On deserts

Arrakis. Tatooine. Mars. The desert is a compelling setting in science fiction. Some of our greatest stories are told against the backdrop of dry, baked rock and harsh sands. And that is by no means limited to the scientific. No, all types of literature have ventured into the desert for a good tale. Modern fantasy (Deadhouse Gates, The Thousand Names) loves the setting. Movies old (Lawrence of Arabia) and new (The Mummy) find it to be the most spectacular of scenery.

Why? What is it that draws us to the desert, this most inhospitable of climes? And how, as writers, can we make use of that? Read on for my thoughts on the matter.

Full of emptiness

One definition of “desert” is any region averaging less than 250 mm (10 inches) of annual rainfall. That doesn’t require extreme heat, like the Sahara or the Mojave; the Gobi is a desert, as is Antarctica, but you’d never confuse either of those for hot. This lack of precipitation, though, makes the desert what it is: a seemingly barren, lifeless stretch of emptiness.

But we know it isn’t. Life on Earth is ubiquitous, finding a foothold everywhere we look. Even in the harshest, driest regions, life finds a way. Dig down into the Sonora or Atacama, and you’ll find bacteria. And on the macro scale, you often have cacti, carrion birds, and the like. So the desert isn’t lifeless. It just looks that way compared to a lush grassland.

Already, we see one part of the desert’s allure. That emptiness, that loneliness, can be a powerful reflection of the same feelings within oneself. Here we see a place not conducive to the kind of life we live, and that leaves us feeling alone. Deserted, to put it bluntly.

Deserts evoke loneliness not just for the lack of notable flora and fauna, but also for the lack of civilization. Maybe it’s different for, say, Bedouins, but Westerners, I think, see a desert as a stretch of nothing. We see endless sands, perhaps some broken hills, and the occasional oasis. It’s not like in more hospitable lands, where we can walk a mile or two to find a new farm or town. Even in older days, when civilization wasn’t as urbanized, when populations weren’t as densely packed, you didn’t have such barren wilderness between settlements.

Thus, a desert is, in a sense, a metaphor. Someone lost in the desert is alone, wandering. Cut off from civilization, from the simple pleasure of another person’s company. That’s powerful.

Warning signs

Deserts are also dangerous. Not just from the heat or lack of water, but what wildlife there is tends to be aggressive and deadly. It has to be, in order to survive. So deserts are the abode of scorpions and snakes, of prickly, poisonous plants. That, again, draws us to them.

Maybe that doesn’t make sense at first, but think about it. Some of the most gripping tales of humanity are those of survival. That’s why we can have a movie like 127 Hours, or a whole subgenre of reality TV dedicated to people wandering around lost in places no sane person would ever go, drinking their own urine and eating whatever insects landed on them during their first nap in three days. We like seeing people survive. We want to see the odds beaten.

Nowhere on Earth are the odds more stacked against us than the desert. There’s almost nothing to eat, nothing to drink. There are no amenities, not even the most basic. Friendly faces are few and far between. When our intrepid heroes finally do make it out alive, we cheer that much more.

This even extends into a class of stories that might best be described as “campaign fiction”. Most common in fantasy, these are the stories of a military or paramilitary unit making not a last stand, but a death march. It may be the main thrust of the tale, or just a subplot, but the chronicle of this doomed army makes for a wonderful read.

Cut off from supply lines, forced to forage in a foreign land where that just isn’t possible, they must make their way to some distant, dubious goal. Along the way, they face trials and conflicts, whether from their surroundings, the locals, or themselves. People die, from hunger and thirst, from battles, from knives in the dark. Every stop—usually an oasis, spring, or abandoned village—sees the force whittled down a little bit more, until, battered but not broken, they reach the end, where their final test awaits.

As a reader of fantasy, I’ve seen this one quite a few times. Some examples include Dany’s march in A Clash of Kings (George R. R. Martin), the epic Chain of Dogs sequence in Deadhouse Gates (Steven Erikson), and the Holy War of The Warrior Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought (R. Scott Bakker).

To be fair, these grand adventures aren’t limited to deserts. You can have a death march on a tropical island, or across forested hills and valleys. (Bataan and the Trail of Tears are examples from the real world.) But the desert heightens the danger. Here’s a place where one wrong step could be the end, and you’re forced to make all wrong steps. When you reach the end, the payoff is that much greater.

