Sunday, May 22, 2016

Come see me this weekend at BayCon!

This is going to be a really awesome BayCon - I love my panel schedule, and I hope you can come be a part of it. Non-western mythology, swearing!!! and linguistics for the storyteller with Lawrence Schoen. We're going to have a great time.

Remember, this year the convention is at the San Mateo Marriott!

Here's my schedule:

Autograph Session: Csernica and Wade

Saturday 14:00 - 15:00, Convene Lobby (San Mateo Marriott)
Juliette Wade, Lillian Csernica

Beyond Olympus and Asgard: Myth and Storytelling outside the Western Canon

Sunday 11:30 - 13:00, Collaborate 2 (San Mateo Marriott)
Lance Moore Mr., Heidi Stauffer, Bret Sweet, Juliette Wade, Thaddeus Howze

Frakking Piece of Shaz-Bat

Sunday 13:00 - 14:30, Collaborate 2 (San Mateo Marriott)
Are made up swears and slurs acceptable in speculative fiction, or are they just a form of slipping crude language into stories without offending readers?
Jacob Fisk (M), Carrie Sessarego, Juliette Wade, John O'Halloran

Linguistics for the storyteller

Sunday 17:30 - 19:00, Engage (San Mateo Marriott)

Juliette Wade (M), Lawrence Schoen (Language GOH)


Friday, May 20, 2016

Pat MacEwen - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

We had a great visit with author Pat MacEwen. She was here to talk to us about her story in the May/June issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, entitled Coyote Song - and about her expertise in forensics, which features in the story.

Pat says it's an advantage to writers to have a "checkered career," as she was originally going to be "Jacques-Yvette Cousteau," i.e. a marine biologist. However, life took her in other directions. She says she likes having a background in anthropology. She feels that a lot of anthropology people are "misfits much like science fiction and fantasy fans," with a "taste for the Other."

She told us that the three steps to forensics are, 1. learning how to see what's there, 2. figuring out how that got that way, and 3. proving it.

In crime scenes, you see what you expect. You have to train your eye to look for things, such as shell casings. In fact, if you bring a shell casing with you, drop it on the ground and train your eye on it, thereafter you will have an easier time seeing others. Also it's important to figure out what is normal. There is such a variety of people, we can't necessarily predict what will be normal to them.

Pat's first novel is called Rough Magic and involves the fae and forensics.

She's also spent a lot of time working on archaeological sites, including mass graves in northern Iraq. She doesn't like getting shot at. She told us that no one will sell Zimbabwe paper to make money because they had 3 million percent inflation. This crisis contributed to genocidal tendencies.

Pat describes economics as the basis of all the stuff going on in the world. We should keep our eye on "love, lust, liquor and lucre."

Coyote Song was a story written on the basis of stories she picked up at crime scenes. It involves the Cambodian Angel of Death, as well as a Native American character and a character with ties to Vodou. Pat is very interested in unusual, culture-specific phenomena like Banginget, where Cambodian people in their late 20's to early 30's wake up, scream and die in the middle of the night. Maybe it's genetic; maybe it's a nightmare leading to tachycardia. The families of the victims would hide the bodies because they didn't want them to be cut up, and to CA police it would then look like a homicide.

So Pat does lots of research, files the serial numbers off people she's met, and creates totally unique stories. She has a deep interest in Native American culture because she has a mixture of ancestors from Cherokee, Sioux, Oneida, and Onondaga peoples. She is very interested in cases like the California Miwoks trying to repatriate bones which have been held in museums. When she works with Native American culture she asks people to read the story to see if she's "out of line."

She says that Stockton, where she lives, is very cosmopolitan. People speak 125 languages and dialects there, and it is home to the oldest Sikh temple in the US.

