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Both the right hand and the left

crayYesterday I was diving in a place of deep caves and cracks. Imagine: you are 30 feet down under the sea, with a hookah (which means you’re trailing a pipe to a compressor on the surface, and have a second stage regulator and mouthpiece in your mouth) and you part the kelp to reveal cracks and funnels below that. It is a shattered, eroded underwater boulder field, with rocks the size a 40 foot container to a suburban house, sometimes hollow underneath, and sometimes leading into the next crack. Not much current or wave action gets down here so there is a lot of fine silt.

It’s where the really big spiny lobster live, and it is for a mildly claustrophobic person like myself terrifying, as there is no room, and no light (the silt, stirred up makes it gloomy and confusing) I’ve had the reg-pipe connecter fail on me twice (that hopefully cannot happen again, there is now a locking device) and the mouthpiece come off twice. That will happen again. Now, if you know why you are suddenly breathing water, and you have space and, vision and the presence of mind, you can find your regulator, pull the (failed) retaining band off – easy, and shove the regulator back on the mouth-piece, and hold it there with your hand and breathe. You could even just shove the mouthpiece-less reg in your face, purse your lips and just suck.

Assuming… you know what is wrong, and can see and move freely enough to do this. These conditions are not typically met when you are down a narrow crack – which if you are going get out of – backwards is the only way. There is no room to bring your arms ‘down’ (which may be along or up) from above your head. Just bumping the regulator out of your mouth can be a deadly experience. My jaws always ache from holding onto it, after.

I call these cracks and caves forever holes – because they go on forever, and you could possibly be down there forever.

It’s what I do. One day I may push too hard and too far, and not come out. It will be terrifying, I will probably panic at the end, and I will die. But until then mostly it comes down to keeping your cool and an element of luck. It helps if you are fairly tough, phlegmatic and have been lucky enough not to die in a few incidents. But I always make sure I kiss my wife very thoroughly before I leave home.

I probably do this about 20-40 times a year, so it is still at the dry mouth stage of fear when I go into a particularly nasty hole. But we humans do adapt. And learn, if we have to, to use the left hand or the right or our toes. Or at least, if we wish to, we CAN adapt, and what was abnormal, can become so familiar, so comfortable that it becomes (no matter how weird/nasty/uncomfortable by the standards of others) something we consider normal. This is one of the reasons our species is so successful – because we have the mental equipment to fool ourselves. (And if you can’t see how this fits into writing fiction, which is about the suspension of disbelief, then I think we should do a species check.)

For me food is real stuff I have fought, struggled, bled, blistered my hands to bring home. Also sometimes had so much of, so easily, that it’s silly. Exercise is what you do making this happen. And that is my normal. Tony Daniel – who is a nice bloke at Baen was doing an interview with me – asked me to tell him about our – to him — rather odd lives. That we lived by shooting wallaby and fishing and growing most of our own veg and starches. He asked me to tell him about shooting wallaby. I think he expected a gung-ho hunting with a David Weber-esque calibers and ranges and special weapons… Instead of ‘I take my old .22, because it’s cheap to use, I put 5 rounds in the mag and walk out the back door and across the field until I find one.’ I do this as often as you go to the supermarket, and the process can take about as long and I find it as difficult and as entertaining as you do a trip to Walmart (if not in Demming). My tools, although accurate and looked after, are not toys and I don’t have money spend on them, or take them out and fiddle with them or fire them for fun. I don’t mind if you do, indeed, I am glad you’re having fun, but that’s normal working life for me. Weird is when people talk of guns like they were rabid dogs, or discuss desk treadmills, or new laptops or shared offices… But those are their normal, and indeed probably a far, far bigger group than mine. Of course they’re (you?) are all weird, I’m the normal one.

Which of course brings me round to books. Readers are substantially – as a matter of demographic spread – likely to think of desk treadmills as normal and not exotic, and living off the land – a norm for millions of readers… 200 years ago, as *exotic* where they’ll believe getting your dinner off the bush was a nerve-shattering adventure. And the reality is that is a fair chunk of fantasy (and occasional sf, but usually with more justification) ends up concerns itself with living off the land, often while traveling on ye quest, or worse, while trying to conquer/avoid being conquered by the Badguyz-r-us ™ (who used to be obligatory swarthy types or wily Orientals, infidels or communists or possibly Nazis, and are now obligatory white middle aged right-wing Christians, and possibly Nazis. What is this plausibility stuff of which you speak?) where they will in Diana Wynne Jones ‘Tough guide to Fantasyland’ live on stew ™ and drink beer.