Using the land

If you want to use a desert as a setting for your own works, keep that in mind. Deserts are harsh, unforgiving, and yet they possess an undeniable beauty. As a backdrop, as a location, you need to retain all of those qualities, while still juggling the needs of your story. It’s tough, but doable, and the reward is a moving tale of human ingenuity under duress.

Remember to set the stage. People from wetter lands going into a desert are, in a sense, entering an alien environment. Thus, you probably want to use environmental storytelling to show off how they react to their surroundings. (Or, sometimes equally important, how their surroundings act to them.) If this story is supposed to involve an extended stay in the desert, without the benefit of civilization, technology, or other aids, then survival will likely play a large role. That goes double for a desert march or military campaign.

As the desert is a lonely place, it also makes a good environment for introspection. Without outside pressures, it’s perfect for setting up small-scale interpersonal drama. And the hauntingly beautiful views are a great place to practice your descriptive prose. All in all, the desert is the writer’s paradise. It’s strange, really, that such a barren land can be so fruitful for an author. It constrains, yet that somehow makes it liberating.

Not every story, not every genre, can benefit from the desert. But many of them can. It’s a wonderful place, one we come back to again and again, and there has to be a reason for that. There’s something in the desert that speaks to us, something that makes a good story great. Maybe it’s a mirage, or maybe it’s why we keep fighting in the Middle East. Whatever the reason, it is a great place to escape to, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.

Let’s make a language, part 28a: Entertainment (Intro)

Entertainment, in some fashion, has been around since the dawn of humanity. Though our ancestors may not have conceived of streaming music, photorealistic video games, or 4K movies, they had their own pastimes, their own ways to amuse themselves. Thus, it stands to reason that languages, even those spoken by less-than-modern cultures, will have a wide array of vocabulary related to entertainment.

Having fun

Everyone plays. The idea of play, of games and amusement, may be a cultural universal. We can’t work all the time, even if political forces seem to want to push us in that direction. Different peoples, of course, will have different forms of play. Today, we have a number of sports, as well as video games, toys, and other such diversions, but “play” is a common enough concept that essentially any language will have a native term for it.

What kinds of play can we expect from the speakers of a particular language, though? As usual, it’s a very culture-specific question, with a good dose of technological bias thrown in for good measure, but we can sketch an outline based on those common threads throughout the world.

First off, a lot of the traditional “equipment” of play pops up in various forms. Balls, for instance, appear in most cultures in some form. Depending on what technology a group of people have, they might make them from animal bladders, rubber, wood, ivory, or modern materials like plastic. But they’re always going to start out roughly the same: a sphere. The games will vary wildly, but even then they come down to a few basics. Moving a ball into a goal, for instance, is the chief objective in football (either kind), basketball, billiards, etc. It’s only the ways in which you move that ball that change.

Sticks or bats are also common for “sport” type play; look at baseball and hockey as two examples. Nets, baskets, rings, and other objects may find their way in, too. Sports, though, have a tendency to spread even to neighboring cultures, and they can take their vocabulary with them. Take football, a word that circles the globe in various guises, while also describing no fewer than four distinct variations.

Child’s play is another realm where native terminology tends to arise, because so much of the field is so…basic. Dolls are fairly universal. Kites can appear anywhere the materials are present. And, though some may not approve of it today, older cultures very frequently gave their children mock or training weaponry. All of these can find themselves named with native roots, or words borrowed very early on, and you only have to look at the toy aisle of your favorite store to find other inspiration. (Look for the “traditional” toys.)

On the adult side of things, play tends to reflect the cultural expectations of grown men and women, but gambling is another area where each culture develops its own style. Dice, for example, are a good option for independent invention; making good, fair dice is difficult, and actually takes some knowledge of geometry, but you can get a game going with something rough. Cards are a bit harder—they really need paper or very thin wood, at the least—but well within a pre-industrial society’s means.

Win, lose, or draw

Competition is the impetus behind most kinds of play. Sports are, like warfare, clashes involving strategy and tactics. So is a game of chess or go. Winning and losing are such fundamental concepts that it’s hard to imagine a language not having native terms for them. A draw or tie may not provide the same satisfaction as the others, but it could be common enough for a culture to give it its own word, too.

