A Worldbuilding Balancing Act, or: my beef with Beau Brummell

I’ve talked a little bit about the research that goes into writing fantasy stories. Even if the world you’re writing in is not at all the one we live in, I tend to think it’s safe to pull at least a little bit from our world’s history.

Would people with this technology level in that climate be wearing these fashions? Can these crops be grown on a large scale in that environment? Would those weapons still be used if that technology is available?

For me, I try to anchor my setting to a rough analogue of a specific time and place, because that makes research a whole lot easier. For example: I’m anchoring my current story to Europe in the mid-1800s, so it’s safe to assume that the same factory setup that is manufacturing, say, guns, is also manufacturing clothing. Because factory-produced cloth is going to be cheaper and have different qualities than homespun clothes, certain fashions are going to change– also, factory workers won’t be able to wear certain clothes that could potentially get caught in the machines, etc.

Without the influence of a major change like aliens or grand-scale magic, it’s safe to assume that certain shifts in things like food, fashion, etc, can move predictably over the years.

And then something happens that throws a wrench in the works.

Like a Mr. Beau Brummell.

English dandy George Bryan Brummell (1778 -1840), known as Beau Brummell. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Before he marched onto the scene, men’s* fashion changed frequently, often matching the gradual changes in style, fabric, and sillhouettes you you see in women’s fashion of the same time. Shortly before him, one of the big hip things was for men to wear tight hoes and knee-length breeches so they could show off their saucy, sexy calves, matched with long coats that could just about count as a gown in their own right.

A 1793 contrast between French fashions of 1793 (left) and ca. 1778, showing the large style changes which had occurred in just 15 years. Source: Wikimedia Commons
At this time, Beau was still a teenager and not yet a fashion icon.

But Beau was not a fan of the look of his day, and he was the 1800s version of an influencer. The influencer, in fact, when it came to men’s fashion.

According to Wikipedia, “He became the arbiter of fashion, and established a mode of dress that rejected overly ornate clothes in favour of understated but perfectly fitted and tailored bespoke garments. This look was based on dark coats, full-length trousers rather than knee breeches and stockings, and above all, immaculate shirt linen and an elaborately knotted cravat.”

He was so influential, in fact, that by 1815, you started seeing something familiar in the popular trends of the day:

An illustration believed to be from 1815. Source: Wikipedia

After this point, if you want to date the time period of an outfit (and historic fashion isn’t your special interest or profession), you pretty much need to base it of women’s* clothes, because western men’s formal clothes pretty much stagnated right here, save for small details. Lower-class and informal looks have more room for creativity, but only so much.

(*in this post I talk about “men’s” and “women’s” fashions as I understand the categories existed in their time. I know bits and pieces about gender nonconforming presentation, historical nonbinary and agender people and the things they wore, but not nearly enough to speak about those subjects confidently.)

So what’s this got to do with writing?

Let me ask you: what does 19th century fashion look like in a world where Beau Brummell didn’t exist?

You could make the argument that enough people were thinking about mass production, gunpowder, antibiotics, electricity, etc, that if the people we consider historically important today didn’t exist, somebody else would have eventually come up with those ideas. These kinds of advancements tend to build upon one another, with one technology presenting the opportunity for another.

I can’t say the same about ol ‘Beau and what he did to men’s fashion.

So what’s a writer to do? Do you stay with the historical trends and just handwave that some other dandy took Beau’s place as an influencer? Do you jut not mention coats and pants and hope people don’t notice? Do you examine pre-Beau trends and make up entirely new fashions that people might have worn if he hadn’t been around?

That depends entirely on the writer and the story they’re telling.

In my case, clothes and fashion don’t feature much in my story, so there’s nothing gained by my spending time, energy, and words coming up with new looks– and if the reader is already vaguely familiar with what I’m describing, then that’s reader time and energy that I don’t have to take up with my descriptions.

Still, I have to wonder: what might fashion look like in a world without Beau?

Monsters and Metaphor, Part 2

To recap the previous post:

There are a lot of horror stories that like to use monsters as a metaphor for people with mental illnesses. I prefer to think of the monsters as the mental illnesses themselves, whereas the people dealing with them are more the Buffy-esque badasses who deal with them.

