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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Concept: Those People

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You know what people I mean. Those people.

I’ve always found it interesting human behavior to highlight differences between us.

And, being human, I’ve been there, done that. C’mon, I went to high school.

But just as interesting to me is finding commonalities, similarities, between folks. Particularly from different cultures. I’ll never forget a line I picked up from Raymond E. Feist’s Magician series, some dialog (which I will now butcher) spoken between two people from different worlds, and after being subject to the haggling of a peddler:

“It does not matter what world you’re from; merchants’ children always seem to be starving.”

My time in Việt Nam, short as it really has been thus far, has been nothing short of a tremendous contingency of experiences. But today, I’m not even going to talk about the local culture, no – I’m going to talk about a very specific breed of human the likes of whom I have encountered here quite often.

I’m talking about the traveler, of which there seem to be two species that frequent Việt Nam: the backpacker and the expatriate. Lets start off with but some basic definitions.

A Backpacker, usually someone of college/university age (either before or during attending, or even after graduating), is someone who lives out of their backpack. It’s a common thing in Europe and increasingly common in SouthEast Asia, and you can easily identify a backpacker by – you guessed it – the massive backpack they’re hauling around.

An Expatriate (or Expat, for short) is someone who has simply moved from their home country to work in another. Backpackers might become expats, and expats might do a little backpacking. The difference is that, usually, expats are semi/permanent, whereas backpackers are usually just passing through; an expat may or may not have a long-term plan to return to their home country, whereas a backpacker usually does.

You’ll just as likely see an expat in a business suit and tie as you’ll see a backpacker with dreadlocks and an unkempt beard.

But for all things that might set them visually apart, they have a strong trait in common.

I’ve come to learn that it takes a very special breed of human

to just up and leave your home behind.

Some folks might leave on these adventures simply seeking adventure; many folk I’ve met go about their days without much of a plan in mind, and as most of these travelers are level-headed people with social skills and open minds (usually), things work out. You’d be surprised how universal a smile and a kind gesture is, and how many things in common you have with someone who was raised on a farm in a country that only recently opened up to the outside world.

Others might leave their homes behind permanently; whether because they have no home to abandon or, perhaps, as is the narrative of many adventure stories, because “home” is a less-than-preferable place.  Harry Potter and Princess Mononoke come to mind for some reason.

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But there has been a recurring conversation that I have with a lot of these people. The above quote at the head of this post was given to me by a French former-roommate whom I’ve come to hold in high respect. This was a guy younger than me, but with essentially the same education (a two-year degree in a major that did not open doors), who came from a small town, and came to Sài Gòn in search of something new and different.

The conversation entailed thinking back on our home towns. Thinking back on the people behind us, our friends and family. I remember at the time I was vocalizing and orchestrating my thoughts, and he helped me organize them in a manner that became coherent. Here is, essentially, the common understanding that I’ve not only come to adopt, but come to realize many other travelers – especially expats – have.

Travel broadens the mind. Seeing other cultures, interacting with people different from you, tasting foods you never knew existed, and living in conditions that would otherwise be called “sub-standard” build character. And I’m not saying that as a writer pun, no, I mean these are things that are really good for the mind and body. We can throw spirit in there too, if you care about that sort of thing. I am not a religious person, but it can be said thatk there is something spiritual about being itinerant.

Traveling changes you. Or, more accurately, it helps reveal your inner self.

We think back on the people we’ve left behind, and we wonder what it would be like if we had never left. In the case of the French former-room mate, he actually had visited home and come back to Việt Nam a few times, and his story sounded exactly as I might have predicted. The people back home were the same. The home town had not changed. His old friends still worked the same jobs, had the same monotonous days, and despite the praise and encouragement offered, showed no interest in breaking free of their simple, closed lives.

There is no dishonor in this, not really… but it is most certainly not the life for me, or him, or many other a traveler. Having kept in touch with a handful of friends from back home (none of whom read this blog, I’m sure), it came as a two-sided coin of shock to me when I learned my own loved ones have pretty much zero interest in what I do – at least not in that actionable sort of way. Friends and family will always be “interested” when you talk to them, and I am surprised, actually, at how many people outside my circle of close-friends-from-back-home have emerged from the wood-work to remark on how encouraged, interested, and in some cases inspired, by reading about my adventures.