Depending on how a culture’s style of competition develops, a number of other terms can arise. If the speakers of a language prefer games involving, say, moving a ball towards a line or goal zone, then “score” and “goal”, among others, will likely become important concepts. And sports and games can become so ingrained into the social fabric that these words then find themselves in idioms, metaphors, and other phrases throughout the language. We speak of a “home run” in America with the assumption that everyone understands it, and the same goes for “touchdown”, “three-pointer”, and a number of other sports-related terms. (Cricket, on the other hand, is impenetrable to most Americans—including myself—which is why some British figures of speech referencing it don’t quite translate.)

Other competitions can also fall under this same banner. We don’t often consider, say, weightlifting or horseback riding to be sports (outside of the Olympics), but they can offer their own contribution to the vernacular. And many games are so generic (in the sense that they have little “specialization”) that they can use existing terminology, yet give it new connotations. “Pawn”, to give one example, refers mostly to the chess piece, but that definition only arose when chess began to use a word indicating a low person moved about by another.

Art for art’s sake

Another form of entertainment is art. Now, art is a huge topic, easily worthy of its own set of posts, but we’ll stick to the highest level here. And we’ll include music, song, and theater, as well as the visual arts like painting or sculpture. All of these are possible in a culture, and all those that culture develops on its own will likely spawn a host of vocabulary. Much of that will then find its way into the common tongue: “backdrop”, “broad strokes”, etc.

Again, the types of art most likely to be described by native terms are specific to the culture, but also specific to an era. English music theory borrows heavily from Italian, for instance, because of that language’s influence in classical and later music, but modern inventions like “riff” and “EP” also exist, spread by American cultural influence.

Most kinds of art, however, are universal, or so close to it that you can freely develop a sizable list without worrying about outside influence. Singing is older than humanity—birds do it—and some of our oldest man-made artifacts are paintings. Sure, the more technical terms might be imported, especially if there’s a rich, vibrant culture right next door that already worked it all out for you. But the basics are everywhere, and everyone will call them by something different.

Playtime’s over

With this part, I think the Let’s Make a Language series has run its course. Most other parts of a language can be better handled by more specific posts that don’t focus on illustrating with our example conlangs, and I’ll be doing that sometime in the coming months. Otherwise, I believe you can take it from here. Over the next two weeks, I’ll put up the Isian and Ardari words for this particular topic, and I’ll try to do another long-form translation early next year. Until then, have fun with your own creations, and I hope to see you soon.

Otherworld talk 7

If the previous episode, Situational Awareness, was the high point of Chronicles of the Otherworld, sometimes I think its followup, A Peace Shattered, is the lowest. I don’t know why, honestly. It just doesn’t seem to stack up. It comes between two of my favorite parts, but it doesn’t compare to either of them. Maybe you feel differently, though. Anyway, let’s talk.

Shattered

First off, I will freely admit that I had a hard time coming up with a plot for this one. All along, Chronicles was intended to be 8 parts, each with 8 chapters. It was a formula. And after I finished up Situational Awareness, I saw how to plan out the ending. But I had nothing to cover the weeks in between.

Thus was born the kidnapping sequence. It’s not my best, but I think it does an okay job of filling the gap. It’s plausible, and the actors involved might conceive of such a scheme. It ties up a loose end (Olof, from Episodes 5 & 6) while setting out another (Elgaan, who will be a thorn in Lee’s side for a while). It also brings together a few disparate parts of the expedition, connecting Ryan, Lee, Jenn, and Amy.

The natives don’t have a real police force. They don’t have a dedicated investigator to help solve the mystery of the disappearing doctor. That fits neatly into Jenn’s idea of herself as a vigilante (Episodes 4 & 6). On the other hand, Lee spends much of the time frustrated by a cultural difference: he isn’t allowed to participate in the investigation or interrogation, as he’s considered too partial.

There’s a lot of barely restrained rage on his part, a sharp contrast to the easygoing Lee of the first six episodes. And maybe contrast is what I was going for in this one, because a lot of characters end up acting different. But this is an emergency. One of their own has been taken, so they have to get serious.

