Category Archives: Magical Realism
It’s a gate. It’s a place to start, whether you’re describing a character or a place or an action. And you know more than you think.
Especially if you write science fiction or fantasy. Because then you’re free to make up the things you know from whole cloth in a few spots, maybe many. That’s a privilege other genres don’t have like we get in SFFPHM (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Magical realism). Other writers might make up a town or something, but their worlds are expected to act totally like the real world.
Settings aside, writing what you know also doesn’t mean every character has to be a writer or a retail person or a middle manager or whatever variety of things it might be that you do with your lifetime. Doesn’t mean all your aliens need to know what it’s like to poop or vomit. Doesn’t mean that your orcs need to be the orcs you know from all those movies with the really short dudes and a jewelry fetish.
Write what you know is great for writing the human bit of your story, though it’s a damn good thing to remember that if you’re writing about a culture or subculture you’re not familiar with, it’s best to consult members of that culture. Unless it’s elves. You’re not going to find any real elves to consult about your fictional ones, I’m afraid. HOWEVER that said if you’re going to base your elves’ culture strongly on the culture of southern Spain, you’d better be familiar with southern Spain in some significant way.
’nuff said. I’ve already harped on that enough and I hope you were listening.
Write what you know means the practical simple things around you, sure. Do use your memories, your pain, your joy, things that happened to you, places and people you’ve met (though tread lightly when writing a person who’s close to you lest ye complicate yer relationship).
Use the things that made you grieve. Use the things that made you weep with joy. You can choose not to reveal that those things came from within yourself if that’s what you want or need to do. Do use your writerly skills to file the serial numbers off them.
Write things you know you can feel. Because feeling (Hemingway would say, did say, bleeding) on the page speaks to readers. It can reach into your readers’ hearts where mere skill can only titillate their minds.
There are plenty of successful authors who do the latter. But the stories that do the former are remembered. They change minds and sometimes lives.
Don’t think it’s easy, though. No author succeeds at that every time. In fact, I think it’s an ideal that is rarely reached.
Do reach for it.
This is, uh, a thing. A thing I wrote. A thing that’s not really a story, thought there’s plenty of story suggested before it and around it and after it. And something, after all, happens in it. So it’s story-ish.
…but you can, too! The first installment will be posted here as well as there. Subsequent installments of Broken Rice will be patron-exclusive on Patreon first, but will also appear in ebook form after a short delay! I explain it all over on my Patreon page — but before you click the link, please enjoy the cover art for Broken Rice below. I really enjoyed making it (even if some moments were kind of a pain in the butt) and I’m really pleased with how it came out. 🙂
I know what I’m trying to do here — but I’d rather have your unbiased comments, if you’d be so kind as to give them. I’m interested in your thoughts as a reader. This excerpt is just short of 400 words out of around 12,500 so far and maybe 20,000 or more by the time I finish.
(Before I post the excerpt, this is simulposted on my Patreon page for maximum reactions — though if you were to head over and become a patron, even for a buck a month, you’d get free ebooks, see new ebooks a month before they come out, and see most of my posts here three days early. Plus you’d get the satisfaction of helping a self-published science fiction author write his, his wife’s, and his 3 sons’ way out of the trailer park. But who am I to be pushy? :-D)
So, the excerpt from Broken Rice:
And thunder boomed into the room and Caleb jerked in panic the needle falling from his fingers and a burst of shards of fine imported Brazilian rosewood (how do I know that?) hit the blinds and the window behind them like the first driving hail out of a Texas thunderhead, the kind of hail blown out of a cloud when there’s a tornado hot on its heels. Caleb saw splinters as long as his forearm, frozen in a moment of timestop clarity, protruding from where they’d impaled slats of the blinds, from where they’d driven their spikes into the thick bulletproof plastic of the window. Sawdust swam like a galaxy of fireflies flying far, far away through the shaft of light that speared the ragged hole one of the bodyguards – Caleb guessed – had blown through the doors of the office with some ungodly powerful weapon. The hole was too small and the light falling the wrong way for Caleb to see who and what and he didn’t try to see but threw himself sideways out of the chair and landed on Jewel who was scrabbling across the carpet on all fours crazy like a crab thrown onto a hot flattop grill (something hit the door again, not the weapon but still like thunder, this time farther away maybe, and the sound of splintering wood and a curse and someone shouted “AGAIN!”) and they tumbled apart Jewel scuttling under the desk and Caleb speedcrawling on hands and knees and he thought he might be screaming but it was hard to tell and where am I going Caleb’s head slammed into the base of the big old clock making the crystal inset of the door shiver and behind it the heavy gold pendulum swung back and forth unhurried like it had no worries in the world and another clap of thunder blew more splinter hail into the blinds and spearing into the back of the chair Caleb had been sitting in moments before and the white hulk of a huge bodyguard shouldered through the wreck of the rosewood doors that cost more than Caleb’s daddy had made in his whole life racking the slide on a shotgun which Caleb knew and didn’t know how he knew is this a dream was custom made to drop a rhinoceros in mid-charge.
