Writing Fiction – and not a Travelogue

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Eliza Wyatt, in her blog Tales of a Fantasy Scribbler, brought-up an incredibly worthwhile concern to science-fiction or fantasy writers – or, well, of any sort honestly – inherent to the nature of questing and epics: traveling-in-writing. More than anything I have considered J.R.R. Tolkien an historian – or in the same vein: he is a linguist and a scholar, and in his dreaming-up of Middle-Earth his story was given breath through detail; languages and landscapes and a wealth of appendices made the series bigger than the story, real-ish. This is the feather-in-the-cap that C.S. Lewis lacks, although I think Lewis the better writer. Tolkien’s application to detail made, personally, many of the passages from The Hobbit through The Return of the King insufferable, or as Miss Wyatt says, “Tolkien could take three pages just to describe the wind.”

In my comment to her I chalked it up to Tolkien’s admiration of oral narrative and the Old English world, where travelling minutiae and landscapery played the very important role of memorializing landmarks and regions important to cultural history. But unless your striving for Orature Ngugi wa Thiong’o‘s The River Between comes to mind, written in something of a pseudo-mythic creation-story discourse – then I am not completely convinced that a travelogue is in your best interest.

Up until recently, there has been a lot of emphasis in Science Fiction and Fantasy to “suspend disbelief,” which of course was necessary and easy for the dragon-chaser Coleridge, because I think there is this misconception that people are primarily interested in the Real World (or the familar and comfortable). From what I gather from the likes of Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and David Shan, …, etc., the realism of the story is insignificant, looked over; I am sure neurons fire when Magic glitters by, but the fact that these characters occupy a world that, more than likely, will never be ours is shrugged and doffed . So what.

This is the stuff behind Myth and Story that rationlizes the liklihood that while you may have never seen Herculean strength, it doesn’t make the character any less relatable; in fact, the extra dose of symbology speaks volumes not only of the perception of your self-relevant universe, but transcends the mundane and gives you the power to Dream.

Oh gosh, I digress – traveling-in-fiction: the Quest is awfully common in any Science Fiction or Fantasy (or Fiction-in-General!) scenario, and that entails plenty of trudging about (in Miss Wyatt’s words), but unless the literal motion or scenery is pertinent to the advancement of the plot, I’m sure nobody cares one way or another about an eventless stroll through the enchanted wood. Ay me. I happen to be in reach of a stack of books, so let’s see how these authors deal with travel:

Under these unpromising auspices, the parting took place and the journey began. It was performed with suitable quietness and uneventful safety. Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming occurred than a fear, on Mrs. Allen’s side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless.

They arrived at Bath. (Northanger Abbey, ch. 2 pg. 8, by Jane Austen)

Jane’s passage is remarkably appropriate, particularly because Northanger Abbey is in part about the event of non-event, about an overpowering imagination, and a hullabaloo over nothing. And, I suspect, that because you are not Miss Austen, you probably shouldn’t attempt to pull this off. Remember that for Tolkien, traveling uneventfully served the purpose (let’s say) of preserving a detailed memory of an old world; Miss Austen nevertheless cuts the fat down to a paragraph: Catherine Morland leaves home and arrives at Bath as quickly as you can read the above. The inbetween stews with a disappointment on the heroine’s end that nothing particularly interesting happened en route, and we glean this as readers because such is the awesome power of free indirect discourse – but I digress again.

When Miss Wyatt brought this up, my mind immediately went to Stephen King’s The Gunslinger (which I am picking a part as I read it elsewhere), precisely because The Gunslinger is the first part in a series of quests for the Dark Tower, and so far it is travel travel travel through desert desert desert; there is something about the writing that makes walking in sand palatable. Let’s find out why:

All his water was gone, and he knew he was very likely a dead man. He had never expected it to come to this, and he was sorry. Since noon he had been watching his feet rather than the way ahead. Out here even the devil-grass had grown stunted and yellow. The hardpan had disintegrated in places to mere rubble. The mountains were not noticeably clearer, although sixteen days had passed since he had left the hut of the last homesteader, a loony-sane young man on the edge of the desert.  He had had a bird, the gunslinger remembered, but he couldn’t remember the bird’s name.

He watched his feet move up and down like the neddles of a loom, listened to the nonsense rhyme sing itself into a pitiful garble in his mind, and wondered when he would fall down for the first time. He didn’t want to fall, even though there was no one to see him. It was a matter of pride. A gunslinger knows pride, that invisible bone that keeps the neck stiff. (The Gunslinger, ch. 2 pt. 1, pg 94, by Stephen King)

This passage is riddled with colorful metaphor and language, the gnawing replay of an old song in his head, the affront to pride and the will to walk on, as well as relevant history (how long had time passed inbetween chapters one and two?, and where did we leave off?). Most importantly, the narrative overall is only punctuated with desert-strolling, much of it is dialogue or lapses back into memory. Mentioning the heat and the hardpan shows that the gunslinger is on the edge of stamina, the realization that in the course of current events he will probably die an inglorious death.

I reiterate my point above that the best idea for any writer is to focus on the traveling and the logistics only when the aspects of either are important to the advancement of the plot; and if, like King or Austen, you can interweave the raw oomph between-the-lines, there is no better opportunity to show your skill. If you fail, you will bore.

There is something of a quest in my own novella Doranchorn, or rather a very prolonged escape, navigating through the march and through the desert and through the gruff of the Wild en route to civilization, but in it I employ a technique I picked-up when I was roleplaying as a teen: playing-up Downtime. In both the Austen and King passages this is precisely what they are doing. They establish that a period of time has passed traveling in which nothing particularly relevant happens (Downtime), they mention a few things worth noting, then move on. Furthermore, King break chapters up into parts which cuts Downtime dramatically, returning to “uptime” at story-significant points. This also allows for a writer to cut at a particulary good string of dialogue and start fresh, free from the bane of Transition, much like dramtic camera-angle in cinema.

— I have been sidetracked by two phonecalls, it seems, and my mind’s gotten all wanderlusty; so, I think I will cut it there and sink into the Down.

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2 responses »

  1. Hi,

    You had left a comment on my blog quite some days back. Since the link you had left behind was not working, I decided to google “daybookery” today and landed on this blog.

    Austen bored me to death when I was doing my Bachelor’s in Literature, but a few years after, I began to enjoy her mastery over her craft. I love what she can do within the sweep of a few lines.

    I like posts that digress a lot, so I liked this one. And you made your point anyway. I love fantasy, so it is logical to assume I will someday write in that genre. If I do, I will remember your advice.

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