Writing Excuses 5.36: Non-Traditional Settings with Saladin Ahmed

Saladin Ahmed, Nebula- and Campbell-award nominee joins Brandon and Howard at Penguicon 9.0 in Troy, Michigan for a discussion of setting — specifically, setting an epic fantasy in something besides the traditional, Western European middle ages.

We talk about the importance of familiarity, and how we balance that against more exotic elements. Saladin offers us some tools and tricks for doing this. One of these is the “Daily Life In” series of books, research tools for authors wanting to leverage ancient Rome, Egypt, or other places in the creation of their settings. Yes, you might want to go out and buy a book or two after we’re done.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Inheritance Trilogy, Book 1, by N. K. Jemisin, narrated by Casaundra Freeman

Writing Prompt: Describe a food that is familiar to you from the point of view of a character who has never encountered it, nor anything like it.

Did You Hear Something Different? This episode marks the debut of our new digital mixer! We’re new to it, but so far it’s wonderful. Also, this is the third or fourth episode where Mary Robinette Kowal has voiced the sponsorship plug. Expect to hear a LOT more from her in Season Six…

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37 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.36: Non-Traditional Settings with Saladin Ahmed”

  1. You might want to crank the final mix level up some, it’s far below “normal” sounds, and I hate having to micromanage my volume level :P

  2. I wonder if the ebook revolution will lead to an explosion of new fantasy in non-traditional settings. If more writers are able to make a living writing for more than a handful of publishers, and books have more time to find their natural audience, the conditions seem to be ripe for more boundary-pushing books.

  3. Fine job, as usual! Interesting topic, nicely covered—but dang hard to hear.

    Please turn the volume waaaay up; I’d rather have to turn the sound down than turn it up and still have to go fetch my plug-in speakers to hear the show.

    You kiddos rock, btw.

  4. Good episode… but as stated above, try to get the sound up, it’s very frustrating when you already have volume at maximum and a load truck or something rolls by force you to pause and rewind your iPod. Some of us just can’t sit still while we listen :)

  5. a great guest and a very interesting conversation. I hope this is not the last time we hear Saladin on Writing Excuses. Good job all around.

  6. I’ve emailed Producer Jordo about the levels. I was cautious when recording — if the master volume is too high there might be clipping, and there’s no fixing that. If the whole thing is too quiet we can always turn it up.

    Which, it would seem, we need to do.

  7. Great discussion. I’m working on a fantasy in a non-traditional setting right now (secondary world modeled after ancient Mexico/central America) and I’ve been using a similar tactic as Saladin–using familiar fantasy tropes in my unfamiliar world. It’s nice to get confirmation that other writers are finding success with that tactic. I’ll have to take a look at his book when I get a chance.

  8. >> if the master volume is too high there might be clipping,

    Let me preemptively say that I really, really, really appreciate that. Clipping. {shudder}

  9. FYI, the volume on this week’s podcast was very low. I don’t know if that is due to the new digital format or what, but I had a hard time hearing even after dialing up my computer’s volume to greater than 80% where I typically use 60%.

  10. Just a note on top of the note–I found that when you aren’t familiar with the non-traditional setting and you are planning to set it on another world, your research has to be umpteen times more than if you were doing a Historical Fantasy fiction with a background in the same area.

    Non-traditional setting is *not*an excuse to skimp on your research. If anything, I think because you’re dealing with cultures that are similar to ones on Earth, that your research has to be ten times more impeccable.

    I’d also caution to double that over if you’re dealing with a racial group that you’re not used to. It’s too easy to fall into stereotypes and booby traps when you don’t know what you’re doing. Even N.K. Jemisin admitted to a mistake in her second book that she said she’d fix now (It was about blindness). (She has good posts about it.)

    I have to admit that when I was writing my own 4-country fantasy set in a specific time period, I thought I knew pretty much everything about those four countries until I started my research. (We all know the famous quote by Confucius). So far I’ve found things that I didn’t know and it’s limiting my scope, but it’s really opening my eyes to new possibilities at the same time.

