Writing Excuses 10.22: Project-In-Depth – Of Noble Family
Key points: Do your research! Antigua in 1818? Slavery or not? Great Britain? What really was happening? Write what you know, write what you made up… but when you write what other people know, that means research. Sometimes you will need an expert. Think about how you are going to handle translation, if any. Give your reader permission to not understand! Research may change your plot. Don’t be afraid to use a new situation or conflict to re-examine aspects of your world. Go ahead and explore your world in other ways, too. Don’t just change the labels, try having it work differently. Focus on your story first, and use the social issues and conflicts to stress your characters, show them reacting to illuminate the issues.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 22.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Project-In-Depth – Of Noble Family.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we are talking about Mary’s book. Yay!
[Brandon] Your book is out. Wow, we’re so enthusiastic.
[Mary] I know.
[Mary] Well, I’m slightly hesitant because it’s always… Being in the hot seat is always an interesting spot to be.
[Brandon] Yes, but you wrote a book.
[Mary] I wrote a book. I wrote the last book in my series.
[Mary] Yes. I know. It’s funny because I actually did go through a little bit of a mourning period which I was not expecting.
[Brandon] So we’re going to talk about this. We’re going to talk about the writing of it. Specifically, the world building and the magic. But really, this is a fascinating project for you. So I want to delve into a lot of different things. I’m going to ask you first about the research. Which is not regarding the magic specifically. Did you have to do more research for this book than your previous ones in the series?
[Mary] Yes. So one of the things about this book… And I’m going to talk a little bit about why… Some of the things that caused me to write it is that I had… We say these are like Jane Austen with magic. Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas goes to Antigua and slavery is mentioned and he comes back. But he’s gone for a year. For a reader of Austen’s era, there’s actually a lot of stuff where she is dealing with slavery issues head on. But for a modern reader, it’s…
[Brandon] It feels like it it’s dodging the issue a bit.
[Mary] It completely feels like it’s dodging the issue. So this is contemporary with that, so I decided that for this novel, I was going to send Jane and Vincent to Antigua and not dodge the issue.
[Howard] Well, that’s during the same period that in Great Britain, we saw the slavery abolition movement, right?
[Mary] Right. Well, slavery… Exactly. So slavery abolition was going on and had been going on… It probably actually would have been overturned in the 1780s or 90s, but for bad parliamentary management. This is all stuff that I learned during the research project… Process. Slave trade was abolished in 1804, but slavery itself was not abolished until 1834.
[Dan] Oh, wow.
[Mary] This novel takes place in 1818.
[Brandon] As I understand, and I could be wrong here, wasn’t it abolished first on the island, but you could still have slaves outside of the island? Or is that what’s happened already?
[Mary] That’s… When you say the island…
[Brandon] On the island… England.
[Mary] England. Yes. Yes and no. There have been several rulings which lawyers used to argue that slavery had been abolished in England, but it had not formally been abolished.
[Brandon] Okay. It wasn’t till the 30s.
[Brandon] Okay. So you… How did you research about this? You are… Like this is in some ways the scary thing for a writer, in my opinion. I think this is the scariest thing to do. Which is… There’s the write what you know, and in some ways that’s easy. There’s the write what you’ve made up, and no one can challenge you on. In some ways, the world building of that is hard, but the writing of it can be very easy. Then there’s this middle ground where you’re going to be taking your fantastical… Or your story, and you’re going to be taking something that other people know better than you and you’re going to be writing it. That’s terrifying.
[Howard] I want to dive in on that. Maybe I’m jumping ahead, but I want to ask a question, because there’s a moment in the book where our protagonist, Jane, is talking to Nick Whom…
[Howard] Nkiruga about glamour. They don’t share a vocabulary and Nkiruga says, “You use these descriptions as if it’s fabric. That’s limiting the way you use it.” “Well, what do you call it?” And she rattles off a series of syllables that you don’t translate for me.
[Howard] Did… You researched those, and you made up words for magic in African, didn’t you?
[Mary] Not quite.
