Asymmetric Creativity: Righting World Building Gone Wrong

YggdrasilI have an ongoing wrestling match with world building in speculative fiction. I revel in new writers producing ideas that challenge conventional story frameworks or characters. As one of those new writers I still learn as I go, producing some successes and tossing narrative failures. I plug forward with confidence and hope that my stories, short or long, will entertain readers around the world.

All that said, I do have an issue with the idea of world building some writers use in their works. To call it world building is a misnomer, as often we see a hodge-podge of cherry picked pieces of cultural and religious history cobbled together to form new faiths, nations or histories. I would suggest there is a cleaner, more energetic way at world building that harnesses creativity, while keeping the new world authentic to our shared historical knowledge.

Appreciating that many writers lavish countless hours to research before launching into a new story (a research fetishist myself) I feel sometimes the creative energy is lost in the action of stitching together. There needs to be a cohesive view of the world, not a patch work or “everything and the kitchen sink.” Perhaps other readers do not notice or take issue with such incongruities, but as a devotee of history, folklore and religion, I am sometimes distracted by the world building method employed by some writers. Sometimes speculative fiction is like the infamous movie scene where a Roman soldier wears a wrist watch. On the face of it, they seem authentic, but on closer inspection it doesn’t match up.

One of the reasons I started Asymmetric Creativity was to put down ideas that encouraged unconventional thinking that produced exciting results. World building is one such creative endeavor that I think benefits from asymmetric thinking. If I were to offer advice on how to find asymmetric influence in world building I would propose the following:

1- Museum Visits– Seems like a no brainer, but if you live in a part of the world with a robust museum community I would suggest getting outside of your intellectual comfort zone and visit a museum you would not be drawn to. If you are a classic art fan, go to a modern art museum and seek out unconventional sculpture or paintings. If you are a writer interested in world building, avoid the well worn museum galleries of Roman or Egyptian antiquities. Seek out the remnants of other cultures outside the big exhibits or popular galleries. Seek inspiration in the mundane household items or shard of pottery as often they provide insights into the greater culture. Also, spend time at local, smaller cultural institutions as regional history can provide creative triggers.

2- Seek Cultures Old or Overlooked– Unless I am constructing a story set in those culture, I avoid the typical empires or dominant societies favored by most world building writers. While I have non-fiction interest in Roman, Chinese, Egyptian and Medieval England I avoid using them as templates or research starting points for world building. Piecing together Roman imperial system with Chinese cosmology may seem new and inventive, but often they read incongruous or even silly. Find those precursor cultures which we continue to learn of their influence and astounding vibrancy. How do you find obscure or ancient societies?

3- Monitor Archaeology News– Social Media has provided an immediate and constantly updating flow of news about our past. I follow over a dozen archaeology and history organizations, websites and blogs. If you have the ability consider joining organizations like ASOR or at least following their social media updates. Or for a treasure trove of historical, anthropological and archaeological information, possibly join JSTOR. Read reputable history or archaeological periodicals.

4- Read Non-Fiction for Fun. Not Just Research– I have been a reader of non-fiction all my adult life. Currently I read 60% non-fiction to 40% fiction, with the non-fiction primarily folklore, religion and global histories. I read non-fiction for the enrichment, helping me keep the modern world in perspective knowing what came before and how it parallels today. This enrichment helps fill in the imagination, providing credible and realistic starting points for my fiction. World building fiction can only come by understand the way the world of the past operated on every level. Avoid confining the richness of your worlds to capes, armor, sword or sexual debauchery. Look at the names of men and women in 19th century America to forge characters in a strange future. Read about the faiths of Central Asia in the Bronze age to conjure a strange, yet authentic religion. While we all cannot be Tolkein, we can aspire to build authentic, individual and engrossing worlds on our own and not create a Frankenstein’s monster.