Now I know – and some of you do – the realities of stew, and what pottage is, and a little bit about beer, and what a bastard it is transport on horseback in sufficient quantities to provide for hydration, and why wars were either quite geographically limited, or generally fought AFTER harvest but before winter made it too hard to (yes, they sometimes went on longer. But farming and producing an excess using medieval methods and knowledge and equipment meant leaving enough peasants in peace on the land to do it. And nobles who didn’t figure this out had to be successful at conquest every time, without disturbing the conquered peasantry too much (not happening) or suffer Darwinian consequences. Scorched earth worked, and was of course a very last resort – because it meant a Pyrrhic victory to those who lived off that land. I know these things and understand them in ways most readers wouldn’t.

But I am not writing for me. I’m writing for them.

It’s quite a challenge. So the next time someone tells you to ‘write about what you know’ … tell them that’s all very well, but what you have to do either write about what your audience knows, or will believe. And that is very much harder.

26 Comments
  1. I admire what you do. When I was younger (and faster, and had less trouble breathing with bad lungs) I desperately wanted to learn how to dive. But that description is terrifying. Growing up in Alaska my family hunted, fished, and gardened for most of our food, and once every three months drove a few hundred miles in a carefully planned and budgeted trip for that which we could not do without. When I saw fished, this was the interior, and my mother’s family had the use of a fish wheel for one day a year, during the run. I will never eat canned salmon again if I have other choices…

    As for writing and world-building, I attended a lecture for one of my classes this weekend, and it dawned on me that what I was listening to was great grist for the world-building mill (I blogged on it, it’s up today on my blog) because an obscure city-state polity is a turn-key approach to creating a society, based on one that did actually function for hundreds of years. It seems too many writers just write what they feel should work, on a societal/governmental level, and it’s so full of, well, carp, that it could swim off if dropped in the sea where it belongs. It might be more work to really research a functioning society, but I think the fictional world would be the better for it.

    November 18, 2013
    • Heh, When I met my wife she was entranced by the idea of lots of spiny lobster, coming from a family where this was a ‘special’ treat on a meal out, and she was taken aback to find that having grown up in a family divers, I’d just about rather eat sausages than spiny lobster. Waste-not-want-not is all very well, but too much of a good thing can change your perception of it!

      I tend to use history a lot for my societies 🙂

      November 18, 2013
      • It’s a great cheat. You know it works, because, well, it worked! And so few people are really aware of history that it will read as original to many, and those who do catch it, well, I think they call those reader ‘cookies.’

        I prefer mine chocolate chip, with a strong hint of cutural reality, not superimposing modern mores…

        November 18, 2013
  2. Thoughtful as always.

    I’m writing an epic fantasy right now, and reading this makes me think I need to nail down how the “normal” people out in the farms and forests live, but it’s something I’ll need to research then come back and layer in.

    November 18, 2013
    • The awkward thing is what we -and our readers – might find weird, they would find normal. But we’re writing for our readers.

      November 18, 2013
  3. Loved: “This is one of the reasons our species is so successful – because we have the mental equipment to fool ourselves.”

    Because you’re right: this is the same tool we use to fool readers. They come along willingly, and even add enormous amounts of what’s in their heads to fill out our few words and produce an entire mill town from a writer’s description of the clop-clop of the girls heading out early in the morning to their jobs at the looms (not my image – but I’ve never forgotten it).

    I don’t have the energy or the stamina to do what you do, but I love reading about it, and I admire the matter-of-fact way you talk about it: instead of the meat section in the grocery store, you go out and shoot a (cute only to people who don’t live with them) wallaby for dinner.

    November 18, 2013
    • Jim McCoy #

      Hey, I shoot deer and even _I_ think they’re cute. Of course, I also think the taste good roasted…

      November 18, 2013
      • Synova #

        I have this suspicion that there is something wrong with assessing a cute animal differently than an ugly one. Cows are adorable, too. And Bambi is tasty. Hunting food or raising livestock isn’t an emotional pass-time, it’s practicality.

        (Had an internet conversation with a fellow recently who had to couch eating meat as either him nobly visualizing the truth of a fish gasping for breath so he could eat it with his moral superiority intact, or else someone “getting their jollies” wringing a chicken neck… I had tried to explain that it’s not emotional, and his notion that if people had to do it themselves they’d all be vegetarian was an ahistorical fantasy.)