This was something of a surprise.

I tend to share the interesting parts of my life in snippets on Facebook, so in the off-chance you’re reading this before having met me there, friend or follow me should you be so inclined.

At any rate, we came to the conclusion that we do not pity or look down on folks who decide not to travel. It’s all a matter of comfort, of standards, whatever you want to call it. But then, Firebeard once told me, when I expressed mixed encouragement from my family about coming to Sài Gòn, that one really ought to watch out when someone actually voices the opinion: “Don’t travel.”

People who say this are the kind whose opinion that backpackers and expats simply, by definition, cannot abide.

Those people.

I know that when or if I return to my old home, I will not be the same. And locals will look upon me, probably with a sneer as I struggle to contain myself from sharing and comparing cultural moments and experiences, and assume I think myself better.

Nah. Not better.

Just different.

Concept: Schisms and Conflict

broken-chain

Conflict is the mother of story. Without conflict, a story is either pointless – and therefore boring – or simply has not yet reached the point where conflict has been introduced.

But sometimes conflict comes from a source that is, shall we say, less than comfortable. Without getting into too much detail about my real life in meatspace, what I’m talking about today are schisms; when two or more people are very close, but something happens and they part.

And before you start making your premature deductions, dear reader, no, I’m not talking about breakups between lovers. I’m actually heading more in the direction of schisms within a family.

It is a continuing fascination of mine to think back on the American Revolution. Historical events might lead one to believe that such a conflict was unavoidable – and if it was, well, that’s up to the historians to debate. Actually I find American history to be one of the most boring topics encountered in my so-called education (followed closely by math. Those courses were like horse tranquilizers to me at 7:00 in the morning).  No, it’s not the history itself that I’m interested in, rather, a small detail that may or may not be overlooked: how families were divided during this period.

I recall a story – I remember not whether it was a novel, a short, or just some excerpt read out to us kids – in which a family of colonial days got wind of the coming conflict, which had already rumbled along the coastal cities by the time the story began. The father of the family was fiercely loyal to the English royalty, while his son(s) held sympathies for the revolutionaries. While most families will produce children that challenge the views of their parents (especially in the modern era), this story served to illustrate a time period during which such divisions were more intense than anything many of us ever really know.

I think the story ended with the boy(s), who were of age to join the fight, took up arms to help battle for independence while the father joined the British forces. Both sides believed themselves to be fighting for the right thing – the younger believed the king to be a tyrant who had no right to control colonies an ocean away, while the elder felt a strong sense of gratitude for the crown (probably for having allowed the colonies and their way of life to grow in the first place). This is a common trait in wars, when both sides think themselves on the side of righteousness. Nothing new there, and no doubt families were divided over more conflicts than just the American Revolution.

I think that story ended with the father being killed and of course with the revolutionaries being victorious. Whether or not one of his sons pulled the trigger I can’t recall. Most of those years are a blur to me.

Anyway, when I see stories like these, with intense personal schisms mixed in with political turmoil, I can’t help but see the potential. Well-written stories will portray the view of both sides of a conflict, at least when the idea is to instill a strong sense of nobody being right (or everybody being wrong) in their opinion or reason for fighting. The Game of Thrones series, which I cite far more often than I would like to admit, is a perfect example of this. The Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent The Chronicles of Narnia, in fact do the direct opposite – but that is, of course, because these are very different authors with very different agendas and audiences. That’s all well and good.

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So how can we use this?

Personally, I have two story elements in the works that I’d like to share with you, dear readers. For one, it does serve as therapeutic to share some of these thoughts. For another, few things motivate me more to keep writing than talking about my writing – vain as that might sound. And I’m usually intensely self-conscious of sounding vain.

Intense appears to be the word of the day.

Anyway, here are two story elements that take place in my mainline novel project that directly relate to the theme we just discussed.