When I told her that there was a great deal of practicality in her stories, she explained that her mother had cerebral palsy, so practicality was critical. Furthermore, in crime scenes, you have to adjust to them, not the other way around. "You can't apply time management to crime scenes." Practically, you can't do everything. There will be a mistake. 95% of what you do won't matter and isn't relevant in court, so you hope your mistake is in the 95%. She has done things like stop by a local hardwarestore to pick up metal screen to help the plaster hold together when she was taking footprints in soft dirt under a bridge.

[content warning on this paragraph]
Pat says nobody does what you see on TV. No one is actually on the cutting edge. Techniques have to be proven in court, and they also involve considerable expense, so they have to be worth the expense. There have been problems with the FBI, such as the hair analysis issue. However, the FBI can also do amazing things like fingerprint ID. Apparently they have an office for detached fingers and hands; local departments can cut pieces off with pruning shears and send those pieces to the FBI where they can be treated with dyes etc. to get fingerprints that wouldn't be recoverable locally. DNA can now be extracted from hair - they use the mitochondrial DNA present in the hair shaft. She told us a story about how the police had been authorized to get a hair sample from a rape suspect (not from the head) and the police had to be pretty forceful to get it (ripping out a handful!).

I asked Pat about archaeological digs and how much we can get with certain types of technology, and how sometimes things get left untouched in anticipation of technological advances that won't destroy the evidence. She told us that there was a period of war in 500 AD when suddenly they started finding arrowheads stuck in bones instead of spearheads. Even if you have no pueblos and no maize, the style of shells, tools, and bird whistles change over time. You can have sudden changes in war technology. The use of an atlatl (spear thrower) actually changes your skeleton. The use of a bow changes it in a different way. She has done work examining skulls and seeing how biologically different they are between one tribal group and another.

She once went to Kosovo to do some work. She was told not to learn the language because simply speaking a local language might commit a person to one side or the other of local conflicts between Albanians and Serbians. The word "pivo" for beer could get you in trouble because it was in fact a Serbian brand of beer. Pat said she drank Turkish beer while she was there. She told us that because the area was Muslim, there were minarets, and calls to prayer at 5am. Also, dogs in the area had gone feral and would run through the town during the night like the Wild Hunt. They would also attack children.

We returned again to the question of what is normal, this time in the context of medical treatments. In some cultures, heated cups are placed on the back for the flu. To California police this can look like child abuse. Pat said they made an effort to tell people that the cups wouldn't pull bronchitis out through the skin.

Deborah, one of our discussants, told us there are times when conventional wisdom doesn't work, as when you are foraging for mushrooms. Apparently there is a mushroom considered a delicacy in Vietnam, that looks a lot like a poisonous mushroom that grows in California. Pat told us that ammonita will kill your liver. She also said that in Italy, pharmacists are trained in mycology so that they can help people tell what they will be able to eat and what might be dangerous.

"It's called a liver for a reason; you don't live without it."

Pat said her grandmother was Cherokee, and they did a lot of berry and mushroom gathering, particularly morel mushrooms. She said that there are two varieties of katniss, one of which is deadly. You have to watch out for these slight variants in wild species which may make them totally inappropriate for consumption. There are also things like red tides which make foods poisonous. Pat says if a berry is blue or black, it's probably safe; if it's red, it's 50/50, and if it's white, don't eat it under any circumstances.

Pat considers Coyote Song the first part of a series. The second story is now in edits, but she has at least two more in mind. The first has Cambodian culture, the second has magic with insects, the third has Santeria, and the fourth may have golden Buddha babies.

This was a great discussion and ranged all over, sometimes too quickly for me to keep up with notes. I recommend that you watch the video for more.

Pat, thank you for joining us and sharing your amazing expertise! Next week we will meet on Wednesday, May 25th at 10am. I'm checking into the technical issues that scuttled the hangout this week, but planning to be there to talk about Bathrooms. I hope you will join us!


Monday, May 16, 2016

Seasons - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

We had a great chat about seasons, which in my head came with a secret soundtrack of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. I started by mentioning how when my Australian husband moved to California, I told him that it doesn't rain during the summer, and about how halfway through the summer he said to me, "You meant it doesn't rain in the summer." Coming from his cultural and climate context, he'd thought I meant it doesn't rain much in the summer.

