Prehistoric Fantasy

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for things prehistoric. Childhood fascination with dinosaurs aside, it’s more the primitive man pit against the raw elements type of scenario that intrigues me.

When I sit down and think about it, I sometimes find myself amazed that humanity as we know it survived at all. They often play on this theme well in a variety of works of fiction, and while I refer to these as fantasy, a bit of what we see depicted is grounded in anthropological fact. We’ll get to that as we cover each case-in-point.

So lets get to it: a few of my favorite pieces depicting events and characters that take place long, long ago, before primitive man developed writing and, in some cases, even before fire and speech.

First on the list is a novel – which I know was adapted into a 1986 film of the same name, and apparently some kind of series will air in 2015. Regardless, I more fondly remember the book. Jean M. Auel depicts the struggles of a certain titular Neanderthal clan, and things get interesting when they adopt a Cro-Magnon child. It’s a little Tarzan-esque, as the “normal” human grows up among rougher people than her own kind. We as readers can only further liken it to a Tarzan story in that Ayla, the child, while by no means weak, is beset with a number of challenges overcome with her unique set of problem-solving skills that set her apart from her Neanderthal clan.

The ability to count higher than four was a big deal.

As if looking completely different didn’t already make things hard enough.

This isn’t a particularly fun and kid-friendly story, but it gets deep, gritty, and explores the daily life of peoples who walked our world around 28,000 years ago. Jean M. Auel’s descriptions of the environment paint vibrant pictures in the mind of the reader as we explore a world that is all but lost to us in our modern, busy lives.

I loved this book as much for its attempt to dive into deeper history as much for its descriptions, and of course the story itself.

A lot more creative liberties were taken when making Quest for Fire.

It was also based on a book, written in 1911 (though it appeared in English for the first time in 1967), though this one I did not read, so we’re going to be talking about the 1981 film.

The first thing the viewer may notice about this movie is the lack of dialog. The opening begins with a short couple of lines meant to catch us up on recent events; the world is harsh, early man had yet to invent fire, and as such fire had to be stolen from nature. Those who possessed fire, possessed life.

Early one morning, after some character-establishing shots of various people in a clan of Neanderthals, we find people we’ve barely come to distinguish by face (let alone by name) beset by an aggressive tribe of Homo Erectus. They’re basically guys in hairy gorilla suits, who in comparison are noticeably more brutal and animalistic. Our Neanderthals manage to kill many of their attackers, but are forced to flee their cave-home and take to the woods, where wolves (first seen in the first few seconds of the movie) await with salivating jaws.

Some survivors make it to safety only to discover that they lost their fire, and thus the wiseman of the clan – probably pushing thirty – sends three young men off to go find fire.

Maybe the earliest movie in which I saw Ron Perlman in action. Double-plus good for savings on make up effects.

This movie is awesome for a number of reasons. For one, the plot is simple, yet it expands to become quite the adventure, complete with mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and two more clans (bringing the total “kinds” of people seen up to four). We have our own Neanderthals from the beginning, depicted as your typical Fred Flintstone “cave man,” we have the ape-like Homo Erectus attackers, then another Neanderthal clan of people that all have red skin, red hair and a penchant for cannibalism, and finally a tribe of Cro-Magnons — early modern humans.

The scientific accuracy of this story is questioned, and there are a few of those “80’s” moments that kinda remind you it’s a movie (like with the mammoths). But the story, for the most part, is pretty straight-forward, and I can appreciate that because, like I said before, this movie has absolutely no dialog. Sure some characters speak, but not in any modern language and totally without subtitles.

This means that the movie told its story visually, which in my book is a successful use of the medium. Humor, sorrow, and drive are all conveyed through what we see the characters doNot what we hear them say.

Besides, the film does a great job in showing us that the world is a harsh, cold, unforgiving place, and my thoughts are always drawn to how our ancestors perceived the world. Life sucked, and people made do with what they could and did not complain, simply because they lacked the capacity to feel ungrateful. Or, conversely, were so grateful to find whatever advantage they could that there was simply no time to think about anything else.

Which brings us to today’s last example.

10,000 BC is one of those movies that I know is bad, but I still like.

I won’t defend it’s utter lack of historical and archeological accuracy. It’s full of anachronisms, and critics generally gave it negative reviews. The ending kind of screws with things as well with a dose of deus ex machina. Not to mention the actors and actresses all look strangely … modern.

Probably something to do with everyone having perfectly straight, white teeth.

Pluses include the visuals, such as battle sequences with mammoths or giant terror birds, along with a saber-toothed cat shoehorned into the plot.

It’s a more modern movie which means, to any cynical viewer like me, that the story follows cookie-cutter tropes and story elements we’ve all seen far too many times before. The hero’s quest is not to gather fire or his clan, but to save his girl. The girl dies at the end, but not really. The giant prehistoric animals are cool and dangerous, but you never really fear for characters – not to mention they seem placed there just because it would be fun (rather than plausible. The animals existed at different times in different parts of the world). The bad guys are one-dimensional and easy to hate — though in fact it is the antagonists of this story I find most intriguing.

We have a pair of slave drivers who are depicted as ruthless and ambitious, but its their masters I find more interesting. The backstory lore of this film plays on an idea that is revealed to us in small portions from the beginning, and while the characters of the film do not fully realize the connotations of what they’re affecting, the audience does.

