I’ve been keeping to my goal of ceasing to procrastinate on writing a novel, at the rate of one chapter per week. It’s coming along well, I have a good idea of where the story is going over-all and where it’s going next.
I also have a confession to make.
When I started writing “Keeping Time” for WHEN THE HERO COMES HOME (Amazon | B&N | Powell’s | DMP), I didn’t have a clear idea of who my aliens were or what they were like. They weren’t important to the story–only the fact that we’d visited them was important. I’d already been telling other authors that their stories could not get weighed down by backstory when it was aftermath that was important, and I practiced what I preached. The Mirai of Mirid (named as an homage to Marie Bilodeau’s planet Mirial, from her Destiny series) are spoken of and hinted at, but we really learn very little about them. They’re technologically advanced, they value ethics and morals and the concept of “the spirit of the law.” We don’t know whether their planet is habitable to us (though we can infer that it is because their beverages are compatible with our biology). We don’t know what they look like. We don’t know what their language looks or sounds like.
That’s all fine for a short story where it’s the return voyage, not the encounter, that matters. The world I built was Overture, the ship; not Mirid, the planet.
Now that the story’s becoming a novel, suddenly those things matter a great deal.
I’m taking a page from an excellent series of linguistics panels I attended at Renovation/Reno WorldCon (2011). Juliette Wade, David J. Peterson, and Peadar Ó Guilín, specifically, spoke about creating a language by thinking about what’s important to the culture–what the culture would and wouldn’t have words for.
So, I’m starting from this one spark, this one throwaway paragraph in the original story, and from there I’m building a whole culture around the framework of honoring “the spirit of the law.” I’ve decided the aliens are “humanists” and not religious, because there’s no higher power telling them to have the moral and ethical framework that they have…but that the word “humanist” itself is so Terra-centric that it can be seen to be a statement of allegiance with the human faction and lead to lots of fun misunderstandings and hijinks.
There has to be an alien word for the concept, if it’s central for them. (I’m reminded of HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY: “The…humanity–Vogonity, sorry!”)
Out of that, I’ve latched onto the abstract-that-doesn’t-precisely-translate concept of “the honor/burden that is the responsibility that comes with sentience.” Kind of the way the Hebrew mitzvah means duty, but its connotation is of a good and noble work that it is one’s responsibility–sometimes to the degree of being almost a rite of passage–to perform. It also has a colloquial usage tinged with rue: if you’re facing up to something you have to do but don’t want to, you might sigh and say, “It’s a mitzvah.”
Because this is the core concept of the society, I postulate that they place great value on family, and from there I presume that they have a low birthrate, and live in the kind of environment that puts them in close quarters, where getting along with each other is very important. From that, I presume that their larger environment/climate is hostile and puts emphasis on working together…and now I have the start of a societal structure. From here, I can figure out what the precise threat of the environment/climate is, and from there, I can figure out what a sentient and technologically advanced species that has evolved in such an environment/climate might look like. Then I can add variables that might skew varying cultures of that species on a country/region/continent basis.
There are many, many entry points into building worlds. This isn’t one I’d necessarily recommend, mostly because it feels less intuitive than starting with the creatures and building the world around them, but it’s certainly one route that seems to create interesting (and more importantly, plausible) results.
Still on track in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. If you’d like to sponsor my chapter-writing for a good cause, please visit my Write-a-thon page.