An unrelated conversation got me pondering a fairly common question: “Why do kids these days have to put a label on everything?”

Well, since I’ve already got the metaphor onhand, let’s talk about the thing:

Continue reading “Monsters and Metaphor, Part 2”

Invisible monsters

People are afraid of mental illness. They see the mentally ill in every deranged killer on the screen, every act of violence on the news they can’t explain, every action whose logic is not immediately apparent. When we make no effort to understand mental illness, all people who are mentally ill are unknowns. And we fear the unknown.

Stigmatization of mental illness and the people who have it has led to sufferers being ostracized, demonized, attacked and even killed– and consequently, those who do suffer from mental illness are often reluctant to acknowledge it or seek the help they need for fear of the consequences.

And yes, mental illness is scary. It doesn’t turn you into a monster– more often, it’s like a monster living inside your own head. It’s like a vampire that looks normal to everybody else, except you’ve noticed that it doesn’t have a reflection, and you try to keep it out but it’s too late—without even thinking, you’ve already invited it in. Continue reading “Invisible monsters”

On Terms of Endearment

There’s a lot in the Urban Dragon series to offend people with delicate sensibilities: violence, language, gore, sexual assault, sex work, diversity, dick jokes, etc. So when my dad complained about my writing, I wasn’t surprised that he took offense so much as the thing he took offense about:

I’d referred to Boxy as my partner, rather than my husband.

My dad wanted to know why. The short answer is because ‘partner’ has always sounded right, and ‘husband’ has always sounded wrong. But the question’s been mulling around in my head long enough that I’ve got a more articulate answer. Continue reading “On Terms of Endearment”

Molly Grue and the Ghostbusters

When I read The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar, I found myself getting angry– a pacing, seething, hissing fury.

Not because I didn’t like the book, mind you. I absolutely loved it. And one of the things I loved most about the book is the very thing that inspired my outrage.  Continue reading “Molly Grue and the Ghostbusters”

Why secret identities make me see red

(Note: there are some vague spoilers for Daredevil and other titles in the MCU. I don’t get into too many specifics, but you have been warned.)

I was watching the most recent season of Daredevil, and something struck me as off. It was surprising– I really enjoyed the first season, and I thought it was well done. But by the second season finale, I was getting agitated. There were a couple of issues, but the biggest one was that it struck a personal pet peeve of mine: he still has a secret identity.

 

I’m picking on the super hero genre, but the unnecessary secret is a huge trope all over the place. Vampires are forbidden from breaking the masquerade, and wizards can’t expose magic to muggles. There’s inevitably a long, drawn out sequence where the mundane person is suddenly exposed to this secret world that they never knew existed, and is forced to re-evaluate their relationship with the ones they love.

But… why?

It wouldn’t bother me nearly so much if there was an actual solid reason for something to be kept secret, but that’s rarely the case. Often, it feels like a plot device to either create artificial drama, or as a plot coupon to explain why a hero/villain can go around killing masses of people without consequences, or to explain why only the designated hero could possibly stop the designated villain rather than the police or the army. (It has often been pointed out how quickly a gun could have taken out Voldemort, even if not all his horcruxes.)

The MCU has actually been pretty good about this for the most part, and it shows in the kind of plots that the characters are suddenly intertwined with. Being unmasked means that heroes suddenly have to face the consequences of their actions. Iron Man and Captain America have both been harangued by the US government about who owns their superpowered identities. Jessica Jones and Frank Castle have both been taken to court for, you know, killing people. These are new and interesting plots that you don’t see very often in the super hero movie/show genre (I won’t get into the comics, since there is literally a comic about the people who clean up after superheroes. Just because a thing isn’t mainstream doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist).

So this isn’t me calling out all secret worlds ever. Just the ones that don’t make sense. Particularly when they intersect with relationships.

Love in a time of secrets

You already know the old song and dance. “I can’t tell Aunt May that I’m Spiderman! Her heart can’t take it, and she will surely die!” “I can’t tell Lowis Lane that I’m Superman, because then she’ll be targeted by my enemies!”

Cue lots of lying and cover-ups, awkward misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Cue the loved ones of the super hero inevitably being kidnapped by all manner of villains anyway, and generally being put into more danger by their ignorance, often while trying to find out more about the hero or the secret identity. Cue them feeling lost and useless while the hero misses out on much-needed help that this person easily could have provided.