Basically it’s this. There was a land that sank into the “great sea,” echoing of the legend of Atlantis. Three survivors came to what starkly resembles Egypt, and with their influence they somehow rose to power among the more primitive peoples of they encountered. By the time the story of this movie rolls around, there’s only one “god” left, and his desires are unclear to the audience, though a number of pyramids are being built, utilizing the slavery system that ancient Egyptians are rather famous for implementing.

Or possibly a desert in South America…?

Mammoth slaves in Egypt, eh?

Draped in concealing silks and attended only by blind servants, the lone ‘god’ commands incredible fear over the locals, and we as the viewers never really get a good look at him.  The idea of an Atlantean coming and starting an empire has my attention, and I would have liked to learn more about this backstory.

But the movie doesn’t go in that direction. Instead, we have – much like in Quest for Fire – the protagonist making his way home with a gift from a more advanced tribe. In this case, it is not the ability to make fire, but the gift of agriculture.

Which is cool, too, I suppose. It’s best enjoyed not as a historical movie, but as a simple fantasy in an earth-like past.

Review and Impressions: The Hunger Games

So I had the opportunity to catch up on the first two Hunger Games movies. There is a spoiler or two.

No, I haven’t read the books.

Yes, I’m sure the books are better, or at least different.

Therefore my perspective will come from someone who is not comparing and contrasting the books and the movies.

I will simply be sharing my impressions.

I am a mostly peaceful person. I do not like or promote violence, but I do enjoy a horror flick or action movie with plenty of swordplay, gunshots or straight up bludgeoning with fists. Double plus good if the film has all these (like certain choice martial arts movies). That’s not why I like the Hunger Games, though.

The Hunger Games is a story about a person facing conflict of both her heart, and of course the more visceral conflict that accompanies killing people to stay alive. I watched The Hunger Games one day, and then caught up on Catching Fire the day after. As of this post, Mockingjay: Part 1 is in theaters, and I plan to see that fairly soon.

Consider me invested.

The drama between characters – fun as they are at times – is not what holds me though, to be honest. I have heard it said, and often I will recite to other people since I believe in it, that “Characters make stories, not the circumstances they find themselves in.” I believe I read that in Stephen King’s On Writing.

I book I would recommend to anyone pursuing the craft.

Anyway, I’m finding that what has me interested in The Hunger Games is, in fact, not so much the cast but, in direct contrast to that recitation, the setting and the circumstances.

Granted there are holes. “The System” in place feels crafted out of convenience; while we have a glimpse of the history and a rudimentary understanding of why things are the way they are, it seems like quite the jump. This is a “what if” book, much like Brave New World, or any number of dystopias, where we the situation, but not – to me – a clear or feasible reason for how it came about.

The films do not give much of an in-depth depiction of how each of the districts contribute to the plutarchy / plutocracy (take your pick); we have glimpses of what appears to be a Mining District, a Black District (though we don’t know what they do there except remain under very obvious segregation), and a bakery somewhere. I’m willing to let myself believe that the books go into more detail, or perhaps provide some descriptions, of how big these districts are and some more economic insight into how this system is plausible. The rich folk need droves of poor people to do dredge work, and the poor folks need the rich because… oh.

Well, this’s how revolutions start.

[The next line is a spoiler.]

Besides, the final moments in Catching Fire left me scratching my head. Was that really part of their master plan, the “flaw in the system” they were going to exploit? To have Katniss fire a lightning-charged arrow into the sky?

Why would the government green-light sending techno-geniuses into a technology-controlled environment?

Because Plutarch let it happen?

Seems a bit flimsy, as some of these movie-adaptations tend to be.

There’s plenty of criticism for The Hunger Games being some Battle Royale clone, and when you distill the plot down to one or two sentences, on the surface the two stories might seem quite alike. I wondered that myself, having known the basic premise of The Hunger Games since it came out – as people I’d known read it and shared summaries with me. Having seen Battle Royale, I can tell you that the only thing these two stories have in common is: a pile of unwilling people, many of whom are teens, pit against each other in an arena-like harsh environment.

Old relationships are strained, new relationships are formed, and you might go so far as to say that a person’s true self is revealed under such conditions.

After all, I am a firm believer in the human animal as just that. Another animal.

In any case, here’s what they say about the Hunger games being a copy of Battle Royale over at T.V. Tropes:

“The term has been used to refer to The Hunger Games — a book series with a similar premise to Battle Royale — in a derogatory manner by those who feel the later series was a rip off (the author of The Hunger Games maintains she knew nothing of Battle Royale when she wrote her books, and at any rate, there have been works before Battle Royale which use similar themes – even Stephen King has written two).”

So, with all that said, I’ll tell you what I do like about it.

I get fired up watching this. Revolution is something with which I’ve always had a fascination. It’s easy to hate the government in The Hunger Games, but considering these works are considered Y.A., so the generalization of a Bad Government is easy to allow. No worries there. Therefore it’s easy to feel sympathy for the characters under such a regime, but I find myself sitting there and wondering:

Why is it taking three-quarters of a century for people to rebel again?

Chances I would end up as one of the first people out of whom such a government would make an example to the rest.

That happens when you’re stubborn, you’ve got a big mouth, and have a problem with authority.

So in spite of the teen melodrama and love triangle stuff that – honestly – I get tired of watching really fast, it factors into the plot in a way that only would ever happen in a book. Or a movie. All I can tell you is that I’m thoroughly stoked to see the Capital burn.

Review: Black Swan

 

A few years ago, putting this opening at around December of 2010, I remember being brought to a theater with some friends to see a new movie the likes of which I had zero prior knowledge.