So, there it is. Reactions? I’m looking forward to seeing any and all comments! Thank you.
A little over a year ago I cooked up this little free short (you can read it here, complete and no download needed) in connection with a creative writing class in the MA program I’m finishing up now.
The protagonist is Ms. Gaither, an eighty-five year old woman, and she came out of more than just the proverbial sugar and spice and whatever we associate with little girls who grow up to become elder women. Wisdom and medication, I suppose?
As a character, she was born from something I have plenty of. Worry. My worry shaped a big chunk of her, and worry is something that, if I’m not careful, can dominate my mood and thoughts and pretty much everything in my life. I’m a bit less consumed by worry than I was a year ago. It’s still there, and some of it is still justified, but I’ve managed to let it become less of a distraction and more of a constructive caution. But I have always worried too much and I probably always will.
She also comes from my love of history — I probably spent an hour looking at vintage soda vending machines in connection with a scene in this story, for example. The first three minutes of it were necessary, the rest was just me having fun.There are a few other things in there.
The science fiction (maybe just science — plenty of debate to find, though I’m not well equipped to judge how seriously it’s taken) notion of alternate timelines, or maybe the science fantasy notion of psychic perception of the future — it’s unclear, deliberately. My mild fear of growing old and feeble (one of my hips is already feeble, how soon will the rest of me follow?), and my greater fear of *not* growing old and feeble because, you know, that damn death thing. Ick.
And the whole premise of the story, as well as Ms. Gaither’s role in it and her role in the lives of the father and daughter she meets, come out of something that comes to me as naturally as breathing: considering risk. It goes hand in hand with being, as my grandmother used to say, a “worry-wart.” When we drive farther than the store down the street part of me considers that we might break down, so I don’t dress to drive to the store, I dress to walk back or change a tire. I’m the one who checks batteries in the smoke detector and worries about the lint buildup in the dryer because fire. I’m first to move something away from a space heater or follow the little ones closely at the beach whether the waves are heavy or not. None of this is to say my wife and older stepson are careless. They’re not. Nor is it to say I never take risks, even foolish ones. I have and I do. I’m just the one who thinks of all of the unlikely things that can go wrong (which brings anxiety) and all of the unlikely things that could go right (which brings longing over stuff that’s probably not happening).
Pretty much every time someone writes, they leave a chunk of their psyche on the page. Sometimes writers who write about awful stuff get accused of believing or wishing they could do the awful stuff on that basis, which is very often wrong.But the writer is in there somewhere. Look for them when you read.
(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on May 6th. Patrons get to see most posts three days early and new ebooks THIRTY days early. Plus they get a FREE copy even if I’m charging for it elsewhere. They’re also a hell of a big help to my household, a boon to me as a writer and a human being, and wonderful people. So, you know… *nudge*)
Some art that made me say, “cool!” and a few tweets led to some bigger thoughts on genre writing – which is a pretty normal thing, small ideas leading to larger ones, if you’ve done some writing or pretty much any art I can think of or serious thinking.
I found Travis Durden’s Star Wars Greek statuary through a tweet I saw a couple of hours ago (on the 27th — this post first appeared on my Patreon page (would you like to support a not-quite-starving writer? Please do! Because every penny helps tear down the budget worries that often occupy my mind when I’d rather be writing) in the wee hours of the 28th) (tweet posted below). Durden’s art is seriously neat stuff.
