When I was in high school, there was a talent-type show in the auditorium. The student council performed a skit. I did some stand-up comedy poking fun at the school. One guy rapped.
Now, this rapping guy was notorious around the school. He was the type of teenage boy who thought he was cooler than he actually was, and thought he had more buddies than he actually did. He tried to wear a gangster image that fit him like a cheap Halloween mask. This guy didn’t spend high school crammed into a locker or anything — but his name was certainly a punch line among the student body.
So this guy got up on stage and began his rap. He made a decent rapper, in my thoroughly amateur opinion. But that wasn’t the issue. It was the sheer fact that he was on a stage in front of the whole school, nonchalantly wearing this persona that everyone made fun of. It was a firing range. Some kids booed. A few threw fruit, paper wads and whatever else their school bags could provide.
As a sandwich came flying at his head, the rapper stopped his performance and caught it. He was done rapping. Even he could tell it wasn’t going so well. But he stood there and took a bite of that sandwich. The tables had turned: the rapper had a free sandwich and the thrower was presumably missing some of his lunch. I saw it as a turnabout, anyway, or maybe even a victory — even though the rapper walked off the stage with people still heckling. That classy sandwich catch raised my respect for the rapper considerably. Hey, if you can manage that level of aplomb, then do whatever you want and let the haters hate.
I would have forgotten that rapping guy along with many other high school. But a few years ago, while I was waitressing at a little sushi restaurant, the rapping guy turned up as a customer. I’m not sure if he remembered me as the stand-up comedy chick (or as anything else). All I did was take his order and bring him some food. I didn’t see a reason to bring up long-gone high school, because it’s not like I knew him as a person. I know him for that inspiring scene he made. By catching a sandwich, he lodged a scene in my head — one pinned in place with the kind of character tropes and morals I associate with books and TV shows and video games, not real life.
But inspiring things happen even in our ordinary lives, and they gain meaning when we think about them. Characters walk among us. There’s potential fiction everywhere.
◦ Purple dinosaur earrings and other telling details (heidicvlach.com)
◦ The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time (heidicvlach.com)
◦ The meaning of book titles: how I named the Stories of Aligare (heidicvlach.com)
In our English language conversations, sometimes we want to suggest that the details aren’t really important. We might indicate this with an interjection — like “anyway”, or “at any rate”. In Aligare society, people express the same sentiment, but they don’t typically say “anyway” or “at any rate”. Instead, they say “at any pace” — or “anypace” for short.
Judellie blew a jet of smoke through her grinning teeth. “He doesn’t sound so good to me.”
Rue couldn’t help a smile. “You shouldn’t say things like that. Not where folk can hear you, anypace.”
-Chapter 5 of Render (A story of Aligare)
As Felixi turned away, he nodded. It was a movement brief as a heartbeat, but Rue felt it an accomplishment anypace.
-Chapter 9 of Render (A story of Aligare)
Why this detail? Well, I thought it was important that these non-human folk have a few minor — but striking — differences from our Earth conversations. They’re supposed to be understandable, but not fully familiar. How better to do that than with some simple turns of phrase we don’t usually use? I know I’ve never heard another human say, “That’s what I think, at any pace.”
In a deeper sense, though, “anypace” reflects the understanding between Aligare’s three peoplekinds. Everyone has their own skill sets and abilities, and their own ways of arriving at a destination. Everyone is different; Aligare society always tries to respect that. So when someone says, “at any pace”, they basically mean to say, “However we get there and however long it takes, we’re arriving at the same conclusion.” It’s acknowledging that there’s no One Right Way to get goals accomplished.
But still, it’s a casual phrase. Aligare folk don’t think about the significance as much as I do.
◦ The power of one descriptive word (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Korvitongue (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Teas and tisanes: what’s in a name? (heidicvlach.com)
Lately, my mind is mostly on my upcoming collection of dragon short stories. Not the NaNoWriMo murder mystery I’m supposed to be hammering out, haha, oops. I’ve just always found dragons fascinating. All of human culture has, it seems, because there are so many dragon-like things scattered across our folklore.
