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Writing Excuses 5.36: Non-traditional Settings with Saladin Ahmed

Writing Excuses 5.36: Non-traditional Settings with Saladin Ahmed


Key points: Non-traditional settings raise the learning curve for the reader. Splice familiar elements with unfamiliar to provide a familiar hook. Nontraditional settings take research! Look for the grand sweep of history and the little daily details of everyday life. (My suggestion -- think what it would be like to live there!) Focus on a specific country, area, or time. "The past is a foreign country." Take that seriously. Blend the familiar and the strange. Think about the learning curve of your reader, and adjust it. Use familiar situations to ease readers in. Be judicious with strange language ("Don't call a rabbit a smeerp." From the Turkey City Lexicon at Consider using something that you know better than anyone else, and build a nontraditional setting around that.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season... something...
[Howard] Season five, we don't know what episode this is yet.
[Brandon] Jordo will number it.
[Howard] Jordo will number this one for us.
[Brandon] We are recording live at Penguicon in the Detroit area. We are very, very pleased to have special guest Saladin Ahmed. Say hello.
[Saladin] Hello, everyone.
[Brandon] Dan's not here to do our tagline with us, so what do you want to do?
[Howard] You don't want to say not that smart, is that the issue? Because it's 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Brandon] And Howard's not very smart.
[Howard] That's what I expected to have happen. Saladin, tell us about yourself for a moment.
[Saladin] I am a fairly new fantasy writer. I've been lucky enough to be nominated for the Nebula and the Campbell for my short fiction. I have a novel, the first of a trilogy, coming out from DAW in February of next year which is a sort of epic fantasy spliced with Arabian Nights mythology.
[Brandon] Awesome. Thank you so much for being on the podcast with us.
[Saladin] Thanks for having me.

[Brandon] We asked Saladin what he wanted to talk about and he mentioned that something interesting to him is setting in fantasy. So we're going to do a setting podcast. We're just going to essentially pitch it at you. Why was this a topic that you're so interested in?
[Saladin] I think because I come from two different directions at it. One is that as a reader, I'm very used to very traditional settings in epic fantasy, and I love them, I love that familiar furniture. But I also, in my own work, am kind of trying to set things in slightly different worlds. I like reading work that plays with those expectations. We talked about Daniel Abraham a second ago and his Long Price Quartet. I love kind of seeing both sides of those things, how people use traditional settings in new ways, and also how people just explore new settings.
[Brandon] Cool. I really... we haven't actually done a nontraditional settings podcast, so this is going to be cool to talk about because... one of the things, when I became a writer, I was actually getting really kind of tired of the familiar archetypes. Honestly. I mean, I think this happens to us. I've been reading fantasy since I was 14. I love this genre. There is something I love about the standard fantasy setting, but you've got to admit it's kind of generic. I mean, it isn't even really medieval Europe. Martin's doing a real medieval Europe...
[Saladin] Exactly.
[Brandon] Most of fantasy is not. They're not even really trying. But why is it, do you think, like there have been nontraditional settings all along, and none of them really took off? Even Martin's is at least medieval Europe. Why did none of them take off?
[Saladin] Well, I think there is a tendency in the readership to want the familiar. I mean, I know part of why I come back again and again to epic fantasy is because I want familiar stuff there. I think that it can be very challenging for people if they have to kind of learn a whole new world... they know what a knight is, they know what a castle is, and so then you can mess with them from there. But if you have to learn what a Caliph is, then you're kind of doing a lot more work, and some readers won't go there with you.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's a good point. We've talked a lot on the podcast about learning curves.
[Howard] Yeah. Now, so when you say nontraditional settings, I look at the Mistborn trilogy as a nontraditional setting.
[Brandon] See, but my nontraditional... I'm one step away. Where I think we could be doing stuff that's three or four steps away. I mean, I wanted to write something nontraditional...
[Howard] Well, that's why I wanted to come over and ask you. When you say Caliph, are you treating the Middle Eastern, the far Eastern worlds as nontraditional settings by virtue of them not being Western? Because that, to me, if you've studied any history at all, those are just one step away.
[Saladin] Well, I think they're one step away an actual history, but in the genre, they're a couple of steps away.
[Brandon] Yeah. Okay. There a couple of steps away because... fantasy is really weird. Fantasy, it seems like... we had Tolkein. I've talked about this before. Tolkien came along, particularly epic fantasy, and Boom! Tolkien was huge. Tolkien was the JK Rowling or the Twilight of his day, with a massive, unexpected success story. Left everybody scrambling and saying, "What just happened? Where did this come from?" I think the next 20 years it was more of a scramble to kind of reproduce this magic. But during that act of reproducing this magic, we came to expect that this was the way it was going to be done. Which isn't the fault of the writers or even of the audience, it's just what ended up happening. I think we fell into it almost by accident, so that became...
[Howard] Part of what Tolkein was trying to do was say, "You know, it would be fun to have a mythology behind Western civilization that is not the Greco-Roman Judeo Christian mythology. Let's do something that puts the fay into it." So he wrote fantasy that feels like medieval stuff. The rest of us read it and loved it and assumed, "Oh, well, that's just how it's done."
[Brandon] Yep. Yeah, I really think that happened. But it doesn't have to be. I mean, fantasy should be in a genre where you can do anything. It should be the most open genre, not the most exclusive genre.

