I didn’t freeze, and we appear to have a functioning furnace again, though it’s striving mightily to drag this old heap up from its freezing temperatures to something livable while it’s barely above zero outside. Learned many interesting lessons about survival in the cold without central heating, and also used up a lot of my candles and lamp oil.
But that’s neither here nor there. I want to ramble on about parallels and differences between two different projects of mine. One, Sunlight and Storm, is a fantasy western that was the fourth novel I wrote, back when I was in college. Its first draft sucked rancid goat cheese; its second draft is better, but I still want to rewrite it substantially before it ever goes public, and that will probably not be any time soon. The other is a series I’m contemplating for the future, which would essentially be about scientific expeditions going to study dragons. They share the common characteristics of being in settings that look a lot like our nineteenth century, and they both have female main characters, hence the desire to ramble on about colonialism and feminism.
Colonialism first. It’s kind of unavoidable in a quasi-nineteenth-century setting, in part because colonialism was one of the distinguishing features of that era. I sort of dodged this question in Sunlight and Storm; the New Land, the southern continent I’m using to parallel the Old West, was uninhabited when it was discovered, so there are no Native American equivalents to deal with. On the one hand, this takes away some of the fodder for Western (in the genre sense) plots. On the other hand, those aren’t the plots I’m the most interested in, and it means I don’t have to make the choice between replicating the horrors of the real history, and whitewashing it all into something nice. Especially at the time I was writing this (I was twenty when I wrote it, twenty-one when I rewrote it), I didn’t feel prepared to handle that; I’m not sure I feel prepared for it now. But I’ve also realized that I didn’t dodge the question as much as I thought, because I think I’ve displaced some of it off of people and onto the land itself. How do the different people who come to the New Land relate to their natural environment? This comes up in the stuff that makes Sunlight and Storm a fantasy, and I suspect it’s something I should focus on when I go back to that novel; I think it needs to be more central and well-thought-out to pull the novel together. (And something needs to pull that thing together.) I will probably talk to those friends of mine who study colonialism and get their thoughts on it someday.
The new project’s a different story. As it stands in my head, the first novel would postpone the question, by taking the characters to a place that’s kind of Eastern Europe-y (and they’re from an English-type place). Class will play into it, as they’re upper-class types dealing with peasants, but that isn’t quite the same thing, and it lets me get my feet under myself before I hit the harder stuff. In this case, though, the harder stuff is coming: settings that parallel Africa, Polynesia, the Middle East, China, what have you. And this time, I’m anticipating that in advance, and starting to think about how I will address those encounters in a way that neither trivializes the forces that made nineteenth-century colonialism what it was, nor falls victim to their power. Do I know how I’m going to do this yet? No, though I suspect some of it will come from the main character’s obsessive focus on the object of her study, which leaves her less bothered by differences in people than others of her station might be. It bears more thinking about, though, and at least this time I’m thinking about it in advance.
Feminism . . . och. One of the (many) reasons the first draft of Sunlight and Storm sucked so hard was, it turned into some pretty crappy and shallow feminist preaching along the way. Four women escape their oppressive Victorian lives and find opportunity and self-actualization on the frontier! Please. I managed, in the second draft, to make it a little less “rah women go!,” but the problem is, the novel is about four women escaping their oppressive Victorian lives and finding opportunity and self-actualization on the frontier. Somehow I need to get it on the page in a way that conveys the nuance that I swear is in my head. And I need to do so in the first book; I have a sketchy notion for a trilogy, but I can’t afford to leave all the nuance for books two and three, now can I? I think it was prosewitch who turned up an academic quote that made me realize three of the four women parallel motifs of women in the Old West — the civilized lady, the sturdy frontier woman, and the bad woman — and the fourth, the main character, could be my chance to posit a fourth possibility, that would partly grow out of the nature of the setting (see above about the land and magical aspects thereof). I’m just not sure how to get there, and to certain things I really want to do with the character, without betraying the fact that she starts out a proper Victorian woman, with many of the constraints that implies.
For just as colonialism is nigh-unavoidable in a setting that looks nineteenth-century, so is feminism, if I want female main characters leading adventurous lives — hence it cropping up again in the new project. And again, I’m in the process of figuring out how to deal with it. The answer seems to be, by a lot of small methods all mixed together. Some of it involves tolerant individuals in her life. Some of it involves deception. Some of it involves a willingness to damn what society thinks of her. I do know that I want to play with the consequences of her choices. Caroline, in Sunlight and Storm, won’t be going back to non-frontier society until the third book, at which point she’s established herself well enough in the New Land that the disapproval of the society she left behind doesn’t have to matter to her as much; she’s not going to stay there. But Isabella, the main character of this new thing, is and always will be operating in the context of her home society, from which she only intermittently escapes. If they don’t like her — and they’re not going to — then that will mean problems for her. And while she may have found a handful of tolerant individuals, they’re definitely the minority. What acceptance Isabella gains over the course of the series, I think, is going to be carved out tooth and claw by her achievements in her travels, where it isn’t just the sort of leeway given to women who made sufficiently entertaining scandals of themselves. People will be embarrassed by Caroline, but gleefully shocked by Isabella.
So there you have it: proof that I’m starting to think about Issues in my writing. It’s a tough thing for me, not because I don’t care about the issues, but because I don’t want them to be carrying capital letters around with them, and there’s a real danger of that happening if I try to address them too overtly. I want this to happen organically, but I can’t do it unconsciously, or I’m going to end up with something like the first draft of Sunlight and Storm. I need to think about it, and then not think about it.
Welcome to the Zen of writing, I guess.