In Which Fantasy Is Hard on the Brains. (A.K.A. This Post is Too Long?)

So, I’ve decided I want to play the triangle in a production of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird. Somewhere on this big, round earth, there must be a symphony orchestra facing the tragic circumstance of having to cancel its upcoming performance of the Firebird for lack of a triangle player, mustn’t there? I’ve looked at the score and I know I can do it! I’ll go anywhere! (By the way, that video is of Stravinsky himself conducting in 1965, at the age of 82. Check out the cane. Can you guess how jealous I am of that triangle player?)

Here’s a beautiful video of a rocket breaking the sound barrier amidst a layer of ice crystals. Hap-tip, JD, and, for the curious among you, more info can be found here.

JD, incidentally, happens to be one of the smarty-pants experts who answers my endless questions as I research various parts of my novels. JD used to be a physicist, and for Bitterblue, he helped me with light waves. Why? Because one of my characters — let’s call this person “X” — sees not with his/her eyes, but with an innate ability to sense the presence and nature of physical matter around him/her. I found myself wondering, can X tell what color things are? Because color is made of light waves, and light waves are teeny — too teeny for X to sense? In addition to which — as JD explained — the process by which things appear to us to be certain colors can be enormously complicated, depending on the thing. JD taught me all about color and light and how it works — and, segueing to philosophy, which he also knows about — helped me realize that really, the question I needed to ask myself was less, Can X see color?, and more, “What is a thing?” Is a wooden chair a particular arrangement of wood and nails? Or is a wooden chair a CHAIR? Does X perceive a wooden chair to be wood arranged in the shape of a chair, and know, from its recognizable material and shape, that it is a chair? Or does a chair emit a certain “chair-ness” that is immediately recognizable to X as chair-ness? Whereas, a table made of the exact same wood would emit a sort of “table-ness”? Does it matter more what it’s made of or how it’s used? Or, is what it is the only thing that matters? What is a thing?

This is an example of the crazy stuff I can find myself needing to decide as I write a book, especially a fantasy. Here are a few more unique to fantasy:

What time is it? In our world, as you know, time is divided into seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. But the divisions are a little bit arbitrary, right? Not so much with day and year length — those depend on the rotation of the planet and the time it takes to revolve around the sun and all that — and, okay, months are kind of, sort of, defined by the shenanigans of the moon — but why is a week 7 days? Why is a day 24 hours — why is an hour as long as it is? And why are there 60 minutes in an hour, rather than 100 shorter units, for example, that add up to the same amount of time? Etc., etc.

Have you ever noticed that fantasy writers are often a little non-specific about times and dates in their novels? Or else, they’ve made up a system entirely different from ours, that can sometimes be hard to follow? I guess I shouldn’t speak for other writers, but in my case, the non-specificity is because I’m conscious, all the time, of my story not actually taking place on our planet. What is the likelihood of the existence of another planet that rotates at exactly the same rate as ours, circles its star in exactly the same amount of time, AND has come up with exactly the same time system as ours — 60-second minutes, 60-minute hours, 24-hour days? It strikes me as kind of unlikely. However, as it turns out, in one section of Bitterblue, the time system matters. It matters to the minute. And it matters in a way that would be hopelessly confusing to the reader (and to me, and to Lance, my trusty Mathematics and Time Expert), were I to try to make up a whole new system of time. So I’ve taken the plunge and just gone ahead and established that on the planet of my books, there are 60 minutes to the hour and 24 hours to the day, and noon and three o’clock and half past five — and so on — all mean the same things that they mean here on Earth. I’ve taken the plunge, but I still worry about how unlikely it is!

How Many Letters are in the Alphabet? Similarly, for reasons I won’t reveal here, it matters in Bitterblue how many letters there are in the alphabet of this world. And, as with the time thing, it matters in a way that would be hopelessly confusing to the reader if I made up a whole new alphabet that doesn’t have 26 letters. So I’ve had to take this plunge, too, and establish that Bitterblue and her friends write in a language of 26 letters — even though the likelihood of this, on another planet, where they are not actually speaking English and, for goodness sake, maybe don’t even HAVE letters in the sense that we do, is slim. (I cannot WAIT to see what my translators, especially in languages that don’t have 26 letters, do with this. I think I’m going to be presenting some, if not all, of them with a challenge!)

Where Did This Language Come From, Anyway? Guess what? One of the characters in Bitterblue is a lexicographer. He’s writing a dictionary. But, if you’ve read Graceling, you may have inferred that the language spoken in the seven kingdoms has pretty much developed in isolation, without the influence of other languages — or, at least, without any influence in the historical memory of the people. Know what that means? It means that Bitterblue’s language almost certainly has fewer words than English, which has had many parents and influences. In other words, I’m writing Bitterblue’s story using more words than Bitterblue and her people would ever have available to them…. and it means I have to be careful about what I say about the dictionary that Character Y is writing! Why? Well, maybe this example will help to explain what I mean: in English, the words “brotherly” and the words “fraternal” mean — or at least, sometimes mean — the same thing: “of, relating to, or involving brothers” (the first Merriam-Webster definition of “fraternal”). The word “fraternal” comes from the Latin word for brother, frater. The word “brother,” on the other hand, seems to have its roots in “the Germanic, from the Indo-European,” according to my Shorter OED. We have multiple words for “brotherly” because of the multiple influences that helped the English language to grow. But chances are, Bitterblue and her people have only one word for “brotherly.” Now, I can use both “fraternal” and “brotherly” as I write my book. With some exceptions, all of English is available to me, and I’m not going to make myself crazy on that account. But it would probably be best for my lexicographer, specifically, while talking about lexicography, not to announce a whole string of synonyms for the word “brotherly,” because chances are, it wouldn’t be realistic to assume that the seven kingdoms would have all those synonyms.

Am I making even the slightest sense? Actually, I’m not, because as Lance, who also happens to be a true Linguistics Expert, pointed out to me the other day, even a language developed in isolation will have some synonyms. But, I want to avoid a scene in which my lexicographer — who is talkative and likes to talk about words — dramatically lists a string of synonyms he’s working on for his dictionary, synonyms that in our language of English were derived from different languages. Because in my opinion, that would be a sloppy translation on my part. Which is ridiculous, perhaps — especially since throughout the novel, I mention words that he’s defining that have a whole range of derivations — and probably even have him define some of his words using other words that have unmatching derivations — and the novel is no doubt full of other sloppy things I’ve failed to catch — but well, YOU JUST TRY TO WRITE ABOUT A LEXICOGRAPHER IN AN IMAGINARY WORLD WHERE THE LANGUAGE GREW IN ISOLATION, USING ENGLISH AS YOUR WRITING LANGUAGE, AND SEE HOW IT GOES FOR YOU.


As Lance wrote yesterday, “I’m not convinced I’m making any more sense than you feared you weren’t.” (You were, BTW, Lance, and thanks for your help. ^_^)

I’ll just say that if there are any errors in anything I’ve blogged today, they are errors in my understanding and expression, not errors in JD’s or Lance’s knowledge or explanations.

One more thing: I understand that Tolkien is the person to read, and to read about, if you want to watch a master fantasy writer make up working languages, then translate them into English. I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to any of this, having only ever read The Hobbit and LOTR once and having read very little about Tolkien — but perhaps that’s where you (and I) should go if you (and I) want to read thoughts on the matter that actually make sense!

If this stuff interests you, you might also like my recent article in the Horn Book Magazine, which is about some of the challenges I faced while writing Graceling. Those challenges were less abstruse, but just as ridiculous and frustrating.