Story Element 1 – A Historical Event

Without too much backstory, I hate the conventional use of contemporary elves, refusing to utilize the word in my own writing because I simply do not favor the imagery and flavor it conveys in mainstream fantasy. What this means is that if I’m going to use an elf-like creature – and I certainly do – it has to be unique, or at least unique enough to be distinguishable from all the blond-haired knife-ears that fill out the pages and screens of media that I … don’t consume.

Dark elves are a theme visited time and time again, and not to say my own take on the “dark elf” is wholly original, the race I call czaths can most easily be described as “a hardened people with draconic blood in their veins.” They come from a volcanic land and their temperament, lifestyle, and appearance reflects this.

At any rate, the czaths have an event in their history that I simply call The Bastard War, a time when, much like the aforementioned story about the American Revolution, there is a powerful division among loyalists to the sovereign leader (who happens to be a dragon), and the younger, upstart rebels who seek to disrupt the tyrannical status quo. During last year’s NaNoWriMo event, I managed to churn out about 70% of a stand-alone novel that mostly details the events that precede the Bastard War. One can safely assume there are a few family schisms in said story.

This idea (as vague as it might appear in this blog post) just sort of emerged from my psyche, no doubt as a result of various elements (fictional or otherwise) I’ve come to experience over my life. Like a lot of my writing, I did not sit down and think “Okay. This story is going to be an allegory of the American Revolution but in a fantasy setting and the characters being a mix of drow and flamekin.”

drow+flame

Story Element 2 – A Brotherly Conflict

For those who do not know, I made quite the leap and changed my surroundings not very long ago. For those of you who do not know even more, my family includes myself and two brothers, a family that has, long before my big move, become quite divided (more physically than idealistically).

But even that’s changing. The longer I stay abroad, the less in common I am finding I have with most of my family. This is a peculiar realization, as it tastes of both bitter distress and sweet liberation.

Regardless, long before any of this happened, I came across a strange thought, a latent fear of mine, also connected to the aforementioned theme. What if I were ever to be at odds with my family? Or more specifically, the man I call my older brother? At seven years my senior, I undoubtedly fall into what I call the “Little Brother Complex,” (just as much as I have the “Middle Child Complex.” If you are either, you know what I mean.) I possess a subconscious desire for the approval of my sibling like anyone would seek the approval of a parent. Approval is a powerful gift, one the likes of which I have, if I may dip into the personal arena, received only from a few select individuals. One or two of those, luckily, were family, from time to time.

Regardless, moving where I did and for the reasons I did has caused unforeseen conflict. And as I said, long before any of stuff-I-purposefully-keep-vague began happening, but it is surprisingly akin to a powerful theme I am writing about between two important characters of my mainline novel. In it, we witness a relationship between two brotherly characters who become divided – a schism having been formed along the fault lines of ideals, intent, and eventually actions. In other words, we have two people who once loved each other who are now at war.

So. As a writer. How can I use this?

Granted, the lens of fantasy (and writing in general) allows for the freedom to embellish certain aspects of such a conflict. Perhaps I’m going through something of a difficult time with my family in meatspace, and while my writing may reflect some of the feelings, the events written do not necessarily mean there is a lack of love, or an existence of violence, which may or may not appear in my fiction.

No, it is – as are all things in this carnival we call life – quite complicated. One wonders whether a favorite book of mine – The Brother’s War, by Jeff Grubb – was written by a man who had experienced great conflict with sibling(s)?