“It’s called Black Swan,” one of my friends said. “It’s a movie about Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.”

We were in New York City, it was cold, and considering the company with whom I shared the evening, it was not as though I had a choice. Why not, I said, completely unaware of the story premise and what kind of movie we were about to see.

That film was something I would later hear described as “Natalie Portman goes bat shit in a tutu.” While not overly fond of that description, I cannot argue against how apropos it is.

Black Swan is a confusing movie, best understood only at its conclusion, and even then it has left people wondering what they just watched. I remember my sister-in-law calling it a Sexual Psycho-Thriller, and that about sums it up, and if you happen to be familiar with the director’s earlier work (The Wrestler), you’ll draw some parallels. Same director, same music composer, and a similar premise.

What we have in this movie is the story of a young performer’s descent into madness, and when I say descent, hoo-boy does she fall. The protagonist, Nina, seeks to attain the star role in a new rendition of the “done to death” performance of Swan Lake, a story (and orchestral arrangement) with which most of the Western World is quite familiar. Whether or not you know the ballet or Tchaikovsky, I think it’s a safe bet that if you’re reading this you would recognize this.

All I know is that no matter what I say, I will have been type cast forever as liking this movie for no reason other than the lesbian love action that happens about two-thirds in. While the movie would limp on without that particular scene, it does in fact add to the plot, unlike a lot of other meaningless sex scenes in films.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. People usually watch stuff to be entertained, after all. But the reason I linger on that note is because it’s most noticeable in comparison to moments in countless movies where that kind of thing establishes one of two things: The predicable love story culminating into what all animals strive to doOR merely a chance to draw the audience back into the movie by showing some skin.

Again, not saying a steamy scene is in itself a detriment, but it has been done before with little other point in mind. In Black Swan, it actually adds more to the plot than “and so these characters really do love each other.”

In fact, in this movie it kinda does the opposite.

So this movie is confusing to viewers, and that’s mostly why I like it. Much like we all teach people how to treat us, directors teach us how to view their movies. Something like Black Swan teaches that we cannot trust what we see; that what we watched may or may not be truth.

And I love that. It’s so sublime and applicable to real life that I wager most folks find it uncomfortable.

Told from the perspective of Nina, the story in this movie never leaves her perception of things, in a manner I like to refer to as Harry Potter Style. In J.K. Rowling’s famous writings, the point-of-view almost never leaves the eyes of the titular character. This has its benefits, as well as its challenges, and of course there are innumerable other writers who do the exact same thing – I only call it Harry Potter Style because it was around the time when I was reading her books that I came to realize this concept.

They probably teach this in a writing class somewhere. If you know the term, feel free to let me know!

At any rate, it is because we never leave the perspective of Nina that are never shown “true” events – we are only shown things that she sees, that she experiences, and hallucinates about. Whether or not what we see is true is up to us as viewers, because hell, our guess is as good as that of the character.

They touch on the concept of being haunted by a double, as well. Doppelganger if you’re into German folklore. It’s not explored in Black Swan to any great depth, though, as no mention is made of the words ‘double’ or ‘doppelganger’ or anything like that by any of the characters; however there are plenty of mirrors and hauntings/hallucinations that lead Nina – and the audience – down a delightful path of paranoia and fear.

Add in the whole white swan/black swan dichotomy going on in Nina’s head and we’ve got a wild ride.

