Monthly Archives: January 2019

Potatoes and Dragons

Yesterday a thread on Reddit’s fantasy writers board brought up a topic I’ve long meant to write something about, and framed it in a way that I think makes the problem quite clear. User Hoosier_Jedi asked whether the existence of dragons and other fantasy elements in a world could justify dismissing concerns about the presence of South American crops in a world otherwise heavily influenced by Europe, and though I have responded in that thread I want to expand and clarify my thoughts here, because while the question posed is about potatoes, tomatoes and dragons, it has wider implications about the attitude a writer takes to worldbuilding and immersion.

Let’s start with looking at potatoes and dragons specifically.

A selection of different varieties of potatoes
Potatoes. Source: Wikipedia.

On Earth, potatoes are a tuber crop originating in the Andes region of South America, where they were domesticated as a high-altitude staple capable of surviving on marginal land where other crops could not, which could be freeze-dried or powdered for long-term storage. They reached the rest of the world following the Spanish Conquest of South America under Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century, and popularised in Europe as a result of their adaptability and high nutritional content.

Manuscript depicting a knight and a dragon fighting within the shape of a large letter R
A dragon and a knight in an initial letter R from from the frontispiece of a 12th-century manuscript of St. Gregory’s Moralia in Job, Dijon, Bibl. Municipale, MS 2. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dragons, on the other hand, aren’t real*. They’re a mythical monster found, amongst other places, in medieval stories and artworks, making for suitably threatening enemies for gallant heroes to defeat as they demonstrate their skill and bravery.

So, given that potatoes are real and dragons are not, why is it that readers have a hard time accepting potatoes in many fantasy worlds but are fine with dragons?

There are two facets to the answer, I think: the first is about believability and realism, and the second about the work the author puts in and what they leave to the reader.

Believability and realism are related concepts, but they’re not the same thing. Realism is about factual accuracy and faithful recreation of reality. It is vital to the reader’s acceptance of historical fiction and historically-faithful fantasy. Believability is a little more nebulous. It is about creating the appearance of a world or situation that *might* be possible, in another universe, and depends upon using elements of realism combined with internally-logical imagined elements.

In a setting heavily inspired by 13th century Italy or 9th century Britain, potatoes and dragons might be equally unrealistic elements in a story, but not equally unbelievable, if dragons are accepted as part of the fantasy side of the setting and haven’t enabled centuries-earlier discovery of the Americas.

And this is where the work comes in. Readers make assumptions about setting based on the worldbuilding elements the author specifically mentions. There often isn’t space to go into detailed descriptions of every part of a fantasy world. The approach most authors take is to seed their story with worldbuilding hints, brushing upon details when they can organically come up, expanding upon those things that are plot-relevant, and letting the reader fill in the gaps.

But if all of the seeds look like pre-Columbian Europe, the inclusion of a single element from outside that – whether potatoes, katanas or kangaroos – is going to be jarring. It doesn’t match with what the reader already knows of the world of the story or what they might have filled the gaps with. It becomes noticeable, and it interrupts immersion. The reader stops thinking about the story and starts wondering where these potatoes came from.

This doesn’t happen so often with dragons. Why? Because when an author includes something like dragons – or unicorns, magic, eldrich horrors from dark dimensions and so on – they consider their role in the story world. They mentally work through the implications and the impacts that these things would have on society, the way it might change lifestyles, architectural approaches, social hierarchies and so on.

Potatoes, on the other hand, might just be an oversight. And if they’re the only thing from Earth’s American continents in a fantasy world otherwise containing only European dressing, it looks to the reader like a mistake based on ignorance, not a conscious worldbuilding choice.

To make the inclusion of potatoes in a setting that is otherwise heavily European-styled, the author needs to put in more work. If they’re a shorthand for a staple tuber crop and not intended to literally be identical to Earth-potatoes, why pick potatoes instead of, for example, turnips? If they’re intended to demonstrate a more global trade network or a history of exploration that has since been forgotten, where are the other things that might have made the same journey?

To make potatoes feel more believable in a pseudo-European setting, simply seed in worldbuilding that shows there’s more to it than that. Throw in a fashionable courtier wearing the finest imported jaguar furs, or market stall traders shouting the prices of llama wool blankets,  or religious authorities condemning the cultivation of quinoa and calling the society of its origin heretics. That’ll give the sense of a wider world your society is in contact with, and make the inclusion of potatoes feel deliberate and natural.

This isn’t just about potatoes. It can apply to any element outside of the reader expectations you build with your setting. It’s about creating a world where readers can easily accept the little differences between the fantasy world and Earth, so that they can focus on reading about the characters, engaging in the action – and getting lost in a world that feels real.

Sure, dragons are less realistic than potatoes, but the humble potato can still be a bigger threat to the believability of your fantasy world than the mighty dragon, if you don’t take the time to think about what readers assume.

What are the most jarring fantasy anachronisms you’ve come across? And, conversely, what are the most inventive and impressive solutions you’ve seen in fantasy to avoid or explain them?

 

* No, komodo dragons don’t count.

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It’s 2019 and I’ve got Goals with a capital G

Happy New Year, everyone! My regular followers might have noticed that my output in 2018, and for that matter in 2017, hasn’t exactly been high. Part of that, I think, was fatigue around blogging and part was having quite a lot else on to worry about in my personal life. But 2019 is going to be different. Honest. While a lot of 2018’s worries haven’t gone away, with a new year comes a fresh outlook.

This is a quick update about my goals for the year and what I’ve got planned. So let’s get right to it.

Reading

Last year was a dismal year for me as far as reading was concerned. I barely read anything and didn’t review what I did read. This year I’ll do better. I’ve set a goal on Goodreads to read 24 books in 2019 – that’s two per month. And I don’t think I’ll have any trouble finding 24 books to read, between my “to read” pile (utterly massive) and the books coming out this year that I’m excited about (loads of them). I plan on reviewing any fantasy novels I read right here, but I’ll keep track of everything else – which is likely to include historical fiction and loads of non-fiction – with quarterly updates on my progress towards my 24 book goal, much like I did back in 2016.

Writing

I’ve been hard at work in the last few months working out what I want from my current novel. I now have a working title – Feud and Fire – as well as a general outline, a lot of notes about themes, particular plotlines, character and the world, and at the end of December I started the latest draft. I am happy with where I am with this story. My goal for 2019 is to write it, edit it and get it to a refined final state. Whether I then consider submitting for publication or decide there’s more work to be done is something I’ll decide when I get to that point.

I am also planning on writing some short fiction in 2019. I spend so much time working on these big novels, that a short break after finishing the Feud and Fire draft would be an ideal time to practice a shorter format, especially since I have enjoyed reading short fiction in 2018 (just about the only type of story where I have read more than previous years, thanks to the Daily Science Fiction emails I receive) and it’s been a while since I’ve written any.

Later this week I’ll be taking a look at how things stand for my One Million Words Challenge. I started it back in 2015 but stopped keeping track of it after a while. I have, however, continued to date each new document I create and each day of handwritten fiction in my notebooks, so it should only take an hour or two to get a fairly good idea of my overall total, by simply adding up the wordcounts of the numerous documents I have created since I started and adding an estimate of the handwritten stuff based on multiplying an average page wordcount by the number of pages.

Blogging

Yep, this is something I’m planning on increasing this year. I can hardly do worse than last year, so I’ve got that going for me. But in fact I’ve got a few ideas planned out, and with all that reading I’ll be doing there are bound to be a few reviews at the very least.

So that’s the plan for this year.

What about you? Do you have reading and writing goals for 2019? What are they? How do you think you’ll do? Did you meet your 2018 goals?