Discovery

The second subplot for this episode is the quick dig, with the bizarre trio of Alex, Jeff, and Ayla going back to the site of their arrival to find some answers. Well, they don’t find all of them, but they do get the big one: the timeline.

From the beginning, I imagined the Otherworld as a place first visited before the Ice Age. The Altea, whoever they were—even I don’t know yet—came from Earth, emigrating permanently once the glaciers started melting. True victims of climate change, if you will. They were technologically advanced, compared both to their Neolithic neighbors and the modern inhabitants of America, but they died out long ago, when their second world began to suffer the fate of their first. (This one comes into play a bit later.) The site in Mexico was not their only gateway between worlds, but it’s the only one in friendly territory, you might say.

We saw some evidence of advancement back in Episode 4, the first time our intrepid heroes began nosing around the site’s underground. Here we get even more, as well as ironclad proof of the timeline. That was an idea I had long before I started writing this episode. If the Otherworld can have some animals otherwise extinct (American horses, northern peccaries and tapirs, etc.), then why not others? Why not one of the most famous Ice Age extinctions of all? And that plants the seed in the characters’ minds, too: if these are here, what else is?

So the archaeological dig without any archaeologists finds two things that completely rewrite history. That’s the bombshell of the series, even more than the very existence of the Otherworld. But I like to think I played it well. The Altea didn’t guide Paleo-Indians or their Otherworld cousins. None of the native creations of the Americas belong to them, with the exception of the sites like Tamaulipas. And it’s mostly the same on the other side. By the time the Mayans came around, the Altea were nothing more than dust; by the time the expedition arrives in the Otherworld, they’re only remembered as legends.

Setup

After this, there’s only one episode left in the season. The finale, if you will, and it takes a bit of a different approach. So will I, in these talks, so I’m going to talk a bit about it now. First off, it uses a bit of a different structure. Because so many things are going on, it doesn’t follow the usual “POV rotation”. Instead, the first six chapters whip around, each following a single day of the story and changing focus as needed. Alex, Jenn, and Amy get a higher proportion of the attention, but that’s because they have more to do. Chapter 7 is even more different, as it’s made up of seven scenes, one for each character. And the final chapter of the season is an epilogue: five scenes, one each for the four expedition members who never got a chance to speak, and the last for their honorary twelfth member.

I’ll talk more about the happenings of Episode 8, titled Long Road’s End, after it’s out. But I’ll gladly say that it was a fun, enjoyable experience. It was a pleasure to write, unlike this one, where I sometimes felt like quitting. It’s a good thing I didn’t, as I hope you’ll see soon.

Novel Month 2017 – Day 30, evening

And that’s a wrap. No, the novel isn’t finished. But the month is, and I think I’ve done enough work to call this a victory. I completed the goals I set for myself 30 days ago. I set a new personal record for most words written in a month. I still have the final 4 chapters to write, but those should go down in the next few days.

Before we get to the wrap-up, here’s the final stats.

This session’s word count: 4,114
Total word count: 136,613
Daily average: 4,553
Last year’s total: 103,626

Now, on to my thoughts about the month as a whole.

First off, I am never doing this again. Not at this level, anyway. Over 135,000 words in a month? If you suggested that in October, I’d have called you crazy. Now, after doing it, I’m ready to call myself crazy. Seriously, this month wore on me more than any other period of writing I can remember.

Back in June (I think?), when I was writing The Shape of Things, I actually quit for over a week, because I was just tired of the story. This time, I really didn’t have that luxury. I had committed myself to The Soulstone Sorcerer. And there were times when I hated that decision. I still don’t completely like the story, even at this late stage. Maybe I can write an ending that will leave me feeling better about it, but I don’t know.

If the quality isn’t up to my own personal standards, then the quantity certainly was. I don’t know what possessed me this month, but this is definitely the most prolific I’ve ever been. (Maybe I wanted to get it out of the way. I did feel that way sometimes.) I started out with 5375 words in the first day, about double last year’s opening, and I think that set the tone. I kept a daily average of at least 4500 until the 13th, and the only real reason I lost that streak was because of my bizarre sleeping schedule.