In short, I totally dug it. You should see this movie, but bear in mind it’s NSFW.

~~~

Today’s track comes from the film itself, the ending credits. I read that while the movie received or was nominated for a variety of awards, the soundtrack was deemed ineligible for Best Musical Score on account of not being wholly original. No surprise there, since much of the music implements portions of Tchaikofsky’s work, and to great effect.

This track is not peaceful, and to most it is probably not particularly calming. It does, however, sum up the movie well. It begins with elegance and grace, reaching a pinnacle of confusion as glass can be heard shattering – no doubt representative of the inescapable symbology of the mirror – then it dies down, like the release of tension about half-way. The remaining half of the track then deepens with elongated cellos, threatening to pull us down as it descends into a place dark, and cruel, and eternal.

That screeching “crowd of birds / strong instruments” sound out at the end really gets the hairs on my arms standing up.

One can try to exemplify insanity through music consisting of confusing sounds or inconsistent melodies. Perhaps instead with lyrics that either spoon feed you the meaning, or leave the meaning open enough to be interpreted however you like. But this piece, to me, sounds like the theme of true madness in fiction, the underlying darkness that many of us successfully fend off every day.

Stranger In A Strange Land

In recent months, I’ve felt both mad inspiration and discouraging slumps. Last week I talked about an instance where I overcame a bout of Writer’s Block. I like to imagine every post on the matter – gathered from every writer, everywhere – as a crumpled piece of paper, all occupying a single place on the internet. A massive slosh to which every writer and blogger contributes.

Advice on how to get over writer’s block, memes making comedic light of it, how I overcame it, how you can too. Systems, apps, substances.

And I certainly don’t claim to be different. More than once I’ve written a blog post consisting of little more than a “Why I Can’t Write Anything,” topic. But the visual makes things a little more fun.

At any rate, today’s topic will actually concern my work-in-the-making, which I almost never talk about for a variety of reasons. Most of those reasons are variations of 1) being vainly and arrogantly afraid that someone’ll copy + paste my stuff [I’ll share everything in the future, when it’s finished] and 2) it takes so much backstory just to get the blog-reader up to speed on what the hell I’m talking about that I don’t bother.

I have, however, gone into some detail in the past.

It’s hard to celebrate the inspiration for a conspiracy surrounding an organization that spans over multiple worlds…

Or the excitement I feel when I make a connection between characters from different countries and cities…

And even the deep lore behind a weapon the likes of which I’d spent years sitting around thinking up the story behind…

…when next-to-no-one has read a page of your work.

I’m not complaining about that, though. I’m just into sharing a bit of inspiration through an experience, and how it will be directly affecting my work.

My novel would fall into the category of Fantasy (big surprise, considering the title of the blog), though precisely which type of fantasy is as much up to you people, when it’s released, as it is mine as I write it. Suffice it to say there’s magic, lots of myriad peoples and creatures, the worlds in which the stories take place are anything but shallow.

For the first novel, still in progress – but so close I can clicheically taste it — I have multiple character perspectives. This is nothing special on its own, most writers can (and should) be able to do this. I showed the rough scheme for my chapter layout some time ago, though it’s in fact changed a little since then.

The “Radh Arc,” that is, the string of chapters telling the story from the perspective of the character named Radh, closes on a peaceful note with an air of tension of tension that is at last ebbing (or is it?). The character is settling in a new environment, in a new town, surrounded by new people, and he is thoroughly out of place. A veteran war hero posing as a civilian in a small-but-busy quarry town several days away from the nearest city. People would look at him strangely, as there are aspects of his appearance that make him stand out. I’ll give you a hint as to why.

He isn’t human. Not technically.

The character is visibly different from the locals, which is something I had conceived and written about many years ago. Which means the idea was put to paper during a time when I had virtually no experience in what I was trying to convey.

Turns out the Flux Capacitor Effect happened again — the pieces to a puzzle were there, clear and in plain sight, and it took but a simple thought to arrange them in a certain order so as to be assembled into inspiration.

I think it hit me in the shower.

I’m currently living in a situation where people stare at me. All the time. My physical appearance is so different from that of the millions of locals around me that most of the time, I am regarded with a sort of distant trying-not-to-stare attitude (though pretty often a lot of folks here in the outskirts of Sai Gon don’t even try to hide it). I’m basically a freak for choosing to live here, though my favorite term is being viewed “as some sort of strange animal that has escaped from a zoo.”

Most of the time I’m the one without the camera.

It’s almost like some really weird, subconscious, self-fulfilling prophecy. I originally wrote about a character moving into a new environment more than ten years ago, and now that I’ve rewritten the scenes multiple times, my life has also somehow taken enough turns to lead me into a situation perfect for writing this section of the novel from experience. It also seems oddly coincidental that I’ve reached this exact point in the 3.0 revision around the time in my life where I find myself essentially transplanted into an alien environment.

So the mantra: As a writer, how can I use this?

Living here, I’ve come to realize that on a constant basis — and I do not mean daily, no, I truly mean constant for as long as I am seen in public — I am being judged and assumptions are being made.

Sure sure, we’re all being judged at any given moment by our family, our peers, and especially strangers, but has someone ever assumed you were rich because of the sound of your voice? That you’re ignorant because of the color of your eyes? Or the amount of hair on your arms is directly proportional to how masculine you are (true story)?

Hairy arms aside, I’ve found one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to deal with here was how utterly out of place I look.

Psychologically, I’m fine. People looking at me funny is nothing all that new, actually, though the reasons have changed, and this direct exposure to peoples’ assumptions about my attitude, hygiene, standards, personal wealth, religious beliefs, politeness and even how I dress, is all chalked up to me just being some foreigner.

In other words, while I endeavor to be as respectful as I can, for all practical purposes no matter what I do, the majority of people I interact with, or who at least see me, will assume I am the way I am simply because I’m not one of them.

Only a select few in my close circle know that I’m a weirdo back in America, too.

All this translates into the conclusion of the “Radh Arc” chapters, and while I’m happy to share and celebrate my little joy here (because if I don’t, who will?), but also send a bit of encouragement.

You’d be surprised what inspiration, or missing puzzle pieces (I tend to think those two concepts are interchangeable), are right under your nose, or right around the corner.

~~~

Today’s music piece comes from Diablo 2, a popular Blizzard game from a decade ago. More specifically, the track comes from its expansion, Lord of Destruction, and this “cold music” is the ambience for a mountainous barbarian town.

Whenever I listen to this track, I am not only taken back to days when I used to play the game, but also to a point in the novel that, I’ve always felt, this track expressed perfectly. One can almost hear the sound of snow falling as the calm of this track paints a picture of a stoic, isolated town, warm hearths within and cold darkness beyond the wall. There is a not-so-far-off tension in these instrumentals, setting the stage for some serious action in the near future of the people.

Overcoming That Pesky Block

This is as much a public self-accountability call to act as it is a blog post. Considering the length of previous posts, I’ll try to keep this one comparatively short.

The truth is, I’ve almost lost track of my passion. Almost.

But how is that possible, one might ask?

The answer is infuriatingly simple:

Distraction. And my productivity and sense of inspiration appears to run on a pendulum, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other at regular intervals, ranging from excitement so great I can barely contain it, to feeling so down that I can barely lift myself off my grubby couch.

Maybe I rid myself of the thing.