5- Write a History– If you feel compelled to create a world, then write a brief “paper” on the world you’ve imagine. Consider going back in time to your youth, to college, when you crafted papers with purpose. Now, as a fiction writer, you have a purpose to craft a world as authentic as any real society you would have profiled in college. Break it down in any form as you want, but create a level by level history of the world or society you imagined. Also, write the history with an authenticity and in a way that has a solid academic underpinning. Don’t worry about footnotes or following MLA standards, but take it seriously as you write a report on the layers of your imagined society. This becomes your history resource and creates a cohesive, authentic vision for your imagined world.

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Built Inspiration: Folk Architecture and its Influence

640px-John_Adams_birthplace,_Quincy,_MassachusettsI had a funny exchange with the team at Folk Horror Twitter about the absence of folk horror from the New England landscape. The social media team over at the upcoming  A Fiend in the Furrows conference, noted that M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village has a New England folk horror feel to it. A film, much maligned but with  the folk horror DNA at its core, The Village is close to what I lamented as absent. I realized that, to me, The Village, was more Pennsylvania than New England. What made me associate the horror film with a state technically outside the traditional definition of New England? Architecture, landscape and place name.

What makes Pennsylvania aesthetic different than New York, than Massachusetts or Maine? It occurred to me in my life and travels around the Northeast (Pennsylvania to Maine) two things inform my perception of place, place names and architecture. Drive the roads and highways of Massachusetts and many place names are shared with England or Native Americans. This is a standard pattern for most of New England. Connecticut begins a shift to names that take on Dutch or German accents by the time you get to New York and Pennsylvania. However, my eye is pleased and mind inspired by architecture of the regions of America, specifically the Northeast. Here are some of the clearest examples of how place influences what we build, known as folk or vernacular architecture. Pennsylvania and New York share agrarian enclaves dotted with box-like, four room homes 800px-JChaddsHouseconstructed of stout, cool field stone. These field stone structures, generally two stories, are clean lined and sturdy with a no-fuss ethic to them. Shift to New England, especially the older cities and towns, field stone construction is mainly confined to property walls and foundations (such as my 1880 home.) Colonial homes, once ubiquitous  timber framed “Saltbox” found throughout New England (top,) are remnant styles of the mid-16th century and remind us of a continuing cultural influence on us. Each state seems to have a different tweak to architectural styles based on materials and needs. This is the foundation of folk architecture.

The structures are reflections of the people and their skills. Masons built field stone, carpenters assembled timber homes. Each group imprinting a unique cultural identity to the home. Since the creation of post-war suburbia much of folk architecture has become a relic. Yet these buildings are the stories our regional identities and link us to our past. So, what does this have to do with asymmetric creativity? Material provokes a sensory experience. That experience, retained as memory of the touch or smell of the material, spawns an emotion. Emotions sparks creativity. Wood clapboards of the New England “Saltbox” . Notice earlier I called those field stone homes of Pennsylvania “cool” a sensation not shared by some. The picture of the field stone home (right) may evoke an isolated, fortress feel. The place can change the tone of the story, how you express the creativity inspired by the structure. Is it cool and dark? Does it hide a rot in its earthen basement? What about the timber framed homes of old New England? Their low rough hewn timber ceilings, hovering like a repressive spirit over the occupants. Horror stories rarely work in gleaming, modern climate controlled cubes. Think of the brilliantly scary Poltergeist, it turned the horrors of suburbia on its head by making a clean, sterile tract home into a hell. But it wasn’t the home that nurtured the violation, rather the land it was built on. 788px-House_of_the_Seven_Gables_(1915)And what would a post about New England architecture and creativity be without even a passing mention of The House of Seven Gables? The mansion which I’ve walked past numerous times oozes an ominous feeling. Its jagged roof line and slate grey clapboards dominate the space, like a low mountain range over historic Salem, Massachusetts. Ideas are born from many influences. For me architecture prompts ideas, stories grim or heroic. Towering glass and steel can elicit awe, yet it does not inspire creativity in me as do the neatly stacked field stones or the long and wide timbers that make up our folk architecture past.