Conflicts like this make for the most engaging and powerfully felt of stories. If you can, write your stories – fiction or otherwise – based on real people and real relationships. The difference is most palpable to the reader, in my experience.

~~~

How about something quite different from not only the subject matter of this post, but also from the type of music I usually share? This little piece comes from the soundtrack of L.A. Noire, a game I wholly believe to be quite underrated, and its music is some pretty high quality stuff. Judging from the titular use of noire, a body might be able to guess the type of music to be found in such a setting, and as such I would sooner suspect that it’s a very specific type of taste. You know, the appreciation of really old music kind of taste, heh.

Enjoy!

A Night With Orcs

 

There’s this certain group of people with whom a close associate of mine is part of their circle. Friends of a friend, to be specific, the likes of whom we have taken to affectionately calling “a bunch of orcs.”

In my Fantasy Brain, comparing living people in my life to orcs is more a thing about demeanor and attitude (say, in comparison to calling someone a hobbit or a harpy…) and much less about physical appearance. It is not a form of disparagement or dehumanization, just a simple lens through which my mind observes the world.

Orcs are not known for their warmth in popular fantasy, characterized most commonly by jutting, boar-like teeth, green/gray/brown or even red skin, and, in some cases, upturned pig-like noses (early incarnations showed them in fact to basically be men with pig heads). They’re often depicted as primitive, savage, brutishly strong and generally unpleasant to be around. They’re common enemies in many settings, supplying players and protagonists with fodder for spells and weapons. But dig a little, and sometimes the lore of a given orc tribe will reveal a deep sense of loyalty, honor code, tradition and rich shamanistic and/or animistic culture.

Whether they’re categorized as resembling Tolkienien Orcs or Blizzard Orcs, they make for convenient enemies and obstacles. Personally I find their use in fiction to be tacky and lazy; they feel over done in most fantasy.

BlizzOrcTolkOrc

One might even be hard-pressed to even call these things by the same name.

In describing people I’ve met as “orcish,” what I mean is that they seem to follow the beat of their own drum, shirking what might otherwise be considered the norms of society and are generally unafraid to embrace the concept of “the human animal.” The true concept of orcs (if such a thing were ever to be considered true) is of course lost with the borderline-insulting parallels my brain makes between living people and fantasy tropes. When speaking of the specific group of people I met, I lean closer towards the Blizzard orcs, with their sense of honor and tradition.

Among the orcs I met were the equivalent of the shamans; philosophizers, theists, politically aware and well-read people whose conversation is more than worth the time to sit down and listen. I had the pleasure of observing one such individual, let’s imaginatively call him the Shaman, tell stories and weave his debates with the alacrity of a seasoned elder. The guy seemed to be one of those ‘integral players’ of the tribe; not that the party would be lacking in his absence, not exactly, but his presence is the type that helps determine what kind of night it will turn out to be. I felt an enriching aura exuded from the man.

Another individual, let’s call him the Chieftain, radiated a calm confidence that marked him, in my eyes,  as the leader of this band of orcs, though not in an authoritative, commanding sort of way. He was the outdoorsman, the one who just as naturally cut wood for the fire with his hand ax as some host of a dinner party might fetch wine for his guests from the cellar. His mate, also present, complemented him as a lady of the woods, taking it upon herself to routinely stoke the fire and ever lay more fuel to our night’s source of heat and light and comfort. I in fact helped with each of these tasks, able to exchange a few words with the orc Chieftain and his mate, and both (having met the Chieftain on one other occasion) were positively charming, welcoming people.

Granted, I would never have found myself in their presence were it not for being brought by another associate of mine – who I do not identify as an orc himself, but certainly a fire-bearded wildman capable of easily blending among them – and in chopping wood or stoking the fire they most certainly did not need my help. But seeing things like this in play reminded me of my younger days, having my own group of friends visiting – most of them not knowing the first thing about making and tending to fires in the woods – and it was my duty and pleasure to keep the fire going. The orcs obviously had everything well in hand, but it evoked old muscles and memories to partake in the ritual, triggering old woodsman instincts that had long since laid mostly dormant.

