Saturday, April 18, 2015

Environment as a Character

I haven't actually done too much with the environment as a character in my books. It's been highly interesting to read what each of my fellow Whores had to say this week, made mental notes for myself for the future. I've had sandstorms in my ancient Egyptian books, and done quite a bit with the edge of the Afterlife and the Lake of Fire...here's a short excerpt from Magic of the Nile where the hero is crossing through the Lake after the goddess Sekhmet has helpfully parted it for him:

Purring, Sekhmet released her grip on his arm, and he sprinted forward, into the lake, running down the center of the path she’d cleared for him. Uncanny, glowing creatures flopped on the black sands, gasping for the world of fire they normally swam in. The stench from the lakebed was overwhelming. He tried to avoid the grotesque fish and other animals as he went, nearly falling when something squished under his sandal. Catching his balance, he ventured too close to the wall of fire and a long, suckered tentacle snaked out to encircle him. He parried the blow with the shield, bringing the sword down on the thick ropy limb a second later, severing it. Accompanied by a deafening scream from below the fire’s surface, the stump withdrew into the lake. The piece curled around his waist fell away. Kicking it aside, breathing hard, Sahure broke into a run again, realizing he had to keep his distance from the boundaries.

Here are a few of my favorite movies where the environment is front and center in the story:

Dante’s Peak – the volcano, the acid lake, the earthquakes, the boiling hot springs, the flood, the lahar, the ash so thick you can’t see…and it was a pleasure to watch Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton battle through all this. I had no idea Forest Service trucks were so sturdy!

Last Days of Pompeii (the 1985 version with hunky Duncan
Regehr and Linda Purl battling the volcano)…

Twister – Bill “Going Green” Paxton and Helen “He’s with Me” Hunt chasing tornadoes of all sizes, with their merry crew…when I lived in Northern Alabama, in a tornado alley, the weather was an even bigger phobia for me than snakes. I dreamt several times I’d died in a tornado so….moving to California took care of that issue. But then, we have…

Earthquake – the kinda dumb one with Charlton Heston – and Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones (love him) and Don Cheadle (adore him), which also featured quakes along the way, and for which we saw some key scenes filmed in downtown LA one night….

Armageddon – the environment in question is outer space and an asteroid but with Billy Bob Thornton leading NASA and Bruce Willis leading the charge, we were ok.

The Day After Tomorrow, if I may add one more?

In all of these the characters had to act and react to the environment.


I apologize if this post is a bit disjointed but a very dear friend got rushed to the hospital tonight with bleeding in the brain and so I’m not at my best, waiting for updates.


Friday, April 17, 2015

When a Place Becomes a Character

 The places where stories happen matter, and not just because a story has to occur in something other than the ether - unless you are writing that kind of steampunk/Victorian thing. Setting becomes a character when it evokes a feeling in the reader. It becomes an active character when the setting foreshadows or foretells events. Setting can mirror events - the photo to the right is Pike Place Market - a setting I used in Bound by Ink. It's a cramped, claustrophobic place to meet a serial killer, don't you think? It was a great mirror for the tension in the scene - and that the ramp slops down, possibly into hell, foreshadows a few things that crop up later in that story.
 
The other option is to have the setting contrast the story action and/or the protagonist's mood. Looking at this photo of one of the lovingly restored Victorian homes in Port Townsend, WA, you can see either a beautiful old home, or a frightening, likely haunted, old mausoleum. It entirely depends on your protagonist's frame of mind - which is another great point. Setting is brilliant not just because you get to flex your descriptive muscle in the prose, but because it is a glimpse into the depths of your characters' states of mind. The protagonist and the antagonist aren't likely to see this pretty blue sky and roofline the same way if the house is the antagonist's mad scientist lair. All the sharp wrought iron will look menacing to whoever is being dragged into the  house while bound in chains. The person doing the dragging may be whistling a cheery tune because he adores how well constructed this old house is - no one can hear his victims scream! It's charming!
When you visit a place, any place, and you have an emotional response - good or bad - take a picture. Always take a picture. Even if you take terrible photos - you're storing up not just setting options - you're storing up those emotions. Your aim is to look at something like this rock formation in Ohio and recall what you felt while you were there. If you can do that, chances are you can capture that feeling on the page for your characters when you need it. (In my case, it was 'OMG, I'm looking at the passage of x number of years per layer of rock and that is the coolest thing EVER.' Yes. I'm a dork.)

This photo at left is an old gun battery emplacement in Port Townsend, WA. Fort Warden State Park. Can you not see the zombies shambling up that dirt and grass track toward you? Fine, sunny day. Warm concrete. The undead approach and you go cold. Maybe that's the other reason to take photos of places that evoke a powerful response in you - they suggest their own stories. And when that happens, it's a really good indication that the setting in question IS alive and stepping forward to help drive a character and a story.