    India, for example, in the time period I’m thinking of, doesn’t have half of the foods I know and love from that country in the time period I chose, making me stretch and think about the problems this presents to the story (which I pulled from a few folktales/legends). No Kafta, no biriani as I know it, probably no Korma, no naan, no vindaloo (That’s Portuguese-fused), puri? Maybe… long shot though, samosa–no. This leaves me with the only semi-native foods without garlic and cut down amount of spices–the majority of spices I associate with Indian food? Not native to India! The majority of food as we see in restaurants is Muhali! This meant I had to work hard to disavow myself of all the stereotypes I knew about India that I didn’t even know I picked up–despite hours and hours of watching Bollywood films and Discovery Channel specials. I realized that to really write India properly, I needed to dig deeper to get to the heart of it. That’s just a Historical fantasy, which probably due to ignorance (which you can blame on the so-called World History lessons of the 1980’s and 1990’s), is going to be passed off as non-traditional fantasy.

    If I was going to rip a whole culture off of the face of the Earth… perhaps it is my academics talking, or my deep respect for culture and the people who live in it, I would track influences on that culture over a long, long time period and try very hard to look into regional differences. If there is one thing I learned out of traveling to other countries is that countries not only evolve over time, but by region. And if you can pick up pieces of regional differences, you can end up with a richer overall culture and create a nice sense of texture–which NK Jemisin did beautifully by noting the differences in her tribes without dishonoring the cultures she was trying to imitate. This also defeats stereotypes very well and as you learn what the stereotypes are, you can delicately turn them around for jokes and character POV education. Show the range within a culture and you get a more believable, richer culture.

    In this case, more research and more knowledge will help you lots. Because I ran into the food issue with India, I now can set my Indian Princess a new set of conflicts and tasks that would be very real for her–such as the rule about no garlic, or how royalty in her new country would have to eat meat and/or seafood. I also found that she would have an aversion to tailored clothes–which her new country can’t accept if she is to be in her station. She would also have an aversion to boiled silk–which is a huge issue considering one of the conditions I set up is that she has to help with the silk road.

    So I think research into the culture, when you love it and are willing to battle stereotypes the best you can can be fun, and can present interesting challenges to your characters you didn’t even know existed. Besides, getting a culture right is a new challenge. Getting it wrong and showing no effort to get it right shows issues.

    Last note–I only use foreign words when an English word simply can’t do. For example, names of places, people (real or otherwise), or terms that I can’t translate no matter how hard I try. (Chapati, for example… no getting around that one. Or Mudang–not quite priestess, not quite shamaness by cultural anthro terms. Gan–I can’t get a good translation for that title from the Korean due to the odd system of government. and so on). I also tend to use them for what Anthropologists would term “heart words” the words that make people switch languages because of the emotion entangled with them. “Mom” “Dad” “Older brother”, etc. But that’s a stylized thing. It might be also because I like emphasizing relationships between people and how those words are used in other cultures tends to vary quite a bit.

    Less is more, but leave enough to get the texture/authenticity going.

    But note that I’m a culture geek and I love hours of research finding stuff like, all my cultures have dead languages/no living examples! OMG that’s great! I’m also very bent towards respecting other people’s cultures and cultural views. =P

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  12. So… does the teaser for next season in the liner notes mean that Mary Robinette Kowal is going to be a regular on the show for season 6?

    If so, that’s awesome. I just hope we won’t lose Brandon, Howard, or Dan.

  13. I can’t beleive you guys were an hour away from me and only a mile from where I grew up…and I missed you. I’m bummed but this was a great topic to hit for the podcast, thanks!

  14. You know, as much as I like to listen to Mary Robinette Kowal, a part of me misses Howard saying, “This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by Audible. Visit audiblepodcast.com/excuse for a free trial membership.”

  15. I know that I gravitate to the familiar. As a writer, I’m more timid – yes, we can do research, but research only goes so far. I don’t trust myself to get the voice right for subsets of my own culture, much less one that is much less familiar to me.

    But I love it when a good writer makes a very unfamiliar culture come alive for me, and I’m not alone, or all the wonderful stuff coming out of Asia these days wouldn’t be so popular.