Perhaps most interesting of my observations of the Chieftain was the care and effort he had put into preparing the evening meal. Most folks had brought beer, and I, with my own dietary restrictions, had managed to brew up and share a meager portion of spicy vegetarian ramen soup. Most unOrcish. But more than the meal itself, the Chieftain prepared a couple of cornish hens (or something) in a large aluminum pan, and after hours of delicate patience and attentative cooking, he cut the pan in half, setting one portion aside for the tribe. The other half he took with him a safe distance away, where he and his mate enjoyed the delicacy. Those orcs who did not hear the designation were reminded.

“This one is ours,” he had said. The message was clear, and bereft of any negative inflection; the Chieftain had simply prepared a meal and by his generosity, had offered some of it up for the tribe, but this portion was designated for only himself and his mate. It was law, it was clear, and it was respected without the slightest hint of chagrin.

No one in their right minds (and many of the orcs were drunk, by the way), would question him – as might be seen in otherwise “normal” society – but it was entirely out of respect, rather than fear of embarrassment or reproach. It simply was, just as the orcs simply were.

I found watching that tiny exchange, the gesture of respect not only towards the Chieftain, but the respect the Chieftain showed towards his mate, to be a fascinating and overwhelmingly romantic thing to observe.

You won’t be finding bankers and CEO’s around this campfire. And while some of these “orcish” traits might be akin to “dwarvish” tendencies, the difference, I find, is attitude:

  • People who I’d recognize as “dwarven,” while just as capable of being wild and unpredictable and unconcerned with laying on bare earth, I see them as having much less of a propensity to go out and drink in the woods. People with classical dwarven tendencies would, in my mind, much prefer being rowdy and drunk in a tavern or a home, somewhere close to civilization and society.
  • Orcs, on the other hand, do it wherever the hell they want – but they prefer the company of trees and campfires simply because it’s more convenient for them to avoid otherwise less-than-cooperative authorities. There is more freedom the further away from other people you set foot. There is much more of a collective, tribal sense of “us” and “the rest of the world out there.”

Gatherings like this are things you may not recognize as common in your area, wherever you are, dear reader, but where I am as of this writing, it’s really not that unusual. The group I sat amongst consisted of around ten people, but I’ve been told the tribe has reached numbers as high as thirty-five closely connected individuals. You won’t find kindred folk like this in an office.

But what I’ve really come to recognize, and respect, is the simple genuineness of these people. These were folk with whom I confess I may not be able to mesh easily, but I easily get along with. I witnessed a group of friends who simply were who they were; I witnessed a complete absence of obeying typical societal polite discourse – they spoke their minds (did not dance around topics), they did not inhibit their flatulence, they lost their tempers in debates and quickly made amends over a drink not long after, and (I suspect) their dating/mating rituals probably don’t follow the same rules as set by society either. For all the rowdiness and self-indulgence I witnessed (and this event was comparatively tame), absolutely no one was phony. They were themselves, and whether by circumstance or mutual influence, they became who they were, and gathered, and shared stories, liquor, and laughs atop that mountain.

They also did not seem to give a damn that an outsider, some quietly observing bard such as myself, sat among them, partaking in the laughter, the jokes, the comfort.

Sure, this image seems about accurate. ((Art by Manzanedo @ http://manzanedo.deviantart.com/ ))

I’ll tell this: these people seemed, as far as I could tell, largely unconcerned, and thus unconstrained, by ideas such as putting on a show in order to “fit in.” With ideas of being politically correct for fear of offending someone (or, as was the topic of that particular night, perhaps they were simply venting suppressed un-PC things out into the night and to the stars). Even ideas of appearance, of society-deemed ‘style’ and ‘cool.’ People wore what they wanted, whether it was practical and worn or looked good and well-kept, and it’s not so much that I’m surprised by any of these traits – I’m simply impressed.

These are the kinds of people who will survive if society collapses, and not only because of their practical skills and familiarity with the wilds, but for their sense of community – cliche as that might sound.

There isn’t much room for orcs in the cities; there are too many laws and constraints. One of my closest friends growing up could best be described this way; when last I saw him, years ago (after perhaps half a decade of not seeing him before that), he had become significantly more orcish. It was a lifestyle that diverged our paths back in the day, his on his, mine on mine; and while I don’t consider myself one of them – I’m not nearly physically strong enough and far too preoccupied with keeping my hat clean – I do feel a kinship with them. Common roots, perhaps, sprouting into different trees.

There are much worse things than considering one’s self a friend of orcs.

