Author Archives: slowbloom

O Canada

Every story should have conflict. Every character should want something. And every story should have change: whether it’s the reader’s understanding or the character who evolves.

Day One: I fly across the continent, hop in a car and drive for a few more hours. After dinner I puke spectacularly and particularly all over my pants. I toss them in the tub and make them a problem for tomorrow.

Day Two: I want to wash my jeans. I wasn’t planning on doing any laundry, let alone the second day of my trip. I also want my head to stop hurting and to sleep for more than six hours a night. I am exhausted, I can’t think clearly, my stomach is tetchy, and I want to deal with the soiled pants before they become even more of a problem. Turns out there wasn’t any time to do laundry on Day Two.

Day Three: In the morning I go out on a whale watching boat, in my lightweight capris because my soiled jeans are sitting in a plastic bag. Fortunately it was fairly warm and I had a warm sweater and vest, but the jeans were still dirty.

In addition to being preoccupied with how to do laundry in a small town that doesn’t seem to have an actual grocery store or a laundromat, I choose to pull out my incredibly rusty French to accomplish this task. The night before we go whale watching, I ask a man at the hotel if they take laundry. He tells me no, there’s only an industrial washer which would ruin clothes. I ask if there’s a laundromat. He tells me yes, but gives me the wrong directions. Or maybe they were the right directions but I misunderstood. At least I know there is a public place I can do the wash. One foot in front of the other.

In the afternoon, I look for laundry detergent. I find a “convenience store” which has hand soap and dish soap, but no laundry detergent. I decide to go to the tourist information center, where I get confirmation for the location of the laundry machines. The woman I talk to is surprised I can’t find laundry detergent. She calls the grocery store and confirms they have Tide. I realize I may have missed the grocery store. She asks me for my zip code and her co-worker is surprised I’m from Seattle and speak French.

I cross the street and find the washer and dryer inside a tiny building we’ve passed 20 times. I didn’t know what it was for, but over the course of our stay it becomes apparent that many people know it is public toilets and a place to get potable water. Fortunately for me, there is someone else doing laundry. I confirm how much it will cost to wash and dry. A dollar and a half. Just like the washers in my apartment building. Finally we are getting somewhere. I understand how to operate a coin-op machine. Just keep in mind I am in a foreign country.

Enter the one dollar bill. Canadian. I ask my mom for the cash she brought so I can buy laundry detergent and get change for the washer and dryer. She gives me a ten, a five, and two ones. I walk up the street to the actual grocery store this time. I wander through, delighted with the options, until I find the laundry detergent, and even find unscented Tide pods! I march triumphantly up to the register and the clerk rings up my purchase. The total is just under $12, so I pull out the 10 and two ones. 

Canada - one dollar

The clerk asks me to wait a minute, she has to talk to her manager. The manager comes over and holds the bills up. I am used to this in the US, for large bills, but not ones. I keep asking if they are “trop vielle” – too old. My French is not good enough to understand what is going on, but she tells me I can take the bills to the bank next Wednesday. Finally someone in the line asks what is going on and explains to me that the bills are worth more than $1. I take them back and give the clerk the $5 and the $10. I want to make sure I have enough quarters to use the machines. She gives me my change all in coins and it looks like there are enough quarters for a load of laundry.

I go back to the hotel and tell my mom what happened at the store. Then I get online and do a bit of research. For those of you waiting for the big reveal, Canada stopped printing $1 bills in 1989. OY. Then I look at the change and realize I don’t have enough quarters. I should have twelve, but I don’t. I go to the gift shop and ask the woman to give me four quarters for a $1 coin.

Now I have the laundry detergent and the coins, so we take the dirty wash to the “laundromat.” I am still very out of it and try to make sense of the slots in the machine. There are only 3 slots for coins, but it costs $1.50. I cannot figure out how to fit six quarters into 3 slots. Finally I go outside and ask the woman who was doing the laundry before me. Between my terrible French and her English, the light dawns. I am supposed to use the $1 COIN. Mystery solved! I somehow have two $1 coins even with all my quarter hunting, so I can do the wash.

Canada - coin slot

High on our triumph of getting the washing machine going, we head down the hill to bakery for a treat.

A coda: several days later I want to do another load of laundry in the same town. This time I know the drill. I ask the woman at the hotel desk if I can get two $1 coins for a $2 coin. She says she can do that. I explain to her that in English we call the $1 coin a “loonie” because it has a loon on it, and the $2 coin a “toonie” because it’s two dollars. As I walk away, I hear her whispering: “looney, toonie. Loonie. Toonie.” As far as I know she’s still muttering it to herself.

A few days later we are Montreal and I find a bank. I go in and ask if I can exchange the bills. The bank manager helps me. He takes the bills and inspects them, then says, “They aren’t worth that much.” He asks if I want two $1 coins or a $2 coin. I tell him I’ll take the $2 coin. I ask about getting more than face value for the bills, and he said if I sold them on the private market I probably could, but that sounds much harder than trying to get my soiled jeans washed in a coin-op laundry in a small town in Quebec.

I put the toonie in my pocket and walk out of the bank.

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Holiday Treat Planning

I made a list of treats I am considering making and some folks wanted the recipes after seeing the list, so I thought I’d share. Most of these I’ve made, a couple are things I want to try! I am listing in alpha order, and will note which treats/dough you can freeze, if you are planning ahead. I don’t even have a very large freezer and the freezer is my friend.

almond cookies

Pasticcini di Mandorla

These are very soft, once baked. The dough comes together very easily. Will keep in a container for several days. Also I added the wedge of chocolate on the top (from Trader Joe’s). Play around!

bakery-style butter cookies

Butter cookies

I used a cookie press to make these. For greater success, freeze your cookie sheet before pressing the cookies out!


Chocolate covered buttermint

I freeze these! They freeze great! Also freeze the buttermint before dipping.

cardamom buns

Swedish buns - vetebullar

Buns freeze great. Reheat in toaster oven. Enjoy!

chocolate crinkles

A classic. You can make the dough and make the individual balls and then freeze.

fig walnut biscotti

Fig and walnut biscotti

I would not freeze, but also biscotti is meant to be dry!

Kumquat and Chocolate Yule log

I saw this recipe and decided if I was ever going to make a yule log, it should be this one. I have never made one. Wish me luck!

Marbled tahini cookies

Marbled tahini shortbread

Can definitely freeze the log of dough, then slice and bake!

pistachio cardamom cookies

Pistachio cardamom cookies

Just like the chocolate crinkles, you can form the cookies and then freeze until you are ready to bake!



I love this recipe because there are many places you can stop and then pick up and do the next step. Make the dough, chill/freeze. Make the filling. Roll out dough and form log and then freeze. Slice and bake when ready. You can also freeze the cookies after they are baked. It’s great.


I just made marshmallows for the first time and a co-worker had mentioned getting a scotchmallow, and since I’ve successfully made caramel previously and gotten the hang of dipping in chocolate, I figured I could challenge myself. Another thing I will report back on. Also someone on the internet told me I could replace some of the water in the marshmallow recipe with BOOZE. Amaretto is probably the best option for what’s in my cupboard.

thumbprint cookies

Chocolate thumbprint

I make these about once a month I think. They never last long in my house. I often put chocolate ganache in the dip. If you do that, bake the cookie first and add the ganache after the cookies have cooled.

unfussy sugar cookies

Unfussy Sugar Cookie

I had a lot of fun playing with the colors and marbling the Royal icing on these.

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On Closets and Portals

I have been wanting to write about the interest in coming out stories for awhile, and what better time than Pride month? As a queer person, it can be exhausting to be asked to recount my coming out story. There are a lot of reasons why someone might not want to share their story. I have enumerated a few:

  • you might be asking someone to revisit trauma. For many people, especially older people, being queer was rarely met with acceptance and more often with violence
  • coming out is not a singular event or moment
  • for some people, coming out is a non-event
  • some people don’t feel the need to come out, especially younger generations
  • THERE IS LIFE BEYOND COMING OUT and also for some of us, we are always coming out

Snail on blade

Focusing on the coming out experience means ignoring the entire rest of the LGBTQIA experience. It might be like asking someone about their flight, instead of their trip to a destination. Yes, they had to travel to get there, but it ignores the vast part of their experience. Other questions one might ask:. Who did they meet? What did they do there? What delighted them? What did they eat? Did they dance? How was the music? Etc etc.