Setting matters, but only so much as it evokes emotion, drives characters, and/or moves the plot in some fashion. The fastest and easiest way to get those things is to use a setting that already moves you. Unless you write scifi. Then please. No attempting to breathe vacuum.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Worldbuilding: Environment as Character

One of the things I love about Game of Thrones is how it uses a wide reach of locations-- both in story and in the filming.  They shoot the show in Croatia, Ireland, Iceland, Morocco, and I don't even know where else.  One of the great things Martin has done in the books-- and it translates onto the show-- is paint a large canvas of different places and different environments, and letting those environments define the character of that part of the story.
Now, if you're going to do this well, you need to do some research into biomes.  Now, there are several different definitions for the different types of biomes, different systems to define said biomes.  Most of these involve looking at the factors of temperature, moisture and elevation.  
I'm partial to the definitions in my handy Biome Key, pictured here, and based off the World Wide Fund for Nature's system.  Figuring out what biome your story is set in will define the character of your story.  Food, clothing and attitude of your people will all be drawn from the biome of their environment.  
Now, some of these distinctions may seem trivial-- how different is a Xeric Shrubland from an Arid Desert or a Subtropical Dry Forest?  But having a strong understanding of exactly what the environment is like builds the verisimilitude of your worldbuilding.
And with that, of course, is the flora and fauna.  Beyond the domesticated and edible ones, you have to think about how each of those exists in the environment.  If you're building something fantastical or science-fictional, give some consideration to the whole ecology.  How do the different creatures survive their environment, especially if it's harsh?  What do they eat?  What does what they eat eat?  How does what they eat avoid getting eaten long enough to maintain a balance.  You don't want, say, an area filled with alpha predators and very little prey.
What biomes are you writing in, and how are you distinguishing it as a unique place for your story?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Environmentality

We're discussing Environment as a character this week, and I'm going to divide my post into two points. Protagonist and Antagonist.

For arguments sake, I'm going to assume the protagonist version is a supporting character and not the main character because that is something I did in the Persephone Alcmedi series.

Here's an excerpt from HALLOWED CIRCLE, Chapter Three:
 

The breeze increased, but didn’t flutter the corn. Only the treetops danced.

"Come."

The ley line spoke!

The grove’s branches swayed, beckoning me. Then all at once the field was inviting me, stalks undulating, tassels nodding, pennant-like leaves waving me in, encouraging me to step into the row, into the arms of the stalks.

Intrigued, I laid down the sickle and succumbed to the summoning. Immediately the row stilled as the dried
leaves reached high, making an aisle for me, opening as if this procession of one moving toward that seat of power in the grove was a most welcome guest.

My steps, punctuated by the crunching of dead weeds underfoot, released aromas that combined the
smell of harvest: the scents of soil and a field of vegetation left to deteriorate and rot, withering in the wind of ever-cooler days. In the embrace of the stalks, my fingers trailed outward, feeling their dry husks, the texture of the season.

The ley line sent a pulse to acknowledge me. I expected a faint hiccup, like a little gust of wind, but this
was much stronger, like the tremor of a small earthquake under my feet or the bass drum at a rock concert thudding out its rhythm against my chest.

Something was different. Why?

"You are different."

I walked on. Great. The ley line knows I’m stained. Just what I wanted, to feel more like a freak.


In my series, the ley line is Mother Nature and she has power to share...but be careful. She bites.

 
Instead of talking about Environment as a Antagonist, I'm going to point to some previous posts.
 
A while back I posted The Happy Side of Villany and Vermin and Volcanoes, Vermin and Vices  where in I discussed JAWS, TWISTER, and ZOMBIES as villains. All three are versions of Mother Nature totally come to kick your ass.

Have a great week and ROCK ON! -Linda

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

When Mother Nature is a Character


Kawah Ijen Volcano Photo Credit: http://www.oliviergrunewald.com
There are some stories where Nature comes alive--both as benefactor and antagonist. However, unlike a mortal  villain, there are no Goals, Motivations, or Conflicts driving that wholly unpredictable character.  Or wholly predictable character.  Whichever suits your plot, Nature can be molded to fit your need. Just look to the real-world for inspiration:

The winter of 1946 held the Donner Party hostage until they'd resorted to cannibalism. Why? 'Cause...terrain+weather=Nature.


Quin Shi Huang's tomb (the one with the famous Chinese statue army) is considered too deadly to fully excavate. Why? All the traps--those planned by Emperor, those created by Nature over centuries, and those that are a mingling of the two.