[Mary] What I did, and this gets into the research thing. I knew that there were going to be a a lot of areas that I was going to have a big blind spot. Areas that no amount of research was going to be able to cover. A lot of that has to do with cultural nuance. So Nkiruka is an Igbo speaker who is an enslaved African in Antigua. I researched… I actually sat down and started a tutorial on Igbo and I was like, “Oh, ho ho. Yeah, this is not going to… I’m going to be able to ask for water and directions to the bathroom, and that’s not actually going to be helpful for the novel.” So what I did for… Is I put out a call for a native Igbo speaker to help me come up with the glamour terms. I wrote to her and I said, “This is what I am describing.” I had used Google translate and came up with… I said, “So these are the things that I came up with Google translate. I don’t want to use them because for all I know, I have just asked Google translate to give me the terms for something really unspeakable.” She went through and she said, “Well, we wouldn’t say it this way, we’d say it this way.” One she actually left alone and liked. But she talked about how Igbo is a much more poetic language than English, and that some of the things instead of using just a single word, you would actually use an entire phrase to describe. So…
[Howard] With a rhyme or some symmetry or something in it, where the poetry evoked more meaning than just the words would.
[Mary] There’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of the connection to living things. So she went through and did that. I did the same thing… Because the book is set, as I said, in Antigua and aside from Jane and Vincent and a couple of reoccurring characters at the beginning and end of the novel, one or two planters, the vast majority of the characters that you’re encountering in the novel are not British, but people of color, and enslaved people of color in Antigua. So I put out a call and hired an Antiguan editor and writer to go through things with me. Her name is Joanne Hillhouse and she was amazing. So what we did with her was I… We sat down and had conversations about some general stuff, and then I sent her chapters. She rewrote all of the dialect for me. So I made a stab at it, but I was again not going to be able to come up with something…
[Brandon] You use a fair amount of dialect in this.
[Mary] Oh, yes. It is not… I don’t…
[Howard] I loved it the first time I hit it. That was delightful.
[Mary] That was a big choice to make, too, about deciding to… We… When Joann and I were talking, she said… She describes it as there’s the language of the heart which is the dialect that you speak at home with friends and family. Then you do… I mean, we do code switching. Everybody does code switching where you change… So she said that for American readers, if she has the characters speaking completely the language of the heart, completely Antiguan Creole dialect, American readers will probably not be able to understand it. I talked about it with my editor, Liz Gorinsky, and we decided to go ahead and do that because we were dealing with a culture that is already erased so much that contributing to that was not something that I wanted to do. But knowing then that my readers would have difficulty…
[Brandon] But you also had a character who could act as an interpreter.
[Brandon] For the… For Jane and Vincent.
[Howard] You have exactly that collision. “I don’t understand what you said.”
[Mary] Yup. So I… But I had to make that a design choice. I really had to… It’s not just giving the reader the… This is what this means. It’s giving the reader permission to feel comfortable with not understanding something. It’s like, “It’s okay that you don’t understand it. She wasn’t speaking to you.”
[Brandon] Well, it may… It actually works really well, because we feel as out of place as Jane. She’s the one that’s interacting with these… I mean, she feels completely like, “Whe… What’s going on? I can’t interact with people, I can’t… It’s really tough for me.” Beyond that, you’ve… It’s not that much of a spoiler, she’s pregnant again. In these books, she can’t use glamour during this time. So she’s cut off from her magic, she’s cut off from society. She’s trying to understand, but she can’t speak the language. It’s… You really feel alone at some points in this book.
[Mary] That was something that I was really going for, that sense of isolation. While at the same time, making sure that I was also showing that Jane was still operating from a place of privilege. Like, she makes assumptions constantly, based on being a privileged white middle-class British woman. Forgetting that she is dealing with people who are enslaved. She keeps stumbling over that.
[Brandon] Right. She keeps making mistakes about that.
[Howard] Well, what’s nice is that the position that she’s in is not… Yes, she’s privileged, but she’s not privileged and completely blind to it. She’s able to walk the periphery, and by being able to walk the periphery, you are able to show us both the privileged POV and the enslaved one. That journey was neat.
[Brandon] Yeah, I really like how you were able to show a lot of the native Antiguans being strong individuals and strong characters, but still part of this society. So we don’t have anachronisms, and we don’t have the noble savages. We have real characters, complex characters who are trapped in this system as much as in some ways Jane is trapped in this system.
[Mary] This is actually one of the things that was interesting when I started working on this book, being part of the system. When you’re looking at… The same books in this series, where they’re set in England, there’s servants all around. I never name them, I don’t call them out very often, but in this book, I’m like every single servant had to have a name, because the point of this is that these people are not background people. Everything… England’s entire sugar industry was supported on the backs of people who were considered invisible by a lot of society, and still are.
[Dan] So at what point in your research, and maybe it was long before the research… Let me rephrase the question then. To what extent did the research and your goals for the story affect each other?
[Mary] [laughter] Hugely.
[Dan] So as you were writing and decided, “Oh, I need to add more social issues into this,” or was it “I’m really fascinated by the social issues, and therefore I need to research more about them?”