Perhaps most irritating to me, it almost always feels like rampant misogyny. Because even though platonic best friends sometimes get caught with the short side of the secret identity stick, that role usually falls on their wife or girlfriend (or in Peter Parker’s case, his aunt). Even if another man is kept out of the loop, they’re often clued in earlier and with a whole lot less drama than their female counterparts. (Because of this, I’ll be using ‘he’ for the hero and ‘she’ for the loved one from this point forward, even though either person can be any gender).

Hero knows best

Sometimes the hero’s loved one is told to just leave town, usually without explanation. She’s expected to obey without question, despite the hero’s erratic behavior. It doesn’t matter that she’s been shown to be reasonably intelligent before now; she doesn’t actually understand the situation, so she should just do as he says and trust that he knows better than she does.

It’s not just in isolated incidents of danger, though.

“She can’t know, or she’ll be in danger” assumes that it’s his right to decide whether or not she pursues danger or avoids it. If she doesn’t want to be involved in his life, it’s within her rights to leave. If she wants to risk the danger of associating with the hero, then it’s within her rights to stick around.

Consequently, the hero spends an irritating amount of the plot chasing after his loved one and saving her from obvious danger, as if she was a toddler playing blind man’s bluff in a knife factory. And there’s a reason for that: Taking away their right to know takes away their ability to make an informed decision. The entire premise of the secret identity reduces her agency to that of a child.

Good secrets

That isn’t to say that there can’t be secrets for good reasons. There are plenty of LGBT+ individuals who have to keep secret identities every day, because telling the other person could have grave consequences, especially in one of the many countries where those identities are criminalized. “If she finds out, she’ll be in danger” is very different from “If she finds out, she’ll try to kill me” or “she might not want to kill me, but she may tell someone who will.”

The biggest difference in this case is that the hero (the person keeping the secret) is trying to protect themselves, not the person they’re lying to. And consequently, they’re not infantilizing the other person by making decisions on their behalf. And that makes all the difference.

How to talk about your novel

Writers have entire worlds swimming around in our heads, and we often have a hard time condensing something so huge into less than 100,000 words. This is why one of the hardest parts of trying to get published is often said to be writing a query letter or a synopsis. Often, we see the grand scale, twisting plot, and intense worldbuilding as a major part of the charm of our stories, but these lose a lot of their effect when they’re presented in conversation.

Some writers respond to this by staying quiet and not talking about their stories at all. Others go to the opposite end of the spectrum and try to tell the entire thing in one sitting.

Now, don’t get me wrong– telling people about your story can be a great way to get other people excited to read it. However, presenting too much all at once can be overwhelming and off-putting.

Based on my experiences interacting with other writers, here are some common problems we have when talking about our stories, and tips on how to fix them.  Continue reading “How to talk about your novel”

What’s wrong with the Super Bowl?

Full disclosure: Tonight I’m writing my blog post from the Phoenix, AZ, International Airport. I’m writing here instead of in an airplane heading home because Super Bowl-induced air traffic caused some delays in my flight here, and I wound up missing the transfer to Indianapolis.

There was also rain involved, but mostly I blame the event, because I’m petty like that.

I make it no secret that I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about football in general, and the Super bowl in particular. It’s not the game in general I take issue with, but the amount of focus it gets in American minds, often at a significant human cost.

Misplaced priorities 

Don’t get me wrong– I fully support programs (including sports programs) in schools that help students build self-worth and develop themselves and their interests. However, in the USA, it’s not unusual for sports programs to get a generous budget while other programs (not only the arts, but things as basic as mathematics) wither and starve for want of funding.

The local impact

When the Super Bowl came to my home town a few years back, it brought some good things to Indy (though not money– in fact, Indy lost $1 million in revenue hosting the Super Bowl in 2012). But as while my husband and I were enjoying the newly renovated Georgia Street walkway, we ran into a homeless man who’d been forcibly evicted from the homeless camp at which he’d been living. Turns out the city’s efforts to “clean up” the city involved removing the local homeless population and putting them…

Actually, that part was never made clear. There wasn’t enough room in shelters to house the city’s homeless, and even if the Super Bowl Committee had planned to put each displaced person up in a motel room for the duration of the event, there weren’t any open rooms within an hour’s drive of the city. They were simply told to go somewhere else.