Asking about coming out can be very othering. It is essentially asking “when did you recognize you were not like the norm.”

For a lot of queer people, coming out is not something we talk about with one another. Again, instead of putting the onus on the individual experience, take a step back and try to think about what might make coming out so hard (for those who it is hard for). There are countries where it is literally illegal to be LGBTQIA, and being seen for who you are is punishable by death. Consider instead, what are you doing to make the world safer for people?

If and when someone does share something about their identity with you, it’s probably for a few reasons:

They want to include you in their life
They think you are safe (enough)
They are tired of hiding and pretending
Alternately, they are not “coming out”, they are simply sharing their life

If someone decides to share something about themselves with you, while it might be surprising or new information to you, it is not new for the person sharing it. It does not mean the person is untrustworthy, it means they decided to finally trust YOU.

It is worth considering how much pressure people who are coming out feel to conform to idealized and highly publicized stories. What if their story doesn’t match any stories that you are familiar with? Does that make them less valid in your eyes?

One case for interest in coming out stories is around looking for models or pathways for people who are themselves trying to navigate their own

If you are questioning your identities, I hope you are able to take as much time as you need. I hope you are able to come out on your own terms, in your own time. Consider the Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. My primary takeaway from that book is the critique of the binary division of the world – who is in and out; consider trading that for Jacob Tobia’s snail moving through the garden, protected by its shell. You can be in the world, with your armor, moving at your own speed, until the world is safer for you.

What I am trying to say is that the framing is outdated. Instead of trying to cram people into discrete boxes, there are thresholds and doorways which we might cross. The world is infinite, and we each have our own experiences of it. I am inviting everyone, including myself, to let go of binary thinking. Instead of closets, there are portals into new worlds, new experiences, and ever expanding ways of identifying.

*a note on language. I prefer to use the term “queer” as an umbrella term to encompass everyone within the LGBTQIA+ world, and I will be using it throughout. It is not my intention to erase any identity.

**additionally I would like to thank my friends Kate, Carly, Meg, and Austin for taking the time to read and give me feedback

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When the Cookie Crumbles (Part II)

It turned out after I posted that round-up of all the things I’d baked since the pandemic began, I went and baked a few more things.

Paul Hollywood’s Wagon Wheels

I figured if the GBBO contestants could do it, why couldn’t I? Turns out there is a learning curve to piping marshmallow, and coating a cookie entirely with chocolate is hard. My fans didn’t care that Paul Hollywood wouldn’t give me a handshake for these.

Wagon wheel cookies

Then Purim was upon me and I had to make hamentaschen. Usually I stick to the Joan Nathan prune filling, because that is my favorite (I always double this recipe), but I got on a brown butter kick so I had to give these Smitten Kitchen brown butter apricot hazelnut hamentaschen a try:

Apricot Hazelnut brown butter hamentaschen

Turns out while these are delicious, prune still holds the top spot in my heart. I have a vegan roll out cookie dough recipe I modified years ago from the back of some packaging:

Prune hamentaschen

I have been looking for thumbprint cookies recipes forEVER and I finally found the perfect one:

Apricot thumbprint cookie
Chocolate thumbprint

After the thumbprints i was ready to dive back into the marshmallow sandwich cookie, this time a malt chocolate and marshmallow:

Malt chocolate and marshmallow sandwiches

At some point I was thinking it would be fun to add cinnamon and a little cayenne for a Mexican hot chocolate twist.

Tea cakes started showing up. I had no control! They just busted in:

Earl Grey tea cake with dark chocolate and orange zest

Earl grey tea cake with dark chocolate and orange zest

Followed by a lemony turmeric tea cake:

Lemony turmeric tea cake

And then I had to make Ottolenghi’s blueberry, almond and lemon cake, but with raspberries and lime:

Raspberry lime almond cake

I took a little detour into savory, with this chili crisp. If Sohla could do it, so could I. I shared it with two friends, who had to go and make their own batches. It’s pretty easy, just takes a bit of time (in my case it took about 3 hours total).

Chili crisp

A friend posted this brownie cookie sandwich with cookie dough buttercream and I HAD to try them:

Brownie cookie sandwich with cookie dough buttercream

Another foray into aquafaba macarons with better results:

Aquafaba macarons

And a red wine chocolate cake, with that buttercream frosting piped on top (and a layer of ganache hiding underneath). Decadent!

Red wine chocolate cake

I am almost fully vaccinated, two-weeks post second vaccine shot, and I have a feeling the next thing I bake will be shared with friends in a gathering. I don’t know what to expect, but whatever happens, it will be sweet.

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The Encookening

Blame the pandemic or blame the Great British Bake Off, but as the pandemic wore on and I found myself at loose ends, I started to bake. And bake. And bake. I may have now baked my bodyweight in butter. I wanted to create a catalog/record in a single place of the things I’ve made and also links to recipes, should you so desire to try one (or many) of the recipes.

I will, however, try to organize a little bit by type of cookie, since I am a taxonomist.

Roll Cookies

Unfussy Sugar Cookies

Unfussy Sugar Cookie

Unfussy Sugar Cookie

I used both a classic Royal icing recipe with egg white as well as a vegan one, with aquafaba (bean water). The red design has egg, the blue does not.

Gingerbread tiles with rum butter glaze

Gingerbread tile with rum butter glaze

If you like a cookie with A LOT of flavor, this cookie IS FOR YOU (and me). Super.

Drop Cookies

Brown butter toffee chocolate chip cookies

Brown butter toffee chocolate chip cookies

I decided to make my own toffee for this recipe, and you can find the toffee recipe linked further down this page. Keep this in your back pocket for another one that will impress your friends.

Chewy Ginger Rye cookies

Chewy ginger rye cookie

These were a big hit with the fans of molasses ginger cookies.

Tahini, orange and chocolate chip cookies

Orange, tahini, chocolate chip cookies

I asked a while back on Twitter for recommendations of cookies that people bring out to WOW their friends. This was one that showed up and did not disappoint. Very interesting, with a nice light bite that then turns a little gooey.

Freezer Cookies

Korova cookies

Korova Cookie

A rich, chocolately shortbread style cookie, studded with chocolate chunks.

Marbled tahini cookies

Marbled tahini shortbread

I thought these looked really cool but didn’t taste like much. I am planning another go-round with some added flavor.

Pistachio pinwheels

Pistachio pinwheel

a subtle cookie, mostly like a sugar cookie

Salted chocolate chunk shortbread

Salted chocolate chunk shortbread

Alison Roman’s THE COOKIE – this is rich, dense, salty, sweet, crunchy – satisfies me on pretty much every level. I pretty much always have a log (or 3) in the freezer to bake up as I want.

Filled and Sandwich Cookies



I have been baking these for YEARS. A perennial fave. Also great because you can do these in steps, and freeze the dough, logs, and cookies.

Baci di dama

Baci di dama

I am on the hunt for a strong chocolate hazelnut cookie. This had the right ratio of hazelnut to chocolate, but the cookie wasn’t quite the texture I was looking for. It is gluten-free, so that’s a bonus for those of you looking.

Bakery Style Butter Cookies

Butter cookies

This was one of the first recipes I tried. I actually made them a second time because I wanted to see if I could improve on the first batch. Happy to say I did! I used a cookie press rather than pipe the dough and it worked great. The recipe says to make the sandwich and then dip in chocolate and decorate with nuts or sprinkles (as you can see), but I found I liked them better when I just put chocolate and jam inside the sandwich (also displayed above).

Chocolate peanut butter cup cookies

Chocolate peanut butter cup cookie

I just made these and they are THE BOMB. Have also compelled several friends to make them. Just do it, as that ad campaign would say.

Spiced brown butter Linzer cookies

Spiced brown butter Linzer cookies

If you are looking for ONE COOKIE to impress, this is it. A couple of notes: use whatever jam you like. I tried it with currant (as the recipe calls for) and found I liked raspberry better. Also the dough is incredibly crumbly and difficult to work – add water, a tablespoon at a time, until it comes together and you will stop cursing. Additionally this was my first foray into brown butter and now I AM OBSESSED.

