Australian writer of books for younger readers, young adults, verse novels and poetry.

Secondary Worlds and Cityscapes – Continuum Convention, Part 3

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Weird fiction is a term that traditionally referred to macabre fiction of the 1930s. This fiction was not strictly horror or gothic fiction, but added a supernatural other – sometimes using ghost stories, sometimes using mythic tropes – to everyday reality. Weird fiction sets out to make the reader uneasy – it’s related to Freud’s idea of the unheimliche the uncanny – which is often something that should have been kept concealed but which is revealed.

There’s a full and scholarly definition of the weird here – well worth reading with a great list of must-read authors, too. Here’s an extract:

Usually, the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the unusual that they become obsessed with the weird. Whether It exists or not, they have fallen into dialogue with It; they may pull back from the abyss, they may decide to unsee what they saw, but still they saw it. Such stories can be terrifying, but do not always rely upon the scare central to horror fiction, nor the twist ending common to, for example, classic Twilight Zone episodes. They remain universal because they entertain while also expressing our own dissatisfaction with and uncertainty about reality—and in a context wherein the monster, the strangeness, stands first for itself, has a visceral physicality that convinces us, at least while reading, of the existence of The Weird.

In much weird fiction there’s a sense that the secondary world might well be the real world that has simply been waiting for us and that this world of the everyday is actually a dream. The rules of the secondary world should be known to the writer, but the reader is not always privy to them all or to their implications. The relationship between the central character and the world is often quite nebulous and sometimes the reader isn’t certain whether or not the character has always been in this world or not. There is often, however, often a sense of destiny associated with this relationship.

If you make the most of the secondary world it will reflect or explore the psychological reality of the central character. Some advice for writing about the secondary world included to write in a state of dread – trying to recreate in your own mind the underlying fear of not being able to leave the secondary world and return to the real world.

If you’re interested in writing weird or speculative fiction of any kind, look out for VanDermeer’s Wonder Book. It’s a book on my own selves that lifts my heart – it’s cram-packed with information but also incredibly inviting, with it’s colour illustrations. I like the layout, the use of side bars, the essays from writers other than VanDermeer and the web-based extras. Even the sheer weight of the book is reassuring!

Connected to the earlier session by virtue of the emphasis on world-building was the panel on ‘The Cityscape’. Asked about creating credible cityscapes, panellists came up with the following questions:

Who or what is the city built for? How does the actual shape of the city or its architecture say about it? (These questions came from Adian Doyle who also referred to A Burglar’s Guide to the City as a great non-fiction reference book on architecture.) Los Angeles, for example, is the city of bank heists – it’s a city of freeways making it easy for get-away cars. Not coincidentally the police department’s Air Support Division is the  largest in the United States. He suggested looking at the different zones a city has – where and what are their divisions.

Gillian Polack advised writers to look at what is below the city – what is the geology, where is the water (very important!) and where are the flat pieces of land. A city’s development is initially restricted by some or all of these elements – it’s built on an exact piece of earth.

Likhain (one of the Guests of Honour) asked how your city could be destroyed. What environmental forces challenge the city? In most cities, areas that are prone to environmental destruction are slum areas – the more affluent live in more stable environments.

I walked away from this session more convinced than ever that research is your friend when it comes to convincing world-building. If you travel, take lots of photos, gather up informative documents that relate to the places you visit and take notes. If you can’t travel, dedicate library time to research. You may well have to venture further than your local library although this is a good first destination. The State Library of Victoria has an online catalogue and a wealth of material – it may well end up being your best bet. University libraries are also useful if you live close to one. Not everything is on the internet!

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