I’ve come to realize that it takes very little for me to get distracted from things. It is a character flaw that I have struggled with for some time, but only in recent years have I come to really recognize it as an issue. I know not whether I have some form of diagnosable Attention Deficit Disorder, but the idea has been suggested to me more than once.

I would not be anything special were I to confess that I have difficulty concentrating or focusing, least of all on my writing.  But what is worse, being bereft of the solution, or knowing the solution and then simply forgetting it?

The most effective thing I’ve ever done when I’ve wanted to be productive, whether it’s with fiction-writing or editing, is set aside time in a dedicated workspace. Jevon Knights outlines this most effectively in his blog post about the Criteria for the Perfect Writing Space, and not unlike my own tactic, his idea encourages finding a place away from home.

You should really check out his ebook, The Knights Scroll. It’s a collection of short stories, both Science Fiction and Fantasy, and you can download it for FREE. I’ve read it, I dig it, and anyone who reads my material or is remotely interested in the stuff I do and like will enjoy it.

Regarding writing spaces, though, there is seriously no shortage of cafes in Sài Gòn. I mean, you couldn’t throw a shuriken without it sticking into the sign of some cafe nearby.

Please do not try this, or at least if you do, don’t tell anyone I gave you the idea.

I have, however, settled in a is looking to be more of a permanent living situation (a new house), and only recently have I established a secure internet connection, as well as a room dedicated to office work.

The result has been phenomenal.

That and two cups of càphê sữa đá significantly uplifted my mood and filled me with much needed motivation.

I’ve always been averse to being dependent on any form of substance.

But is coffee a terrible thing to want to drink when one’s life purpose is to focus and write?

I think not.

The success of people around me has also been inspiring.  I have no excuse; yes, there are life distractions and responsibilities, but one always had time – even just one hour a day – to write. It’s mostly a matter of getting organized and forming a system.

In fact Lifehacker.com has here a great list of for How To Stick To A Writing Schedule.

Surprise surprise, one of their bullet points is setting aside a place to write.

For me, it’s more complicated than getting up earlier, or walking to a nearby cafe and ‘setting up shop’ every day, which are things I’ve tried and have worked. But now, with a home base and office that feels more secure and organized, I find my stresses and creative energies more easily managed.

It’s almost as though my home, wherever that may be, is a real-life metaphor for my brain. If my home is a mess, then my brain is distracted. If things are in order and my home is clean and organized — even if my workspace is in fact away from home — then I can focus. Perhaps that is, or at least part of, the code I can use to understand my inner-psychology to harness creativity.

And, of course, sweet coffee in the middle of the day helps.

Now to train myself to remember that.

 

 

 

Concept: Markets and Trade in Fantasy

Something often overlooked in a lot of fiction, fantasy or otherwise, are the economics in place that allow a writer’s world to exist. When it comes to worldbuilding, the writer must take all things into account if they wish to really weave a believable setting.

It’s serious labor of love. When was the last time you thought about the how your hero’s village makes its clothing? Where they acquire the cotton/wool/linen etc. for their textiles? Do they produce the raw material themselves, or do they trade with neighboring communities?

How about the infrastructure between villages? Is it sophisticated enough to allow weekly, monthly, or annual runs between villages?

Or does the story take place within a city, where doubtless everything is acquired from beyond the city walls? Or, conversely, like in the Hyborian Age, or as might be found in any otherwise swords & sandals-type fantasy … where the idea of civilization is usually more concerned with guarded cities and villages, while everything else in the world consisted of patches of hazardous wilderness between towns.

The fact of the matter is that most communities, even today, are largely agrarian. Producing food through farming and animal husbandry is sorta kinda what makes the neolithic era so important, and a large portion of the world’s population is, to this day, still largely concerned with the production and acquistion of food.

So in a fantasy realm, only prosperous trade cities or otherwise similarly-run commercial centers will have little do farming, whereas the “quiet village our hero called home” is, nine times out of ten, some kind of farming community.

Now, the readers need not know the intricacies of your world’s economics, unless of course the economics play a direct role in the plot (such as the story for the tremendous game Baldur’s Gate, which had an iron shortage). I’ve touched on the importance of economics in the past, and I thoroughly believe that it is the responsibility of the writer to consider some of these thing when fleshing out their world – even if only briefly. A great way to do this is to simply look at your character – better yet, if you have a sketch or character sheet of some kind, ask a pile of questions about what they’re wearing.

This is the female knight class from Final Fantasy Tactics. Gods, that game was so good.

Looking at the above artwork, we can ask a variety of economic questions largely separate from the character herself.

What metal is her sword made from? Where was the metal mined, refined, traded, and forged? Same for her armor.

How about the dress? Cotton from her home town, or fibers traded from a distant land? Perhaps the cape was woven from a rare, material acquired from mountaintop flowers that symbolize her devotion to whatever faith to which she might subscribe.

The leather of her gloves – that of common bovines, or an animal more exotic, or is it not even leather at all, but a fantastic material impervious to weather?

The dyes in her clothing would have to have been produced somewhere, as did the cords holding everything together. Even unseen things, like the lining of her boots, the oils along the blade of her sword, the perfume used to mask days marching on the field, or of course whatever obscured jewelry she might possess.

These are all things that, if presented with answers more interesting and complicated than “she got them when she enlisted,” or “found them in some hole that a trio of trolls called home,” or – especially – the cliche “they were passed down to her from her father.”

Like I said, the reader need not know the intricacies of everything, lest the writer fall into a Tolkien-esque level of description, but the more the writer knows, the more subtleties can be embedded, enriching the world.