A history of violence

I can’t remember a time when professional athletes weren’t coming under fire for scandals. I’m not talking about relatively harmless offenses like cheating at the game, either– I’m talking about crimes like dog fighting, domestic assault, child abuse, and rape.

And worst of all, those who commit these crimes are often protected and defended in the name of their “promising careers”.

Is this really where you want to spend your money?

This year, a “cheap” ticket to attend the 2015 Phoenix, AZ, Super Bowl cost between $3,000 and $9,000, depending on when you bought your seat.

Let me point out that with the price of a single ticket (we’re going to be conservative here and go with the cheapest possible ticket), you could:

  • Pay for a semester’s tuition for one full-time student
  • Rent a one-bedroom apartment in Phoenix, AZ, for six months
  • Buy a $5 meal for 600 people (or, conversely, three square meals for one person for six months)
  • Pay for 300 visits to a low-cost Minute Clinic.

And those are the cheap seats.

What’s the point of all this?

I’m not saying you should stop enjoying football, the Super Bowl, or any sport that you enjoy. I don’t think you should be apologetic or ashamed. But I do implore you to think critically about the media that you are consuming (which you may already be doing, if you’ve gotten this far without closing the tab in an infuriated huff).

If a child you know is into sports, remind them of the importance of sportsmanship and integrity and respect, especially off the field. When an athlete is accused of criminal behavior, don’t downplay the suffering of the victim in the name of your team’s winning streak. When you consider splurging on expensive tickets, consider also donating resources to those in need.

When to say no

Antigone by Frederic Leighton; file from Wikimedia Commons

Creon: My dear, I woke up one morning and found myself King of Thebes. God knows, there were other things I loved in life more than power.

Antigone: Then you should have said no.

Creon: Yes, I could have done that. Only, I felt that it would have been cowardly. I should have been like a workman who turns down a job that has to be done. So I said yes. 

–From Antigone by Jean Anouilh, translated by Lewis Galantiere

If you’ve never read or watched Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, I recommend it.

The above passage is between Antigone and her uncle Creon– and in this moment, they’re both tragic heroes. Antigone took a stand and refused to be part of a system that was unjust and immoral. Creon saw the same system and took charge in an effort to salvage it, because nobody else would try. In this moment they argue, furious and fiercely at odds, but neither of them are entirely wrong.

Choose your battles

There are some responsibilities we can’t shirk. Some deadlines that absolutely, positively cannot be fudged. And yes, there is a lot of honor in being reliable and faithful and strong.

But there are also times when what’s expected of us is beyond our capabilities. We can certainly try– and we might even succeed– but at the cost of physical and mental health, of family and relationships, and of the moments that we cherish. Often these things are asked of us by people who don’t fully understand our situation, or it’s meant with an unspoken ‘if you get around to it’. But they can be an endless source of stress and anxiety for someone who’s never been taught to say no.

The first step is learning to discern between what absolutely, positively, irrefutably cannot be ignored– and, in contrast, what tasks and responsibilities you can afford to push to the wayside. Because I can promise you, as overwhelming as they seem, they aren’t all do-or-die.

There’s no shame in refusing

Not being able to get through something doesn’t make you stupid, or lazy, or cowardly, or weak– but often we can feel like failures if we refuse a task that’s offered to us.

I know women especially fall victim to this a lot: we feel like we must be rising stars on our chosen career path, we must be perfect wives and perfect mothers, we must keep our homes clean enough to double as the set for a sitcom and decorated with an interior designer’s flair, we must have exciting and vibrant social lives– and we must, of course, do all of that while working out regularly, dressing fashionably, and having perfect hair and makeup no matter what the occasion.  And that’s just talking from my experience as a woman– it’s no picnic to be a guy, either!

And we wonder why anxiety and depression are so common these days.

With all of this weighing on our shoulders, it can be incredibly difficult to refuse anyone anything. But it can also be incredibly liberating– and empowering– to take a step back and reclaim a part of our lives for just ourselves. To do the thing you want to do because you want to do it, and not because somebody else expects it of you. And sometimes, it can be necessary for your mental health.