Six impossible things

So the house guests just left…

I’ve had house guests for the past five days (my cousin stayed with me; my Dad stayed with my sister), and in the process of doing all the show-the-out-of-town-family-around stuff, doing the blog got kind of behind. Which is why I’m late and a bit disconnected with this.

Yesterday, we went to the State Fair. Minnesota has a really, really amazing state fair, and it was actually cool enough in the morning that my cousin who had knee surgery last year and my father who is 92 and sensitive to high temperatures could both walk around all morning (and into the afternoon) without any real problems. We saw the butter heads and got milkshakes at the dairy barn, then went looking for the bacon ice cream (didn’t find it), had honey ice cream at the agricultural building in the section devote to bees (if you’re seeing a pattern here, I’m not surprised; yes, my Dad is very fond of ice cream). We saw the crop art, (which is made by gluing different seeds to a board…and it is amazing the fine detail some people can get that way), went through the Arts & Crafts building admiring the knitting (me), the quilting (my cousin), and the woodwork (my Dad, with my sister going “…and you can make me one of those, Dad, and one of those, and…”

We all admired the pirate ship done in folded paper, but agreed that it was too fragile to survive in any of our respective abodes. We went through the Fine Arts building, where the piece de resistance was a marble bust of a Native American in full feather headdress carved and polished with amazing care and attention to detail. Lunch at the Lutheran Evangelical kitchen (because you could sit down) and then we took the sky tram back to the bus. Yes, that wasn’t even half of what was available, and it took us about five hours and by then we were all bushed.

It did get me thinking, though. I’ve lived in Midwestern farm states all my life, and even though I’ve always lived in suburbs and my stomping grounds of choice have been urban, I’ve always been aware of the vast acreage of corn and soybeans and wheat outside the small area in which I circulate. When I was growing up in suburban Chicago, if you woke up too early and turned the radio on, you got the farm report, even if the rest of the day it was a music channel playing rock and roll, and even though they don’t do that any more, there’s still that awareness – you can’t listen to a weather report (even in a normal year when there’s no drought) without hearing a reference to soil moisture and how the rain or sun is going to affect the crops.

One of my sisters now lives on the coast of Maine. When I visit her, there’s a similar awareness, but it’s about the fishermen, how the fish and lobsters are doing, and how the weather and other trends will affect them. In Alabama, my sister and nieces there hear about hurricanes and the tornadoes they spawn, as well as regular updates on the condition of the Gulf of Mexico.

All of this stuff is almost subliminal, but it’s part of what gives each area of the country its own unique feel, even in major cities. It’s not just that the weather is different; it’s a sense that what people do for a living, the things that feed the city both literally and symbolically, are different. Even in metropolitan areas that are so enormous that some of that sense of being in touch with more rural areas seems to have been lost, there’s still a difference in the feel of the city. New York has Wall Street and Broadway, and Los Angeles has Disneyland and the film industry; you can’t tell me that doesn’t make any difference.

But I don’t see a lot of this in fantasy or science fiction, unless it’s in a story that’s set in a real-world city that the writer happens to love and have a feel for. Even with a real venue like Chicago or New York or L.A., a lot of writers seem to slap the name on a generic urban setting (it’s a big city; you can tell because it’s got skyscrapers, freeways, lots of traffic, lots of people living in generic apartment buildings, and maybe a couple of ethnic restaurants). There often isn’t much attention paid to major-but-strictly-local events like the Minnesota State Fair (heck, half the time there isn’t much attention paid to planet-wide events like elections or their version of Christmas or Independence Day. Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan books have their Midwinter Festival and the Emperor’s birthday, but I’m drawing a blank for other examples).

And there especially isn’t a lot of attention paid to that subliminal awareness of the stuff that ought to make every planet, and a wide variety of specific areas of each planet, unique. When I visit my sister in Maine, she goes down to the docks and we have fresh lobster for dinner; when I visit my sister in Alabama, she makes southern shrimp boil; when I visit my friends in New York they take me to dozens of tiny, phenomenal restaurants (ethnic, fusion, traditional…world cuisine, sort of). In Chicago, the first place we stop is for the hot dogs at Hot Doug’s. I took my cousin and my Dad to the State Fair for honey ice cream and cheese curds and food-on-a-stick, and if it hadn’t been so hot during the early part of their visit, I’d have taken them to see Minnehaha Falls and the Minnesota zoo.

Where do your characters take their visiting friends to show off their town/planet? And what do they eat that can’t be had anywhere else?

  1. Way to make me think!

    You know, I think the one book I remember that actually caught that varying feel of various places was Howl’s Moving Castle. [Now of course it’s getting all muddled up with the movies (and if anyone can give a place a feel, it’s Hayao Miyazaki, viz Kiki’s Delivery Service and the city by the sea).] But that one definitely had a clear difference between Market Chipping, Kingsbury, Porthaven and… Wales. There was the sea versus the farm versus the big city livings in that.