When I was in Thailand, a day after the unforgettable experience with the tigers, I took the time pursue a newfound hobby: perusing the markets and bazaars. Chiang Mai is a city known as much for tourism as anything else, and with tourism there come markets geared especially for foreigners looking for souvenirs.

A shot of one of many of Chiang Mai's Sunday markets, set up near the Tae Phe Gate

One of Chiang Mai’s many Sunday markets, set up near the Tha Phae Gate, on the east side of the Old City.

The Sunday Market of Chiang Mai was nothing short of fun for me, because I was on a simple mission of looking for interesting things to send back to my home country as gifts.

I was also able to practice my haggling skills, which – to my surprise and growing delight – makes the whole process all the more enjoyable. As a foreigner, prices are of course inflated accordingly when I ask the price of things, but the very fact that the prices are flexible means that bargaining for trinkets and clothing becomes essential.

Besides, who would you respect more: the person who simply accepts the price you tell them, or the person who is a bit more shrewd and puts up a fight?

Learning from the example of the Chatty Swede from earlier days, and drawing experience from conversations with Firebeard in days of yore – not to mention simply reading about stuff all the time – I gradually learned what various items were actually worth. As well as the whole haggling process. I do not claim to be a master haggler, of course not – but I am something of a penny-pincher, which comes off as a hard bargainer anyway.

I bought a dress for a friend back in my Old Hometown, initially something in order of 180 baht ($6), but talked the teller down to 150 or so (so, $5). At that price, I decided to buy two – much to the joy of the merchant. Small successes fuel bigger ones, and I found myself haggling for even minor items – a hairband-like thing, initially 90 baht ($1), I talked down to something like 60. We’re talking the difference between dollars and quarters here, which to them is of course a big deal, but from my perspective, it’s not necessarily the amount of money that makes acquisition of these things so special. Rather, the fact that I haggled, drove down the price to even lower than what was already reasonable to me, makes the cloth and bracelets (and even a lamp) feel really worth that much more.

In once instance a more brazen merchant, with very good English skills, did most of the talking. He was selling chopstick sets, which I found interesting enough to look at, but had no inclination to buy – however in the markets, even the slightest bit of interest (or even showing the slightest politeness by stopping to address someone who tugs your sleeve or shouts for you to look at them – politeness which can easily be misinterpreted as interest) is like the scent of blood to sharks.

The man proposed his price – something like 400 baht ($12.50-ish). I kept silent, nodding my head as I calculated the amount in my head.

“Okay,” he said, seeing that I was not leaping on it. “I will give you a discount. 350 baht!”

I nodded, looking at the plastic-wrapped set, admiring it’s beauty and wondering to myself whether I actually needed this. After all, I had about two-dozen chopsticks at home already. The merchant proceeded to demonstrate the toughness of the included mat by stretching it taught multiple times.

“It cannot break, or your money back,” he said, and informed me that the chopsticks themselves were made by his family. Very special, also very strong, and they’ve been making chopsticks for decades. I offered compliments that the things did in fact seem quite nice, but made to place the set back down. No doubt he could see that I was interested, but not interested enough, and in truth I sought means to politely escape.

“You are the first customer of the day,” said the merchant, “so I will give you first-buyer price! 300 baht!”

Not bad, I found myself thinking, especially since I didn’t say a thing. I tried to leave, but he handed me a calculator. “Name your price!” he said, “Tell me what is reasonable to you.”

I took the calculator and entered 250. Or perhaps 280. I can’t quite remember. ($7.50 or $8.50).

The merchant hastily agreed, no doubt glad to have made a sale.

WP_20141101_11_33_37_Pro

And here it is. A pair each of chopsticks, chopstick “holders,” placemats, napkins, and cup mat things.

Not only that, he proceeded to ask me questions, seemingly showing an actual interest in me as more than some walking white-skinned wallet. He seemed to be especially intrigued that I lived in SouthEast Asia, that I wasn’t his typical customer – the usual clueless tourist.

That or he had practiced his act well.

In any case, I complimented him on his English, on his skill at selling (he did win, after all, since I confess I had no intention of getting the chopsticks in the first place), but they felt special, and more than the money spent or the value in the item acquired, I got the memory.

And the experience.

Who knows how much this was actually worth. I probably over-paid regardless.

Markets like this can be found also in Viet Nam. The legendary Ben Thanh Market, the central hub of Sai Gon – which I have experienced only once, during my first few days after landing – is a veritable nest of hagglers and merchants. I actually look forward to returning there to practice bargaining with peddlers, arguing over $5 garments and trinkets I don’t need.

Yeah baby, this was the backbone of Sai Gon, and remains strong !

In fact, I rather look forward to the day I can acquire clothing, textiles, objects, whatever, and perhaps sell them abroad. Such a thing would be more of a pet project than a real source of income, as the process is new and fun to me.

And it all contributes to writing. It’s all connected to the economics of the settings of our myriad stories. Production of goods is just one chapter in a book of economics in fantasy – how about trade? Haggling and bargaining in bazaars and markets has been a long-standing tradition of cultures around the world for… probably about as long as the idea of “trade” has ever existed.

 

Thai Adventures (Pt. 2) Tiger Kingdom

When I went to Thailand, I saw a variety of things, but among the utter coolest was being in the presence of living, breathing tigers.