Vegan macarons: filled with either vegan ganache or vegan lemon curd!


Macarons, what can I say? If you love ’em, you love ’em.


Double-almond biscotti

Double almond biscotti with chocolate drizzle

The recipe does not call for chocolate, but I think everything is better with chocolate. So I drizzled.

Fig and walnut biscotti

Fig and walnut biscotti

These ended up being my favorite. The crunches from the figs are super and the walnut gives it a nice fragrance. I suppose you could try a different nut if you don’t like walnuts.

Chocolate hazelnut biscotti

Chocolate hazelnut biscotti

These were just ok in my book. I did not break a tooth.


Sea salt vanilla caramels – as you can see, I covered mine with chocolate

Chocolate covered salt caramel


I’m sorry I don’t have any good pictures to share of the toffee. It’s not the most photogenic.

Chocolate filled with boozy spiced ganache

I have some candy molds that I just coat with melted chocolate, let the chocolate cool, then fill with a flavored ganache. Ganache recipe as follows:

6 oz chocolate
3 oz coconut milk/cream
2 Tbl Cointreau
Pinch or two of salt
Shake of cayenne

Melt the chocolate in the coconut milk, add the Cointreau and spices to your taste. You can make the chocolate as dark as you like. I often use half 72% and half 100% chocolate.

Chocolate lips

Spicy chocolate skulls


Parmesan cream crackers

Parmesan Cream Cracker

She says these are like Cheez-Its and my friends, she does not lie. They are amazeballs. Also I had made some olivada/tapenade and the crackers were otherworldly topped with the olive spread. But you can just pop them in your mouth too.

Croccantini (I think I tried this recipe)

Cream Scones

Cream scone

Just made these as well and they were super. I did end up baking them about 5 minutes longer than the recipe said, but I think I didn’t make the dough thin/flat enough. Also they toast up well. They made my tea taste that much butter.

Tune in next month when I shall have more cookie updates (and possibly a few other treats).

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Why Borrow Poverty?

I saw a post on Instagram Annie had made about creating a necklace as a talisman for a client, and even though I’ve seen previous posts she’s made before, for some reason it clicked that I could ask for something now! But why now? Annie and I have had a connection about menstruation for several years now, and last winter I had talked to her about my experience around perimenopause. With the advent of the novel coronavirus in Feb/March and the increased level of change/uncertainty, I wanted something to ground myself as I move through this experience of my body changing. When I went through puberty I was very disconnected from my feelings. I often joked about wanting to be like Spock, and was very shut down around physical desire. As I’m transitioning to a new stage, I am incredibly aware of my emotional state as it changes. I like to joke that I am on the hormonocoaster.

When I talked to Annie about what I wanted, I threw a hundred ideas at her. There was Mary Ruefle’s poem, Pause and Ursula Le Guin’s essay, “The Space Crone,” which I have from her collection Dancing at the Edge of the World. Le Guin says, “… it seems a pity to have a built-in rite of passage and to dodge it, evade it, and pretend nothing has changed. That is to dodge and evade one’s womanhood, to pretend one’s like a man. Men, once initiated, never get the second chance. They never change again. That’s their loss, not ours. Why borrow poverty?” [emphasis mine]

As our conversation continued, I repeated something my therapist told me several years ago: “You don’t have control, but you have a choice.” As I go through this experience, I certainly don’t have control, but I can choose how I respond to what is happening. I likened this to Penelope, waiting for Odysseus to return, and how every day she would weave and every night she would undo her day’s work in order to delay potential suitors. She had no control over her situation, but she did have a choice as to how she would face it and where could exercise her choice.

I also asked Annie to make the earrings asymmetrical, to represent the unbalanced feeling, as well as three different phases of life. We talked about including rubies for menstrual blood, but also moonstone as a connection to the moon and space (crone!), as well as bloodstone.

I couldn’t be happier with what Annie created. I see all of the things we talked about in these earrings and that also gives me strength, a reminder of these various threads.
If you want to see Annie’s work, please visit her at her website, Dotted Line Jewelry

And here is what the earrings ended up looking like!

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Instead of resolutions, every year I pick a word for my intention. The last several years I’ve picked words that had to do with effort and trying, and while it’s good to achieve and work towards goals, I am feeling tired, so I thought I’d do a 180 and try something a little different.

violet-breasted roller

This year my word is delight. Usually by the end of November I have a sense of what I want my word for the next year to be, but I was utterly stuck. And then just a few days before the end of the year, I was walking home and a little Bewick’s wren fluttered down to the sidewalk in front of me. All the heaviness I’d been carrying just lifted and I felt utterly light – delighted. And then I realized, I could have this word be my intention for 2020.

For me, delight is about being present in the moment, available to whatever might arrive – like the little wren, who we don’t usually see. There is also the element of surprise, the unexpected – which shocks me out of my gloom. My senses expand, and suddenly everything that was gloomy and dark changes – in the blink of an eye. The trees that seemed so dark are now havens for the chickadees and bushtits and juncos. Okay, I will admit the low cloud cover still challenges me, but it doesn’t infuse its heaviness into everything else.

I recently learned that in Swedish, “bushtit” translates as “butt dork” which was yet another cause for delight.

Since I’ve picked the word, January has proven to be a challenge. The world feels horrible, with world leaders making choices that feel like they are driving us all off a cliff. Even in the midst of all of this, it’s the joy and connection to others that makes the fight worthwhile.

In the words of Mary Oliver, “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

I invite you to share these small moments of delight as they arise throughout the year. Perhaps I will post some updates here.

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Last week I was chatting with my friend M and she mentioned that she didn’t care for Weird Al. This was in response to another person saying that if someone didn’t like Weird Al, they could GTFO (essentially).

I can appreciate that desire to have everyone around you like the things you like, but I find life is so much more interesting and rich to surround myself with people who are interested and passionate about things that I am not. This was basically the toast I gave at my brother’s wedding.

super space titan kitty

I told my brother and his wife that passion is important in a marriage, but we often think of passion as the feeling between two people and leave it at that. I encouraged them to maintain their passions and interests in things outside each other, because that would keep their relationship fresh and interesting. When I go along for the ride with a friend’s passion, I get to experience something I never would have otherwise.

One of my brother’s passions is music. It is a touch point that connects us. I was a teenager when Tipper Gore founded the Parental Music Resource Center (PMRC), to label albums with explicit lyrics. It was rooted in her horror at discovering her 13-year old daughter was listening to a Prince song that talked about masturbation. The intention of PMRC was to raise awareness for parents about the music their children were listening to, it also made my local music store restrict the age of customers who could purchase those albums. When I was 18, I went to Specs with my brother so we could purchase the Guns N Roses album, Appetite for Destruction. We went up to the register where my brother handed me the album and the money. I passed them to the clerk, who rang it up and then gave me the album and the change, which I returned to my brother.

Fast forward a decade, and I’m now living in Seattle. My brother has graduated college as well and is living on the west coast. His favorite band, the Beastie Boys, is doing a west coast tour and he and a few friends decide to follow them for a few shows. He stops in Seattle for one of them.

I love telling this story, because it was an epic event. The concert is held in an arena (at the Seattle Center for those who know it), and the show is staged “in the round.” The stage is in the center of the floor and spins, like a lazy susan. The crowd completely surrounds the stage, separated from the performers by a 6 or 7 foot security moat. We sit up in the stands and can watch all the action on the floor. We see a few circles in the crowd where people are moshing, and it’s amazing to watch the energy ripple and flow through the crowd.

Every so often someone tries to breach the security moat and get on the stage, but they are dragged down by the security folks. UNTIL one guy does it. The band is performing the song “Sure Shot” and this guy somehow pops up on the stage! He whips out a throwaway instant camera and while being chased by security, he stops and snaps a selfie with at least two of the band members. Just as it seems security is going to nab him, he runs to the edge of the stage and LEAPS OFF, clearing the moat and falling into the crowd, who catch him and swallow him up. The crowd roars for their hero and the security folks are probably telling the story to this day, not to mention my brother and I like to share this memory and revisit it. I just had to ask him what the song was, as a matter of fact, since I couldn’t tell you a single one they performed.