[Mary] So… Talking about this without huge spoilers. I mean, in a project-in-depth, we do go spoilery frequently. But one of the things… So I knew that… I knew going into it that I wanted to deal with slavery. I knew going into it that I wanted to be in Antigua and that I wanted to avoid the Noble Savage trope, the white man saves the day. I wanted to avoid these things. So my original plot, the thing I sent to Tor, ended with a slave rebellion and things going up in flames and this whole thing. Which was going to be this very dramatic, exciting conclusion. Then I started researching, and I had picked Antigua because of Jane Austen. I’d already sent Lord Verbury there and said that’s where the family estates were. It’s locked and it’s canon. So I start researching and discover that at this point, there are 40 naval bases on Antigua. This is an island that’s 36 miles.
[Mary] 40 naval bases. It was Britain’s biggest naval base. This is like Lord Nelson’s shipyard is there. There is no way…
[Dan] There’s no successful slave rebellion.
[Mary] Even… Like if I throw magic into the mix. I’m like, “Okay, I could see how to make it happen.” There’s no way Britain would let them hold it. Right. So I’m going to have a series that ends with blood and then more blood and then the promise of additional blood later? I was like, “I can’t. That’s not…”
[Howard] And depression.
[Mary] And depression.
[Brandon] That’s not the series you’re writing.
[Mary] That’s not the series I’m writing. I’m like I… This is the last book, I actually have to not do that. So… But the discovery of the 40 naval bases made me wind up having a lot more military pressure go on that I wasn’t originally planning. Then, also, one of the other things that I had not planned at all to deal with… I mean, Jane was pregnant, but I was not actually going to deal with a lot of the childbirth issues until I was reading… I’m sorry that I didn’t grab the title of the book before we started but we’ll put it in the liner notes. But I was reading a book about the enslaved populations in the Caribbean at this time. Antigua in particular had an incredibly low birth rate. The planters of the day were not sure why it was happening. Probably it was people using abortifacients to… And other things, but a lot of it was malnutrition. Today, even, we’re still not completely sure why. But I wound up, because of that and because Jane is pregnant, I wound up introducing an enslaved woman who was also pregnant and using that… The differences in station and expectations which I was not planning on doing.
[Brandon] We should stop for the book of the week.
[Mary] Oh, yes.
[Brandon] Now, listeners…
[Howard] Big surprise on the book of the week.
[Brandon] Yeah. We… I do want to… I forgot to warn at the beginning. We… The Project-In-Depth weeks are double length weeks. We always go longer on that, so… Despite the fact we’re stopping for the book of the week at 15 minutes, we will keep talking after this. The book of the week is Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal, read by…
[Mary] By me and two other narrators. So the other books, the other four books in the series are all narrated by just me, and given what I have said about the books, I looked at it and I was like, “I would be the wrong person to narrate this book because of the number of characters of color.” So I… Any attempt for me to learn in Antiguan accent is going to sound like a caricature. I’m not going to be able to get the nuances, particularly with the number of characters. So Audible was fantastic and what they did was they told me I could have two additional narrators. So I have Robin Miles, who is voicing all of the female characters, and I have Prentice Onayemi, who is voicing all of the male characters. Which means that you will actually get to hear Vincent with a male voice at this point.
[Dan] Oh, cool.
[Mary] I say she’s voicing all the female characters. I’m still doing Jane and Melody. But it’s really nice to be able to have… We’re trying to do a full cast sound.
[Brandon] Excellent. They can get that by going to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial, and download Of Noble Family. If you haven’t read any of Mary’s books before, perhaps download one of the earlier ones. Although you… I’ve read these books. You could really jump in almost anywhere, they are written very… Of course, they continue, but very standalone-ish. You prep people at the beginnings really well.
[Mary] I tried to write them all as standalones. So if you felt like you wanted to read one other, I would pick up Without a Summer, and then you could jump Valor and Vanity, although it’s a heist novel.
[Brandon] It’s great. My favorite of them.
[Mary] But you can…
[Brandon] You tricked me.
[Mary] Sorry. That pleases me so much.
[Howard] If I can say something… The… We talked about the world building angles here. We talk a lot about how in science fiction, the science is a character. In some sorts of fantasies, the magic is a character. I loved the exploration of the character of the magic, and I feel like this language barrier was a tool that allowed you to describe the magic to the reader in a way that you couldn’t have if it had just been… If it had just been Jane or if it had just been Vincent describing it to us.
[Mary] Yeah. A lot of times in these books, I will just have them toss out a piece of jargon to the other, and my intention there is, “Look, they’re talking. This is their [garbled]
[Howard] The competency nickel.
