Writing Conference Report 2020–Character & Setting

As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This covers character & setting/world-building topics. Structure & plot was last month, and business topics will be next month.

Poison 101
Very few things will kill you quickly. Most of them are inhalants. Nothing will kill you immediately.
Animal: venom, sting, bacteria, penicillin & antibiotics, smallpox, viruses, allergen, etc
Vegetable: alkaloids, ricin, mushrooms (non-poisonous mushrooms can pick up poison from nearby poisonous ones)
Mineral : carbon monoxide, chlorine, radiation, arsenic, (accumulate in liver and hair)
Synthetic : drugs, pesticides, herbicides
Methods : Inhalation, topical (mucus membranes or skin, ingested, injection (including snakes and insects and platypus)
Symptoms : find in material safety data sheets
Can build a small immunity to some things (but iocane powder doesn’t exist).

Oaths & honor
Before breaking a norm /belief can touch the reader, the importance of the norm must be established.
Secondary characters are for contrast.

Loving the other (mermaids, vampires, etc)
Use a variety of internal conflicts, physical conflicts, external conflicts like societal norms.
Girls like the thought of someone extraordinary loving them.

Lost Technologies
Watch PBS Nova
Why can’t we do stuff anymore?
Tech disappears at height of its use. Mechanical calculators gave way to digital, etc.
Flint-mapping (artwork), Damascus steel, oiyas potteries (auto-water plants by seepage), metal knife for fire-starting instead of flint, Iroquois lost skills when trading for easier products, obsidian surgery tools, Saturn V rockets (each hand-built), heirloom seeds, craftsmen, enigma machine (tech parts have changed), Thor Heyerdahl, obsidian arrowheads (some made to break & slice)
Rediscovered after WWII: colossus encoder (decoder?)
When writing, if an idea doesn’t advance story, toss it.
M.S. Stirling recreated lost technology.
Why would you need to? Eric Flint (book 1600?) Town went back in time & had to fit in.
If your beta reader says bored, listen!
Look at leap tech (rich can afford) vs common tech (context is key). Example: shovel for the rich (need shoes to protect feet), poor used sticks.

Pointy Sticks & Fried Dough
What are constants in many/all cultures?
Stereotypes dominate thing that describes them.
Funeral rites: how does your culture handle it? Describes human value.
Celebrate special events, holidays, commemorations: yes, no, how?
Taboos? What do they look like?
Superstitions, myths about monsters, fears.
Ask family/friends “what did you eat for dinner growing up?”
Who has power, who makes choices?
Money, form of wealth, trade.
Social economic differences: clothing, education, where allowed to live.
What is your starting point and how do you build around it?
Show-not-tell through character’s eyes.
Read outside your genre. How do other genres discuss food, etc. Transform it to your culture, deepen & change it.
How do you balance different languages & slang?
How does language fit in the story you’re telling?

When Should Your Character Outsmart You?
Writing species smarter than humans: their learning, interactions, emotional intelligence
Smart characters come up with solutions faster than you.
Construct character from back: you do research, they have answer
Many ways to demonstrate intelligence, and they shouldn’t have them all.
So much research.
BS to make them sound smart. Make up words, things they can talk about.
Don’t go into more details than needed for story.
Make character relatable. People like human disasters.
What are environmental pressures? How do they evolve?
Culture, species, political. What was childhood environment? Vulcans=logic, Klingons=violence, etc. Find ways to relate.
What pressure drove human evolution processes? Prey or predator? Evolution & culture values?
Facial features demonstrate emotion in humans.
Communication with each other is valued.
What leads to higher intelligence?
Hive mind? For greater good?
How much do they worry about food & shelter? Once safe, can think about arts, etc.
Why does one race think they’re smarter than another?
Can intelligence be warm/welcoming?
They have something we don’t understand.
Need to be in competition with something.
Repercussions of getting intelligent?

Disabilities aren’t Superpowers
Write disabilities to give character depth
Disabilities are part of life; adapt & go on.
Are they an asset or not? Are a lot of work, but can gain a skill with practice.
Monk TV series: physical disability
Avatar movie skips training steps
Disabilities become normal over time
Don’t use disabilities to gain sympathy in romantic comedies
Mental disabilities still affects everyday life
Fight, flight, or flee? When is it life-threatening?
Sounds, like MedAlarms, are like WWII alarms & can panic vets.
Examples: Toth, Last Airbender; Numbers TV series; Captain America movie, Falcon character
Writing tips: people are people; don’t give backstory, give clues; research everyday details of disability; some people wallow until death, your character has to make an active decision. How do they compensate & get through life?
Is plot around disability or about character growth?
Borderline Curiosity Disorder & Hoarders are disabilities.
How do people live with someone with a disability? What changes are made? Look at people around character.

Casual Violence
Why is murder/honor killing acceptable? Make sure to answer why and motivation.
Killing vs murder: murder is against law/society.
Blood offerings: why?
State sanctions vs war: innocent person selected as scapegoat to satisfy god or natural disaster (usually low caste)
Honor killings by psychology today: Reputation is what protects you; if damaged, it ruins everything. Highest form of currency.
Honor: N. European gets honor by throwing lot with stronger man/best corporation. Middle/ S. European honor from family/family first. If can’t support family, someone must die. India: knock off bride for better bride. Mid East: groom pays for bride. Iran: honor killings frequent. Women used to be able to prevent, but now capital won’t listen to locals. Aztec: stage battles to capture sacrifices.
Willing self-sacrifice vs punishment: usually built into law structure.
US has so much killing (illegal but socially acceptable?) 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, etc.
Honor killings: video games, movies?
Untouchables & consequences: no one cares; tainted person becomes outcast, rejected to maintain order.
Castes of society: lower caste shame, dishonorable reincarnation, mental health issues

Horses
Cattle drive: each cowboy had seven horses. Grain-fed horses: only need one, but must bring grain.
Camping needs water, wood, and grass.
Horses are prey & prefer herds.
They sense tension & stress.
Stallions, geldings, or mares. Stallions have one-track mind when intrigued. Charge & hit hard. Mares have hormonal cycles; some will go psycho.
Read Horsetamer by Walter Farley
Cutting horses are like colliers for sheep: Youtube
Programmable.
Hard ground naturally trims hoof. Check hooves daily; stuff gets stuck in it.
Horses are afraid of paper bags & water.

Dragons
How do humans deal with being prey? Other species smarter.
Do you live in keeps? Trees, walls, etc.
Cooperative hunting, etc. Fight or flight?
Consider life cycle. Do they consume everything? Do they turn on each other? What’s the balance nature provides?
How much does predator move around? How much energy used?
Small predators: are humans scared of it? Snakes rattle, spiders, swarms. Just kill you or kill & eat you? (Hunt in groups)
Cats: watch their behavior.
Are there triggers for being attacked? (Non-threatening to attacking)
Other species attacking–do humans develop defense mechanisms?
How do humans defend against intelligent predators or societies?
How do you protect against night predators?
Species like us but different lead to war/death or truce/division.
Apex predators reproduce slower, try to protect the few left.
Can they walk among us & pass as one of us?
How can they communicate with us? What happens with the communication?
Mixed species association–learn to trust each other.
Trap/hunt together as pack.
Things that scare us are things most like us
United enemy or united problem?
Cats take care of small problems & live a comfortable life.

I always learn a lot at my writing conference, so if you have a chance to go to one, give it a shot!

Happy writing,
M.C. Lee

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