A couple years ago, the musical Hamilton hit the zeitgeist. I heard friends raving about it online and sought it out. My brother remained clueless about this one, until his daughter brought it to his attention, and he became a fan. I love this thread connecting us through time and space, and seeing his daughter picking up the tradition thrills me.

Sometimes other people’s passions become integrated into my own spheres, but often they are something I enjoy vicariously. It adds color and dimension to my life, sometimes turns my brain inside-out and makes me think about things in different ways, and always challenges me to give something a try. Except shrimp. Sorry Mom, I still hate shrimp.

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The Dance

I have come to the conclusion I’m a kinesthetic learner. Feeling something in my body means I have integrated the information on a deep level. Most of the insights I’ve gotten in my adult years have pertained to how I operate in the world, how I respond to challenges that come my way. Both yoga and swimming have provided powerful metaphors for how I move through life.

mambo steps

Recently while reading a novel I was struck by the metaphor of partner dancing. I’ve been a reader all of my conscious life, but I didn’t start partner dancing until I was an adult. Reading was the way I escaped as a child. It was a place of refuge, where I could find more people like me, or be transported far away from the world I was living in, a world I felt I didn’t fit. Reading was also how I learned about the world.

Reading felt like a solitary affair, a thing I did alone. I entered the world and was there with my thoughts, but I didn’t see anyone else there with me. I would shut out the world around me to enter the one in the book. I’ve often heard that there is a dynamic between a reader and writer, and intellectually I understood this. But it wasn’t until I made the connection with dance that I really got it.

Partner dancing, conversely, is about connecting with another person in this world, and together creating an experience that can take both dancers out of this world.

The first partner dance I learned was country two-step, which I learned as a follow. When I first began learning, I had to consciously count the steps in my head, unable to converse with my lead until I had incorporated the rhythm in my body. Once I was comfortable with the basic step, I started learning more moves. A lead has many options they can take their follower through, from the basic step to a variety of moves beyond moving in a line. You’ve probably seen them on the popular dance competition shows.

After I’d gained a level of proficiency with following, I began to teach myself how to lead, reverse-engineering if you will. It was purely self-serving because I wanted to dance, and there were people who would only lead or only follow. Now I could dance as much as I wanted, as long as I could find a partner.

I have dabbled with writing for much of my life, but only started getting serious about learning craft in the last several years. As with anything, when we first start to learn a thing, we are highly conscious of all the things we have to do while we are doing them.
Since I’ve been dancing for over two decades, I have a level of comfort and ease that comes across to others. People have told me they feel intimidated to ask me to dance, because they believe I am more skilled than they are. For me, I have two requirements for a lead:

    1. keep the rhythm
    2. don’t run me into other dancers (or avoid the erratic dancers)

I’m perfectly content and satisfied to follow a lead who does these two things, without adding any extra moves. I’m not disappointed in the least. We can talk, or not, but just moving around the floor to music, entrusting myself to someone else, is fun! Just like writers, there are certain dancers who I find an ease and connection with more easily than others. Sometimes it can take a while to warm up to either, but the work is usually worth the effort.

I was talking to a friend who is also a dancer about the parallels between reading and dancing. I asked him what he felt the job of the lead was. He said, “To keep me safe.” I was startled by his answer, but I also loved it.

I’ve been playing a lot with this metaphor since I thought about it, overlaying it on my experience as both a reader and a writer. With partner dance there are many styles, from tango to waltz to salsa; in fiction, genres are like these different dances. They both have rules and patterns. The follower or reader understand there are basic rules, but the lead or writer can create endless variations on top of the set pattern.

As a lead in dancing, it’s my job to maintain the rhythm and send clear signals to let the follow know what I want her to do. As a writer, in telling a story I have the same responsibility. If I lead a move and stop in the middle to change it, my follow is going to lose her trust and end up confused.

As a writer, I need to lead my reader through the story as skillfully as I can. There are cues I can give, just as I would in dance, to let the reader know something is going to change. Basically, I want to manage expectations so the reader is not thrown for a complete loop. Just as in dancing, timing is everything. I can’t front load the story, because the reader will become overwhelmed and quit, but if I wait too long, the reader will become bored and walk away.

There are many reasons a reader or dancer will stay, even if the timing isn’t great. Making it fun and engaging is just as important. Your style is unique. It won’t speak to every reader, just as in dancing there are some people you connect with more easily than others.

As I think about the stories I want to tell, I want to remember this metaphor of the dance. Just as I moved from a follow to a lead, I can shift between reader and writer, thinking about the experience from both sides – a 360 degree view, rather than 180. There’s a partnership between the two, even if it’s not carried out in real time, but the dance of the writer and reader can span the distance of space and time.

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NK Jemisin – Building a World

Ezra Klein invited NK Jemisin on his podcast and she walked him through the world building exercise she does with students. I have transcribed the portion of the podcast where they go through the exercise. There was some banter at the beginning I did not include, nor did I include the last 20 minutes or so, where they went on to talk about other things a writer might think about when creating their world – like roles and scripts and how those play out in interactions. I encourage you to listen to the entire episode, which you can find here: Ezra Klein Show:
I build a world with fantasy master N.K. Jemisin

EK = Ezra Klein
NKJ = NK Jemisin

[Several minutes of chatter before they start into the world building exercise]

world book

beginning of transcript

EK: How do you imagine a world so fully? What does it take to generate the rules of a universe that your characters and readers will live in for thousands of pages, and make all of that feel real? This is an unusual podcast: it’s not a conversation, it’s a demonstration. Nora shows us how she builds worlds, rather than just telling us. She does it live, here. And it’s amazing to experience in real time! You realize that building new worlds is about thinking more clearly about our world, so you can imagine what would happen if you began changing parts of it.

There’s a post-script. Between when I recorded this a few weeks ago and now, Jemisin became the first writer to win three Hugo awards for best novel in a row. And to have every book in a single series win that award. It’s an amazing achievement and I’m so proud to present this conversation.

