Thursday, May 3, 2012

Creating a "Real" subculture

For the Weekly Short Story Contest over on Goodreads I decided to take a stab at doing a story for the Queen's Fury universe in which my novel is going to take place. I want to keep developing the world and force myself to think about the various ways the races interact, as well as some back story on Mercy Lyons, how she interacts with others and what kinds of events would have landed her a place on the bridge of the HMS Diamondback where she finds herself thrust into the role of captain.

But rather than really focusing on Mercy I've been instead putting a lot of creative energy into the development of one of the races of the Royal Commonwealth of Worlds, the Hartishians.

Hartishi Prime is a jungle covered world and home to what are known in less polite slang as "space elves". They feature green skin, white hair and rows of sharp meat-rending teeth. Yes, these elves are strict carnivores. So much so, in fact that they cannot digest plant matter.

They are also intended to be a compliment to the Oresmen, dwarf-like men and women who have, for generations, populated the high gravity mining colonies. I admit that I like the play of elves and dwarves in fantasy and I don't see any reason to exclude them from science fiction. After all, isn't Spok really just Elrond in pants?

But where I'm getting stuck is coming up with a believable culture for the Hartishians.

When I wrote the first draft of chapter 1, Mercy's "Fren-emy" was named Cordea Morthi, a play on Cordelia for a first name and a mostly gibirishly inspired last name. Hartishians had no culture in my mind yet, and so I was just making up things that sounded good in order get things on the page.

But the more I worked on it, I wanted to give them something distinct, something I could draw on to build a realistic and more importantly relatable culture. I wanted people to recognize something in them, as well as have my own nods to some of my favorite writers.

Specifically, while I find it questionable that people would actually only speak Chinese for swearing in Firefly, it is a really fun twist and provides an easter egg for those willing to research (or happen to know) how to translate the expletives into plain English.

With this in mind, when I wrote the story I changed Morthi to Guillory, Crewman Winter (who does not appear in the short story but does in chapter 1) became Crewman Glase, and Leduc gets to swear in French. At one point she refers to another character as a "Le petit verre de pisse singe"which translates, roughly, to "little glass of monkey piss."

Then came a snag. Guillory is pronounced, I believe, as Gee Oh Ee. While I've nothing against this pronunciation, I chose the name because it translated to "strength". I wanted that to be a play on the fact that the character is smaller in stature and big on words. The only problem I foresaw was that as the book was talked about, I would say one thing to discuss the character and my non-French-speaking fans would expect me to say something else. I needed a more phonetic name.

And so Guillory became Leduc. According to a few websites it was used, historically, as a slander, a way to tease someone who was putting on airs. I like that name.

Only the more I've thought about it, I've hit a new snag:

Why do my elves speak French?

If this takes place in a "real" world, then how was it that the Hartishian worlds came to be so influenced by French (specifically French-Canadian) culture. It's one thing to have it be inspired, but I was more or less stealing things directly from history and throwing them into the mix. Part of this was intentional as I wanted to play a little bit to being part of a nation but not, similar to some of the struggles of the French-speaking colonies that came under British Crown rule at the end of the 18th century.

But if that were the case, then wouldn't my elves speak "Hartishian"? Why French?

In some ways I want to avoid inviting an alien language where I don't need to, and I want to minimize "nonsense" words and names.

One possible fix is this:

When the Human races made contact with the Space Elves, they were not yet a space faring culture. However they were warriors and poets, noble savages who had built themselves great monuments and great cities in the wilds. They were assimilated into the space faring races easily, but it was through the cults of French speaking missionaries that they found the most connect. Over a few generations, the French language became the primary "space" language that Hartishians learned, followed then by English. French allowed them to study higher ideas, while English gave them the opportunity to leave their planet.

Then, after a war between the Royal Commonwealth, and one of the space nations that would later join into the Union of Independent Planets, control of the Hartishian worlds (now plural as they integrated into space navies and sent out their own colony missions) was shifted to the Commonwealth as part of the peace settlement. It was an uneasy time, but the space elves made the best as they always have.

There's some work to be done on the timeline and the politics but it may work. And if it doesn't then it's time to start building a language.

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