Che told us she's lived in Montana where they have all four seasons, piles of color-changing leaves in the fall and snow in the winter. When she moved to California, though, she realized there were two: hot, and not hot. Some would of course say that there is the rainy season and the dry season in our are.

Brian said that you have to be at a temperate 40-50 degree latitude to get four seasons. The equator and the poles have no seasons. At the pole, there might be sun at midnight but it is still cold. Four seasons were not a European invention, but the concept comes from the latitudes that experience it, which means fictional worlds may or may not have seasons in the same way.

In ancient Egypt, seasons were defined by the floods of the Nile. In the Middle East, seasons were based on what was coming down the river (which implied what season it was in a different place!).

Seasons are usually based on agricultural expectations and the need to be able to predict those year by year. The Vikings had to make sure they had lots of food stored up because it was impossible to produce any during the winter; they could only eat stored food and fresh fish.

In Japan, they define four distinct seasons. The seasons are extremely important to the culture of Japan, and have deep literary associations. Personal letters in Japan generally start with some kind of comment on the season. There are also smaller-scale seasons defined by the period of time when some festival is going on, like the Gion festival season in Kyoto.

Seasons were a problem in Australia because they were reversed by the southern hemisphere location, but people from England still tried to run their agriculture the same way. This did not end well.

I mentioned my visit to an Australian aboriginal cultural center over Christmas break. One of the things they discussed there was how the local people had organized their seasons. In fact, they recognized six distinct seasons based on what kind of natural phenomena were occurring. There was the season of eels, and the season of bees, etc.

You really don't have to feel restricted by the standard definitions of the four seasons!

We also spoke about N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season. In the world in this book, geologic disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, etc.) happen so frequently that any strange period of disaster caused by the earth is called a "fifth season." The people in this world talk about how many seasons old they are.

How often do people talk about the seasons? Maybe not at all, or maybe a lot, depending on the significance of the changes of season and how they affect the lives of the characters living in that world. If the season is having a major effect on a character, such as a character who is stumbling through the snow in winter and trying not to die, it's definitely worth mentioning that! On a space station, the idea of season may be entirely irrelevant (unless it affects imports). In my Varin world, the cities are underground, so most people have very little idea of the season; however, the farmers and firefighters and others who work on the surface most definitely have to keep track of the season in order to stay safe.

If you are inventing new types of animals for your world, it's a really good idea to consider how their lives will interact with the seasons. You may also have something similar to the 17-year-cicada season, or a season of madness or heat for some creature. I mentioned The Madness Season by C.S. Friedman.

Brian Stableford's Critical Threshold deals with seasons, involving a mating dance of butterflies that has psychoactive effects, and influences human culture on the planet.

Brian Aldiss' Heliconia Spring, Heliconia Summer, and Heliconia Winter interact differently with seasons, in that the seasons may each last hundreds of years. And who could forget George R.R. Martin and "Winter is coming?"

If you are maintaining an awareness of your planet as a planet, it's a good idea to know the basics of orbital patterns and axial tilt, as well as spin direction, because those can affect how your seasons work.

Thank you to everyone who joined us for the discussion! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet one day later than usual, on Thursday, May 19th at 10am Pacific. We will be talking about Bathrooms, so that should be... interesting. I hope you can join us!


Monday, May 2, 2016

Schedule for this week - Hangout on Thursday!

I've had an appointment come up that I can only schedule for Wednesday this week. Therefore, the hangout on Seasons will be moved to Thursday, May 5th at 10am Pacific on Google Hangouts.

I hope to see you there!


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Randy Henderson and Finn Fancy - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

It was delightful to have Randy Henderson join us to talk about the world of Finn Fancy, despite the technical difficulties we had getting the hangout properly started.

I asked him about the series, and he told us that there were now two books out: Finn Fancy Necromancy, and the most recent release, Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free. The third is with his editor, so that means there's more Finn Fancy to come!