Dragons are pretty much always amazing creatures in their mythologies. Most can fly, whether they have wings or not, and there are few things humans envy more than a naturally flighted creature. But dragons aren’t the delicate little birds and bugs we’re used to seeing in the air. They’re beings of great size, power, longevity and/or wisdom. Sometimes they have fire breath, poisonous blood or other dangerous skills. Sometimes they are wise, benevolent creatures, guarding water sources or teaching speech to humans. Whether humans are supposed to slay them or worship them, dragons just seem to demand human attention. They represent a thick stew of our primal fears and desires.
In the last 50 years or so, mainstream English fantasy books have added some new ideas to the mix. Dragon-riding is probably the most notable. Dragons were mostly evil monsters in Western culture, even in Tolkien’s highly influential works. But this idea suddenly caught on that dragons could be loyal companions who help protect humanity. Maybe that was influenced by the kind-hearted Eastern dragons? Maybe people just realized that dragons would be even cooler if we didn’t need to go out and murder them? Who knows.
So we’re all confident we know what a dragon is, and yet there are so many angles to approach the idea from. Dragons kidnapping princesses because that’s just what dragons do. Dragons guarding something valuable — golden treasure or golden knowledge — that humans want to take because that’s just what humans do. Flight and companionship and bravery, being shared one way or another between humans and dragons. There are so many ways to spin the concept. That’s why I’m trying to hit as many of those angles as possible in my short story collection.
In the Stories of Aligare, I already took the companion dragon concept in a different direction. In the development of the Aligare world, I wanted to take the idea of ally dragons and make the dragons more mundane. More typical to see walking around in a town. So korvi folk are like weird little friendly birds compared to most Earth dragons — but by Aligare standards they’re large, strong and courageous in combat. They have the gift of flight and all the freedom that comes with it. So korvi are dragons and yet they’re regular, relatable people in their society. It would be hard to do that in a world with humans.
But the short story collection is letting me play with more human-centric concepts of dragons. I’ve got two standout favourite stories so far:
1) A wise queen tries to befriend and negotiate with the dragon who kidnapped her all the time when she was a princess.
2) Small, magical dragons are the dominant race and they use humans to power their magicpunk flying machines. Y’know, so the dragons are riding the humans.
These subversions seem obvious to me, but I haven’t seen them around nearly enough.
So to answer the question “what do dragons represent to us?”, I’d say they’re the embodiment of the fantasy genre itself. Dragons can be very familiar and predictable, like the comfort food of speculative fiction. Or they can be radically different from everything else out there — yet still recognizable. I think we can all agree that that’s pretty neat.
◦ Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for? (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Chimera creatures in mythology: why are they so familiar? (heidicvlach.com)
The other day at my restaurant day job, three young women came in for dinner. They asked for their waitress friend to serve them — let’s call the waitress Madison because that’s her name. Madison wasn’t working that day, though. When she heard that her friends ate at her workplace, she asked which server they got.
The friends reported that they didn’t remember their server’s name, but she was wearing purple dinosaur earrings.
“Oh, that’s Heidi,” Madison instantly said.
The details of someone’s appearance can be really distinctive. I don’t mean the details they can’t control, like their body type or face shape. No, I mean the telling ways they arrange themselves. The colours they like to wear. Whether they always look clean and pressed, or they usually look like they’ve just rolled out of bed. Whether their accessories are personally meaningful or just one of a hundred trinkets in their roster. We make a lot of minor decisions when we pick what to wear. Those decisions aren’t just items on a visual checklist: those decisions tend to reflect who we are.
