so overwhelming, my choices are to be an anti-social jerk or celebrate it along with my non-Jewish and generally non-religious friends.  But without a long-standing tradition of Christianity in this country (Christianity being the majority religion), they wouldn’t celebrate Christmas.  They’d have Solstice, or Kwanzaa, or Chanukah, or Festivus, or no big late-December celebration at all.

I understand that JK Rowling likely wanted to keep religion out of her novels.  Religion is a messy thing that certain individuals get very uptight about, and so religion is frequently left entirely out of popular media.  Sometimes that’s appropriate.  Something light or irreverent or especially artsy won’t always be attempting to depict real life.

Except that religion isn’t ever left out, it lurks like an elephant in the room.  The disregard for reality leaves a created world feeling flat.  That works with Looney Tunes, but something as meaningful as Harry Potter is cheapened by avoiding the subject.

If I’ve convinced you that religion is a theme worth including and exploring, the next question is how.

I actually think religion is something that George RR Martin does well.  Martin writes about multiple religions, and also about individuals who are more or less religious.   He frequently has characters participating in religious rites or festivals, making oaths, and taking the names of the gods in vain.  He leaves the true nature of the gods ambiguous.  Characters discuss religion, and are motivated by it.

Ultimately, Martin doesn’t have very nice things to say about religion.  R’hllor seems inclined to give his power to the brutal rather than the beneficent, and that generally holds true for the many gods of Westeros and Essos.  If you’re interested in a more nuanced and even more complete exploration of religion in fiction, I would recommend Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.  The story is set largely within a monastery, and it proves to be a very good vantage for exploring 12th century England.  While there are plenty of scheming, power-hungry clergy and bad guys taking advantage of pardons for their sins, there are also legitimately good priests and monks to be found in Follett’s medieval England.

I would also recommend Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Small Gods.  Here again religion is the main theme of the story, and we see both the good and the bad in it.  But the book retains the light, comic tone that Pratchett uses throughout his Discworld series.  Religion doesn’t have to be so very serious.

Of course, your characters may live in a more modern and secular society, and religion may not be a theme you want to explore all that deeply.  That’s fine too.  Perhaps the best example here is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon.  Several times throughout the film, the titular character lists the few things in life that are really important to him;  “My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn.”  I love how, “My church,” is just another thing in that list.  The audience may not spend much time in church with Don Jon, but we don’t need to.  We know he goes regularly, along with his whole family, and that tells us a lot about the character and the world he lives in.

It’s really a matter of what you want to get across.  Merely acknowledge religion, or explore it deeply.  Damn religion, praise it, or fall somewhere in the middle.  But do yourself a favor, and write about it.

Limited Vocabulary

When I first began to write seriously, I received one particularly good piece of criticism.

“Your characters sound too modern.”

Nailing down that “timeless” narrative voice is a major struggle for anyone writing medieval-ish fantasy.  Language changes over time.  Words come and go along with advents in culture and technology.  Some words change meaning, and some evolve in spelling and pronunciation.  Others are locked away in a dusty corner of the dictionary, preserved but generally unknown.  And if you are writing about a place that is not on Earth, what do you do about the names of flora and fauna?

First, you must remember that you are writing for a contemporary audience.  Even if your character is technically wearing a “cotehardie”, you might want to call the garment a “dress” or “gown” (or “tunic” or “coat” for a man).  Forcing too many unfamiliar words on your readers is a great way to spoil the flow of your storytelling.  In general, if a smaller or more common word will work, why bother with a longer or less common one?

Of course, there are always times when you need to use the right word, even if your audience may not be too familiar with it.  That’s alright.  Just don’t make them look something up on every page; you’ll only be killing your own flow.

That brings me to “hello.”  I have had actual heated arguments about using “hello” in my medieval-ish writing.  It is semi-common knowledge that “hello” only rose to prominence with the invention of the telephone, but various forms of this attention-getting word have been used all the way back into the 1400s.  Hullo, hallo, holla, hollo, and so on.  While my characters usually great each other with “good morning” or some other time of day, I will occasionally sneak in a “hello” when it seems appropriate.  And I use “hello”, not “holla”, because I’m not writing for Elizabethans.  I’m writing for contemporary English speakers.

There are also common words that I pointedly avoid.  “Shock” is one.  While “shock” predates the discovery of electricity in the English language, the modern understanding of the word derives from the jarring sensation of touching a live wire.  It’s just easier to keep my readers in a world without electric lights if I avoid describing anyone as “shocked”.

“Galvanize” and “mesmerize” are right out, as both of those words come directly from the surnames of 19th century scientists.  I don’t use “earth” to describe dirt, soil, loam, sand, stone, or the ground.  My characters aren’t on Earth and don’t know about Earth, so why would they ever mention it?  “Infection” is another good one to avoid, even if your world has excellent magical healthcare with zero reliance on balancing humors.  My characters aren’t worried about germs and bacteria when they boil dirty water; they don’t want to be poisoned.

Diana Gabaldon has an excellent scene early on in the first book of her Outlander series, where Claire Beauchamp, a WWII nurse, tries to explain that she is a nurse to her new friends in the 18th century.  The word “nurse” originally relates only to the feeding of infants, and so the 18th century Scots think that Claire has just told them that she is a “wet-nurse”, a surrogate pair of milk-producing breasts.  It’s little relativistic touches like this that make me jump up and down and cheer when I’m reading Gabaldon’s work.

Oh yes, I am absolutely that nerdy.

I do like to mix and match a bit when it comes to the names of plants, animals, musical instruments, and items of clothing.  It comes down to readability.  If I was working on a comic book or movie, I might go ahead and invent hundreds of new species because you could actually see them on the page or the screen.  James Cameron’s Avatar and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind both create entire alien worlds to great effect — but how could I ever describe so many strange plants and animals in words alone?

So even though I write about the world of Endrion, it is peopled with humans (and elves and orks).  They have cats, dogs, horses, fish, flies, apple trees, grapevines, wheat, and so on.  I do include several species of monster or magical animal, all taken from the mythology of various cultures.  I will also invent specific species of plant or insect, and give them names that are evocative of their overall form and function.  “Moon leahs” are nocturnal flowers with bioluminescence, and “good eyes” are butterflies with gold-colored eyespots on their wings.  And you can probably guess what “pinstripe ivy” looks like.

As to clothing and musical instruments, these are items that vary in flavor but not much in overall form or function from culture to culture.  I try to use real words for the most part, and so my elves traditionally wear “obis”, those wide belts that the Japanese wear over their kimonos.  On the other hand, I wanted to give my minstrel an instrument to play that set her up as an outsider to the kingdom and culture that she lives in.  So I invented the “vesvel”, an onomatopoeia for the sound of striking the strings of an instrument similar to a guitar.

There are also subtle, grammatical rules at work if you want to sound more like JRR Tolkein and less like Terry Pratchett (no disrespect to Pratchett, his medieval-ish characters sound modern on purpose), but it all comes down to flavor.  Avoid anything too slangy, remember to add “ly” to your adverbs, and read.  Read a lot.  Eventually you’ll have a good feel for how to achieve that “timeless” narrative voice.

Sometimes it is frustrating to stick to my own rules, but limitations spur creativity.  The point isn’t to sound like Chaucer, but to impart enough of an old-timey flavor that my readers can  leave behind our high-tech age for a little while and get in touch with the rawness of the world.