Could I keep that pace with a story I truly enjoyed? I doubt it. For this one, I persevered out of sheer stubbornness a lot of the time, boredom the rest. If I had anything else to do at all, I’d never have come close to 136K.

I’ll keep going to finish this book, and I hope that won’t take more than a week. Next year, I think I’ll have to find something that won’t run 400+ pages, because I’m tired. I’m exhausted. As soon as this one’s done, I want to curl up into a ball and ignore my keyboard until January. I know I can’t, because I have other things to do (like editing, and making a cover for that pesky Linear Cycle paperback). But I think this will be the last story I write in 2017, barring some unforeseen flash of inspiration.

As always, it’s been fun, though maybe not as much this time around. Regular posts start back up next week, and here’s to 6 in a row!

Novel Month 2017 – Day 29, evening

We’re nearing the end of both the month and the novel. Chapter 25 goes down, leaving only 5 to go. Four of those will be of the “climactic battle” variety, while the last ties up some of the loose ends and sets others aside for the potential sequel. (No, I don’t have the first thing planned for that one. Ask again this time next year.)

Tomorrow, I’ll do a lot of wrapping up, and I hope to get a few more stats put up. Obviously, this is the last day for the projected word count, but I’d like to look back and see just how prolific a writer I’ve been this month.

This session’s word count: 5,157
Total word count: 132,499
Daily average: 4,568
Last year’s cumulative total: 100,805
Projected word count: 137,067

Novel Month 2017 – Day 28, evening

Chapter 24, done. Six chapters to go, and we may have our first actual sighting of the villain. Yay, me. Not much else to say. I’m getting close to the end of this novel, and I hope I can keep this up until I make it there. Shouldn’t be too long now. Oh, and Rudolph comes on tonight, which is as good a sign as any that November is about done. Bring it on, Christmas!

This session’s word count: 4,917
Total word count: 127,342
Daily average: 4,547
Last year’s cumulative total: 98,540
Projected word count: 136,437

Novel Month 2017 – Day 27, evening

That one took a lot longer than I thought. Chapter 23 is done, thankfully, but the little streak I mentioned yesterday had to end, because this particular chapter (all setup, really) ran a bit long. That’s okay, though. I’m down to 7 to go, I think. Next up is a not-quite-travelogue, and then comes the action. The climax. The easy part, right?

This session’s word count: 4,575
Total word count: 122,425
Daily average: 4,534
Last year’s cumulative total: 96,528
Projected word count: 136,027

Novel Month 2017 – Day 26, evening

So this is a pretty odd pattern, but it seems to be working. Finish the chapter you start yesterday, then write the first bit of the next one. I can live with that, especially since I’m closing in on that ending. Chapter 23 is kind of the jumping off point for that, the part where our heroes set out on their ultimate quest. I’m planning for 30 chapters total, so that should work.

This session’s word count: 5,006
Total word count: 117,850
Daily average: 4,532
Last year’s cumulative total: 93,410
Projected word count: 135,980

Novel Month 2017 – Day 25, evening

A little bit later today, but I’ve been writing off and on throughout the day. Trust me on that one. I finished Chapter 21 and started 22, and I’m in that hardest part of the book now: the part just before the ending. Basically, it’s all setup work for the next couple of days. That’s boring, slow, and really hard to do, but I’ve made it this far.

This session’s word count: 4,638
Total word count: 112,844
Daily average: 4,513
Last year’s cumulative total: 90,680
Projected word count: 135,312

Novel Month 2017 – Day 24, afternoon

Black Friday is here! That’s right, the most important commercial holiday of the year has finally arrived. Fortunately for me, it’s not much different from any other day of November, because a) I’d be doing most of my shopping online, and b) I’m too poor to hit the town in search of deals that were over before I even woke up.

So you get writing instead. Chapter 20 is done, 21 is about halfway, and I’m starting the final third of the book. So far, it’s looking okay. Not the best thing I’ve written by far (that honor goes to either Nocturne or Situational Awareness, in my opinion), but I’m not hating this one like I was a week ago. It’s got potential. Now I just have to find a way to get to the ending, and that’s always the hardest part for me.

This session’s word count: 4,403
Total word count: 108,206
Daily average: 4,508
Last year’s cumulative count: 87,068
Projected word count: 135,257