And my purple dinosaur earrings are distinctive enough that they stand out in my coworkers’ minds. When Madison told this story and got to “purple dinosaur earrings”, the other servers knowingly grinned. Heidi likes vivid shades of purple, and awesome stuff like dinosaurs. When those two things combine, even better! Awesome purple dinosaurs! I like to think that if Heidi the waitress were a book character, those earrings would imply a lot about who she is — more than a laundry list of her height, weight and hair colour.
- Flashback post: What maturity means (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Dogs in Aligare (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Aligare wildlife: the sylph (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
I didn’t intend this drawing to be Constezza. It might be her as a younger woman, I guess. I was just thinking about warmth and other fire analogies.
◦ Korvi and their eggshells (heidicvlach.com)
◦ The structure of Aligare homes (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Korvi festival ties (heidicvlach.com)
For years now, November has been an exciting time for me. Because November is National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo for short — and I like to participate. Or at least hang out with the local participants.
In past years, I’ve used NaNoWriMo to quickly hash out a story set in the Aligare world. Ravel was originally a 50 000-word mystery-drama story completed in one month. I didn’t like that draft much. The mystery part was pretty clumsy. I dreaded fleshing it out into a more typical 80 000-word novel — but the core relationship between Aster and Llarez was kind of charming. So I hacked away all the plot points I didn’t like and ended up with the 14 000-word romantic friendship story that Ravel is today. Who knows how long I would have struggled with that story if NaNoWriMo hadn’t pushed me to pour words out now and edit later?
That’s the real strength of NaNoWriMo: it encourages you to finish. Just finish. It’s okay if the novel you’re writing is the biggest steaming pile of awfulness ever composed: we can fix it later. New and/or young writers often find NaNoWriMo encouraging for that reason — plus the community spirit of many people writing messy drafts together. Sometimes those messy drafts have potential, viewed later in the cold light of December. Even if one’s NaNo draft is nowhere near publishable, it can be tons of fun.
Because one of the staples of NaNoWriMo is accepting truly random writing prompts. Your story has gotten stuck? Well, what would happen if the heroes’ car broke down? Or someone found a lost pet monkey? Or a secondary character revealed that he’s actually an alien? Or if the entire plot so far has been a delusion forced on your hero by an evil psychic wizard? Anything can happen, and sometimes you stumble across cool ideas. The Night Circus — a book that spent seven weeks in the New York Times Best Seller list — came about when Erin Morgenstern got bored with her NaNo novel and had her characters randomly go to the circus.
But in more recent years, I haven’t been using NaNoWriMo for my Stories of Aligare: I’ve been turning to NaNoWriMo as a refresher. To run away from the Aligare world on a mad, commitment-free tangent. This year I’m writing a murder mystery with a fairy forensic investigator. Last year, in October 2012, I was sick of struggling with Render (A story of Aligare) and I found it very helpful to write some random other thing for a month. I came back to Render with fresh eyes in December. My previously frustrating story now looked wonderfully structured — although I couldn’t throw in spontaneous ninja battles like during NaNoWriMo. (Well, I could throw spontaneous ninja battles into the Stories of Aligare, strictly speaking. But you know what they say about great power and great responsibility.)
I always sympathize with authors locked into big publishing contracts for five, six, seven books in the same series. Don’t know about anyone else, but I go stir-crazy when I dwell on the same ideas for too long. And that’s why a scheduled month of reckless nonsense is something I wholeheartedly embrace.
◦ Flashback post: why I built a peaceful fantasy world (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Trying to write colourfully (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Headcanon means joining in (heidicvlach.com)
Whew, well. Thanksgiving weekend was much busier than I anticipated. I’m usually too optimistic about how my holidays will go and whether I’ll be able to write some kind of coherent blog content.
But I did answer some interview questions! I’m hosted today by Gary Vanucci, author of the Realm of Ashenclaw series. We met on Twitter — as fantasy authors often do.
Click here to read the interview. I touch on topics like how I got started writing, my favourite Aligare character, and whether I prefer chocolate or vanilla.