In our conversations before the hangout, Randy had mentioned that we haven't talked about Urban Fantasy much on Dive into Worldbuilding (which is true), so I asked him to give us a sense of the way he views the genre. He told us that Urban Fantasy has different "flavors." Mythic like the work of Charles deLint, folklorish, noirish like the work of Jim Butcher and Kat Richardson, or paranormal romance.

His own take on the genre in Finn Fancy isn't particularly urban, though it still falls under "Urban Fantasy." The stories are set in the seaside town of Port Townsend, in contrast with others who use fictionalized cities. Because of this, he says, there are fewer necessary levels of worldbuilding. The "map level" is taken care of, as is the national and cultural level, along with some aspects of gender dynamics and economics. Where you get to put your attention as an author of Urban Fantasy is in the overlay of the magical world and its properties. You explore the aspects of the magical realm, including hierarchies, power structure in magical communities, etc.

I asked Randy how much research he had done for this series, and he said he'd done very little - but it seems he just feels like it wasn't much compared to other projects he's attempted. He said he'd been writing epic secondary world fantasy, such as one with roman/gaulish culture, but he'd burned out. He started the Finn Fancy series imagining, "me, with magic," and then went from there. Only once it because clear that this was becoming a full book, he says, is when he had to think it through more and shore up the worldbuilding consistency, etc.

I asked him about his choice to use the 1980's as a featured time period in the book. "The 80's are my jam," he said. "That was the era of my youth." It was also a golden era of science fiction and fantasy movies, and advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

The way that the era appears in the book is that Finn has been in exile in the fairy realms since 1986, when he was 15 years old. Meanwhile his body has been occupied by a changeling. Unfortunately, when he goes back, the memory transfer that is expected to occur doesn't happen - leaving Finn in a much older body feeling like a 15 year old from the 80's. In a sense, Randy says, this kind of relation between the fairy world and the real world makes a book like this similar to a portal fantasy. Of course, the moment Finn gets back to 2011, he is framed for another crime, and off we go again.

I asked Randy a question that had been posed in a message by Cliff Winnig. That was to ask Randy about how important family was in the book. Randy said he made a conscious choice to involve family, because he wanted to get away from the "lone grizzled badass" character. He wanted comedic family dysfunction, an ensemble in the style of Arrested Development/ Joss Whedon. That creates lots of potential tension and many storyline possibilities.

The family is a family of necromancers who run a magical mortuary as the family business. Randy wanted to make sure that the hero could not get out of situations by blasting stuff. Finn's power is talking to the spirits of the dead, but it drains his life force at the same time.

This was where we discovered a key piece of research Randy had done - which, it turns out, was repurposed from a nonfiction piece on necromancy he'd written for Fantasy magazine. That's the great thing about real-world research: it never stops being useful! Randy also said he was inspired by a book called The Master of Five Magics, which he called a love story to magic systems. Each system has distinct rules, sources, etc.

In Randy's world, he has the following magic user types:

Wizards - people who can make fireballs and lightning
Thaumaturges - magical inventors
Sorcerers - makers of mind illusions
Necromancers - people who can speak to the dead, etc.
Alchemists - people who can activate magical properties of things.

In addition to these human Arcana, he also has Fae, and Faeblood creatures, which are blends of fae plus real creatures. Faeblood creatures include a lot of mythological creatures like centaurs.

Randy said that when he began Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, he had to go further into explaining everything he'd explored in the first book.

Book 1: The Fae realm was something he used to explain Finn's exile, while the faeblood creatures were just there to be cool.

Book 2: Randy had to lay the foundation for this to be a series, and understand the system, the interactions between people, the power economy, etc.

He says a lot of his insights into how the world worked came from asking "Why would/wouldn't they do this particular magic thing to get out of this situation?"

He sketched a hierarchy of the faeblood, and defined the fae realm and its different demesnes, which include three different fae types: those focused on wisdom and justice, those focused on cunning and deception, and those focused on the arts.