The Siberian sinkholes, erm, craters that suddenly appeared? The extremely flammable methane from those holes? Why? Nature.

And if Magic is your thing--be it Magical Realism or full on High Mage Elementals--well, the environment is everything: setting, character, quest, conflict, and goal.  Think of the classic Connecticut Yankee using foreknowledge of the eclipse to "prove" his magic or James's Seven Forges (beyond the Blasted Lands, there's the whole silver hand thing).  Me? I'm working on a fantasy reason for the molten blue lava to appear as a character (in the real-world, the sulfuric gasses cause the blue glow).

One of the many beauties of building up the setting until it too is a character is that it can take an indomitable protagonist down a whole lot of pegs. It can also boost an unlikely weakling into the ranks of hero. It can make a heist far more deadly than a shoot-out, or a sea-voyage riskier than a race through the Dolomites.

And if your cast of fleshy characters is constantly in tune with Nature--viewing her as a threat or as an ally--then their relationship with and to the environment will automatically make Nature into a character. It pays to be mindful of that relationship.

So, that's a long way of saying, Nature is always a character in the story. The question is whether she's a main character or a supporting cast-member.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Environment As Character

I  don't think I can possibly stress the importance of Environment enough. 

Calling the Environment a character? Well, yes, I can see that and agree with it in an instant. 

I'll do you one better, there are cases where the environment of a short story can actually be the main catalyst or even the bad guy. That's how significant it is. 

Let's tale a look, shall we?

The Grindstone: In the case of my SEVEN FORGES series, the Blasted Lands is a punishment and a whetstone by which the people of the Sa'ba Taalor, nominally the bad guys and also the folks pictured on each and every cover, are judged by the gods. 

As a punishment, the race is settled in a valley where they have to work hard, but they can survive well enough in a livable environment. But the foolish or those who disobey their gods are cast out of that safety and throwing into the perpetual ice storm that is the Blasted Lands. 

There is food enough to live on, yes, but most of what you can eat is actively going to hunt you down and try to kill you. And most of the edibles in the Blasted Lands come with claws and teeth and are determined to live. There's a reason for all of this. The Sa'ba Taalor are supposed to be at war constantly. They live, breathe, eat and die in a state of war. The Blasted Lands is the drill instructor that pounds any idea of compassion from their bodies and spirits. Those who survive well enough can earn back the right to come home. Those who don't remain in the Blasted Lands until they die. 

To the people of the neighboring nation Fellein, the Blasted Lands are more than just an obstacle, they are unappeasable and deadly. That's because they have not been training their entire lives for war. They have been living lives of relative ease. Rest assured, the People from Fellein look at the Blasted Lands as an obstacle and an enemy alike.

Home: Environment is not just an enemy or an obstacle, it is also everything good and right in the world, depending on your mentality. In Tolkien's Middle-Earth books the hobbits inevitably dream of the Shire, the home they've been forced to leave behind by quests to protect their homes or by occasional chances fro an adventure. When walking through snow-covered mountains or slipping through the valleys of Mordor, the hobbits long for home as surely as they might long for their one true love. They long for all that they already have, and all that they have set aside. The hearth, the comfort of a comfortable chair and a good  book to read, for settling down to smoke a pipeful of tobacco while chatting with friends. They long for the idea of Home, and everything that means. 

In CITY OF WONDERS, the third book in the Seven Forges series, which I am currently writing, one of the first scenes deals with the Sa'ba Taalor invading an area that has long been considered impossible to attack and breaking through the defenses with surprising ease. In reality they are killing a familiar and comfortable character. They are murdering Home. Hopefully I manage to make that violence as terrifying as it should be. A well-loved character is being tortured and very likely killed, after all. 

The Stranger: The environment should be alive and thriving, or possibly dead and haunted. In both cases the stranger coming to visit should be in for a few surprises. 

One of my favorite parts of writing SEVEN FORGES deals with that aspect of traveling. The caravan that first moves through the Blasted Lands has a miserable time of it and has to be saved. The same group deals with meeting strangers and also with being deeply intimidated by the people another environment alike. And then because I like a little fair play, I also had the folks from that region thrown in for a little culture shock and environmental dismay when they meet new environments they have never experienced before. 

Those environments again include new peoples, new places, different weathers and in a few cases a level of natural wonder never before encountered by folk who have lived their entire lives within the confines of one valley.

Yes, the environment is a character and should be a character. I need to emphasize that said character might not always be a major player, but should be omnipresent in one form or another. Put another way, sometimes rain is just rain and sometimes we're dealing with a flood of biblical proportions. If it's just a little rain, you don't have to dwell on it. 

Just my two cents worth. 

