Once Again, Robert Frost Was Right About New England

“Nature’s first green is gold….”

In other words, the trees have finally leafed out.

When I was a cheerful young undergrad going to school in Arkansas, I thought that mud-time was something that Frost made up for poetic purposes; likewise, the birches bending “to left and right/Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” Then I moved up here, and realized that he’d been making his poetry out of sober observation all along.

As do we all, even if we’re writing stories set in worlds completely of our own imagining.

Zombies, Pandemics, and Other Disasters

The Walking Dead is, of course, the standout show of the current televised post-apocalyptic lineup. What makes it good is that the showrunners have discovered how to convince the American viewing public to sit still for an extended meditation on the various approaches to living a moral life – or at least surviving – in an imperfect world: For every so-many minutes of debate by the characters on morality and philosophy, throw in an equal or greater number of minutes of zombie-smashing and gunfire. The genius lies in the show’s ability to determine just how long viewers will sit still for philosophy before a zombie needs to shamble up out of nowhere and go rarrrgh! (Also, they have figured out that philosophy is a lot more palatable when coming from bikers with biceps. Which is probably a sentiment that Plato could have understood.)

Fear the Walking Dead is a limp noodle by comparison, mostly because all of the characters are operating on a stupidity level that makes me wonder how they survived before Southern California started sliding downhill into chaos. You know that things are bad when the junkie older son of the viewpoint family is one of the few people exhibiting sporadic flashes of intelligence and common sense. (Oh, and Ruben Blades is doing a thankless job of portraying the only other character with more depth than a wading pool. I hope it leads to better roles for him in better shows.)

But the show that I have a sneaking fondness for is the post-pandemic-apocalypse drama The Last Ship. It doesn’t have the groundbreaking quality of The Walking Dead, nor the trainwreck-in-progress morbid fascination of Fear the Walking Dead. What it does have, though, is a refreshing change from the usual Hobbesian post-apocalyptic universe, where all it takes is a couple of weeks without hot water and electricity for the world to collapse into a war of all against all that’s fit to warm a social Darwinist’s heart. In The Last Ship, people aren’t just taking the breakdown of civilization-as-we-know-it passively. They’re all working, in their different ways, to restore order and government and the social contract. Hell, even the bad guys on the show are trying to do that thing — they’re just doing it wrong.

And frankly, I think that for all the tempting darkness of the Walking Dead future, the idea of people banding together and striving for the restoration of order is the more realistic vision.

More Than Meets the Eye

It’s time to talk for a minute about description.

A story needs description, as part of the process of enabling readers to re-create the imagined world of the story inside their own head.  In science fiction and fantasy narratives in particular, description does more than just paint a picture of a slice of contemporary consensus reality – it’s part of the world-building, the process by which the writer calls into being a fictional milieu which is not part of contemporary consensus reality at all.

Most journeyman writers can manage telling the reader how things look and sound.  We’re used to filtering our experiences of the world through the senses of sight and hearing, and those details come easily to mind.  But effective description needs to involve all the senses, including smell and touch and taste.  In practical terms:  if your characters are standing out in the snow in the middle of a snowstorm, their feet are going to be cold.  And if they’re in the common-room of a busy tavern, they’re going to be smelling the burning logs on the fire, and the sweat of the patrons, and the scent of whatever good stuff is cooking.

(A quick tip:  If you really want your description to connect with the reader on a straight-to-the-animal-brain level, go for the sense of smell.  The right remembered scent – the fishy, salt-water smell of the wind off the ocean; the crisp, almost spicy smell of birch logs burning in a wood stove; the smell of nervous sweat and recirculated air in the cabin of a jetliner that’s waited for too long on the runway – can carry the reader exactly where you want them to go.)

Bear in mind, though, that lush sensory description can get overdone.  There’s no need to give absolutely everything in your narrative the detailed treatment –save it for things that are important to the story because they advance the plot, illuminate the theme, or reveal character.  Because if everything gets the detailed-description emphasis, then nothing is going to stand out.

A Handy Trick

Naming characters is always a hassle – I can’t get mine to settle properly in my head until they’ve been correctly bemonickered – and most writers have their favorite resources for the job.  Baby name books and web sites are always good, especially for tales set in contemporary consensus reality, and if your interest is more historical, sites like the Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Names page will let you search for popular American names by decade going back as far as the 1880s.  I’m sure that other countries have similar resources; the SSA page just happens to be the one I know about firsthand.