Randy told us that after writing Finn Fancy, he binge-read the Dresden Files books so as not to cover the same ground. One thing he caught was the phrase "the Merlin" for a powerful magic user. As he explains, it's not stealing, but coincidence arising from both books having grown from the same influences.

It's hard to resist the urge to go big with the stakes, Randy says. He wanted to have Finn more concerned with trying to live than saving the world. We discussed how saving the world can feel big and vague if it doesn't also have personal aspects. Randy said this was one of the things that hurt the Star Wars prequels. The original series had personal duels, but the prequels had no personal stakes, just got really flashy and large in scope without creating the emotional connection. He said that when he was going over the books, he'd say to himself, "No, let's not just have a cool battle scene" - he'd go back in the book and establish a precedent for that battle to occur. Backwards plotting like this can be very helpful in revision.

I asked Randy about the premise of Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free. He says it picks up three months after the first book, as Finn goes on adjusting and catching up (slowly) on cultural stuff. By this time, Finn has learned about 1989. To get out of necromancy, Finn joins a dating service, where he encounters a Sasquatch looking for love. This leads him somehow to get mixed up in a faeblood rebellion.

Randy said it's hard to write a book a year, though it's a great problem to have. The odd thing is that because he has to keep writing, he's entirely in the headspace for the new book by the time he's having to talk with people about the old book coming out! He says he can see how he's grown as a writer through the process. He is able to think ahead better.

The third book will be called Smells like Finn Spirit (and yes, Finn will have caught up to 1992 in his cultural explorations!). Apparently this book wraps up an arc from books 1 and 2, and will involve Finn saving the world. It has a section in the fae realm.

Randy says he loves writing this series because it gets him back in touch with the sense of wonder and joy that he always got out of reading science fiction and fantasy. He is really enjoying the worldbuilding he gets to do. He says he thought it would not be as much worldbuilding as epic fantasy, but actually there is plenty to do!

He urges writers not to write what you think is hot, but to stick to what you love.

We spoke briefly also about writing short stories. Some people say you should start with them, but that's not necessarily true. You can do different kinds of things with short stories vs. novels. They are easier to finish, and they can help you practice revision etc. in shorter cycles. Randy said he has written a lot of them and they helped him get to the point where he felt safe investing time in novels. The processes are similar but different.

Randy, thank you so much for joining us! It was a great discussion.

Next week we'll be meeting on Wednesday, May 4th at 10am Pacific and we'll be talking about Seasons! I hope you can join us.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Subconscious Worldbuilding - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

What if you're not worldbuilding?

Actually, you are - there is no world on a blank page/file until you put words there - and you can't possibly avoid it. Each word comes with a piece of world built into its connotations, its ins and outs.  But I have met people who told me they were not worldbuilding for their stories.

So what happens when you think you are not worldbuilding, but you are anyway?

You get a glimpse into the subconscious structure of the fictional world inside your brain. Even if you are putting a single alien/fantasy made-up word on a page, it will still come with associations due to sound and due to similarity to existing words. Even then, if you take your awareness and make it conscious, you can start to play with people's expectations. What if you give your hero a horrible name?

Technology sets are another key issue. When we see a cell phone, we expect a computer. When we see one element that makes us think of a particular historical time period, our subconscious expectations fill in all kinds of other aspects of that time period. If you see the word King, you will tend to think medieval.

If you don't want readers to go in the expected direction, you have to block them, redirect them, and do it early. You have very little time to depart from the schemata - scenes/sets - that readers bring up before they will start feeling like you have betrayed them and their expectations.

This is why you often see people picking words carefully. Would you use King? If the situation is a little unexpected, might you use Majesty instead? Or Eminence? Brian mentioned Prince, which has an expected meaning of "king's son," but in fact is a ruling title in its own right in many real-world places. Picking words is really critical, because they bring important implications with them.