[Howard] So what do we do to break out of that?
[Brandon] So what do we do to break out of it, Saladin?
[Saladin] Well, what I'm trying to do in my work, because I do want those readers that like me at 15 and 16 and then well into the 20s and 30s wanted this familiarity, is trying to splice familiar elements from the genre into a quote unquote exotic setting. So I have the virtuous unbending paladin. I have the kind of cranky old wizard. I have these archetypes, but the clothing they wear, and the titles they go by, and the buildings around them, and the foods they eat, and all of those things are going to be unfamiliar to many readers. I hope that there will be enough of a familiar hook in there that people will say, "Oh, I know that guy, but he's different."
[Howard] So the touchstones are in the characters, in the people, rather than in the setting. I'm fine with that. I don't see why anybody would have a problem with it.
[Brandon] Yeah. It should really work. We're seeing it work more and more. I think the fantasy genre is still a young genre. I think a lot of what we're seeing are some of its growing pains. Where we got kind of familiar to one thing, but then we realized we're reading this genre because of the imagination to it. If things become too familiar for us, we lose that imaginative aspect. We want to go explore new worlds and new places.

[Howard] I want some gritty details. You threw Caliph at us as a term. Throw me some terms from your work, Saladin. I want to hear this...
[Saladin] Well, it's interesting because on the one hand, I call it an Arabian Nights setting, but it's a secondary world. It's a made-up world. I... for a bunch of reasons, I didn't want to try and do genuine, historical, medieval Islamic world. So much the way that most fantasy worlds are sort of versions of medieval Europe without actually being medieval Europe, mine is a version of the medieval Middle East without actually being the medieval Middle East. So there are ghouls there, but they're a little bit different than the ghouls that are actually in Arabic legend. There are Djinn there, but they're a little bit different. So there are elements that got tweaked a little bit, but people will know kind of what I'm winking at, I think, when they read it.
[Brandon] Okay. Do you have magic in it?
[Saladin] There is magic in there.
[Brandon] Are you blending the magic into the myth... into the specific... I mean, where's the magic coming from?
[Saladin] it's going a little against the current grain in that it's a pretty high magic series. I know the tendency now, especially people following Martin whose books I love to death, and who does the low magic very well, but is to show very little magic. Because the idea is that you can have overkill.
[Brandon] High-five me! High-five me! High magic!
[Howard] I don't even know what that means.
[Saladin] It just means that there's magic all over the place, it's not a little trickle here and there, but it's a...
[Howard] Ah. It's not high versus low as in royal versus peasant, it's high versus low in terms of amount.
[Saladin] Yes. Exactly.
[Howard] Learned something.
[Brandon] We have a really dumb phrases [garbled] like high fantasy. It's just a fantasy with a lot of magic. There is this low fantasy... low magic trend nowadays and there are lots of great books being written that way. But I'm a high magic writer. I love magic. I want to play with it. I want to use it.