Which lead to this tweet:
And this one:
And finally this one:
After I graduated from kiddie books so many years ago, I cut my reading teeth on science fiction. I tried reading the paperbacks my father brought home from used bookstores and quickly learned to look for the short story collections and anthologies — I’d recently learned to read, it was hard enough to work through all the words I didn’t recognize without trying to figure out what was going on in a whole novel. But the shorter short stories, in those early years, I could wrap my mind around those. And remember (well, you might not have known, so I’m telling you) this was in the mid-70s, when certainly many authors in science fiction and elsewhere may have been experimental in their writing, but the mainstream in short science fiction stories was heavy with straightforward plots, traditional story arcs, and mysteries resolved with a single final twist. There’s plenty of that now, to be sure. But either there was more then or those are what I remember because they’re the stories I understood as a child.
That’s a long way to go to say that science fiction seemed huge to me, but it did. It seemed huge and very distinct because it was my entire fictional world then. Nursery rhymes and the little stories found in early reader books — if you’ve had or been around small children just learning to read much, you’ll recall them — hardly counted.
And science fiction is distinct, or at least distinctive. The definition has been endlessly debated over, but most of us who read much of it recognize it when we see it. The same goes for the other genres I mentioned in that last tweet. Horror is distinct enough that we notice the difference, for example, when we read a Stephen King horror story as opposed to a Stephen King something else. Legends have a pretty distinct definition. Magical realism blurs the lines — sometimes it’s fantasy, sometimes it’s science ficiton, sometimes it’s literary, sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.
That’s the genre that really makes the point, with its blurryness.
They’re all blurry, really. Think of Star Wars: get a SW fan who calls it science fiction and a SW fan who calls it science fantasy in the same room and watch the genre boundary argument fur fly.
We love to dicker over what story counts as which genre and who’s that writer whose work is called X but really it’s more Y don’t you think?
To say they’re all fiction is too simplistic. But there’s that in pointing out that genres are small things that cannot really contain a story, not the large and well-defined things we’re tempted to think of them as, that we often reflexively think of them as after a scholastic lifetime of being taught the boundaries of genre.
They’re all stories. They’re all about human beings and what human beings do and think and feel and wonder. All of them, even the genres where there is debate as to whether or not they’re fiction or nonfiction: mythology, legend, religion.
They’re stronger when they wander, stories are. When we get it into our minds that we can’t write in X event because we’re writing science fiction or that Y character doesn’t make sense because we’re reading fantasy, we weaken the stories that we might otherwise love, whether we’re reading them, writing them, or representing them in other forms of art. For centuries fiction and poetry have derived inspiration and imagery from religion and mythology and legend (assuming you divide stories that faith has grown up around into those rather than lumping them together). Star Wars is beloved science fiction in part because it incorporates elements of fantasy and legend and even, at least in the beginning, of the Western movie.
Try picking out a few of your favorite stories that have won wide acclaim or are considered enduring classics. Give them a read with this in mind, and look for where the genres blur. You don’t need a story that glaringly throws seventeen genres together; one that’s mostly in one but draws in bits of others is just fine — even better, in fact.
Much like the ancient advice that a single stick alone is weak but a bundle of those same sticks is strong together, I think you’ll find that stories that gather together elements of different genres are the strongest.
And I also think that it’s more than worth the effort to seek them out as a reader, and to try to create them as a writer.
So, there’s a utopian little article over at Vice with the headline you see above. I’m not commenting on it because it’s bad. You should read it. It opens in a new tab or window, so after you’re done (it won’t take long, it’s short) you can come right back here.
So, what did you think?
Mm-hmm. Me being the opinionated sort, I’ll tell you what I think now.
It’s a nice thought. Science fiction and fantasy (and speculative fiction, for those of you who like that term (it has its uses)) have been long regarded as the goofy cousin of the literary world. Writers of serious fiction and creative nonfiction acknowledge his existence, but wince a bit while admitting it.
SciFi and Fantasy? He’s… special if you know what I mean. But you gotta love him. He has such… enthusiasm. If only he could get his act together. Why don’t we leave him to play with his toy rocketships and go somewhere adult so he’s not horning in on the conversation.
That’s how it has been for several decades now, pretty much since heyday of the pulps and Hugo Gernsback.
It hasn’t always been like that. Frankenstein went over pretty well as a literary work, and it is clearly both science fiction and literary. And somehow it never really got caught up in the Genre Wars. I think because, before science fiction was really seen as a separate thing, it was firmly pigeonholed as literary.
