Lessons from contemporary fantasy

Way back in 2018, when I was at FutureScapes, I had the pleasure of seeing Fran Wilde give an excellent presentation on How to Boil Water.

If you haven’t had a chance to yet, I encourage you to see Fran give this lecture in person. Essentially, it is a thought exercise about a very basic task — boiling water, for tea or soup or just to drink. And one of the advantages of this thought exercise is that it teaches you a lot about both your world and your character. Who is boiling the water, and why, and how do they accomplish this task?

I have a dayjob that, ironically, deals with just these questions, how to boil water and how to get it, and despite that very real interest for a long time I was particularly bad at combining these two things. That is, until I started writing contemporary fantasy.

Way back when I was in undergrad I took a creative writing class wherein my professor, a T.A. in the graduate program, did not want us to write anything that could be considered genre fiction. Since a good half of the class wanted to write genre fiction (folks including Tara Sim, Olivia Berrier, and others) this went over not-so-great and we ended up pushing this envelope as much as possible. Some of my best stories from that class ended up being strange, atmospheric near-future dystopias (which is not to say that I had any super good stories. There’s only so much you can do when you’re not allowed to write what you love.)

While this particular tactic was obviously not a great one for me as a writer, years later I can see a grain of where my then-professor was coming from. I’ve written secondary world fantasy and I’ve written contemporary fantasy/horror now, and while there are easy and hard parts to both, I have learned a lot about questioning how the world works from writing contemporary stories. That is to say, I’ve learned a lot about writing setting.

Setting has historically been a bit of an Achilles’ heel for me, and one of the advantages of writing contemporary fantasy is that you are writing within a place you can visit. You can sit yourself down and experience the tastes, smells, temperatures and pressures of the air; you can describe the vistas with pretty decent accuracy. I’ve gotten in the habit of taking notes about my impressions whenever I visit somewhere new. And I use my dayjob in my analysis, finally, an advantage I’ve had for a long time but never really dug into, by looking deeply at how the politics and policies of a given location have shaped what I’ve seen. It’s not perfect — I’m sure I still get things wrong. Arguably there’s a lot more research going into a contemporary fantasy piece, because you can’t just write an inconsistency off as a particular trait of the world you’ve made up, so I probably get more things wrong. But it’s been a great thought exercise and it’s helped me a lot in thinking about how to craft my newer works. And happily, this method doesn’t result in me eschewing the fantastical completely.

If I had had the chance to make this argument in undergrad, perhaps I could have saved us all some heartache. But I’ll pass my insight on to you, reader, instead. See what parts of your writing changes when you’re writing with one foot in this world. See what things you were missing before. Question how and why folks boil water. Learn from our world, and use it to feed the worlds you make.

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