EK: Nora Jemisin, welcome to the podcast.
NKJ: Thank you for welcoming me.
EK: We are going to do something today that I’m incredibly excited about, because I have never done it before. We’re going to build a world. What is world building, in the science fiction/fantasy sense, because it seems to have a specific meaning that those who aren’t familiar with it may just not know.
NKJ: It does. It’s one of the things that makes SFF unique among literary forms, just because you’re not doing a story in the first world, which is what we call our world/this world. We’re often using secondary worlds, i.e. worlds that aren’t earth. Could be another planet, another reality, could be another universe! It’s somewhere where the laws of physics don’t work the same way. there may be magic, there might be creatures or beings that don’t exist in our world. Could be strange environmental circumstances, but who knows. It’s a staple of science fiction and fantasy writing.
EK: what’s the difference between world building and writing a story in a different world?
NKJ: I mean .. it’s not! There is no difference. World building is the process that you use that you then write the story in. World building is not a substitute for writing a story. There are some examples of books that have been published that are nothing but world, like Tolkien’s The Silmarillion – I’m mangling the name, I always do. So that’s basically a book of almost nothing but world building, because it’s the history of The Lord of the Rings. But for the most part, people aren’t able to publish their books of world building. World building is just an exercise that you do to prepare for writing. And then you don’t, in order to make sure you are writing well, you don’t drown your audience in all of the world building that you do. You use it to provide flavor and environment and effect – in some cases it provides allegories for the problems the people are dealing with that are very much like our own problems, but just at one remove.
EK: so when I’m reading SFF books, there is much more world built than I see.
NKJ: yep. We usually kind of suggest. There’s not a convention on how to do it. There’s a running adage in the science fiction and fantasy writing community of – make sure that you aren’t inflicting “I’ve suffered for my art and now so will you” on your audience (laughter). So I usually tell people treat it like an iceberg: you’ve got 90% of it that you aren’t going to see, and 10% that’s above the water.
EK: So you do these world building workshops, because you are a master of the craft.
NKJ: Thank you.
EK: You have so generously offered to do this live. We’re gonna build —
NKJ: We’ll see how this works out. Ok.
EK: So, where do we start? How do we build a world?
NKJ: well, you can start with the laws of physics. You can start with the universal level. I usually depict this as a kind of inverted pyramid, where we’re starting with the macro scale and working down to the micro. You can start as high as the level as how your universe is built, but then that requires you to understand things like how physics works. I don’t necessarily want to get too deep into that. I usually start with the planetary —
EK: given how I did in physics, I appreciate that.
NKJ: Yeah, I never took physics so all right! I usually start at the planetary level, and for the sake of doing the workshop, when I usually present it to writing students at writing workshops or MFA programs, the way that I usually do it – we start with the assumption of a world that is like Earth. A rocky planet, terrestrial world, not a gas giant, for example. You can do a gas giant, it’s just that you need to know something about gas giants before you’re going to go too far into that. We are usually going to assume we are going to be working with people who are like us. You can run with completely different species if you want. I ended up doing a workshop where we had a whole bunch of people that were sentient cats (laughter). We decided the calicos ruled the world and there was a bunch of stuff about catnip drug trade. Anyway … you start at the planetary level, and we’re gonna assume an earth-like planet. Let’s start by letting you, since you’re going to be my only guinea pig for this particular experiment, letting you pick how many continents you’re gonna work with.
EK: Well I’ve always missed Pangea.
NKJ: Oh, so you want to go with one.
EK: I’m going to stay straight forward. I just took a trans-Atlantic flight and I found that to be too long. (laughter)
NKJ: You’d still have to travel the same distance, it would just be over land!
EK: But that wouldn’t be true, would it?
NKJ: You’re still dealing with the same amount of landmass, it’s just that you aren’t dealing with it spread out, so I mean—
EK: Yes, my flight would have been shorter
NKJ: Maybe.
EK: I’m very bad with questions of geography, so I might just be getting this wrong. But wait, I want to ask one meta question on the way, before we jump in. One of the things I’m hearing from you is that the purpose of the world building project – you need enough knowledge of the world to make the world feel realistic.
NKJ: Yes
EK: So the further you get – if you’re trying to work off a gas giant, what you need is to understand gas giants so well that when you are writing about them you can explain them clearly and it will feel natural, authentic to the reader. That’s the trick of it, I would imagine.
NKJ: yeah. We understand the world we live in innately, because we live in it. But what that means is that every one of us is an expert in surviving on a terrestrial world with a nitrogen-based atmosphere (laughter) and a carbon-based organic system. So we all understand this because we live it. We aren’t standing around having conversations with each other about “Hey, the nitrogen’s pretty good today.” We do understand it. So the characters who are going to inhabit this world also need to understand it, which means that we do. So we’ve got to speak and think as the characters do. We’re not going to be able to get that level of understanding, but we need to think like the locals do and speak like the locals do, in order to make it feel real.
EK: Alright, so Pangea.
NKJ: So we’re going to go with Pangea. And one of the things I think people didn’t understand about the various Pangeas in our world, because there have been more than one –
EK: well see, I’m learning things already!
NKJ: yeah we’ve had multiple supercontinents over time, plate tectonics never really stops. So one of the things people didn’t understand in our world is that it’s gigantic. When the Pangea exists, the interior tends to be fairly arid, because prevailing winds carrying water often can’t reach over into the middle of the continent. I’m just going to preface that. But then – pick a spot somewhere in there where our culture that we’re going to be dealing with – our people and their culture are going to develop.
EK: so when you say pick a spot, what does that mean?
NKJ: middle, coast, by a river. Give me an idea of where you want to put this.
EK: certainly not on the coast
NKJ: not on coast? Ok.
EK: Far enough that resourcing and water and so on are not impossible but are not naturally advantageous. I don’t want to be too deep in the interior, from what you said about the aridness there, you just might not want to be in the interior.
NKJ: Well, think about Australia.
EK: Yeah, I would not want to be in Australia (laughter)
NKJ: Yeah the Outback (laughter)
EK: Sorry to my Australian listeners!
NKJ: I’ve always wanted to visit. I’m not sure I necessarily want to live there. You have to understand that your audience is bringing to the table its knowledge of one world – this world. And they are going to relate pretty much everything they know about this world to whatever world you’re creating. So if you’re going to create a big continent with an interior that’s not well watered with rivers and things like that, and probably wouldn’t be because that far inland, like I said, there’s no way for the water to get there, you’re going to end up with a giant Outback in the middle of this continent.
EK: So if we were thinking about this Pangea like the US, let’s say Nevada is where we’re going … Not the coast of California —
NKJ: Well the coast of California is pretty arid, depending on where you are.
EK: Fair enough
NKJ: Baja California, all of that
EK: that’s true
NKJ: It’s really a question of where it’s located, close to the equator or far away. So is it in a temperate zone or intense sunlight zone? Give me an idea of where – this is the difficulty of not doing this in person – give me an idea of where near the equator your spot is.
EK: We’ve so quickly gotten into places where I’m going to betray how poor my understanding of how the earth works is. Let’s say we’re working with a desert. I have a familiarity with the Nevada desert, for various reasons related to my own life. So let’s say a desert, pretty arid region.
NKJ: okay why don’t we go with the edge of the giant outback-like area.
EK: great
NKJ: So still temperate, still maybe a little bit of rain, but it’s just occasional and sparse, a light spritz. I’m not familiar with Nevada and desert-like regions. You’re going to have to supply that information. I would have to do research to completely create this world. Imagine that climate then. Once we’ve picked a spot – once we understand what the climate is like – why don’t you describe that to me, since I don’t fully understand Nevada? I’ve never lived there.
EK: The world is about to learn that I have gone to Burning Man a couple of times —
NKJ: (laughter)
EK: — and we’re talking in early August, so it’s on my mind. So we’re about to get a description of Black Rock Desert, which would be a very bad place to set up a society in general, that’s the whole point. But it’s one of the only places where I’ve seen an unusual world built. Which is why it came to mind – out of nothing, a world emerges. So [it’s] dusty; a very fine, alkaline dust. The ground is cracked; the more you walk on it, the softer the ground gets. Over the course of people inhabiting it, it becomes more and more difficult for people to get around. There are frequent dust storms. I’m a little concerned about building a world here, so we might want to move it, because I don’t think you can grow anything there, or not anything significant.
NKJ: Is it like that only in August, or all year long?
EK: It gets more rain at times, but my understanding is that this particular area is – and again I could be wrong – but it’s not usable in that way. It’s always pretty bare.
NKJ: And when you say alkaline, that also makes me suspect that’s why things don’t grow there. Alright, let’s move maybe a little further south. (laughter) South of our proto-Burning Man zone to a place that’s maybe a little bit more like the Sonoran desert.
EK: Perfect.
NKJ: Which I did visit once. There’s not much rain, it’s pretty arid, but there’s a lot of arid-adapted plants there. Even some of it is typical stuff like tumbleweeds and so forth but … lots of beautiful rock formations. There was at one point in the past an inland sea there, so there are a lot of fossils in the area. You can find evidence of old forests that no longer exist. This Pangea was not always a Pangea. It came together and at some point when that happened it killed everything that was living in that spot. Let’s assume that our people – and we’re going to go with human beings for the sake of the exercise – but you don’t necessarily have to – like I said, sentient cats.
