The enigmatic nomadic culture of Darbas, called the Mullaqat (literally, “the drifting people”), plays a huge role in the story I set out to tell in The Key to Darbas series (five books, beginning with A Madness and Siobeth). But it’s the curse of writing a longer tale that sometimes it takes a while before you get to explore things that interested most you when the story first started emerging.
Writers who work only in the world of the earthly past and present take a lot for granted, as so much of what they use to build images and contexts and characters can simply be referenced in the mind of the reader. If I tell you that one woman shops at Wal-Mart and the other shops at Belk, you create all sorts of images and contexts around those women without me ever having to describe what a Wal-Mart is, or why Belk has this particular, textured place in contemporary Southern culture.
That’s what a real world feels like, BTW. Everything has meaning, conveys meaning: The surface of a road, the trees in an older neighborhood, the irregularities, the idioms. And while you can’t ever describe all of them, writers who are sensitive to their surroundings distill knowledge and pattern and emotion from these details, these mundane signifiers of past and desire and culture. Because culture isn’t a stage on which we act. It’s an archaeological dig of mysterious strata and all-but-forgotten origins, and we don’t walk over it, we swim through it.
So over the years I’ve developed a workflow for writing fantasy stories. I begin with the basic plot, themes, conflicts and actors, then write it all down like a loose sketch of a dream image. Then I start at the beginning. Who are these people? Where do they live? How did they get to be the kinds of people I imagined? I have to know their diet, what they wear, what they believe, what they pretend to believe, how they raise their kids, how they have sex, what their homes are like, how they organize their economy, what are their hypocrisies, who makes the decisions, how they resolve disputes over mundane things.
Once I know some of that, I go back to that original outline for the story and sleep on it. And a funny thing happens: The mental artifacts of the imaginary culture I’ve created for them begin to reshape things. As the principal characters move through this world, their supporting characters emerge around them not as actors on a stage, but as the people who had to be there, because they live there.
The problem with writing a fantasy or science fiction story without this immersion in another culture is that without it, all you can hope to do is to take people from your own culture — or people from a book or TV series you’ve enjoyed — and dress them up like paper dolls in new outfits you’ve cut out for them. Which is OK for some people (and, apparently, Hollywood and the big publishing houses), but boring for me.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been working out ever-more detailed plans for books three, four and five in The Key to Darbas series, thanks to the overwhelmingly positive (so far, anyway) feedback I’ve been getting from readers (no reviews on Amazon yet, but it’s a busy season for most of us). And since the other two ethnic groups on Darbas haven’t yet truly entered the story, the work has focused on building their cultures from the outlines I’ve used up to now.
Yesterday I reached the point with the Mullaqat that the language I’ve developed for them (currently 15 pages of words, phrases and grammar rules) began to spontaneously suggest new idioms to me. Characters I’ve been creating moved — without any particular prompting — from secondary roles to primary Point of View protagonists. And in one instance, one of them argued back, successfully, that she would never do such a thing as what I’d planned for her originally.
You don’t jam all this background into the story, of course. That’s not the point. It’s that to show only the relevant tip of the iceberg, the writer has to know the rest of it. And if you don’t, not only are you giving readers an impoverished world, you’re really kinda cheating.
The next step — which will be put off until later in the week, thanks to some other work that’s come up — will be to give the DuQaddic the same treatment.
Grandmother Hen, Coyote, and the Colors of the World
In the beginning, the world was without color, and Grandmother Hen made her nest deep in the ground and settled down to brood over her beloved egg. From time to time, Grandmother Hen would poke her head out of the nest to look for color, but finding none, she would settle back on her egg and go back to sleep.
But one day Grandmother Hen came up and saw the color red and said, “I name you Horizon.” And the next day she came up and saw the color gold, and said “I name you Sun.” And the next day she came up and saw the color brown, and said “I name you Dirt.” On the fourth day she saw blue and named it “Sky,” and on the fifth she stuck her head up and saw a green seedling pushing its way up from the dirt and said “I name you Life.”
And deep in her nest, Grandmother Hen pondered the colors of the world and her egg in the belly of the world, and decided it was time to hatch. She pecked it with her beak and it split open, and out came all the people and all the animals and all the plants.
The people ran off to the four corners, but some stayed with Grandmother Hen and her plants and animals, growing happy and fat. “Take want you need,” Grandmother Hen told them, “but remember you were all born of the same egg.”
One day Coyote came home to Grandmother Hen with a multitude of the people behind him and said “You know, we’ve been thinking, and uh, it occurs to us that you are just a simple hen, and why do we listen to you? We have grown so much more clever than you will ever be!”
Grandmother Hen replied: “You’re about to fuck up, Coyote.”
Coyote said, “Ha! I see no evidence of that! Oh, and by the way, Grandmother – Look! Over there! A monster!”
“A monster!” Grandmother Hen said, clearly alarmed. But when she looked where Coyote had indicated, the people from the Four Corners rushed her and pinned her down. “See?” Coyote said. “You really are a just a silly bird. And since the world belongs to the clever, not the simple, we are going to take your food, because we deserve it. And besides, you can’t stop us.”
Grandmother Hen replied: “You’re fucking up, Coyote.”
But Coyote and the people from the Four Corners all laughed, and proceeded to eat everything the Grandmother Hen and her family had. Filled with all Grandmother’s food, Coyote and the people from the Four Corners grew to immense size, and celebrated their power by throwing an elaborate feast. But soon all that food was gone, and as big as they had become, Coyote and the people from the Four Corners found that they were ravenously hungry. And with no more food to be found, they set upon each other, tearing each other to bits and devouring the pieces.
Finally, only Coyote was left, and he was so hungry that he ate all the colors in the world, until it fell cold and still all over again. Remorse filled him, and he sang a lamentation song. “I fucked up, didn’t I Grandmother Hen?” he said.
“Of course you did, dummy,” Grandmother said. “You always do. Now come over here and fuck me before you die so that I can make a new egg.” And so Coyote fucked Grandmother Hen and then promptly died, and Grandmother Hen laid her egg in a deep underground nest and waited for color to return to the world.
Not so very long afterward the color returned. Grandmother Hen pecked open the shell of her egg and out came the people and the plants and the animals. The people immediately ran off to the Four Corners, but a few children stayed with Grandmother Hen and started wandering about, just looking around at the colors of the world, and they were called the Mullaqat.