Underlying the story

Look at a hill. A gorge. A plain.  You see… let me guess, a hill, a gorge, or a plain, depending on which one you happen to look at. Unless, that is, there are further features… like, for example, forest.  Then you see… the forest, possibly with hints of what lies under that cloak — if you happen to be high enough to look at the trees from above. Otherwise, you see trees.  Trust me on this, I have been searching for lost people in dense forest. What looks fairly level from the outside may be full of hidden structures.  Or a heavy mist… The hill sticks out (if you’re high enough to see it) but the plain and the gorge vanish. You find the gorge by falling into it.

But even if you strip the cloaks away, what you see… is superficiality.  Some of us are quite content with that.  There are the audiences who are happy with that. They exist, the mainstream media exists because they exist. So do some successful authors.  The cognitive dissonance of a hill or a gorge in the middle of a vast plain never occur to them. Now there are reasons, possible, for both. To those of us who like it to make some kind of sense, some grasp of that reason has to be there, or well, we’re not going to believe it. And if a reader (or viewer) suspends disbelief, they begin to nitpick as to why they have done so.  Tryingly, they don’t just stick to whatever popped that bubble of belief in the first place, but pick on everything. Your narrative, for them anyway, is toast. Nothing really survives that sort of scrutiny.  Perhaps someone needs to explain this to CNN’s board when they ask why audiences are declining steadily.

Let’s face it, any work of fiction (so that often includes ‘news’ these days), is… duh… fiction.  The metaphorical ‘hills, plains and gorges’ are there because we want them to be, for purposes of our story, not necessarily because of the underlying ‘geomorphology’.  Of course many a smart author has ‘borrowed’ from the real world existing ‘geomorphology’ and merely added plausible small fictions… or even large fictions.

Because here’s the thing, that hill, gorge, or plain exist plausibly as features of the underlying strata.  Sometimes even the geologist is going to look at them in puzzlement, but enough cores, examining the surrounding countryside and experience, explains why they’re there (if they’re real, that is. Or if you want me not to suspend my disbelief).  Of course… that’s farce-about-ace to what geologists really do with surface features. They’re using them to tell them that hidden story.  That, unsurprisingly, is what many authors do too: in fact with both reinforcing each other.  The problem of course is when your surface feature (or story) makes no sense to its setting.  You have a Silbury Hill sitting on chalk plain.  Now Silbury Hill is explainable enough. People piled up a lot of dirt.  We have no idea why or who made the Neolithic people perform a truly astounding amount of labor.  But no one looking at Silbury Hill just thinks it an ordinary hill.

In story terms, this is typically a feature of someone writing about something they know nothing about, except perhaps some stereotypes that they want to believe – the equivalent of ‘all of Africa is full of cannibals, whose favorite meal is boiled missionary’. Might have worked in 1880 in Europe, but is not going to be believed by many Africans (Cannibalism, in South Africa, anyway, possibly did occur… in extremely rare instances. It is regarded as utter depravity and with horror by both the Zulu and Sotho).

Now: sometimes the author WANTS a Silbury Hill.  Something the reader knows automatically isn’t congruent with what they’d expect – and as often as not, the story is about how/why that got there. The character is black in 122AD Northern England… if it doesn’t throw you out of story you might get to reading about a Legionary from Nubia or even Ethiopia who had found his way there. If the author is being a PC ass who wants the obligatory black hero without the context of the Roman Empire… there goes your suspension of disbelief. It is very important to work these things in carefully, establishing underlying substructure (at least in foreshadowing) before you do this.

But really, books that stick with me, anyway, are not just books that tell a story – that is vital – but books that let you look into the underlying ‘story’ keep you thinking about them, remembering them for ages. Books where it’s a little more than ‘Character X is in a situation Y and does Z.’  might (or not) be entertaining. But the book where I find myself carried with the story have Character X is who he is because of ABC. In situation Y the effects of ABC in situation Y make him choose to do Z. Of course if your Character X is a missionary-eating black cannibal (or whatever stereotype that I know to massively unlikely) I’m never going to read as far as Z.

Make your under-layer feel real. Use reality if possible. If you’re writing a neurotic cat woman,  work out (plausibly for your audience) why she’s like that. She doesn’t just exist in vacuum.  Show foreshadowing and hints of it, if it is not going to be a hill where you expect a hill to be.  You don’t have to show me entire backstory (you need to know that to make her behave consistently, but I only need know it exists and keeps the behavior to plausible pattern),

Image by Dja12345 from Pixabay

19 comments

  1. If you put a black Legionnaire in Britain, PLEASE remember that the inhabitants of Africa north of the Sahara aren’t that color. All the writers would declare that Ethiopians were black — not the other countries.

    1. From my understanding the Numidians were lighter-skinned than sub-Saharans, but still brown. By today’s increasingly sloppy language usage, they’d be lumped in as “black”.

      1. And PLEASE remember that the Romans would have looked blank if you referred to obviously brown people as black — black was a color, not a race.

  2. I see a suspiciously symmetrical mound. Man-made, volcanic, or a frost-heave photographed to make it look larger than it is? [Studies surrounding land] Not a volcanic outlier, but man-made, with possible structural remains on top. I’d guess (if Europe) Bronze or Iron Age. North America – Mississippian/Cahokia.

    OK, Now to read the article.

    1. Bummer – off by several thousand years. 🙂 If you want to “fall into” a gorge, I can recommend two, although in the case of the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, NM (USA), the mountains around it are a big geologic “tell.” The Canadian River Goosenecks (east of the mountains) are a bit more of a surprise to the unwary.