EK: can we add a prehensile tail?
NKJ: (laughter) sure! Human beings actually do have an adaptation for prehensile tails —
EK: human beings just plus a prehensile tail —
NKJ: yeah sometimes humans are actually born with tails. I don’t know that they’re prehensile, now that I think about it.
EK: I believe they’re not, which has always been a disappointment to me.
NKJ: oh yeah that is kind of sad
EK: I watched a fair amount of Thundercats when I was young —
NKJ: oh my god that’s funny —
EK: I have
NKJ: they don’t have tails though do they?
EK: Am I wrong? At least some of them —
NKJ: No I don’t think—
EK: Am I just mixing up different like Tyrgas and Thunderas?
NKJ: You’re calling me back to my ‘80s childhood and I don’t remember and I’ve just outed myself in front of a whole bunch of nerds as not knowing Thundercats well enough. It’s terrible.
EK: It’s possible I have, actually.
NKJ: Okay
EK: I’m going to call this up on my phone while we’re talking.
NKJ: yeah I don’t think Thundercats have tails.
EK: Oh no, I’m sorry, I’ve totally nailed this. They definitely have tails. I did search “Thundercats tails”
NKJ: oh interesting
EK: so either I’m seeing fan art of them with tails — or they had tails.
NKJ: okay, I’ll go with what you decide. If you want to give them tails, they’ve got tails.
EK: They’ve got tails.
NKJ: so they’re people but with tails —
EK: nah nah I think you’re right —
NKJ: alright —
EK: but people with tails
NKJ: Ok. So we’ve got people with tails. Now that we’ve picked an environment and people with whatever adaptation they have that makes them unique, usually somewhere in this process of world building we insert something I jokingly call “Element X.” “Element X” is usually the point of utter weirdness at which, you know, you’re not in Kansas anymore. Granted, since this world is so different from our own, that IS the Element X. But you just stuck tails on human beings, so I guess that’s also our Element X —
EK: but to talk about this in a meta way, in Black Panther, vibranium is your Element X.
NKJ: yeah, that’s a great way to think about it.
EK: It’s like you twist something and the world begins to evolve in a different way.
NKJ: Yeah, the biggest point of divergence from our world, because in this case pretty much everything is a divergence. Were you going to say something?
EK: No, I was just thinking what possible Element X’s could be. What are some interesting Element Xs in sci-fi? So as we’re doing this, people also get a sense of how this has played out in things they’ve loved before.
NKJ: In Dune, I’m thinking of that classic that a lot of folks have read. First off, it takes place 10,000 years in the future, so that in and of itself is kind of an Element X.
EK: So a setting can be an Element X?
NKJ: Setting can be, time can be, the fact that human beings have effectively evolved a group of people who are capable of transiting space-time, that’s the Spacers’ Guild. Granted that’s with the use of extremely psychedelic drugs but they’re able to do it. There are people who are able to use various mental powers. That’s also an Element X. Psionics is what it’s always been called in sort of classic science fiction.
EK: Got it. So X-Men mutations would be an Element X.
NKJ: Yeah. So psychic abilities, super strength, or just people who have unique abilities. In The Incredibles, the fact that there are Supers is the Element X. That’s an example. As I’ve done this exercise before, I’ve actually — the people that’ve done the workshop have come up with some of the most bizarre Element Xs. Let’s see. In one exercise, we ended up with a sentient Gulf Stream that eats people. So there was an ocean current – like the rest of the ocean was perfectly normal, but that was this one ocean current that was alive and hated you and would eat your ships. So people did not spread over this planet quite as easily as they did on ours, because they kept getting eaten. And they also developed a culture and a mythology around the evil current. So there was that.
Another time I did this exercise I presented it to a bunch of teenagers right before lunch, and the student that I asked to draw the continents drew them in the shape of 12 identical wedges, just like a pizza. (laughter) So … because they were hungry, we ended up with Pizza World —
EK: This is why you don’t write sci-fi before lunch.
NKJ: yeah. Well no! I mean, we ran with it!
EK: Or maybe why you do I guess!
NKJ: yeah yeah what it meant was that the people who evolved on this world, once they developed science, knew that their world could not have naturally developed like this.
EK: One of the things you’re bringing to mind for me – I was a fan when I was younger of the Harry Turtledove alternative fiction series. In the ones where – there’s a great – I haven’t read it in so long I don’t know if it’s great but it was when I read it (laughter) – there’s a series where aliens invade Earth during WWII.
NKJ: Oh interesting.
EK: so the intervention – what’s so interesting about it, thinking about it in your framework is that obliviously, in terms of Earth, the Element X is aliens coming. But for aliens, the way he does it, ginger turns out to be a cocaine-like substance for them.
NKJ: (laughter)
EK: So Earth includes – for this alien race – an addictive drug that begins wreaking havoc and becomes a key plot point.
NKJ: So what happens? Do the Allies start lobbing ginger ale at them or what?
EK: I don’t remember exactly, but it becomes a lot of trading. It becomes ways that dissension under this – as I remember, again, it’s been a very long time – that this very well-oiled invasion machine begins to break down. Where initially human beings have no chance, one of the things that happens – the interactions with Earth and ginger, particularly, becomes a way that the alien force itself changes which in turn creates possibilities for humans to mount – not just a counter-strike, but to create alliances to create mead(?) that the aliens have on them. I remember it being very interesting, but it’s interesting the idea of having an Element X going in both directions.
NKJ: yeah, that is. And that’s one of the things that’s fun about first contact stories. If they’re well rendered, then yeah, you do end up having two Element Xs, or two civilizations reacting to the sudden imposition of Element X.
For the sake of this world exercise, usually we’re dealing with an Element X that’s not a sudden intrusion. Usually we’re dealing with something that’s built into the world and it changes the way people function in their world versus in our world. So past a certain point, it’s no a longer an exercise where we’re building a people but we just start talking about how cultures in our world develop. But one of the things I try and focus on is the cultural elements that form the basis of this culture, and they usually derive from environment or something about this world. For example, when I’m talking about sociological or cultural elements, I’m talking about how does their language develop? What is their religion like? What is it about their sexuality that is unique compared to ours? As part of the exercise, I have the students or people involved in the workshop select 1-3 different elements that we’re going to delve deep in to. Why don’t we go with one, for the sake of this talk? So pick a sociological element you want to dig deep on, and we can kind of figure out how it’s going to shape this culture.
EK: So a thing that I would imagine in a world like this is the coasts will naturally become the seats of power.
NKJ: Possibly.
EK: On the one hand they have more protection. They are only threatened on one side, in the way that others are – it’s sort of a war of all against all.
NKJ: More protection against other cultures?
EK: Protection against other cultures, against invasion; they can escape more easily. They can travel more easily because they can board boats and go up and down. I can imagine ways it wouldn’t have evolved that way, but if I’m picking a way this one did evolve — I imagined power radiates out of coastal capitols.
NKJ: Possibly. Remember that in our world, land and ocean, neither of those are barriers to the spread of a culture. Human beings all over, all cultures, have come up with boats. It’s possible the people living on coasts are so harried by pirates or something, they haven’t been able to develop because they are constantly attacked and their culture gets knocked down again and again and again. That’s happened in certain parts of our world. If you want to run with that, we can do that.
EK: I’m happy to run with a better one!
NKJ: We’re focusing on the folks who live in this desert-like area, so if that’s the one you want to run with, there’s no such thing as a better one in this case. Any cultural element that is different from our own world is going to make an exponential difference in how this world develops versus our own.
EK: So if you were thinking about how to twist something on these desert dwellers, how would you do it?
NKJ: I’m thinking they have tails, but prehensile tails develop in species on our planet that do climbing. You need them for climbing purposes. In a desert there aren’t trees. There are, however, rocks. I wonder if they live in cliffs, just offhand, and maybe they’ve built a culture where they’ve built cities in these giant rock formations. Just off the top of my head.
EK: Would that count as something different enough, because we have cultures like that.
NKJ: Different from the culture that is probably going to be reading the book. We have cliff-dwelling cultures now, who may be reading sci-fi in English coming out of an American publisher (laughter). It’s entirely possible thanks to colonization that all of these books are available and the internet. But for now, but it’s fairly different from the way our world works. I was just thinking of that off the top of my head. They are probably a poor culture compared to the coasts, if you want to run with the idea that the coasts are wealthy, and are more powerful and big cities. The people who live in the desert, are poorer, they are sparse, there are fewer of them, but they have incredibly beautiful cities occupying the giant rock formations.
EK: I love it! Let’s go with that.
NKJ: Okay, let’s run with it. Once we’re into how the culture starts to develop, then we start to talk about the ways that culture is sociologically different from our own. We start talking about syncretism, differentiation, cosmogony and economy. How did that culture get to be the way that it is?
EK: Do you want to define a few of those terms?
NKJ: Sure. Syncretism is basically cultures building on what has come before. So the fact that this culture has tails, means probably somewhere in their distant ancestral past, they were used to living in a world with trees, or a world with things that tails were useful to climb. Maybe their culture, even though they’re now living in cliffs, still venerates trees. Maybe it’s built around the idea of what life in the forest is like. They’ve adapted [to the cliffs], but their culture is still going to have elements that are deprecated from the time they lived in forest. Maybe they venerate walking quietly, even though in the desert it kind of doesn’t matter, but in a forest it would. So they’re just incredibly quiet people. Maybe we found our name for them. They are The Quiet People. I don’t know.

