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Month: May 2022

Stories that never grow old

Posted in Heroes, Plot, and Villains

Never be afraid to revive the old tales (poor monstrous Polyphemus, about to be blinded by Odysseus after a hard day's work shepherding). They've survived this long for a reason.

How do we change from feral infants to moral men? By learning the stories of our culture, and we've had stories for as long as we've had language.

We tell each other stories of how cleverness can beat strength, of how strength can defeat evil, of how evil can seduce weakness, of how weakness can learn cleverness.

We learn the many ways that we can make wrong choices, at the peril of our lives or our souls, and how we can rescue ourselves and others from those choices. Or fail.

Humor, stoicism, endurance, discipline, sacrifice, kindness, temptation — stories give us a handle on all these things.

The foundational religious texts are just, after all, more stories teaching the same things. The existence of the actual deities are the excuse for the stories, but the stories themselves are what strike to the core of how to communicate the morality of the lessons.

Morality is essential to humans — we can't escape it. If we don't imprint on a worthwhile cultural template, then we'll imprint on a bad one. In terms of education, “reading, writing, and, ‘rithmetic” are secondary to language and morality. If we don't learn moral codes of behavior, moral ways of life, well… the rest matters very little.

And we learn how to behave by the stories we hear. Religious or philosphical or ethical justification for those behaviors comes later.

So tell good stories — stories we can learn from. Stories we need to hear.

Living in imaginary worlds

Posted in A Writer's Desk, and Setting

It's not enough, when writing about an historical or fictional world, to just imagine the physical differences (oil lamps, horses) or cultural differences (harems, rites of passage), and then explore how those differences play out in a character's life. It's the intellectual differences, the things that create the equivalence of “future shock”, that I find particularly compelling.

This cartoon resonated with me because I so clearly remember my (irrational but visceral) outrage when I first encountered the history of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), which began life as a series of handwritten or typed scraps of paper shoved into pigeonholes in a repurposed greenhouse. This, for a dictionary containing hundreds of thousands of entries and citations. I suddenly flashed on an image of the labor involved in the simple clerical creation and moving about of all that data in the absence of computers.

Somehow, the thousands of man hours to build the pyramids or dig a canal was something I took for granted, something I couldn't really envisage doing myself, so I have a certain distance from it. But I'm a computer-native, and I felt, to my fingertips, what the labor would have been to wrangle all the data for the OED over multiple lifetimes. That was something that hit home to me.

Make things like that resonate with your characters. Make your readers feel that.