        November 18, 2013
        • I’m as soft as goose-grease about my animals. When they have to die, it’s quick and as painless as I can make it. And this twit has plainly no idea of the labor (and rather unpleasant labor, rather like changing diapers or holding a sick bucket or cleaning out a smelly fridge, where we turn our natural response off and do what has to be done) that goes into turning a fish or chicken or a deer into dinner. We won’t even go into my early attempts at cleaning and tenderizing abalone – I used to go out in the garden well away from the house, strip to budgie-smugglers, and do the smelly splattery process, so I could hose myself off before I came in to wash the last few bits out of my hair in the shower. We might mention that this was in the cool-to-cold evening, and inevitably with half a gale blowing. I was inevitably blue with cold before I had finished 10 abalone. I’ve refined this technique a little…

          November 18, 2013
          • Synova #

            I’m soft as goose-grease, too. So is my Dad. His carefulness when hunting to actually kill the animal with one shot was his soft heart speaking. I was raised to love our farm animals, because… it wasn’t ever really said, but the idea was… sort of… that it was cowardly not to. That we were going to eat this pig or that steer and had an extra obligation to care for it and not with-hold care from it just because of its ultimate purpose.

            November 18, 2013
            • Dan Lane #

              Not just the farm critters.

              Baby skunks, coyotes, and wild piglets are very cute. Kill them quick, before they ruin your farm and make you spend a long, hungry season (usually spring). Wild mint smells lovely. Rip those suckers out before they starve the vegetable garden. Whitetail deer are somewhat of a pretty protected species that tend to make a mess of things when they overbreed (around here, *we* are their top predator).

              I’m away from the farm and pleased to be so because I am, essentially, lazy. Self sufficiency and living off the land’s *work* around here (most places on the planet, come to think of it). “Smelly, spattery process” pretty much sums up what I can recall of butchering anything, but tasty fresh bacon and chicken was had from that mess.

              November 18, 2013
              • I’ve noticed NIMBY works really well with city folk who settle in the country and try either farming or self-sufficiency. Before they lived there and relied on that crop to pay the mortgage or feed the family, bambi was cute. When she’s eating your hard work and all you have to eat (and ignoring the grass she can eat and you can’t) suddenly even the bunny-hugging vegetarian is ready to kill. I’ve always felt that the answer would be to say to the inner city latte sipper who wants bambi protected to the nines… ‘fair enough. But every time Bambi visits me, I get to come to your place of work and destroy (with impunity) your last 6 months work, and you will get no pay for the next 6 – because that’s what you say I must accept.’ I foresee a million reasons why sauce for the goose won’t be sauce for the gander, suddenly.

                🙂 Nothing you have ever butchered or seen butchered compared to my early Abalone tenderizing. A 4 yard radius of the spot was un-inhabitable for weeks. 🙂 -Think of taking a piece 2 inch thick of old car tire (which has ichor in it) and pounding that until it is as tender as best fillet. I’ve learned a few tricks since then…

                November 18, 2013
                • Dan Lane #

                  Heh. I bow to your superior experience, and that’s what it is- we get wisdom from things that turn out like that (by which rights I should be wise by now, but I am sadly not even close).

                  My first experience of butchering was much like my mom’s. It was chickens. There’s reasons I eat chicken with relish. It’s what convinced me that the little beaky demons were truly mindless, because three acephalic poultry fled under the house, two got snatched by the cats and drug off somewheres unknown, and a fifth tried to take flight (and nearly succeeded). I was put off chicken killing for a while, until I could keep hold of them proper when chopping their heads off.

                  There’s also the tale of when my cousin hung the deer too low… That mess probably covered tens of square yards. Y’see, unbeknownst to the wild dogs/wolves roaming the region, the local residents dogs tended to run in packs late at night, too. *chuckle* Some happy dogs, some happy wild ones, bunch of dead scavengers of several species and they picked buckshot out of the parts the dogs hadn’t got for most of a day.

                  No venison steaks that year, so I hear. Just jerky. *chuckle*

                  November 18, 2013
      • And how many fantasy books have the deer shot and roasting without any of the intervening bits – gutting, skinning, hanging?

