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July is a flirt.  She flipped her skirt up at me, promised a wild ride, and then snuck out the back door when I wasn’t looking.  Now it’s August and I’m feeling dazed and not a little exhausted.

Two big things happened in July, both of which were great and neither of which helped my writing a jot.  First, I traveled to Honduras to help get my archaeological field project set up and running.  Second, my husband and I bought and moved into a new apartment – the first home we can truly call our own.  In between, I took a trip to Boston for Readercon.

Amidst all this travel, I did manage to squeeze in a little work, though not as much as I would have liked.

1. I made only wee bits of progress on ABSENT, my archaeological time travel novel.  I’m pretty close to finishing the rough draft, but most of what I accomplished in July was editing.  I took a hard copy of the manuscript to Honduras and marked it up in my spare time.

2. BLOOD RED SUN is still out to market, though I did recently get a partial request from an agent I’d be beyond thrilled to work with.  Even if she passes, I’m happy the query excited her interest.  All of my short stories are waiting on decisions at various magazines.

3. I Beta read a novel for a writing buddy (a real door-stopper at over 120K, but a fun read).

4. I did quite a lot of reading (much of it on my lovely new Nook).  This included “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ranson Riggs, “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness, “Hammered” by Kevin Hearne, “Magic Slays” by Ilona Andrews, “The Forever War” by John Haldeman, and “Grave Dance” and “Grave Witch” by Kalayna Price.

All in all, a good month.  August looks to be a little less hectic, but that’s probably just when viewed from afar.  I’ve got a trip to Seattle coming up, in which I plan to do a little research for the dark Urban Fantasy novel I’m working on (I’m tentatively thinking to set it in Port Townsend and Seattle).  I also intend (no, VOW) to finish the rough draft of ABSENT before I leave for Seattle.  That means it will be done by Thursday.  No Matter What.  I’m also facing down quite a bit of course prep, as the new semester begins at the end of the month.

What were your big accomplishments and adventures in July?  What have you got on tap for August?  Do share, dear Reader!

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Whenever I’m working on a novel, I find it helpful to immerse myself in sensory details relating to the project.  Getting into the “mood” of the piece I’m working on definitely influences how I write dialogue and descriptions.  It shapes the pacing and helps me conjure an image in my mind, giving life and color to the world and characters I’m writing.

So far, in my fledgling writing career, I’ve got two main techniques for getting in the mood:  surrounding myself with images and listening to music. (But I’m always looking for new tricks to add to the toolkit – so share your ideas in the comments!)

When I was working on Blood Red Sun I downloaded lots of pics of the desert (and was even lucky enough to take a trip to the desert to snap pics of my own and make notes on the taste, smell, and feel of the place).  I also surrounded myself with drawings and photos of murals, sites, and artifacts from the ancient Aztecs (on who the people in the novel were modeled).  This was all good visual grist for the mill.  From an aural point of view, I created a playlist in iTunes with lots of music from epic film soundtracks (think Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, Stardust, Last of the Mohicans, Dune, and so on).  Much of it wasn’t culturally appropriate, but it captured that sweeping, dramatic feel I was going for.  I’d listen while writing and it really helped me immerse myself and shut out the distractions of the modern world.

My latest novel project is set in three different times and places: modern day New York City, the Ice Age Americas, and a British archaeological expedition in 1925-26 Iraq.  For this latter segment, I’ve had a lot of luck with listening to big band era jazz tunes out of New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and even Britain itself.  I also dug up a bunch of great historical photos from the actual archaeological expedition the fictionalization is based on – their grainy black and white frames show dapper gentlemen in their knickers, suits, and fedoras posing in front of massive, dusty ziggurats.  Beside them stand slim, elegant women in cloche hats and coat frocks, shading their eyes from the sun’s glare.  Scattered across my big glass desk, they smile up and remind me I’m not in Kansas anymore.

What are your tricks for immersing yourself in the worlds you write about?

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The novel I’m currently revising revolves around a culture I based on the ancient Aztec.  So, when I heard about Aliette de Bodard’s “Servants of the Underworld,” a sort of fantasy detective story that takes place in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, I had to read it.

One thing Bodard really gets right is the different cultural outlook and worldview of this non-Western culture.  At first it was almost jarring, as the characters weren’t thinking or acting in a way that made sense in my personal worldview.  This, of course, got me thinking about how perilous writing other cultural perspectives can be — how hard it is to do well, how great it is when done right, and how infrequently one even sees it attempted.

There’s a well-established (and justified) stereotype about fantasy novels being set in the mythic “lands of the west” (firmly based on western cultural traditions).  And, while this stereotype exists for a reason, in just five or ten minutes I was able to think up a pretty long list of novels eschewing the trope in whole or in part, including:

  • earlier works, like Roger Zelazny’s “Lords of Light,” with it’s Indian influences
  • “Across the Nightingale Floor” (and the other books in Tales of the Otori) by Lian Hern, which are set in feudal Japan
  • “The Secret History of Moscow” by Ekaterina Sedia
  • “Who Fears Death” by Nnedi Okorafor, set in a post-apocalyptic South Africa
  • most of Nalo Hopkinson’s books, with their Caribbean roots
  • Ian McDonald’s “Dervish House” set in Istanbul
  • Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Windup Girl,” set in a post-global warming Thailand.

And that’s, no doubt, leaving out a lot of other great examples (in fact, please share your favorites in the comments below).  I wonder, then, if it’s  fair to start declaring the death of the stereotype?

But…not so fast.  As I started the post out by saying, it’s rare to find a novel that really captures the outlook of a non-western culture.  There are plenty of books set in less oft-explored times and places, but how many of them have protagonists with distinctly non-western viewpoints?  Bacigalupi’s book, for example, provides non-Western perspectives from several characters but centers on the narrative of a westerner.

Maybe one reason protagonists (or, even entire casts of characters) aren’t often “cultural others” is because authors may fear:

  • the inability to represent another cultural viewpoint authentically
  • presenting  a hurdle to prospective readers who crack novels open with (rightly or wrongly) preset notions of the cultural rules that will govern the characters’ and actions.

The former concern seems more justifiable to me than the latter, and still (I think) can be overcome through immersive research.  But, in the end, effectively deviating from reader expectations about culture can be a great challenge for the author.

What do you think?  Is this issue something we should be concerned about as writers?  Is there a need for more speculative fiction told from the perspective of non-western cultures?  And what are you favorite examples of this type of writing?

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