    Oddly enough I was just attempting to write a scene where someone takes my MC to visit the great sights of her country, but knew that I had to get the damn plot moving, because the last time I wrote anything in that world the whole story was a bit of a glorified tourist ramble. At one point I even had them go to the theatre – just because I wanted to figure out what it was like. And the food, I love developing the food. And now I’m worrying about the food in relation to the society. Mainly it’s game and forage. And I was at the farmer’s market yesterday and staring at the giant multi-colored heirloom tomatoes and realizing that any sort of cultivated plant should be like that, nothing standard, no single cultivar more popular than any other because of the lack of institutionalized agriculture.

    And now I need to go back over the kitchen scene and make sure I get that feel into it.


  2. David Eddings’ Belgariad/Malloreon books have a definite sense of different places and cultures. Every country is different, and the series spans the entire globe and goes into very exotic places and cultures quite different from those the main characters come from. In fact, that sense of different places/cultures/climate/pastimes/exports/etc. is a vital aspect to the story as a whole.

    In general, though, it does seem accurate that too many books pay only a passing nod to the special flavors and concerns of different places. Though I’m a ginormous Trekkie, I think Star Trek is very bad about this–sure, each alien race may have a distinct culture and attitude, but the worlds they come from are treated as if they’re completely homogenous (is all of Vulcan arid desert? Are all Klingons alike, or are there islands of Klingon fishermen and polar icecaps with Klingon versions of Eskomoes? Are all Cardassians in the military? Are all Bajorans farmers who worship the Prophets, or might some of them be Atheist investment bankers? etc.)

  3. I think writers have more freedom to do this with longer fantasies especially. With some genres, it’s hard to fit this kind of thing in without it seeming superfluous. Although I do think that stories set in our world locations could do a better job at it too.

  4. I think part of it is in the nature of the characters, as well — some people notice (and care) a lot more about food than other people do.

    The POV character of my current WIP is a major statesman sneaking around incognito, so I’ve been trying hard to bring out the differences between what he’s been offered as delicacies when visiting as major statesman vs what he gets at the bottom end of society. Some versions of the same stuff, some things totally different that he doesn’t even know how to eat, because why would someone of his class ever eat street food? He’s forever being surprised that some of it is far better than he’d normally get — peasant cuisine, naturally, making use of the flavourful bits no one else wants.

    I seem to recall the L. Modesitt, Jr., Recluse books having good food differentiation, but I haven’t read them for a while. One good example is Patricia McKillip’s “The Book of Atryx Wolfe,” where one of the characters is working in a kitchen as a scullery maid, and her sections are a parade of (properly) medieval baronial food going by behind her.

  5. This is definitely something to think about. I just finished Lian Tanner’s `City of Lies’ and a lot of the story revolves around a local festival. The city has a nicely different feel than the setting of her first book, `Museaum of Thieves.’

  6. I’m guessing that this issue of setting is strongly affected by the writer’s portal into the story.

    Someone who is inspired primarily by plot might have to work especially hard to remember culture and physical infrastructure. The same might be true of a writer (or a story) inspired primarily by character.

    Thus far my own writing starts with setting, followed closely by character. My readers tell me that my world is vivid and rich. So I think setting is one of my strengths.

    Plot is my area of challenge. In former days, when I tried to aim for plot directly, it eluded me. My current solution is to allow plot to coalesce naturally out of setting and character. That seems to work well.

    My most recent novel – final draft almost done, release soon – I deliberately focused on how I was handling dialog. I wanted to improve my skills there. It was a challenge, because one of the main characters was not a native speaker of the language spoken by the culture in which he landed!

  7. BTW, my old computer died a permanent death last week. I had to get a new one, so I’m starting anew with the cookies placed by the blogs and websites I frequent.

  8. I’ve been following your blog for a while now, but this is the first time I’ve commented. The Enchanted Forest books have been huge favorites of mine ever since I discovered them when I was about eight (I’m 26 now, and I still have parts of them memorized), and I love pretty much everything of yours that I’ve read since then. The Mairelon and Cecelia books, Frontier Magic, Snow White and Rose Red, The Seven Towers…

    This post is particularly helpful, because it brings up an issue that I’ve been thinking about a lot with the fantasy I’m writing. (Incidentally, its tone was partly inspired by your Lyra books, especially The Raven Ring.) The heroine is from the northern part of the country, but for most of the book is visiting a city in the southern part. I’m working on revising now, and I’ve been trying to include details that will show the difference between the culture/climate/food she’s used to and those in this area.

  9. Kimbriel’s Nuala books do this really well – both the religious festivals and the sense of place in a variety of locations on the planet. Her fantasies -set in alternate 19th century rural (i think) Michigan are perforce keyed to the annual agricultural cycle.

  10. Oh, yes, Modesitt. It is not just his Recluce series that has the food references. It is not that the food is necessarily unusual. It is not that the food references are overpowering. Light, short references in passing add a nice flavour and a sense of there being more to the world than just the story unfolding.

  11. Every US city I’ve been in has different rules of the road and also different rules of the sidewalk.

    Tangent: Organizations/groups which are supposed to run under the same rules are likely to work differently. I recall reading someone’s account of the first two AA meetings he attended. First one opened with the Lord’s Prayer instead of the Serenity Prayer, closed with the Lord’s Prayer, and was heavily Christian in between.

    Second one: No prayer at beginning or end. A regular noticed him looking bewildered, and explained “We don’t do that God ___ here.”

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