SAM_1041

I have often subscribed to the identity of a variety of animals. Between growing up in the forest and taking the phrase “monkeying around” to a whole new level with my habit of knuckle-walking, it may come as little surprise that I found characters such as Tarzan (particularly from the Disney animated movie) to be quite boss.

tht

This is how I legit walk around when crouched, do push-ups, or nudge open doors or press buttons when I prefer to not touch dirty door handles, such as those found in a public bathroom.

But as much as I enjoy to emulate apes, there are a number of other animals to which one might simply call my totem creatures. No, I did not learn any of this from some shaman, nor did I have any animalistic dreams where I spoke to one or more of the following creatures.

These are merely beasts whose traits I either find admirable or familiar.

I’ll feel a kinship with wolves when I am in the company of most dogs. A sense of brotherhood, common goals, or when I otherwise simply feel inclined to work with others as a cohesive unit. Humans are pack animals after all (though considering modern trends, one may be more inclined to say “heard animals,” *cough cough* Black Friday), but generally when it comes to following the crowd or going with the flow, I’ve always identified with the whole Lone Wolf stereotype. Lone wolves generally don’t lead happy, productive or comfortable lives, though, and part of their loneliness may or may not be ascribed to over-confidence in themselves (or perhaps a downright lack of confidence in others). In any case, I dig wolves, for both their ability to work together as a team, their demonstration of intelligence and even compassion.

When I’m feeling more solitary, I’ll identify with bears, but not in that same lone wolf sense. Merely lumbering throughout life with simplistic goals and desires; sleeping, eating, sex’ing. Granted all animals have said goals, but when it comes to a typical bear’s life, they don’t have a whole lot to worry about except the distance between meals. I feel bear-like (not to be confused with bearish) when I’m feeling peaceful, going through the day(s) at a slower, easy pace, with nothing particularly unpredictable or stressful happening. Just going about life as a simple “natural” individual, using one’s skills (like a bear uses its strength) to overcome a variety of obstacles in the world.

Then there are tigers.

These are creatures I’ve always liked as well, but never really had the chance to really appreciate. Wolves I’ve met vicariously through thousands of dogs, and bears are a common neighbor in my childhood home.

I’ve identified with cats when I’m feeling aloof, independent, even selfish. Unlike canines, many felines tend to be solitary by default, and in their natural state don’t seem to regard other creatures with the respect we might see within a pack of wolves, or humans for that matter. And while solitary, they differ from the attitude of a bear in that while a cat, no matter the size or species, is a stalker, not a bumbling forager.

Granted, I’m fully aware there’re a number of bears that will hunt and kill, but in terms of overall attitude I suppose I’m referring to that of a black bear, which is not a particularly aggressive species (and one with which I have a passing familiarity having grown up in the Catskills of New York).

But being around a tiger is more than being around some over-sized house cat.

Having left the Chiang Mai old city by a “bus-taxi” vehicle, I attempted to reach my Swedish Sister, but as had been the case since using getting my Thai-based traveler’s SIM card, outbound calls didn’t really work; only inbound calls, WiFi access, and limited 3G.

At any rate, having arrived Tiger Kingdom, and unable to reach my contact, I did the next best thing: I walked into the open-air lobby, filled with trinkets and shirts and other tiger-themed merchandise, and introduced myself.

“Jesse,” I said a second time, “Friend of Vicky.” The girl at the reception regarded me for a moment; a fedora-sporting, blond-haired white guy with a bulbous backpack, and must of decided I looked thoroughly touristy enough. She lead me ten paces away to someone standing with a posture that screamed gate keeper.

“Hello, I’m Jesse, friend of—”

“—from Viet Nam?”

“Yes,” I said, relief washing over me. I turned and saw that from the open-air lobby/tourist-receiving area, I could see right into one of the multiple enclosures. Within, though distant, I could see a black-striped, creamsicle-colored animal pacing calmly along the far side. White tourists in tank-tops and shorts stood or walked nearby.

Upon confirming who I was, the gate keeper, who went by the name of Louie, announced to the mostly-vacant lobby that all ticket-holders would now follow him in as the next group was allowed entry. He gestured I follow him with a jerk of his head.

Free admission after all, eh? YES.

Considering everything I would see, it would normally have cost upwards of maybe 1,000 baht ($30 or so).

A short walk later, and I was brought to my Swedish Sister. There she sat, chatting with some Thai co-workers, and as I approached the chattiness for which I remembered her most fondly quickly reinstated itself. We caught up on a variety of topics; things we’ve done, our romantic lives, progress on our respective language-exposure and acquisition.

I won’t say whose learned more in the last two months, but it is safe to say she knows more Thai than myself, and I’ve come to learn more Vietnamese than her.

Which is, of course, nothing unexpected.

The Chatty Swede then went about showing me around Tiger Kingdom, and I found myself treated not only to seeing what tourists saw, but also a few behind-the-scenes areas as well. I saw enclosures containing lounging juvenile tigers, cages housing a few screaming newborns, a pen in which scrambled rambunctious cubs, and in the distance (where tourists were not allowed), I saw the pacing of majestic adults.

I asked my questions, as I harbor a curiosity for absolutely everything, both in regards to Tiger Kingdom as well as the animals themselves, and I learned a lot that day. Eventually we came back to the area where there rested our backpacks, and sat on the concrete stoop.

“Are you ready?” she asked. I blinked.

“Ready for what?”

I knew that having an inside-contact would allow me to actually see and touch the tigers, but now that I was finally here, seeing the great cats had me feeling more than a little hyper-aware of my surroundings.