[Brandon] Anyway, let's actually stop for our book of the week right now. Saladin, will you actually promo this book for us?
[Saladin] Yeah, well, one of the best fantasies I've read in the last year or so has been N. K. Jemison's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first book of her Inheritance trilogy. It's gotten all sorts of attention. Nominated for the Nebula, nominated for the Hugo. It's a great book because it kind of in some ways uses some traditional settings and in some ways tweaks them, and is also very much about political power in a way that I think a lot of fantasy series avoid.
[Howard] Okay. You can get N. K. Jemison's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Inheritance Trilogy Book 1 at Go out to for a free trial membership. You can get the book for free, and any number of other books. Thanks for plugging that for us.

[Brandon] All right. So let's get crunchy. Let's give advice to the writers. Let's say that people are listening to the podcast, and they want to do a nontraditional setting. They don't want to have the same generic medieval Europe that has been used all the time. What advice can we give them? How do you come up with a new setting?
[Saladin] Well, obviously, an intense amount of research. I mean, I've been reading about the medieval Middle East since I was a kid, and I still felt like I had to read tons and tons of books. There's a great series actually called Daily Life in... It does a whole bunch of different historical settings... historical and geographic settings. I love that series. But books like that, that not only talk about the kind of big broad sweep of history in a place, but also what did people eat, what did they make their buildings out of, how did they pray if they prayed... all those sorts of things. I think...
[Brandon] I'm familiar with that series, and it's a very wonderful series. I actually have one of them. I might make a suggestion here also. We talk about nontraditional settings, and one of the ways to write one of  these is to pick an Earth analogy. A world or... not a world, a country or a time period and say, "I'm going to do this instead." That's a great way to do it. I've read actually some really good Asian fantasies taking place... let's say in a faux medieval Japan or a faux... I mean, Guy Devereux (sp?) is a genius at this sort of thing.
[Saladin] Yeah. Definitely.
[Brandon] He makes nontraditional settings by even using Europe. He'll be like, "Well, I'm going to take France and use it." It feels fresh because it's... the problem with generic bland medieval Europe fantasy is that it is generic bland medieval Europe. If you're actually building a living, breathing setting, it's going to be more... have more life to it than that.
[Saladin] I think that you bring up George Martin is a great example. Because most of... or a great deal of kind of quasi-European fantasy is really set in kind of a D&D, Tolkien land. If you actually read a medieval text, for instance, the way that religion was so central to people's lives. It drops out of so many of these fantasy setting, the way that kind of social class was so important to so many people's lives drops out. So I think that absolutely a fantasy that really treats medieval... there is the quote that the past is a foreign country. I think that a fantasy that takes that seriously can make any setting unfamiliar in interesting ways.
[Brandon] Yeah. Exactly.
[Howard] Wait. If the past is a foreign country, and you're talking about the past in a foreign... is there like two levels of foreign country there? Is that why we have a problem with this?
[Saladin] There is.
[Brandon] Well, it's learning curve. I think Saladin said it well at the beginning, where... when we're writing, we're trying to blend the familiar and strange. This is what books are about. We go back to genres because we want to get some of the same familiar feelings, but we pick new books rather than reading the same book over and over again because we want to have some strange. Everyone's kind of desire... and every genre's sort of feel for familiar and strange blends is going to be different. If you go to the romance genre, a lot of the subgenres in romance are going to have much less of a strange and much more of the familiar. This is what we're getting at. How much learning curve do you want? How much does a reader have to get into, when starting? But I think you can mitigate these things in a lot of ways. If you're worried about your learning curve with a very nontraditional setting, you can ease the reader in without throwing as many new terms at them. Or by having a character in a familiar situation. Regardless of what culture and what part of the world and what time you're doing, if it's a father speaking to his son about growing up, then that's a familiar setting. You can start somewhere familiar.