    2. One reason why the Mounds of the Mound Builders drew so many theories was that they were obviously built and yet the tribes in the area derided the notion they were built. (Turns out that epidemics can cause ENORMOUS collapses.)

      1. IIRC the “Fun” part about the “mystery” of the Mound Builders is that Spanish explorers had met the Mound Builders before their fall.

        Apparently, nobody thought to research the reports of the Spanish explorers. 😀

  3. Of course when you are in the forest surrounded by large trees you can’t see the large mountains, gorges etc.

  4. If somebody says to that Black in 122AD Northern England “You’re not from around here” and the Black replies “Racist”, then that book is garbage. 😦

    1. Modern ideas about race are modern.

      Historically, people in populations had opinions about neighboring populations, who their own populations had warred with for some time.

      Aggregating populations into races requires both contact with a lot of populations, and ideas about systematizing understanding. For /racism/ to be a thing, you need the exposure to a lot of populations, and widespread but poorly understood systematizing tools so that people make that mistake, and some know it is a mistake.

      If you want racism to be plausible, you need the world building assumptions. And with historical fiction, one is stuck with a lot of the world building decisions being made.

      1. The very concept of Race is modern.

        What’s old is Tribalism. IE These people are of my tribe and those people aren’t my tribe. Most of “not my tribe” would resemble (skin color, hair color, etc) my tribe.

        To a “native” of Northern Britain, the fear/dislike/hatred would be more toward “that tribe that lives on the other side of the river” than for anybody else.

        I seem to remember that when the Romans came to Britain, they had British allies and many of the British tribes weren’t worried about the Romans until the Roman armies marched into their territory.

        1. “They came for the Yorkies (Yorkshirians?), but I said nothing because I wasn’t in York” is hardly a new phenomenon – nor an obsolete one. Of course, without modern communications, York could be a well-established Roman province before one even heard that the Roman’s were on the island.

      2. Witness that a 20th century writer singing the praises of the Germanic race will contrast them to the dreamy Celt or the fatalistic Slav as the writer is English or German

  5. I looked at the picture first and my first thought was an army of men with shovels and wheelbarrows. No idea where or when but that hill did not look natural. After that, I wouldn’t be able to say anything. So that’s Silbury Hill? Gracious. That’s a ton of earth-moving.
    My second thought was where did the dirt come from.

    This is a reminder that history and people moving around across entire continents are far stranger than we “moderns” like to admit.

  6. was reading a series that started okay, though I had a bit of work to ignore the author’s lake of firearms experience (your likelihood of killing hippo or elephant sized beasts with a single .308 winchester round is quite low, more so for someone who is not a regular shooter, then similarly large critters are taken down by mil-spec 5.56×43, though they got needing more rounds correct, still not on point), then they went with riding motorcycles. new riders on Brit Police bikes are not going to ride off road at high speed . . . or for many, low speed, nor are small women likely to push one off road, certainly not for extended distances. See, even the lighter model the Brits use for police work are nearing 700lbs/315kg and if you are pusing one through a forest path it best be wide, paved, and level, preferably slightly downhill all the way.
    Boink. Fell right out of that storyline, there then suddenly whole companies of Brit Military (in armored vehicles, no less) are being enslaved by civilians. Would have been a Kapow of book meets wall, but it was a kindle so . . .

  7. Silbury Hill reminds me of nothing so much as it does the various artificial mounds built by what was called the Cahokia culture. Laboriously hand-built mounds and city complexes – and all built by a long-vanished culture.

    As for carefully building a world – I had enormous fun in constructing the past history and historically-influential people who formed Luna City. In my head, it is all very real – and the current goings-on are just the frosting on the cake, as it were.
    One of my past hobbies was building scale modal miniatures – shadow-boxes and entire buildings, all in 12 inch, or half-inch scale, and it turns out that this is a useful practice for visualizing a space or a large/small world. You build it logically in your head, and then you can ‘see’ it, and describe what you are seeing as part of the narrative.

  8. I see Dave has been channeling the Hugo award noms. There’s a Librarians fanfic been nominated, complete with horses that operate like cars which can be parked and forgotten about until later.

    For myself, I try to accommodate the incidentals of reality. For example, is a horse really going to let the werewolf sit on its back? I’m thinking no. She’s going to be walking. Probably walking far from the group with the horses, or they’re going to panic. (Can a werewolf outrun a horse? Yes, but because she’s half human, not because she’s half wolf. Do werewolves smell bad? Yes, because human sweat and lots of fur to soak it up.)

    Or, will it be possible for a medieval deer poacher to construct a hide that evades detection from the sensors of a super-science battle suit? Yes! Until it is right on top of the guy. Because deer see in infrared so he’s used to that, and the suit is bouncing around so it won’t have a nice stable imaging platform for radar etc. to see still objects.

    For landscapes I like Google Earth. Having never been to the Tigris river myself, I used Google to find a nice ancient ruined city in the desert next to the river. Streetview lets you see that it looks like a gravel quarry at ground level, satellite shows that the houses and streets are visible from altitude.

    Also that there are some big rain gullies and dry gulches going down to the river, perfect for a giant tank to jump over and yell “YEEEE haw!” when she airs out her tracks. After that, the allusions to Hazard Creek are almost inevitable. ~:D

    1. I love google street view – because I can “look” at places that I visited once and refresh my memory of them, and I can also “look” at places I have never visited personally, but for plot necessity, must write about.

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