These were some big animals, and while the keepers played with them, fed them, cleaned them, and the tigers were overall very healthy and happy-looking, not a moment passed when I did not look upon the creatures and think: “Yes. That is a tiger. This is a top predator that could end me in about as much time as it would take me to realize I would be ended.”

I asked whether there were any special concerns I ought to be aware of. Thinking back on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, I recalled the part where the animal-expert Sarah Harding informs the other characters that the dinosaurs’ sense of smell is so advanced they’ll detect cigarette smoke, deodorant, or any otherwise unnatural scent and probably be irritated by it.

With a laugh, undoubtedly at my expense, I was assured that my deodorant would not be an issue.

Inside the enclosure, behind a set of air-lock-like portcullises, the tigers were calm, and the keepers/trainers employed a simple technique that allowed visitors like me to come in and touch them. With toys made from leaves tied to the end of bamboo sprigs, the tigers had the majority of their attention focused on the fast-moving objects in a most cat-like manner.

SAM_1064

Being near a tiger, calm and unthreatened as they were, I found myself acutely aware of everything. I paid attention to the way they moved, the direction of their ears, what they looked at when walking or laying down. They moved about with carefully measured steps as one might expect from any feline, but also with the heavier, slow pace of bears. Though the largest ones I got near were still not fully grown, the tigers were immense, and as I stood taking pictures and video, I remember a moment where I felt inclined to inform my Swedish Sister that while I was not exactly afraid, I senses were on high alert.

It was at that exact moment I looked over my shoulder and saw a particularly large tiger laying down right behind me. The animal did not exhibit any abnormal behavior; it merely felt inclined to situate itself comfortably with a view of my back, just barely at arm’s reach.

Visitors were always discouraged from touching the tiger’s front paws and face, even with the cubs, and the tigers themselves were always reminded to not follow people – as their instinct is to keep behind other animals.

I saw tigers nuzzling, playing in the pool, lounging stresslessly about. As I touched – actually touched – tigers, I could feeling their hair comparable to the springer fibers we use to scrub our dishes. Corded, rippling musculature flexed beneath beautiful coats, and even holding a tiger’s tail, all in itself, was a memory to cherish. You’d be surprised how heavy a tiger’s tail is.

These are all details that are easy to forget when writing not only about a tiger, but about large animals in general. I will always remember this experience not only because it was simply awesome, but because contact with the tigers broadened my scope of description. When I write about fantastical creatures, aspects of animals I’ve been around, such as these tigers, will hopefully be enriched by such an experience, translated to words on the page.

The tigers demonstrated playfulness not only with each other, but with the trainers. These were tamed, sociable, intelligent creatures with individual personalities and quirks. It ought to come as no surprise that the more we study any animal, the more likely we are to find staggering discoveries that hey, you wouldn’t believe it, but animals are more intelligent than we give them credit for.

I’ve heard it said (usually by religious people) that animals are bereft of feeling. This, of course, is merely self-serving nonsense that allows for people to consume them, or otherwise exploit them, with minimal guilt.

I’ll cut that particular rant short and stop there, as that’s quite the tangent.

Almost nothing compares to being the presence of tigers, and when encouraged to kneel and pose for pictures with the things, I was described, in terms of types of visitors, as “one of the awkward ones.”

SAM_1063

And why oughtn’t I be? [This was not posed.]

But, apparently, there are tourists who show very little regard for the rules set by the trainers, rules I consider to be common sense.

As a respecter of most animals (as I derive comfort from the notion that, somewhere, there is a special place in some cosmic hell for parasites like mosquitoes and ticks), I find it hard to believe that any fool would enter a tiger kingdom and try to do precisely what the trainers tell them not to do.

Then again I have a hard time understanding the behavior of fools in general, though there are those who would undoubtedly think of my own life choices as foolish, not least of which getting in a cage with a tiger.

At any rate, it took some time for me to get used to being around giant carnivores that people like my Chatty Swedish Sister had spent months around. It was an experience I will never forget.

Not only was it my first visit to Tiger Kingdom, it was also my Swedish Sister’s last day there, so I accompanied her with not only the juveniles, but also in saying goodbye to a few of her favorites. We spent time with the cubs as well, whose behavior felt and looked more akin to puppies than that of big kittens, and the baby tigers alone were unforgettable.

It took considerable self-control to refrain from grabbing and hugging the things, but even little tigers have claws, and one of the chief characteristics I noticed among all the tigers was the sheer size of their paws.

SAM_1093

 

SAM_1099

Their paws are immense in proportion to their bodies, especially in comparison to that of a tabby cat. Which I suppose, also, ought to come as no surprise.

But it’s one thing to read books, see pictures, watch videos of these things. I had seen documentaries about tigers, enjoyed their appearance in movies such as The Jungle Book (1994), though I never saw The Life of Pi.

Is it any good?

It is quite another to be inches away from them, to kneel and stroke their fur, to make eye-contact and be disregarded.

The facilities are clean, the trainers genuinely love the tigers and their jobs, and the level of care for the animals is quite good. I know this not only as an observer (who among other things, saw a variety of signs that encouraged visitors to report whether trainers were witnessed abusing the tigers or trying to sell “souvenirs” like claws and whiskers), but also with the assurance of a reliable friend.

It is comforting to know that this is a good place, and I would recommend it to anyone who happens to find themselves near Chiang Mai.

The following day, though lacking in tigers, was no less astounding, as I would be treated to visiting a mountain-top temple.