We talked about Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern, which starts out looking quite medieval and then later turns out to be a world colonized by spacefaring humans. Many of us thought this gradual change was well done, but it doesn't work for everyone. People do drop out over a series.

In terms of climate, Che mentioned that it's very easy to write exactly what you experience.
Brian mentioned the problem Star Wars has with single-biome worlds (very unrealistic!).

There are also cultural expectations that sneak in, such as the idea that the "north" will be advanced and the tropics less advanced. These are colonial assumptions that we bring with us from our history.

I mentioned that I'd like to see an Inca fantasy. Brian said yes, that they would weave their way out of problems. Ropes and knots were their specialty, and super-sophisticated. He also mentioned floating gardens, and villages in the lakes of Bolivia. They had no plows, no animals they could ride, no enormous beasts of burden, but they were very technologically advanced.

We also talked about Etruscans, Romans, and Vikings, just to acknowledge that they were pretty advanced in their own ways. Roman concrete remains a mystery to this day because it was a family trade secret. Local materials in a place can vary widely. People indigenous to an area will optimize those materials, but colonists will typically try to import their own ways, even from a very different climate, and can run into problems. What if your home methods don't work?

One of the things that can enter into worldbuilding when we're not looking is our own history of reading science fiction or fantasy. Our expectations of fictional worlds are set by that which we have previously read. I mentioned how Aliette de Bodard described writing her sf/f in English, and said that it was easier for her because the sf/f she had read had been in English. The reading we do sets patterns in our minds that become easier to tread again.

Kimberly noted that sometimes no matter how hard we try to keep our worldbuilding conscious and specific, readers can overwrite it with their own preconceptions. We asked, "How do you put in enough?" The answer isn't clear, though, because different people will have a harder or easier time departing from their own schemata.

You can put evidence for difference into your story in many different ways. You can have outsider characters who are explicit guides to the world and can explain its rules (as with Breq in Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie).

Another bias that often hides in fiction is racial bias. This topic could be an hour all by itself, but definitely watch out for it.

The best approach for an author is to try to make deliberate decisions to create expectations, defeat expectations, or re-derive a more standard expectation in a different way. Re-deriving is an interesting thing. Say you'd like to have a seven-day week in your world, with a two-day weekend, but you don't necessarily want to refer back to our world and the Norse (etc.) derivations of the weekday names. You have to find an alternate basis for the same system.  Think through food production and when it occurs, and how that would affect the flow of life in your fictional region.

Brian pointed out that there are times when you can't work on food, such as during the far northern winters. Often you have a lot of intense time on followed by a long time off (hoping the food will last!). Summer vacations in the US are long because children had to be allowed to participate in the agricultural harvest. We joked about the pyramids of Egypt, but Brian pointed out that there have been big, fortified granaries before.

Brian told us about the origins of veal crates. They may seem cramped, but they originated in climates where there was snow, and for long periods, cows couldn't forage. In Switzerland, he explained, you could only keep the animals by bringing them inside on the ground floor of your house and feeding them with as much hay as you've managed to grow during the last season. The cows would give birth over winter before forage is available, so the calves live in a cramped, dark place until the weather allows them to go out.

Pigs are easier to grow than cows under the same conditions, which is why some populations rely more heavily on pig meat.

This topic is one that tends to lead us into a discussion of ways to depart from the subconscious default, and there are a ton of ways to do that! Thank you to everyone who attended.

Remember to join us tomorrow (Wednesday, 4/20/16) to talk with author Randy Henderson! I hope to see you there.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Food - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

Food is a huge topic. There's growing, processing, making, eating, transporting foods. There's TV culture surrounding food; there are eating disorders, and relationships with food. There are meals, and how they are defined. There's also storing and preserving food, and protecting it from vermin.

Deborah told us about her breakfast, because she'd grown much of it herself. Freezers were mentioned, as ways to control when you can eat the food.

A lot of our time (a lot!) is dedicated to food, but at different points in history it has even taken more time. Hunting and gathering took lots of time; so did farming and raising animals.