Differentiation is one of the ways cultures develop, kind of in rivalry or interactions with other cultures; they want to be different from those people over there next door. This is why, in a lot of cases, cultures that develop in the same environment next door to each other are so drastically different. They get their identity from “we ain’t like those people.” In some cases, that does lead to warfare, among very similar people. There’s a bunch of different examples I could throw out where.

Cosmogony: where do we come from? How their ideas about where we come from may have developed. Different cultures in our world looked up at the sky and were able to cobble together how the planets worked and figure out basic astronomy. A lot of them used that to develop different mythologies. Greeks came up with the gods living in constellations. Or constellations telling stories that were rooted in their own mythology.

Economy is exactly what it is in our world: how do they get and distribute resources? We might want to dig deeper into that one. People in a desert who were formerly forest dwellers, who are living in a world where they are the poorer cousins of big city folks – how do they make their money? How do they survive?
EK: I think the question is, do we want to make them traders or raiders?
NKJ: my guess is they wouldn’t last long as raiders. If city people have more resources, they can rapidly develop defenses or abilities against any raiders. Eventually they can fight them off and eventually track them into the desert and wipe them out.
EK: so traders it is!
NKJ: Yeah, raiding doesn’t work too well once you’ve got an economic disparity between the groups. One group usually just takes over the other at that point. Let’s say traders. What are they getting out of the desert that people in the city would pay top dollar for? Do you have any thoughts on that?
EK: Let me think about this for a minute.
NKJ: Or at least pay enough that the people living in the desert could survive and make a living?
(Silence then laughter)
EK: Well this is where the problem that I just pulled this out of … holes in my mind immediately comes up —
NKJ: Well, let’s go back to Burning Man though.
EK: You have a crew of people living in unusually high dwellings, who have adapted to a super rough environment. Let’s say, compared to other cultures, have an unusually communal culture. Compared to more individualistic cultures that have developed, cultures that are a little more internally-trading based if we’re going to use the Burning Man build here. They do less trading with themselves, trying to build things communally, in order to survive in extreme conditions, has an almost kibbutz-like way of erecting society, raising children, communicating with one another. Let’s say they are builders. I don’t know where they get the resources to build, but what they are trading is their expertise at creating dwellings that are unusually well designed, to be transported and to withstand harsh climates.
NKJ: That makes me think building into cliffs does require some really complex and advanced architecture. For one of my books, I ended up going to – I’m mutilating the name – Canyon de Chelly. [explanation of how to spell and pronounce]. It’s a little a valley/canyon in Arizona in the Najavo nation. If you go down into it, you can see where the ancient Anasazi had built cliffs a thousand feet off the ground. Whole villages were built up there. You saw the architectural techniques they were using to do this, supports and struts and tackles and pulleys, used at a time when we didn’t think civilizations were doing a lot of this advanced architecture and construction-type stuff. So that makes sense. It follows that the people who come from this culture know some unique building design techniques, and would farm that out to people in the cities who were like, “hey! We don’t know what we’re doing! We’re still living on huts in stilts because of floods. Maybe you can offer us some different suggestions, or maybe you can help us build skyscrapers.
EK: That would be one. The other thing you made me think of, I’ve been doing some other work on a journalism project … about global water crises. Which is that a desert culture would be adapted to less water. If you imagine, as has happened in some of your books that I love, that you’re going through a time of geographic stress, of climatological stress, and so you’re going through a drought. You’re dealing with a poor culture, that has traditionally been poor and a little water deprived, and has managed to survive amidst that. Now the rest of the world is having to deal with similar things. So some of the techniques they’ve developed are all of sudden in demand.
NKJ: Like water reclamation
EK: Water reclamation, yep
NKJ: That works.
EK: So there is knowledge they have. They’re at a moment, perhaps, past poverty, and ways of life that were previously looked down on have some value.
NKJ: That requires us to do some world building about the people on the coasts. Are they the kind of culture who would be willing to listen, to people that they once scorned. We have seen from human history that that does not happen.
EK: That’s a fair point.
NKJ: I’m reminded off the top of my head – there was a period of time where Vikings and Inuit cohabited the same environment. I want to say Greenland, it might be Iceland, I always get them mixed up. It’s horrible. Where they were cohabiting, on the same land, the Inuit had learned to hunt and eat seal, because that was one way to keep their nutrient level high. You couldn’t grow much in that environment. The Vikings would not eat seal. According to them, the seal tasted bad. I don’t blame for being like, ew, gross! Because they wouldn’t adapt, the Vikings did not last very long in this environment. The Inuits did; they’re still there now. Of course, in modern times, everybody’s there.
This is an example in our own world. You see people who could listen to the locals/indigenous people on how to live and survive in their land, and don’t. We haven’t seen a whole lot of that evidence in our society, in our world.