James A. Moore


On a side note: THE BLASTED LANDS has been nominated for the David Gemmell LEGEND Award, named after the writer's first novel and set up in part to honor the impact Mr.Gemmell himself had on the genre he loved and in part to honor those who continue the tradition. So far the award (now in it's seventh year, I believe) is still in the long nomination. that is, a lot of nominees with no solid decisions to who will make the shorter list of nominees. Naturally I would love to win. just as naturally, I would love to see people actively participate in making the awards all that they can be. If you go to the hyperlink above you can see what the awards are all about and how you can add your vote. I hope you'll take the time, regardless of who you vote for, to consider voting and adding to the pool of readers deciding.

I can go on rants about awards. I won't. What I will say is that I'm thrilled to be considered. What I will also say is that I agree with fellow nominee Joe Abernathy: "The David Gemmell Legend Awards are entering their seventh year and have a new and improved website.  I’ve talked about the Gemmells in the past – in essence I’m a strong believer in them.  In the notion of something that celebrates Gemmell’s very considerable contribution to British fantasy.  In the notion of something that aims to involve as wide a range of voters as possible.  In the notion of having an award for full-on, commercial, epic and heroic fantasy which, despite its very great popularity, does tend to get somewhat ignored by a lot of the other SF&F prizes.  I’ve no particular problem with that, incidentally, it’s totally right and proper they should all have their own emphasis, but I see no harm in having one award that aims to celebrate the core, commercial epic fantasy which is, after all, bought, read and beloved by many."





Sunday, April 12, 2015

Three Ways to Add an Important Character: the Environment

When I first nursed the fragile and unlikely idea of becoming a writer, I took a class called "Essays on Self and Place." It was taught by a visiting writer at the university where I was a grad student in Neurophysiology. In other words, I felt both brave and... I'm trying to think of the right description. Not afraid so much as kind of a fraud. I didn't have any good reason to think I could make a career as a writer instead of as a scientist, as I'd planned and invested in. And I felt like every-other person I mentioned the idea to replied that, oh yes, they wanted to be a writer, too!

It's a difficult transition to make, so to all of you out there contemplating taking that step, I get it.

At any rate, I took that class with that writer mostly because of timing. I wanted to get going on seeing if I could be a writer, the evening class fit my schedule, was open to people outside the department and degree program - and sounded interesting. So much serendipity smiled on that choice.

I think I've always been strongly connected to my environment. My interest in science grew out of a love for the natural world. Where I live is vitally important to me - so much so that it took me a long time to get that not everyone felt the same way. This course, where we focused on writing about our connections to place and how they shaped us, crystallized that for me. My first published works - essays, naturally - came out of that class. Amazingly fast, too, which came as incredibly important validation for that step.

Though I've moved into writing fiction now, place still plays a vital role in my work. Sometimes deliberately - the City of New Orleans is pretty much another character in Ruby, something many readers love about that story - but place also plays a role in the world-building in my fantasy books too. At a booksigning, a reader asked me about my academic background and when I explained my crooked path from biology to fiction-writing, he nodded and said that explained so much about why my Twelve Kingdoms environment feels so intricate and real.

Which is terribly cool!

So, how to make the environment be a character? Here are three ways to start:

Pick a Place

This might seem like a no-brainer, but the place in which a story occurs is a vitally important decision. It should be more than whether this is a city or the country. If a city, how old is it? What kind of people live there? Is it coastal or land-locked? Think about how the humidity rises and falls, what kinds of storms the area experiences (see below). Even in city environments, there is wildlife, if only rats and pigeons. In rural areas, other kinds of animals might come in, particularly if looking for food because of other forces of nature like drought or a bad winter. The more detail of this sort (which doesn't all have to be on the page, see this post), the more vivid the place will be.

Know the Weather

The weather should be more than the cliché dark and stormy night. Place is profoundly impacted by how variable or steady the weather is. Is it usually cloudy and rainy like the Pacific Northwest? Is it a sunny desert? How does the changing weather - or lack of change - affect the moods of the people living there? In The Mark of the Tala and The Tears of the Rose, some of the action takes place at Windroven, a castle built on a dormant volcano on the coast. The storms and tides of that place play a role in what happens - for example, in a siege situation.

Be Aware of the Sun(s) and Moon(s)

The length of the day and night can affect what the characters can and can't do. Beyond what season it is, be aware of how early or late the sun rises and sets. What is the moon cycle? If not on earth, how do perhaps multiple moonrises affect the amount of light? A night with a full moon is very different than one with at the dark of the moon. Are the sunsets spectacular or always behind wall of fog? These things can be backdrops for scenes that help set the mood and influence the characters decisions.

Obviously this is a big topic, but there's some places to start. What details about place do you like to see in books? What's an example of a book you love where the environment feels like another character?