[Mary] It’s competency porn they’re talking, and nobody else understands what’s going on, and that’s design state. With this one, because I was dealing with a lot of aspects of glamour that I don’t normally deal with… There’s a scene on a sailing ship, and this was actually prompted because my dad was like, “Really? Sailors aren’t doing anything with glamour?” I mean… I’m like, “Well, you can’t do glamour at sea.” He’s like, “Yeah, but when you’re fiddling… I mean, so”
[Brandon] It makes them… It has a reaction.
[Mary] So I sat there and I was like, “He’s completely right. Even if you can’t create images, they would still play around with it.” So I created something called light works, which are basically… It’s a game the sailors play where they try to see… Since you can’t do glamour at sea, they try to see how long they can sustain a line of glamour. The one who gets… Sustains it long enough, wins. So that was fun.
[Brandon] Well, that was really good, actually, because one of the things you’re doing in this book is you’re introducing new aspects of the magic as the people from Africa have been doing magic differently. So what this does is, it introduces us to the concept that although our two characters are experts in their realm of understanding, there are holes in their understanding of this magic that are culturally based. When we see the sailors doing it, it opens us up to the idea that, “Wow. When we get to Antigua, and they’re doing magic differently there, it makes perfect sense to us.”
[Mary] One of the things we’ve arranged with Tor is for me to actually post an excerpt of the scene with the sailing on the Writing Excuses website. So you guys will be able to read the scene that we’re talking about, with the glamour and the sailors and stuff.
[Dan] So, just knowing you as I do, how many other cultures have you kind of sketched out, of this is how they do it in China, and this is how they do it in India, like…
[Mary] I’ve gone through loose… Really loosely… I mean, one of the ways that I deal with world building is I think about it enough to make sure that the pieces are going to connect, that like they’re roughly in proportion to each other. But I don’t start fleshing it in until I start writing it, because sometimes I don’t know the pieces that I need. So I’ve figured out how glamour works roughly in the Ottoman Empire. The Islamic influence means that the formal glamour is generally not figurative. Although not always. So things like that. I… There’s certain aspects that I’ve thought through. I’ve thought through how it works in the American South. The Puritans regard anything in which you attempt to create a false semblance as immodest, trying to… So…
[Dan] Which is very accurate.
[Mary] So glamour is discouraged in the United States. Well… So I’ve gone through things like that. I thought more about the cultural aspects of glamour that I have specifically about the mechanics, in some ways.
[Dan] The mechanics of it, the way the African slaves do it, what I loved about that was that it was not just different words for stuff. They literally interact with it and connect with it on a completely different level.
[Mary] This was based a lot on two things. One is I was an art major in college, and the other is my puppetry background. So a lot of the times when I’m modeling the way glamour behaves, what I’m looking at is how painting and puppetry is handled in other cultures. We… Like painting in Europe was doing something very different in this time. The rea… The relationship to it, the tools that you use, all of this is very different than when you go to other places. Likewise puppetry in some places… In Europe, puppetry is pretty much just… At this point, it’s just entertainment. But in other places, puppetry is reserved for religious purposes. So it’s looking at that and looking at how those things connect and why they connect that way and then trying to extrapolate. Well, if this existed in that same frame, how would it connect and how would it fit in with those things?
[Howard] One of the problems that I run across all the time is when I think of a thing that my technology, that my geewhiz could be used for that would be really cool in a story, but nobody’s used it for that yet. I need to figure out why not. Your solution to that, the… We already talked about it, “Well, you keep talking about it like it’s fabric. Now that’s limiting you.”
[Brandon] The way that you’ve been taught, the way that you’ve been trained, frames how you see the world and it’s completely believable that… Particularly as these characters interact and they both have trouble understanding each other’s. It’s not just where did we go wrong as we meet these slaves and they’re better in all aspects. That’s not how it is. It is your training, your learning, informs how you use this stuff. It’s not until two people meet together and really start discussing it that each one is able to understand the other’s way.
[Mary] Yeah. I did try to make sure that they each had a moment where one of them would do something and the other is like, “Wait, wait, wait. How did you do that? I need to know that because that’s really cool.”
[Brandon] I also want to mention something else about this. Writing wise, for those of you listeners out there, this is an excellent way to make your magic system have more variety to it, more depth to it is really what I’m looking at…
[Howard] I’d say more breadth.
[Brandon] More breadth without just adding a bunch of new things to it, is by showing another culture, allowing it to be fresh again to some people, and some aspects of it to be fresh to your main characters, can, at the risk of abusing a phrase, refresh this to your reader and to yourself as a writer, to make your magic new again.