        November 18, 2013
        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

          Well Dave, there have been plenty of Fantasy Quests where none of the questors had to take a sh*t or take a leak. [Wink]

          November 18, 2013
          • ‘Tis true, Drak, but these take place off-stage. ‘Bombastibutt let fly the arrow and the great stag reared and fell. He carried it back to the camp and soon had it roasting over the fire. Moragsthrude and he put the tent and then they tucked into delicious tender roast venison…’ Which is onstage and um, has a few flaws… (but no walls or roof).

            November 18, 2013
            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

              Dave, my point is that even an author who knows about the “gory details” that are needed between killing the deer and roasting the deer might leave those details off-screen and even not mentioned for the same reasons that he might not mention every sh*t break needed on the trip.

              November 18, 2013
              • BobtheRegisterredFool #

                Outside of a trapped-in-a-MMORPG-world story, how likely is a single arrow to drop a large mammal on the spot?

                Secondly, it seems like it would be a good idea to field dress the carcass (not that I know that really is) before dragging the weight back to camp.

                Even if one overlooks things as a narrator, there are matters of time and work involved.

                Lastly, people generally have been learning their whole lives how to defecate. (Not that it isn’t still possible to mess that up.) Given how long there have been butchers in cities, that learning to do your own takes grip strength, that the animals and tools might not be cheap, and that often the heroes are young, there might be reasons that they could be unpracticed enough to be worth mentioning.

                November 18, 2013
                • 🙂 I set out to make it as implausible as possible. You can, if lucky, and using a very heavy arrow from a very heavy bow from a close range (a dropping shot (the technique used in massed combat, where an arrow is shot in a high arc, and gravity means it hits the target at high speed) is so unlikely to hit as to make that ridiculous) kill a large animal with one shot. It happens, but mostly even hitting the heart involves follow until it falls. Once again depend on skill/ luck that could be a long way. A ‘great stag’ of anything but one of the miniture deer like a muntjac is HEAVY – a red deer 350-500 pounds IIRC. Trust me kill and eat is not something you really want to do, and it won’t be tender, even if by some magic fire you could roast the dressed out animal in the time it takes to put up a tent. Usually the liver, (tender then and there, and doesn’t keep) or skewers of meat would be grilled possibly little bits fried if they have some kind of skillet.

                  November 19, 2013
    • While this isn’t really forum for this, I prefer shooting my own meat to buying it. I’m not a great shot or anything, but I’m competent, make sure my range is right, and I have a good. long, careful sighting, and, as I only aim for head shots, it’s either dead or it moved its head (down is the only direction possible), and isn’t even touched. We’re poor and I don’t like to waste a bullet and seldom do. And my butchering is up to my own standards. I figured out I shoot about a 100 a year, so it is pretty matter of fact :-).

      You’re right (and I’ve talked about it before and will again 🙂 The key to successful writing is making our readers access what is inside their heads, not ours.

      November 18, 2013
  4. masgramondou #

    There’s a reason I’ve never ever considered cave diving.

    But you do a good job of explaining the dangers and the fears of it, writing what you know in a way that regular people can understand (and in this case think you must be a raving loony 🙂 )

    November 18, 2013
    • _I_ even think I’m raving loony down there.

      November 18, 2013
  5. TXRed #

    Better you than me, Dave. Confined space + underwater = TXRed stays well away. I get teased because I’m almost the only water historian who avoids contact with water in the wild (I don’t fly fish, canoe, dive, kayak, or surf).

    I never cease to be impressed by the things we humans eat, and by the effort required to make some of those edible (manioc, most acorns come to mind). Which should carry over into fantasy/sci fi, but so rarely does.

    And I love the Tough Guide to Fantasyland. There’s a reason I have a character who loves thick wooly socks. 🙂

    November 18, 2013
    • You REALLY have to wonder what got anyone to try eating some of the things we eat – Hákarl comes to mind!

      I resemble that socks comment – so many years of cold feet I am quite obsessed with socks.

      November 18, 2013
      • Dan Lane #

        And a good pair of warm boots (or shoes) that don’t leak! Making a two-mile round trip in leaky boots is its own form of torture. Also, rather unhealthy, but so were a bloody lot of the things we did when I was a sprat and thought I could lick the world.

        Hint: some things were not as tasty as they looked. *chuckle*

        November 18, 2013
        • Heh. There have been a few ‘why-in-hell-bother’ meals gathered in my life. And yeah. If my feet are OKay, so is the rest of me. Looking into ‘sharkskin’ (wicking socks ) socks now. But they’re an evil price, and sadly not made of sharkskin (which is tough).

          November 18, 2013

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