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EK: One thing you do here, and it makes sense having read your work, is that I’ll often suggest something straightforward: maybe the coasts have a lot of power, or these people don’t have much water – and it has often seemed to me in your work that there is a darker view of human nature and the way human societies interact. Seems the work often deals with the question of do the societies become so injust they can’t be redeemed. One question that raises – which is probably a more realistic way of thinking about how societies evolve, is, it often seems when you are thinking about how a society would design or run itself, that things would run straightforwardly as if it was being designed by an engineer. But the question of how worlds actually build themselves is cultural and based around .. differentiation. The organizing principle is around how the cultures thought about themselves, and that creates a different set of downstream adaptations or lack of adaptations, to your point about the Vikings.
NKJ: the thing you have to do, in order to world build well, is understand how our world works. I don’t think it’s a dark view of human nature. I think it’s a view of human nature that’s informed by history. The sad and honest truth is that our history is full of people being awful to each other; also, our history is full of people being great to each other. So I try to depict both. But when you’re talking societies and how they develop, you have to understand they aren’t logical. (laughter)
EK: But that seems like such a big point!
NKJ: Yes! You have to understand that the dynamics that dictate how we do things are not as simple as “hey those people over there have a great idea, why don’t we borrow it or talk to them and get their expertise.” You’re dealing with power dynamics. You’re dealing with egos. You’re doing dealing with psychology and sociology and all the aspects of human nature. It’s important to understand the sciences when you’re doing world building. Both the physical sciences of how our world work and the social sciences of how people work. The world that your readers know best is OUR WORLD, so you’ve got fantastic research available to you, if you want to explore it, on how people have done in our world these exact same things. There’s no reason to make assumptions or pull things out of whole cloth. We’ve got the whole of human history to draw from for examples of how people react when they see another culture doing something that might be a good idea. And frequently they dig in their heels and decide we’re not going to do it because it’s coming from those people over there and they don’t know anything and they’re stupid and that kind of thing.
EK: the other possibility that seems more evident is that, what I said was their status would raise and their prospects would raise, by having something other people wanted. Probably more realistically, their threat would raise, by having something people wanted. And they would be in more danger.
NKJ: Yeah … and they would be in more danger. I briefly thought of that, but then I wanted to keep it brief. So one of the elements I usually cover, once we get into the culture, we are getting micro world building – i.e. the way that the people or culture develops in which the story takes place. One of the things you have to figure out is what the power dynamics are going to be like. So … when we’re talking about power in the sociological sense, we’re talking about the ability to control other people. That’s what that means. Sometimes in subtle ways. The power to coerce or force other people to do things, but with impunity on your part. You can hurt those people and you won’t get punished by your government for doing so. You start to think about – in our world, who is the default? Who is considered normal? Who is treated as marginalized or abnormal?
We also spend time in the workshop talking about who has power over time – like talk time. There have been a number of studies that have come to light in the past few years. We have this common wisdom in our society that women talk too much. Women will talk your ear off. But when actual studies of who dominates conversations have been reviewed, it’s clear that men are the ones who are doing 2/3 of the talking. And that women are perceived as talking too much when they’re actually only talking 25-30% of the time. And that’s just our particular cultural dynamics. We are a patriarchal society. We react badly – men and women – all genders – when women talk versus when men talk. It changes our perception of reality. We literally don’t realize that people who are speaking less than 50% of the time aren’t dominating the conversation.
We have to be aware of how power works in our society and depict these power dynamics – or how power dynamics work in our created society as well.
EK: I really like the way you put all that. One thing I think about in your books – you portray societies where people who have power are subjugated.
NKJ: Well what do you mean power?
EK: People who have the ability to summon physical force – orogonies – people who can cause massive geological fluctuations or in The Inheritance Trilogy, gods, who are in different ways held captive. So, you’re right, they don’t have power, power is the one thing they don’t have, even though they have a potentiality within them. In a less subtle rendering of the world, you would say these are people or creatures on top.
NKJ: remember we are talking about sociological power versus …force? So sociological power can level or imbalance the ground between groups that have physical power. This is not a thing that is unusual or surprising. We’ve got the whole of human history to look at. We’ve got societies that have been dominated by a minority before.
EK: And still do.
NKJ: And still do. We’ve seen how this mechanism works in our own world, where you’ve got a vast population of people who if they just threw themselves at their oppressors enough, they would be free. But the sociological mechanisms can level that ground, can make up for the sheer numbers of people. It’s not necessarily a good thing. I’m not saying it’s a good or a bad thing. I think it’s a bad thing in our own world, but it’s how power works. It’s how power defends itself. How we set up a society in which you’ve got self-perpetuating systems of people who are being oppressed, are told again and again they are supposed to be oppressed, it’s a good thing they are being oppressed – they internalize that. And they eventually start to reinforce that same system within themselves. We’ve seen this happen again and again in our own world. And we have to understand how our own world works if we’re going to be rending this in another world.
So yeah, in the Broken Earth trilogy, you’ve got people with the ability to literally move mountains, but there aren’t very many of them. One of the things the other people, the ones who don’t have the ability to move mountains have figured out to do, is to grab these folks when they’re young. Kill them if they’re found when they’re older, but when you find them young, take them to a place where they can be indoctrinated with the idea that their role is to serve. They are living on the sufferance of their betters. That they are inherently harmful, evil, flawed, bad people and that only by the sufferance of their betters should they be allowed to function, because otherwise they are a threat to all that exists.
When you tell people stuff like this, especially from a young age, when you tell them this again and again again, it’s brainwashing. Same technique works with marketing, just less overtly harmful. Human minds are susceptible to manipulation; human societies are susceptible to manipulation on this level. This is one of the things I try to get across.
EK: How would you think about displaying power in this society we’re creating?
NKJ: If the people in the cities are starting to have a water crisis, this is off the top of my head, and they have nothing but contempt for the desert dwellers who know how to survive with water, the people in the cities would become more profligate in their abuse of water. They will form a culture around flouting how much water they’ve got, even if it’s not much, even if it’s dwindling. And they will waste it more, on purpose, just to stick it to those people in the desert. Or to remind themselves they are more powerful, they are better people. They’re awesome, so … we can do this. We can use up this water. Oh well, sucks to be you. We don’t believe we will run out of water. They will probably tell themselves that. Just like in our world – people tell themselves there’s no need to do anything about climate change. You know, God is going to save us from climate change. God sent us scientists, so I don’t know why … that’s a whole other conversation.
EK: There’s another thing you make me think of. I’m Californian. Recently we’ve gone through some terrible droughts. One of the ways I noticed that the – I don’t think managed is the correct word, but “messaged” is the correct word – is that a lot of usages of water that people broadly had to do, and particularly that were spread across society, pushed on – so getting free water at restaurants. Which is certainly more important if you’re low income than high income – but that became something that – I don’t want to say became frowned upon, but it became questioned. How long should your showers be?
But that’s the not the thing … we have massive agricultural use, which is very wasteful. We have lawns, we have golf courses, we have pools, we have fountains. It seems to me, watching the way people talked about it, there was a constant effort to stigmatize uses of water that were very common and not that big of a deal. And there was also a very big effort among businesses, to try to make people pay for water that they were using in small ways. You saw it in hotels, you saw it in restaurants, you saw it when you were washing your hands. Doing things humans need to do. Meanwhile the questions of industrial use, the things that made people rich off water, those were protected and not questioned. So I do wonder in a world like this if you wouldn’t begin to see a backlash or just lash, towards usages of water that were more essential, as people tried to protect the usages of water that were the things that gave them power.
NKJ: My guess is the people in the city would start blaming the desert dwellers for the dwindling water resources. Yeah, that is how our power dynamics tend to work. People with power immediately want to deflect or project their own misuses onto other people, so they can continue to live the way they want, without making changes. Even if they are the people who are at the core of the problem. But they’ve got the power to deflect, and they do. This is a thing that we see over and over again in our world. If you depict it in this fictional world, your audience will understand exactly why it happens, because they are used to it, because they see it. Because they get that that is how societies work.
EK: So perhaps the idea of living in the desert at all, having society in the desert, becomes stigmatized, becomes something people turn ire on.
NKJ: In that case, you are potentially facing the displacement of this group of people—
EK: Right.
NKJ: Possibly forceable displacement of this group of people, even though these people are capable of surviving in the desert just fine. The society’s wrath would focus on that. I think you’re completely right.
EK: So that’s a power dynamic we’re beginning to see in this world?
NKJ: Yeah. I usually with the workshop – now that we’ve figured out the power dynamics, we then start focusing more on – again assuming we are going to be focusing on the desert society, how that society is structured. We focus on their roles within society, like family roles, gender roles, how their socio-economic system works, what their careers are like. We focus on how their power dynamics manifest within the society. So, as you mentioned, they probably have a more collective, communal way of doing things. We’d need to work out how that functions. We’d need to work out, for example, what are their standards of beauty? If they don’t wash with water, let’s say they do dust washing, which is a perfectly valid thing, it’s perfectly clean and healthy, it’s what a lot of desert societies do. Let’s say they do dust washing. So looking like you’ve got wet, supple skin is not a thing in their society. Maybe having leathery, sun damaged skin feels normal for them.
We would have talked already about how they developed what their skin color is. We’ve noticed in our world that people with darker skin tend to be more resistant to UV radiation, therefore they don’t develop wrinkles as easily, that kind of thing. As we call it, “black don’t crack” in our world. Maybe their standard of beauty is built around: how well does your face resist sunlight? (laughter)
We would talk about what lower-status people in the society do. What are their lives like? We would talk about what it looks like to defy your status in your society. We’ve got people in our world who will attempt to defy the social order by doing the very same thing higher status people can get away with but normally lower status people can’t. I was thinking off the top of my head of manspreading! Which is a thing here in NY.
You’ll see – guys will come on the subway – man spreading, for people who don’t know, is usually men will come down on the subway. [They] will sit down with their legs splayed really widely and take up as much space on the seat as possible, which makes it difficult for other people to sit down. We’ve started seeing the phenomenon of woman spreading, and it’s basically a defiance of our patriarchal society. We see women come in, flop down next to a guy, and immediately start having leg war with him. Where he starts to spread, she spreads right back, and so that is a defiance. It’s a minor defiance, but it’s a little example of how people do things.
EK: As Gandhi says, a spread for a spread leaves the whole subway full. Leaves people unable to sit down.
NKJ: Yeah, that’s true, and nobody’s happy then! That never ends well :). On the other hand, you can’t let them get away with it, so you have to do something.
Once you’ve figured out the roles and how the power dynamics work, then you can start getting into the characterization of the person you are going to focus on in the society and what it is they’re dealing with, and then you can come up with a plot and all that.
The world building exercise is NOT writing; it’s what you do before you write. So once you’ve got these basics in place, then you can proceed.
That’s basically how I do it!

[Ezra and Nora have a discussion about world building, frameworks, understanding models and scripts. I recommend going and listening to the discussion. At the end, he asks her to recommend three books.]
EK: what 3 books would you recommend to our listeners?
NKJ: I’m terrible at recommending books.
Martha Wells Murderbot series
Just finished reading Octavia Butler’s Unexpected Stories – 2 stories that were found posthumously.
I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head! Only two of three.

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