~~~

Today’s track is brought to you by the Elder Scrolls VI: Skyrim – “02 – Awake.” This bit isn’t so much meant to pertain to the orcs with whom I shared company, per say, but rather the gorgeous sunrise we witnessed at 4:30am the following morning from the cliff near which we camped. Yes, you could play as an orc in that game (kudos to them), but this short track makes for an excellent start to many things – the start of a game, yes, or the start of a novel, a day, or a new chapter in one’s life.

Experience: Cruise to Bermuda

IMG_20140507_111127Not long ago I returned home from a week-long cruise trip to Bermuda.

I’m here to tell you it was the experience of a lifetime.

A little backstory. I had been on a cruise only once before – several years ago – from Seattle to Alaska, and with family. That had been a truly eye-opening experience, for I discovered my love of travel on that trip. Since then, I’ve been to a variety of places, though not nearly enough. This recent foray into the Atlantic was spurred by a variety of fuels; there’s post break-up energy, there’s call to adventure energy, there’s the “well heck I found a deal that would be cheaper than a writer’s retreat” energy. Bermuda would be my first journey of any considerable distance, on my own.

I set out with the intention of relaxing, of spending many hours in my state room alone, scribbling away in my notebook, undistracted but for the sway of the ship and the occasional pang of hunger that would draw me to the buffet. What I got instead of a quiet, relaxed vacation was the makings of a full story arc packed into a week.

I experienced adventure, exotic locales, thrills, personal growth, self-discovery and yes, even romance.  Throw in a little moodiness and yearning at the beginning, mix in a little debilitating sickness after the first half, followed by a steady recovery – and we’ve got a bloody Hero’s Journey. There was a lot of experience to work with here. The writer’s mantra “I can use this,” rang true.

A white beach at which I got crisped most redly.

A white beach at which I got crisped.

The trip began with an air of depression – the way any rom-com might start – for like I said, I was traveling solo. I am the kind of bloke who finds himself most comfortable when sharing his experiences with a significant other. So on Day 2, our first day out on the open ocean, I swallowed whatever social anxieties I might have had and took part in events aboard the Norwegian Breakaway, meeting people who would completely change my entire trip. One or two of whom might have had a bigger impact on my life than they might realize.

I learned that being yourself really pays off, even when surrounded by people significantly more well-off than one’s self. I usually go about charming my way through life, inspired as I am by the likes of Odysseus, Locke Lamora, and other such silver-tongued individuals. Remaining uninhibited around strangers, whether they’re akin to me or not, attracts the best out of them.

I learned that my preferred means of dress – which includes a fedora and suspenders – can, in fact, attract people I am stammeringly attracted to.

I learned that going high speeds on a jet ski is how you’re supposed to do it – by cutting over the top of the waves.

I learned that I’m capable of jumping off said jet ski (while we weren’t moving), overcoming my distaste (fear?) of jellyfish (my mortal enemy) around me in deep water (my other mortal enemy) to “rescue” someone. [It was a safe situation, but I didn’t have to do what I did, and I surprised myself and the other person.]

I rediscovered my love of Trance music.

I learned that I love to dance, and don’t need alcohol to get on the dance floor anymore.

I learned that three consecutive (and relatively sleepless) nights of drinking and dancing is about the time when my body begins to rebel against me.

I learned all about Canada’s healthcare system (from a random couple on the road).

I learned that people can and do pay as much as $4000 for a 32 oz bottle of whiskey.

I learned that when you least expect it, there could be a monkey hanging right freaking behind you as you undress.

IMG_20140509_233257~2

This legit made me jump when I turned around in my room. It’s made out of towels, in case you can’t tell. Thanks, Ricardo.

But perhaps cheesiest and most hopelessly-romantic of all, I learned that there exist people in possession of traits you never thought real people had. Even if you, or they, aren’t ready for each other, just yet. It is a comforting feeling to learn that such people are not mythological, and are not merely a product of Another Head Full of Fantasy.

If I set out on a mission exclusively to write and fill up my notebooks with prose, then I failed.

But if I set out to experience life, meet people, gather and garner memories, then I succeeded.

Profoundly.

Bermuda sunset.

Bermuda sunset.

If there’s one thing I want you, dear readers, to take away from this, it’s that there is no substitute for experience. I know I get up on my proverbial soapbox about that a lot, but hey, better to lead by example.

If you’ve had any profound experiences – traveling or otherwise – that left your head spinning and your creative juices flowing, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

I’ll leave you today with a track from a recently discovered artist named Andrew Rayel who, as I learned over the course of the cruise, happens to be the protege of one my old favorites, Armin van Buuren. We’re talking serious Trance here.