If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, though, you’ve got problems.  Good science-fictional names, if you’re going to put some thought into them, are part of the worldbuilding:  You have to make some complex calculations about the probable ethnic makeup of your future society, for example, and about possible changes in naming styles (the all-whitebread science-fictional future is, if not yet completely dead, definitely moribund, and a good thing, too; and while it’s not likely that we’re ever going to see a resurgence of multi-word Puritan-style virtue names of the Praise-God Barebones variety, there’s always the off-chance that some future society may produce dimpled tots named Respect-for-the-Rights-of-Others Herrera or Earth-is-not-the-Only-Planet Jones.)

But if you’re writing fantasy, at least of the pseudo-western-medieval variety, there’s at least one good cheap trick out there:   Grab a copy of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and steal from there.  Go right past all the too-familiar major characters, and head for the ranks of (sometimes literal) spear-carriers, of which there are a good plenty.  This will give you lots of names which look vaguely western-medieval without belonging to any specific name-hoard, and which can usually be sounded out and pronounced by the average reader.

Today’s Link of Interest

Another take on the whole worldbuilding question:  Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things You Should Know about Worldbuilding.

(What have we been doing the past couple of days when I wasn’t posting?  Well, dealing with the mini-van hitting a moose halfway between here and Oxford, Maine.  Moose collisions . . . are a thing, up here.  Even a low-speed glancing collision, like this one was, can do some serious damage — there’s nothing quite like having something the approximate size and shape of a Hereford steer on stilts slamming into your windshield to put the capper on an otherwise perfect day.  But nobody was hurt, except maybe for the moose, which ambled off into the woods before its state of health could be ascertained, and the mini-van is repairable, so once the adrenaline has quit pumping, all will be well.)


Worldbuilding: Implications and Consequences

Writers in the science fiction and fantasy fields talk a lot about worldbuilding, mostly because it’s a necessity in their genre.  Stories set in past or contemporary consensus reality don’t need it, or at any rate don’t need it in the same way — they may need to show the reader a new or unfamiliar part of the world, but the writer doesn’t have to make that part up from scratch.

Building a world from scratch is hard work.  Most writers, being only human, tend to concentrate on the aspects of the world that are of the most interest to them, or of the most importance to the story.  A writer of hard science fiction might not be able to rest until he or she has got the orbital mechanics of their fictional planet’s fictional solar system all worked out to five decimal places.  A different writer might be content to leave the moon and sun and stars set on “default”, but will insist on figuring out all the finer details of the local banking system and exactly how letters of credit work in the absence of faster-than-light interstellar communication.  And yet a third writer may not care very much about either moons or money, but will be as thoroughly conversant with their imagined society’s rules of etiquette as the local version of Miss Manners or Emily Post.

The trick — one of the tricks, anyhow; there’s lots of them — is to think about the day-to-day implications and consequences of the worldbuilding bits that you’re concentrating on.  For an example of the kind of thing it pays to think about, the blog Hello, Tailor has a post on the way worldbuilding in film is implicit in — or fails at being implicit in — the costuming.  To quote the author:

The visuals of movies like Equilibrium and Gattaca (and Aeon Flux, and Ultraviolet…) are, to me, the costuming equivalent of all those thousands of hard sci-fi novels that concentrate on the science fiction but forget to give the characters human personalities. Even in a world where everyone is genetically engineered to perfection (Gattaca) or everyone is drugged with emotional inhibitors (Equilibrium), it’s never really articulated why people look so similar. And if they were pressured to wear identical outfits every day, they wouldn’t be dressed to the same degree of neatness, a trait that varies enormously from person to person. Not that this really makes much difference to the overall quality of the film: it’s just something that bugs me, personally.

Because in the long run, everything in your fictional world is connected. The length of your planet’s days and seasons, and the rise and fall of the tides in its seas, will have an effect on how long or short the working day is, and how hard the seasons are, which will effect in turn the way the local economy is set up, and who is hardworking but poor and who is rich and idle and what the politics are that arise from that division, which will in turn influence the social customs and the unwritten rules of behavior that are an etiquette-writer’s stock in trade.

You can’t trace out all of the connections — you are, after all, only human, and this world you’re making is only words — but you can trace out the ones you’re interested in, or that influence your plot, and that will be enough to convince your reader (at least for the length of time it takes to read a story) that you’ve seen them all.