These days there are some people (adults on their own) who don't know how to cook for themselves, but who rely on the support of others to cook for them, and the support of civilization (restaurants) is pretty critical in that process.

Cooking for yourself is very different from cooking for others, and often less motivating.

The financial cost of food is very important. The percentage of one's income that one spends on food may differ depending on where you live.

We spoke about food deserts, which are urban areas where nothing is available except cans, boxes, and convenience stores. Lack of access to fresh, healthy food can lead to health problems. Recently, we've been seeing some movements toward urban agriculture to combat the problem of food deserts.

Deborah talked about the farming she and her husband do on 1700 square feet of their property. That much land produces a lot of food in northern California, but might not in another region.

That brought us to climate, which is a critical aspect of food production and what will become available. We also briefly discussed the challenge of climate change and its impact on food production.

We then dove into fiction, considering how one would create a world where some people couldn't eat the dominant food crops. How would social relations work if food for one group was poison to another? In our world, there are social traditions like bringing bread to new neighbors, and even in our world, that could be complicated if the new neighbors were gluten-free. In Japan, the tradition is to give soba noodles to your neighbors when you move into an area (because "soba" means nearby). Would food gifts like that be inappropriate? How much awareness of the dietary differences would there be in the larger culture?

Deborah told us she loves describing food in her books - not just good food, but also horrible food. Both can reveal character, and bad food can even give you a plot twist if people get sick.

We talked about Dune by Frank Herbert, and specifically about how water was treated. That brought us to the manners surrounding food, and how they might relate to political power.

If you are dealing with aliens, of course, their food needs may be different. Would snake people only eat every three days? I mentioned my wolflike character, Rulii, and how he eats "scout's strength" (a special meal) before he goes out on a scouting mission, intending not to eat for a few days afterward.

It may be useful to remember that the composition of meals influences what comes out the other end (and how much!). You can't extricate intake from the subsequent output!

We spoke about food phases, or taste in food. People with autism sometimes need to have food that is stable, routine, and predictable. The texture of food can be a critical component of whether someone likes it. In general, people have to balance between stable and predictable food routines and any desire for novelty or variety.

We also mentioned how people talk at the table (or generally while eating). In addition to other topics that may come up, we also tend to talk a lot about food or food behavior. This can mean that if characters in your book sit down to eat but talk exclusively about Plot Business, that the interaction will come off as unrealistic. Think about what opportunities you might have to let people talk about their food as a topic-changing move, or character-building move, etc.

Mealtime group conversations can be very complex, especially at big family reunion dinners! Does politics get discussed at the table? How personal is it? How does it get connected to the individuals' identity?

I mentioned a couple of food examples from books I have read. One was the drink "safe" from The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, a drink that no one particularly liked, but which was impossible to poison undetectably. The other was the odd food habits of Presger Translator Zeiat from Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. She drank fish sauce, and ate whole oysters (shell and all)... and this was a core part of her character.

If you are served bad food, do you have to eat it? What does the culture demand?

If you have special dietary requirements, do you bring your own meal when you are a guest somewhere? Or do you demand that the host cook something you can eat? Under what conditions might one of those two solutions be better than the other?

We also discussed "food surprises," which is when people serve people food without telling them what is in it, and potentially try to trap them into eating something they've said they can't eat. While some people doubt others' professed allergies, it is potentially deadly to feed them the wrong thing and you should never do this. In a fictional situation, you might end up being asked questions like "Did you mean to kill the ambassador?" It could potentially make for an interesting, if awful, plot twist.

This is such a big topic that we barely scratched the surface, but it was a fun discussion! Thanks to everyone who attended.

This week's hangout will be on Wednesday, April 20, at 11am Pacific (one hour later than our usual time) on Google Hangouts. We will have a chance to talk to author Randy Henderson about his book, Finn Fancy Necromancy, and about the genre of Urban Fantasy in general. I'm really looking forward to it, and I hope you can join us!