I'm in an interesting place when it comes to writing. Sand and Blood is out the door, Ash is going through beta readers, and Bone is winding its way through the writing group. There is a lot of waiting at this point, which means I start having conversations in my head as I mull over questions various friends have asked me.
Let's start with the biggest one. Why did I set Blood in the desert?
Three years ago, I had read an interesting article in Slate by Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my literary crushes. One of the biggest points is that Ged is not white but she didn't make a big deal about it when she wrote it.
Of course, when they made a movie out of it (two actually), they made Ged white and then she had to say something.
It was something I never thought about. I never assigned a race to Ged, he was just a character to me. But, maybe I was assuming he was white because I'm white? I can't really tell anymore, but I almost wished someone asked me before I read that article.
A few months later, I went to my first WisCon. It was an interesting experience, to say the least, but that Slate article came back when I saw all the panels of race and writing. So, as one who enjoys learning new things, I decided to attend a few of them and see if there was something more.
Things changed on the second day as I was sitting in the front row. The panel was about integrating racial characters in stories. One of the earlier topics pointed out that most authors don't strongly identify the race of their characters. They make an assumption that the characters have the same race as themselves.
Well, that was the point that I realized I had done the same thing. In most of my fantasy novels, I never thought about the races of the characters involved. When I did, I made the assumption they were white because I have twenty meters of books with white people on the covers. My mother's library has three times that, all with white characters.
The rest of the topics continued without me, but I found an aspect of myself that I didn't like. I like to think that I create a wide range of characters, from different personalities and ways of speaking. I love the contrast of violence and pacifism, the spectrum of genders, and even power plays. But, in all my writing, I had never considered that race was a spectrum of colors I could use to pain characters.
That convention also pointed out that I don't have religion in my books either, for much of the same reasons.
Wind, Bear, and Moon
The precursor to Flight of the Scions was a novel called Wind, Bear, and Moon. I had been working on the novel for years but I always felt it was missing a spark, something that would draw readers to the story but also keep my passionate about it.
Some of it came from off-handed comments from beta readers about how the main character was bland and uninteresting (at least it wasn't Gary Stu). The biggest conflict wasn't one, it was just a “eh” and moving on.
I was already in the process of changing the story. The biggest change was the setting. I went from a pure fantasy world into Fedran, my steampunk-inspired fantasy world. The contrast of the early Industrial Age and the old magic was a fun one (and I thank Simon R. Green for that idea).
I had also changed the main character's gender and purpose. A healer named Welf became a girl without magic (who would eventually be known as Kanéko). It was closer, but I still missed the spark.
The panel gave me an idea of how to find it.
While WisCon gave me the idea for making Kanéko not-white, it also pointed out that I was probably going to do it wrong. It was a common thread in more than a few conversations I heard. I was male, so I shouldn't write females. I'm white, so I can't write blacks. Not everyone agreed but it came up enough that I couldn't forget it.
That instilled a fear that I was going to be creating a girl in blackface. She would be nothing more than a character with a big sign that say “I'm black!” (This is kind of like saying "I have black friends!")
I thought about it a lot before I went forward with Kanéko. The biggest drive is that the ideas I got in the panel felt right the more I worked it out in my head. Making her half-desert set up the conflict and tension that I think I needed.
It also meant I was going to do it wrong unless I built the world properly to support it.
I started with the obvious differences, those are the basic things that most people will hang on (easier to be a bigot when your focus is something obvious). I couldn't get much paler which meant I needed darker skin. And since there isn't mass transit in the story, darker skin meant more sun because it is a evolutionary defense trait (I still require science in my world-building). Since I already had the world planned as a Pangaea-like super-continent and the center was pretty much all desert, it didn't take long before I turned the inhospitable desert into a thriving one.
The other reason I picked the desert instead of the already established jungles or tundras because I have almost no fantasy novels set in the desert. I had plenty of the others, but the realization that I had picked characters based on my shelves pushed me away from using other common aspects of fantasy from that same library.
Knowing that I wanted her as a half-desert girl, I needed something more than a color to build her character. I needed history and culture behind her, otherwise she becomes just a shell, a token character.
It is easy to create a culture that is backwards from society. Unfortunately, I despise those type of stories. Most of the time when television shows images of China, India, or Africa, they pick images of poverty and crowds. On bad days, it's drought and starving folks. I know there is a lot more than that. Much like people thinking Iowa is backwards, the perception of other countries is usually less than honest.
Fantasy cultures are like that also. The barbarians are always brutal people who live in tents and beat each other with heavy sticks. Extra points for wearing leather and having lots of chest hair.
I didn't want that. I wanted to establish a culture that was just as civilized as the “other” side. The hard part is that I didn't have time to create thousands of pages of two cultures to write a novel. So, I sketched up a couple things for the desert in the process of Flight. It was enough to get through that novel and to submit it for publication.
While I was waiting for Flight to eventually be rejected, I decided to do some world-building. Just a short, twenty-thousand word novella about the desert. I wanted it be brutal but still civilized, to explore why Kanéko's father would call them barbarians but then to prove him wrong.
I started with the ideas from Flight (mostly deleted scenes) and expanded on them. The first was the rite of passage since she was going through a similar thing herself. I also added in some obscure articles I remembered from the Boy Scout Manual from thirty years before. A plot built up in my head, blossoming from the twenty thousand words to seventy thousand.
And then I had Sand and Blood.
Because I focused purely on the Kyōti culture, a lot came out of Blood that will help my other novels:
- A conlang named Miwāfu that started as a naming language but actually is almost usable as a language on its own.
- A culture that had it's own way of speaking and behavior. Some of it is based on Japanese but others are just a hodgepodge of ideas I built up over the years.
- A political system that meshed against the coastal areas but marched to a different drummer.
- An entirely different social structure based on specialized clans working with each other and with other clans instead of the “I can do everything” aspects of the more typical fantasy. This was actual built up on ideas from today's society; the clans were effectively companies that did one thing well.
- A different way of viewing magic that didn't share the same historical roots as Flight's. The desert gained their power filtered through spirits instead of each individual coming up with their own connection.
All that because I was terrified of being accused of creating a flat, token character just to throw race into a book. I wanted race because it interested me and it created a spark I wanted to follow. But, it had to be realistic for me which meant I had to create the world to explain it.
More importantly, I do something very similar to every character I've created. I love world-building. I love making interesting characters who have conflicts in their lives just as much as I love watching them crawl out of the dark holes that I shove them into.
When I first created Welf, I worked out the politics and history of the coastal area. I worked out the history of magical theory through four iterations to come up with the Crystal Spheres Method which is used by Ronamar and Meris. Somewhere, I have a rough map of the political alliances of his father, how his mother died (she was brought back to life for Kanéko), and even how people go to church (that was a recent addition). I know the toys that Welf played with and created at least two card games (Sand and Ash adds my third game).
Assumptions and Failure
I'm going to assume that I did this wrong, that I may have offended someone by even trying. But, even four novels written since that day at WisCon, it still feels right to me.
Hopefully that explains why I set Sand and Blood in a desert.