Monday, September 17, 2007

Getting Started

Welcome to Outside Over There.

I created this blog back in January, when I was getting ready to switch Knocking From Inside to the "new" Blogger, and wanted to be sure I could do everything with the new version that I'd been doing with the old version. At the time, I had no idea what further use I would make of it.

Now I think I'm going to use it chronicle an attempt, insh'allah a successful attempt, to write a novel. If successful, you can expect to see my efforts to find a publisher, etc, here.

You will see, as I go along, excerpts of text; probably more than that, you'll see my ruminations about the writing process, about particular problems I'm trying to solve, maybe things like character sketches, stuff like that. I'm not going to post the whole thing here.

Why Outside Over There?

Outside Over There is the title of a wonderful fairy tale by Maurice Sendak. It's obviously not going to be the title of the novel. The novel doesn't really have a title, even a working title, yet. The idea for it goes back to the summer of 1990, when I was a grad student at UC Santa Cruz, living in Davis and working on my grad advisor's research project in the Sacramento area. I wrote a short story then called On The Levee, which has been extensively revised (the latest draft, with Steve Perry's help, in 2005).

Meanwhile, I was studying drumming and martial art and converting to Sufism, and all kinds of other things-- We're talking seventeen years of my life, here. On The Levee now stands as a short sequel to this as-yet unwritten novel, taking place probably some 200 years later.

What's triggered me to work on it again? Well, for one thing, National Novel Writing Month is coming up in November. The goal is 50,000 words in 30 days. I don't know if that's realistic, especially given the Thanksgiving holiday, traveling, family stuff etc, but it sounds like fun to try.

For another thing... it just seems like time.

What is this novel about?

It's about communication. It's about the utter, desperate importance of communication to people trying to survive, and to the humanness of people in general. As such, it's about language and speech. There are three cultures in collision; their relationships are such that they have not developed a pidgin or trade tongue. The characters have to learn each other's languages, and thereby absorb something of each other's world-views. In addition both of the main characters undergo periods of traumatic muteness or near-muteness, in which they become temporarily less than human.

Problem #1: How to create believable and coherent language fragments for three imaginary languages.

Problem #2: How to write effective dialogue between characters not fluent in each other's languages.

Besides language in its conventional sense, there are several other important modes of communication at work. The Woneiyal have a form of drumspeech that carries across distance, through thick forest and over difficult terrain. The Ta'arane have a pictorial (can't really call it written) language. The Kesset are more numerate than the other two; they also don't have anything you could call a written language yet; I see them possibly developing something like cuneiform eventually. They also have a heliograph/smoke signal code.

The novel is also about the discovery of a new kind of magic, a new way of working on the world. This magic arises from the synergy of at least two out of the three cultures. No one culture alone would have been likely to have stumbled across it.

Problem #3: Fantasy readers expect to see magic. How can I hold the interest of such readers, given that the magic isn't going to start happening until probably about halfway through?

Places and People

The setting is the semi-arid tropics. The action takes place in and around the valley of a very large river (think Ganges, Yangtze, Mississippi). The river is flanked by forested hills, giving way rapidly to mountains, on the northwest. On the southeast, there's a gallery forest and then a gradually rising grassland plain, the low-lying parts of which are subject to flooding, which ends abruptly in a steep escarpment (think Rift Valley). Further east, there are high, dry steppes. The river ends in a massive, multi-channeled delta that blends into the ocean on one side and into the surrounding grasslands on the other. (Think the Nile delta.)

The Woneiyal live in the foothills. Of the three peoples, they have the least material culture. They hunt and grow food, mostly root crops; they also gather considerable amounts of food in the forest. They tend to live in small villages set fairly far apart. They have never had a centralized form of government.

The Ta'arane live on the plains below the escarpment. In the past, the Ta'arane did a lot of engineering; they built flood control and irrigation projects all along the course of the river and built cities at the foot of the escarpment. They used streams falling down the escarpment as sources of hydropower for mills and the like, had municipal sewers, baths and fountains, and all kinds of other good stuff. They grew linen and hemp and kept animals.

The Woneiyal and the Ta'arane had trade relations along the line of the river (bronze tools, ceramics, and fiber goods from the Ta'arane; forest products including skins of wild animals, fruit, feathers, medicinal herbs from the Woneiyal). They got along OK but kept pretty much to themselves.

The Kesset were originally a tribe of horse nomads from the eastern steppes, where their kin still live. A couple hundred years ago, they came down over the escarpment and took the Ta'arane cities. The Ta'arane had been badly reduced by a plague; also, their bronze weapons and armor were at a serious disadvantage compared to the iron equipment fielded by the Kesset. The rest was history.

Now the Kesset live in the cities and raid the surrounding countryside for Ta'arane slaves. The Ta'arane are depopulated; much of their farmland has been converted to pasture for the Kesseten herds. The waterworks have fallen into disrepair. The Woneiyal haven't been affected much... yet.

The Kesset are facing a crisis of their own. The world has entered a long-term drying trend, which is not severe yet in the valley (strong, reliable monsoons carry a lot of moisture, which is trapped by the high ground on both sides), but is putting terrible pressure on the eastern steppe tribes. Lately the Kesset have suffered attacks from a tribe or confederation of tribes whom the Kesset disparagingly call the Locust People; they are, in fact, distantly related to the ancestors of the Kesset.

Will the citified Kesset be able to withstand the ravages of their savage cousins? Will the Ta'arane take advantage of their oppressors' weakness to throw off the yoke of slavery and restore the cities of the plain? Will the Woneiyal decide once and for all that the folks across the river are just plain crazy?

Insh'allah we will all find out one of these days...

1 comment:

irving said...

A wonderful idea, and a fascinating sounding fantasy novel :) I would reread Lord of the Rings for the use Tolkein makes of various languages. He was a Philologist, I think, and so knew his stuff, and actually made up an entire elf language.

You will certainly need a glossary and extensive notes at the end, like him.

I look forward to each new entry :)

Ya Haqq!