Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Guest Blog Post - David Douglas

I'm on holidays, the cricket1 is on, and I have a fridge full of VB2. Alas, in the face of such noble and manly pursuits, this blog has taken a bit of a back seat (temporarily, of course).

But fear not! David Douglas, fellow OWW critter and blog follower, has kindly stepped in to fill the breach with the first ever Cackling Scribe guest post.

Many thanks, David! I shall now leave you in his capable hands while I go and get another VB....

1 A game played in short bursts between long ad-breaks.

2 A type of beer. Brewed in Victoria, but actually quite nice.


First of all, thanks to Peter for the opportunity to post here. My name is David Douglas. I write a travel & photo blog, and have just self-published my first fantasy novel, Demon’s Bane. PDF sample available here or check out where to buy here.

Every fantasy writer must be James Cameron. We have a lower budget, we lack CGI unless you count WYSIWYG on the word processor screen, and we don’t even have colors (much less 3D) to capture our reader’s imagination. But we start from the same place as Cameron did with Avatar: building a world in our minds, which must captivate the reader and bring him or her to a faraway land.

How to create a new environment? We can either start with what we know and modify it, or research something we know little about. For my first book, I just started thinking and let the world flow out (and later, the words). So quite a lot of it is based on my own North American culture, with a bit of European flair thrown in (as I’ve lived in Germany for five years now). When I moved into new areas I didn’t understand, I researched with Google and Wikipedia to keep my facts straight.

Take the setting, for example. The tale starts off in a deciduous, temperate forest, much like where I grew up in the eastern US. There are chapters where the characters are sailing, and a lot of terms were familiar (I learned to sail on the River Charles as a teenager). I had to do a bit of research there, however. In the following sections, the characters travel through prairies where I never lived (more research). In cities, my European experience came into play: almost every big city here has an “old town” area that dates from medieval times. A few still even have the city wall surrounding them, and there are many (sometimes crumbling) castles the likes of which most Americans have only seen in movies. My weekend tourism here has greatly improved the descriptions of the cities my characters encounter.

What about the characters themselves? North Americans hardly think about it, but players in the books we read generally follow the same social conventions we do. We shake hands, clap each other on the shoulders, or give a bear hug to an old friend we haven’t seen in years. Many Europeans give the two-kisses-on-the-cheek as hello, which we might also recognize. But Asian cultures are more likely to bow in greeting... when was the last time you saw that in a novel that wasn’t set in the Far East?

Treatment of women is another sticky subject. I’m all for fairness, and that shows in my novel (where women can be clan leaders, and are treated equally). But throughout history, the fairer sex was not often in a position of power. Even today, many cultures treat women in a way I find offensive (including most of the Middle East). It’s fascinating to see how writers address this in their novels; Westerners often have to use their imagination (or do research) to come up with a subordinate-female culture. Slavery and indentured servitude are also themes that fantasy writers can consider when writing about a less-civilized, ancient society. Even though they are (thankfully) far from our realities, they add a lot of depth and realism to a fantasy world.

One interesting cultural (and linguistic) aspect in my book is a character who likes idioms and expressions, but always gets them mixed up. I’m suspecting that Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis would also get the references (a bird in the hand... rocks in your head... the bigger they are, the harder they fall...). However, non-native speakers would understand these just about as well as I get the German idioms. Courtesy of a friend’s quotes-post: “The middle of nowhere” becomes “There, where the foxes say good night to each other.” And “Don’t get carried away!” becomes “Leave the church in the village.” I can only imagine what Asian sayings might be like, after I bought a magnet in Hong Kong that says “You are my love, my angle [angel?], don’t treat me like potato!”

In my next book, I plan to add an Asian flair, as the characters will be on a new continent with strange customs. It won’t be based on any one Asian culture, but on what I’ve learned from various trips to the Far East (China, Malaysia, Taiwan...). I have a feeling I’ll have to do a lot more research than I did for Demon’s Bane... but there will still be some western style mixed in. That’s what fantasy is all about: whatever we dream up can become real on the page! Just make it interesting and consistent, and each new world can be as compelling as Cameron’s Pandora.

To those who are writers, good luck! Do you have any interesting cultural tips you’d like to share from your own writing experiences?


  1. Hey, who let David onto this blog?? :P

    I'm not as good of a world-builder as I'd like to be (it's the sort of thing I tend to skim over when I'm reading; I'm just much more into character relationships), but I try to be creative. I'm less about borrowing things from existing cultures (though that's hard to avoid completely!) and more about making a couple of big decisions that have ripple effects.

    For example, once you decide what your people's religion will look like, that'll effect everything from social heirachies to common curse phrases. Whatever the primary industry is in a town or region can have a big effect on the culture that develops as well. If you have characters from a "culture of honor" (Google for explanation), they'd have much different cultural norms than urban or agrarian folks.

    Anyhoo, fun to talk about this stuff. Thanks for the post, David.

    Peter, when do I get to guest post? :P

  2. Hi Lindsay, thanks for some more good ideas... that's quite true about the "ripple effect." I already have some interesting ideas in mind for my next story, and I suspect they are going to affect the whole culture like you described.

    I think the research is dependent on what kind of fantasy world one makes. I didn't want to stray TOO far in terms of environment, animals, etc... which I suppose I think of as part of a culture, because they control it so much. But there are definitely parts like religion that should (in a fantasy novel, IMO) be more fabricated, especially if one is trying to avoid offending the readers ;)

    See you around here & OWW...

  3. I liked your take on idioms. It's always great fun when trying to translate those phrases. You brought to mind a story about a friend of mine, who is from the Dominican Republic. He was trying to tell a group of people that they were "beating a dead horse." However, what he actually said was: "Your horse, I think she is dead."

    We still laugh about that. What a great post, David, thanks!

  4. Thanks, Teresa! That is a good one from your Dominican friend. I'm sure I've said some rather strange things in German without realizing it.

    I've heard that Chinese (maybe Japanese too?) can be even more dangerous, because words include not only spelling and pronunciation, but inflection. Get the wrong inflection and you could be in trouble. From a BBC article:

    "Ma, for example, can mean mother, horse, hemp, or be a reproach, depending on the tone."