[Mary] One thing that I want to mention, because this was one of my favorite world building aspects. There’s something that they call poorfire threads, which is UV light. One of the things that was interesting for me about this was coming up with the phrase poorfire. So infrared, I call nether-red. That’s perfectly… My feeling was that the challenge with poorfire is that they become… In the real world, we become aware of ultraviolet light in I think 1804 or seven, some… But… And it’s called oxidizing rays. The problem that I ran into… So I had a perfectly appropriate period word. But what I figured was that in the Glamourist Histories universe, people would have known about ultraviolet and infrared for much, much longer, because of the way they manipulate the spectrum.
[Brandon] They know a lot more about light. I noticed some of the technical jargon about light is years ahead of its time.
[Mary] It’s not, actually.
[Brandon] Oh, okay.
[Mary] All of the wave and particle stuff? No, that’s Newtonian.
[Mary] No, but it’s fun, because we think about it as being very, very modern, but… But, but the spectrum… Because they can actually see the spectrum and they can manipulate it, so they’re aware of these things. So I knew that there had to be a word that was older. Like oxidizing rays was not going to work, because they were called oxidizing rays because the only part they could see was that it oxidized things. So I had to sit down and think about, “Okay. What is it used for? How does it interact? How long has it been around? When did they become aware of it?” I talked to Michael Livingston, who is a medieval scholar, and he… We went back and forth and he suggested since it’s ultraviolet and there would… I described what it would look like to a glamourist which is kind of a purple-black not color… He suggested porphyry which is a very old word for purple, and it’s called porphyry because you’ve got purple from the shells of porphyr…
[Brandon] Yeah. Snails.
[Mary] Snails. I was like, “That’s great, because porphyry over the years with easily corrupt to poorfire and since ultraviolet light…” By the time you get to… In Britain, they think it’s really only good for making things glow and it dissolves very quickly. So it’s a poor fire. I was like, “This works so well.”
[Howard] The other end is way warmer.
[Mary] Yeah! Yeah. Then… So that was a lot of fun. Then the other thing that I did was UV light is very useful for infecting wounds, and so I let the characters in Africa interact with it in a completely different way and use it as something called a spirit bower for disinfecting, but… People were saying, “Oh, no, no. That’s not… That’s just superstition, that doesn’t work.”
[Dan] This is on a completely different topic, and I know we don’t have a lot of time left. But very quickly I wanted to ask, if you can answer this without spoilers, there’s so much crammed into this book. How did you balance the needs to tell all of this new story while still serving as a wrap up to the series?
[Mary] Well, I mean, what I was focused on was the story itself, the family issues. That was the thing… This series has always been about family and relationship. So that was the thing that I was interested in. So what I kept my attention on was really what needed to happen. These other things, all of these other social issues and stuff, are things that can put stress on my characters, but they are not… They can create conflicts, but really what it’s doing, it is informing the way my characters are reacting to the conflicts and the way they react, and that dialogue between those two things illuminates the social issues that I want to talk about. If I just said, “I’m going to talk about slavery is bad,” that would be a really dull book.
[Howard] All of my notes in the margins in the ARC that you’re going to make me give back… By the way, I think I got bacon grease in it. I’m sorry.
[Mary] That’s okay. I’ll auction it off as Howard’s bacon grease.
[Howard] All of my notes were I’m reading about the magic, I’m reading about the magic, this is fascinating. Then there was character conflict and then there was social conflict. I was already engaged. It was not preachy to me. It was just washing right over me as part of the story. I loved that. I made lots of little marks every time it happened.
[Mary] Oh, cool.
[Howard] It was cool.
[Brandon] Well, this is a fantastic book. You should all read it.
[Mary] Thank you.
[Howard] Or have it read to you.
[Brandon] Have it read… Or you should already have read it, really, to listen to this, because we gave you a warning. But if you haven’t, you can pick it up. We want to thank Mary. It’s always difficult to be in the hot seat, and you had to talk for a half hour, while we just kind of sat here and ate bacon.
[Dan] [garbled — The sun is hard] here.
[Brandon] Not really, but we wished we were. But Dan, you have some homework for us.
[Dan] Yes. Your homework today is to do kind of a version of what Mary did with this story. We want you to take something common that… An activity or an object that you are familiar with, and then have a character describe it to someone with a completely different frame of reference. Whether that person is from another culture or from another planet, whatever it is, so that they have to describe it without using the common words that we all fall back on.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.