Working on Books

This is not my NaNo Update, it’s a generalized update of what the hell I’m doing with my time.  I continue to plug away at my NaNo novel, but I took on a job fact checking the history/mythology portions of a “coworkers(?)” book.  I’m on a tight deadline for it, which is fine, I work on it for several hours every day.

I’m making slow progress, mainly because I feel I lack the information needed to buy into the mythology and alternate history being presented to me.  Of course, I always expect this to some degree when I do one of these jobs.

I know I’m just as guilty of this as any writer, sometimes I have it all sorted in my brain and forget to tell the readers.  I feel this writer did the same thing.  Which is 100% fixable with a couple of handy dandy rewrites.  That’s why we create drafts.

The problem for me arises because it annoys me that I can do this to someone else’s book, take it apart and point out the logistical problems as well as parts that are lacking in information needed to understand the narrative, but can’t do it in my own books.  Because as I said, we all do it.

Sometimes, I don’t think readers realize how hard it is to create a brand new universe in which different things happened, often with only the barest bones to go on.  For example, any fictional book set in Atlantis, does not have much to begin with, it is only mentioned a few times by a single author.  I’ve done an Atlantis based thing in the Brenna Strachan series.  But in it, I placed a completely fictional framework dictated not by the myths of Atlantis, but on the myths associated with my characters.  That made it much easier to work with.

However, the creation of an entire civilization whether it be Atlantis or Mu or Lemuria is  incredibly complicated.  The writer first has to decide whether their society is going to hold true to norms of other societies at the time or if they are going to strike out and do their own thing.  And if they don’t mimic other societies… There is a lot that goes into a civilization.  This is something I am oddly familar with, not because I learned it in a writing class, but because I took an anthropology/archaeology class in high school.  The final for the class was that we were divided into 2 groups and each had create a brand new civilization (that included all 7 identifying factors of a civilization).  Then we had to break up our artifacts, bury them in the ground, dig up the other team’s artifacts and attempt to decipher the fictional language, interpret their societal structure, identify their religious system and at least some god figure within it, and write a summary on their culture.  We got points when our summary items matched the summary items of the opposing team on their creation worksheet.

It was a terrible thing.  I learned I do not like to be dirty during that mock dig.  I was fine with being the recorder of information, as long as it wasn’t my hands in the dirt and like that, I knew I couldn’t be an archaeologist.  However, I never thought I would use that information again.  Then I decided to write a piece of paranormal fiction.  And suddenly all those things were important.  I know have a checklist for creating fictional civilizations and societies and I fill it out when I start a brand new society.

I got off easy with the Nephilim Narratives, very easy, because there was already an angelic hierarchy to draw upon as well as a mirror hierarchy among demons.  The only thing I had to do for this society was explain how it happened.  How did angels come to live among man and battle against the possessed?  Simple enough really, especially since the religious structure and hierarchy were already there…

And those two things are very tightly interwoven.  Whenever I look at a piece of historical fiction or something like this, which is not historical fiction, but the writer would like to get it as close to historically correct as possible is what kind of leader is there?  I don’t mean a benevolent leader v. not so nice.  I mean is it a king?  If yes, is it a god king?  Is it a divine right king?  There is a serious difference and it shapes how society works.  The best example of a God King comes from Egypt.  Ancient Egyptians believed their pharaohs were the physical embodiment of the god Horus.  As such, an Egyptian pharaoh could do no wrong really… except Akhnaten, who decided to tell Egyptians he was not Horus and that they should be monotheistic – it didn’t go over well.

Whereas a divine right king, is more like Louis XIV of France, in this instance, he rules by divine providence, he is not a divine being himself.  Louis’ position was tenuous though, with many deciding God was punishing them for Louis being on the throne, sending them a horrible famine in which peasants were eating tree bark and grass to survive.  Eventually, the peasants and nobles revolted, and beheaded Louis who had obviously gone astray and God was punishing his people for it.  He was not infallible and God was quite capable of forsaking him, which doesn’t happen with god kings.

This single idea shapes social hierarchies.  Because you can dethrone and behead a divine right king much easier than a god king.  Even Akhnaten the Heretic was not beheaded or dethroned in Ancient Egypt, because doing so would bring the wraith of the gods down on the people.  Also, with god kings, nobles have less power as in lords, dukes, etc. (they weren’t called this in Ancient Egypt, but it’s basically what they were).  Giving them less power meant they could do far less if a pharaoh stepped out of bounds.  But I digress a bit.

So when creating a totally new civilization for a book or series of books, you need to know what kind of political structure is in place, as it determines what sorts of confines are placed on the characters.  We don’t think about it, but any early civilization needs a few things, are they wearing clothing made of cotton, linen, wool, silk, leather?  What’s the climate?  You can’t have everyone running around in wool clothing in a tropical zone, the death toll just from heat related illnesses would be very high.  But if you can’t grow cotton or flax, what do you use for clothing for your characters?  If you say they are all wearing cotton tunics, a reader assumes a supply of cotton is available.  But again, if you have everyone wearing heavy cotton tunics near the equator at some point, a reader will comment on it, probably in a review, because it’s going to break the spell the book has for them.

And as the reader’s review gets read, it’s going to affect other readers.  People who do not think about what sorts of clothing should be worn in a tropical zone is going to read the review and then as they read the book it’s going to dawn on that reader that it doesn’t make sense.  It could affect their review at which point, you’d have 2 reviews talking about it and that could snowball.

It sounds silly, but remember I have a review of the Strachan novels that dings me for demons running around the planet.  They said “It couldn’t happen, that’s not the way it works.”  My gut reaction to that review was “did they forget it was a fiction novel?”  But as I thought a little more about it, I realized what they were really saying was that some inconsistency between what they know and what they read caused them to stop and go WTF?!

Because all readers bring their understandings and experience to reading even a work of fiction.  Whether that’s fair or not, is up for debate, but as someone who enjoys Stephen King novels, I know why the first 25% of his novels are hard to get through.  I usually skip that huge portion, but that portion is his world building section.  That’s where he lays out the rules that govern that book.  If, in the first 25% of The Stand, we were told that men and women had been treated equally for thousands of years, we would have gone what?  No, they weren’t.  They still aren’t.  And without an explanation, this piece of information would have been jarring and we wouldn’t have had the experience to understand it.  We would require him to give us more context, in what ways were they treated equally?

Here’s the thing, the reason that happens in every King novel is because he has crafted a universe very far away from the expectations and experiences of his readers.  The Stand, The Shining, It, Pet Cemetery, Rose Madder, The Dark Tower Series, all these books take place in the same universe and it isn’t our universe.  So he has to explain it every time we open a book, that way we realize we are not in this Maine, we are in an alternate Maine, one that exists in a reality we don’t live in and so things are different and we have to be given that information to understand it, to connect with characters, to keep us from being jerked out of the book to scratch our heads and ask WTF?!

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