    The problem I see so often – particularly in SF with completely alien peoples – is that the setting, the new culture, becomes the story, and the characters become merely archetypal representatives of that culture, as opposed to diverse, relatable people who have to exist within the culture as best they can – everyone has to come to terms with living in their society, after all, whether it’s some degree of conformation or total rebellion.

    Big yes on medieval fantasy not really being medieval – we can pick and choose what we want in a made-up fantasy world, and there’s no reason that can’t be done when borrowing from any culture. Fantasy in particular I make allowances for if the culture isn’t historically accurate – I figure the existence of magic will civilize a culture, like technology, or at least cause significant changes (that’s how I’m playing it with my world, at least. ^_^)

    And I’d like a podcast on high magic versus low magic, please. :-)

  16. Hi W.E.,
    Just wanted to take the time to thank you for the podcast; always a wealth to consider, and this episode was no different. I haven’t tried much in the Fantasy genre, but I think some of my drafts have been leaning that way; more research to do!

    thanks again, great work

  17. Love the podcast, & thanks for looking in to the levels.

    Great topic this week, and would look forward to more coverage of the issue of non-traditional settings. I would also second the request for a high / low magic podcast, if you are up for it.

  18. Too bad that it’s still a year until Saladin Ahmed’s book will be published… It’s not even traceable on amazon yet.

  19. Thanks for listening, everyone – had a blast with Brandon and Howard!

    I neglected to give the name and pub date of my novel in the podcast. It’s THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON, and it will be published by DAW Books in Feb 2012. It won’t be available for preorder for a while, but someone has apparently set up a Goodreads page for it: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9633469-throne-of-the-crescent-moon

    In the meantime, you can read (and in many cases listen to) all of my published short stories for free here: http://www.saladinahmed.com/wordpress/bibliography/ “Where Virtue Lives” and “Judgment of Swords and Souls” are sort of prequel stories to THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON, so you can see some of the setting stuff I talked about in action.

    Finally, I love to connect with other readers & writers! I’m pretty active on various social networks – drop by http://www.saladinahmed.com/wordpress/2010/01/29/welcome/ to learn more.

    Thanks again, all!

  20. I’m also sad your book isn’t out yet! I read Arabian Nights growing up, and I adore books like SHADOW SPINNER and THE DESERT OF SOULS. They feel fresh, but not terribly unfamiliar because it’s a setting I’ve been exposed to before, just not as often as not-really-Europe.

    Maybe I’m just biased. I graduated in archaeology so I could learn about cool places and write cool settings, so I jump on books with different settings. In writing it, I find that some really good betas can help point out any world-building that I glossed over too quickly (because I’m familiar with it) and also tell me if the story is relateable. I love how fantasy can take common human emotions and make me reexamine them by setting them someplace else. There are hundreds of thousands of stories about friendship, but Samwise Gamgee defined the word for me.

    Thanks for doing this podcast with everyone, Saladin Ahmed — it was great to hear your perspective (and to learn about your book).

  21. I’m really looking forward to Saladin Ahmed’s book. I, too, have fiddled with Arabian Night’s mythos blends after watching Disney’s Aladdin 35 times in a row. It’s a real fascination of mine, and I’m sure Saladin will do a great job capturing that feeling.

  22. oh, and more Mary Robinette Kowal on the podcast is welcome news! It may be too much to hope for Mary to become the 4th member of the team, but increased Mary exposure is a damn fine thing!

  23. I definitely loved and appreciated this podcast for the week. I think the industry would do well to have a fresh crop of writers who can branch across non-traditional settings, and stories like the one Saladin described in the podcast have always intrigued me. I can’t wait until his book comes out and I thought he was a fine guest for the week. Very astute observations and reflections into the topic.

  24. I discovered the hundred thousand kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin after hearing this podcast and was very glad I did. Thanks for the recommendation Saladin, it was a great book.

    I will look forward to reading yours when it comes out as well.

  25. By the way, you guys spelled N.K. Jemisin’s name wrong in the actual text of the blog post. Might want to fix that.

  26. Thanks for this cast. I’ve been reading on ancient Greece / Rome, etc., in order to come up with something other than the traditional medieval Western Europe settting for fantasy.

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