[Saladin] I think language is naturally an important thing with this. When I did a first draft of my novel, I used a lot of kind of quasi-Arabic terms for a lot of things. I realized that, okay, this doesn't need to be a zulfikar, it can just be a sword. It doesn't need to be some tweaking of Allah, it can just be God. I think that there is a fetishization of weird language in a lot of fantasy, and I think as little of that as possible...
[Howard] And science fiction.
[Saladin] Yeah, and science fiction.
[Brandon] Some of that's going to give you that feel that you want.
[Saladin] Yeah, but you need to be judicious with it.
[Brandon] Yeah. Too much, and it's very easy to have too much...
[Howard] Do you ever go into those... what was that sword word again?
[Saladin] Zulfikar.
[Howard] Zulfikar. Do you ever go into words like zulfikar, if you've decided not to use it to say sword every time you're saying sword, do you ever grab that word to use for a spell or form magic in order to add flavor to that?
[Saladin] No. What I actually tried to do, the magic system in my book is actually kind of faith based. Essentially, a lot of the incantations are versions of prayers, or versions of names of God. Because in Islam, God has all of these different titles. What I found was actually just using the diction, kind of translating the diction from Arabic to English sounds strange enough that it has this arcane archaic kind of magical syntax to it. So it doesn't sound like when you're speaking normal English.
[Howard] And you didn't have to use Latin.
[Saladin] I did not have to use Latin.

[Brandon] I'm going to throw one little other thing in here, at the end. Writing advice wise. We're talking about these nontraditional settings by focusing on different regions or ethnic groups or whatnot. But that's not the only way to do it. I'll say to you listeners, most of you, probably all of you, are really familiar with something that other people are not. Whether it is you grew up shearing sheep, or you grew up, your parents were bookbinders or something like this. You can take some really simple things like that, and build an entire setting around it. You can have your nontraditional setting... your parents are bookbinders. You can be in the great city, or the great kingdom of bookbinders, and you can have a bookbinders society, you can have bookbinder magic. You can build off of some really simple things, you can build an entire culture out of it, if you work it into their history, their language, what the person is doing, and you can have a unique setting going that way.
[Saladin] I think it's interesting when you talk to... I've talked to a number of beginning writers that when I look at their work, it feels fairly generic. Then you get to talking to people about their lives, and they have these fascinating biographies, because everybody's story is different. It's like, "Why aren't you putting the fact that you were raised on three different communes..." or "you grew up shearing sheep..." why is there none of that in...
[Howard] How did that not make it into your book?
[Brandon] I had a friend who married a woman from Slovakia, lived in Slovakia for many years, had learned the Slovakian language, who for some reason never thought, "Heh, I could write a really unique Slovakian themed fantasy." He did write one eventually. We talked about it, and he sold it. Because it was a nontraditional setting. Book's coming out in another year or so. It was really interesting. It was something he had an expertise on already. Your have to go out and read 100 books. It's good if you pick something and then read something on it, but you can pick something that you're already familiar with, and build off that.

[Howard] Well, Saladin, I think we may need to put you on the spot here to take us home. One of the things we do for our readers... our listeners, excuse me, is we give them a writing prompt. Often it's related to the cast. But sometimes when the guest has been put sufficiently on the spot, it's just nonsense syllables. So, Saladin, writing prompt?
[Saladin] Writing prompt. Describe a food that is familiar to you from the point of view of a character who has never encountered it or anything like it before.
[Brandon] Wow. That could be really good.
[Howard] That's way better than the nonsense syllables we sometimes get.
[Brandon] Mac and cheese from someone who's never eaten it. All right. You can find Saladin's work at his website. Ahmed is spelled A-H-M-E-D. Saladin is spelled S-A-L-A-D-I-N.
[Brandon] Dot com. There are some short stories up there that people can read for free. His book is coming out next year from DAW. Thank you very much. Thank you for listening. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: familiar, language, learning curve, nontraditional settings, research, settings, unfamiliar
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