People LOVE pigeonholing things, defining categories and subcategories, putting the things they love and enjoy in those pigeonholes, and guarding them fiercely. Don’t look innocent. You do it. So do I. You may not, and I hope I don’t, rise to vehement levels of assholish gatekeeping in defining what belongs in what category. But many do.
That is why there will always be Genre Wars. Perhaps the lines between literary and SFF have become blurred. But a DMZ doesn’t mean there’s no conflict over what belongs on what side of which line. Just ask the Koreas. If the conflict stops being about whether SFF themes and settings make something innately not literary (and I think, as the article’s writer seems to think, that this is coming to pass), the people invested in the argument will move on to a new point of categorization. They’ll still argue over which side of what border multigenre stories properly lie on. They’ll argue over what defines literary and what defines science fiction and what defines fantasy (people still argue over whether Star Wars should be considered science fiction or fantasy, for example. Yes, they do.). They’ll argue about whether “cli-fi” (climate fiction, dealing with the potential repercussions of climate change — look up Paolo Bacigalupi’s work if you’re curious) is also sci-fi, or if it’s something distinct.
There are always things to argue about, and humans will find them. That’s a big part of what we do with these big primate brains of ours. Or have you not been watching the news?
Here’s a little bit of microfiction for you to enjoy. As happens often in fiction, it’s based on a real place and a real experience. I’ll leave you to decide which parts are fiction and which are not.
Copyright 2015 S.A. Barton
The eighteen-wheelers roar by above; the bridge over the creek is shorter than they are long.
Below, in the creek, cool water parting for thin boy shins, sun beating his back darker, darker, the boy crouches, peering down.
His hands part the toy cataract above a stone wearing a sleek skirt of algae filaments.
Backwards, the greeny-brown crayfish flees into the shadow gathered under the stone.
Another eighteen-wheeler approaches; low diesel thunder.
Little fingers chase after the crayfish, darting through the dark under the stone. Above, thunder, thunder, thunder, closer.
The boy grunts, smiles, flips the stone, algae skirt flaring wild.
The crayfish squirts backwards all in a burst.
THUNDER the truck mounts the bridge.
Long, long, bony arms streak out of the dark under the little bridge, faster than crayfish and boys, stretching out of a lank green shadowed crouchy shape.
Overhead the truck thunder recedes and dissipates into the distance.
The shallow creek waters fill, then pass over smooth a lost shoe mired fast in the mud.
The crayfish climbs inside, taking refuge.
Available on Smashwords — FREE! No sign-in needed, you can even select “online reader” under “Download:” and read it as a webpage — just as you’re reading this page, with nothing to actually download!
This is a short tale of weirdness after a storm — I’ll let the opening paragraphs speak for themselves:
Eventually, the walls-strumming throb of the tornado passed and the family emerged from their storm nest in the hallway. They had ridden through the storm—the hail and rain hammering on the walls, the gusts rocking the trailer home side to side on its blocks, the thunder shaking the roof, and finally the open-throated steam engine chug of the funnel cloud itself—encapsulated in the mattresses rushed from their beds and stood up against the hallway walls to cushion them in case the trailer rolled over. But it hadn’t.
The storm had been black, choking off the little bit of light that illuminated the hall from the living room on a sunny day. After the hail the electric lights had failed. The lights were still out, but now a weak sun filtered in again, gray.
Paul rushed ahead of his parents and little brother on the energy of thirteen, threw open the door and the screen, and burst out onto the open porch. Twigs, leaves, and small branches torn out of the big maple between them and the next trailer thirty feet over crunched under his sneakers. From the maple, from the woods engulfing their end of the trailer park, branches and leaves covered the grass and the gravel road, a green and brown carpet with only a few worn patches showing what lay underneath. Paul looked up. The clouds trailing the storm were high and thin, ragged, sending down random momentary sprinkles. The air was fresh, washed, green with the sap of bruised leaves and broken trees. Paul sucked in a deep breath, alive in the wake of the storm’s fear.
“We made it!” he shouted as his family crowded onto the porch. He ran down the steps into the yard, and from there he saw it between the back of the trailer and the woods. A refrigerator, tall and white but not square like all the ones he’d seen before. This one was rounded and smooth like an enormous bar of soap. The handle on the front was short, chrome worn dull on one end and attached to the fridge only on the other. The fat and round black power cord disappeared into the undergrowth of the woods’ edge as if it were plugged into the ferns and sticky sundews that grew there…