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Topic: Smoking? Slavery? Thorny Issues in Fantasy

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Subject: Smoking? Slavery? Thorny Issues in Fantasy
Date Posted: 7/26/2009 1:39 AM ET
Member Since: 4/18/2009
Posts: 1,376
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I'm considering writing a story with an American setting (hence my earlier discussion post) and wondering exactly how American to make it, so I was thinking about all the potentially thorny issues that I may want to address head on and that I may want to sidestep. So I decided to ask you all what you would think of running into these things in a fantasy novel:

1. Tobacco/smoking. Now obviously, this is a country based partly on tobacco farming, but I cannot think of a single fantasy novel where anyone has smoked. Could I get away with just making tobacco farming common and having people smoke, or would that rub you the wrong way? I will not bend American history so far as to make smoking a really undesirable trait -- I would rather simply leave it out.

2. Slavery. Now just as obviously, slavery was a BIG issue in American history. I do not want to write a story directly about slavery -- I know I'm not up to that task. I cannot imagine making any of my main characters either slaves or slave owners, but I am considering having the slave trade be a part of the world background. What are your thoughts?

3. Native Americans. Again. . . what would you think if this conflict showed up in the world background? Again, I can't imagine my main characters espousing the sort of views common in 18th century novels, but I would certainly have to have minor characters commenting on the "savages." Would this be more palatable if the main character spent some time with a native tribe? (Obviously, assuming I can make that time spent reasonably historically accurate.)

4. Religion. Finally, this has always been a fairly religious country, and I want to maintain that, but as should be obvious by now, I don't want to set the story explicitly in this world, so the religion I create would probably be reminiscent of Christianity but not exactly Christianity. For instance, I might have some sort of Great Awakening, or I might make Sunday the Sabbath Day (maybe renamed). How do you feel about this sort of reimagining of one of the world's great religions? Again, it wouldn't be a central plot point, it would merely be in the background.

Paul H. (PaulH) - ,
Date Posted: 7/26/2009 3:21 PM ET
Member Since: 6/27/2008
Posts: 146
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I don't think there's any problem taking on "thorny" issues in fantasy (or SF)... that's partly what the genre was built on, being able to discuss modern day controversial issues by presenting them in a fantastic setting to get it past the censors.  Also, I think if your story is set in an era of history when slavery existed, it would be more harmful to your story to ignore it.  If it takes place after slavery was abolished, making use of all the ensuing history fighting for equal rights would also be appropriate.

Date Posted: 7/27/2009 8:30 AM ET
Member Since: 4/13/2009
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Tobacco and slavery are actually closely related, since the African slave trade really took off when the tobacco plantations replaced indentured servants with slaves because Virginia laws required the indentured servants to be given their own tobacco farms after 7 years (so the existing farm had the double hit of losing the labor and setting up a rival).  And tobacco is pretty entrenched because the early settlers had no other cash crops or trade goods besides tobacco - without it, the colonies wouldn't have survived beyond subsistence farming.  You could get around this by setting your story either in the Northeast or on the American frontier.  Or, if you are just basing your land loosely on early America, then why not change the rules of the game and give the original colonist something else to trade that didn't lean on forced labor.

Date Posted: 7/27/2009 4:36 PM ET
Member Since: 1/30/2009
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Tobacco/smoking. Now obviously, this is a country based partly on tobacco farming, but I cannot think of a single fantasy novel where anyone has smoked.

Toby Longbottom is furious.


Date Posted: 7/30/2009 12:29 AM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
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Just tell a good story, Sister. Everything else will take care of itself.

Date Posted: 7/31/2009 11:01 AM ET
Member Since: 12/19/2005
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Not a single fantasy story where they smoked?  All that pipeweed in Lord of the Rings doesn't count?

I'd say it would be silly to be coy around any issue, especially if it's set in a well known historical period and the issue was a part of that time.  In fact, it would probably make the book much less interesting if you didn't deal with issues directly as they become relevant to the story.

Date Posted: 7/31/2009 11:31 AM ET
Member Since: 4/18/2009
Posts: 1,376
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Yeah I totally blanked on LotR. *sheepish grin* In my defense, I was thinking more cigarettes than pipes. But others have pointed out that Roland smokes in The Dark Tower, so that isn't much of an excuse.


My main concern is that by the time I'm done with all my alterations, the setting will feel American rather than European, but it won't really BE America. Sort of like The Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold rather than the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card. So: minus the historical context, do the issues seem too big to have as backdrop in a fantasy novel? Can they be there in the background without becoming the focus of the story, or would that be distracting?

Date Posted: 7/31/2009 2:53 PM ET
Member Since: 1/30/2009
Posts: 5,696
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Toby Longbottom aside :) I really don't think you should worry about it.  This stuff is so hard to deal with or talk about in the abstract.  I think you should just write your story and I really believe that if you write thoughtfully and truthfully you can write about pretty much anything in any context.  There inevitably will be someone somewhere who has a problem with everything.  My gut tells me that anyone who is sensitive enough to worry about the implications of having potentially sensitive matter in their story (which you obviously are) will likely treat such subjects in a way that is not trite, even if they aren't the focus of your particular story. 



Date Posted: 7/31/2009 3:12 PM ET
Member Since: 7/6/2009
Posts: 1,407
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I've run into smoking, slavery, aboriginal cultures and religion in multiple sf/fantasy novels - although I can't think of a novel that contained them all. Women's issues also come up frequently. Whether the book is good depends on how the issues are handled - if they are a graceful part of the story or a well-done theme, that's fine. If the whole book feels "preachy" then I tend to avoid the author in the future, even if I agree with the author's ethics or politics.
Date Posted: 9/8/2009 10:02 AM ET
Member Since: 2/25/2007
Posts: 13,991
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As someone else said, just tell the story. If you agonize over details like this, it will take so much longer!

And yes, I've read tons of fantasy where people had pipes, if not cigs; and slavery among other/different species was quite common.

Subject: details
Date Posted: 9/9/2009 12:03 AM ET
Member Since: 5/26/2009
Posts: 32
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yeah details are important but you can't slave over them. otherwise you end up like stephen king with duma key. no offence i'm a huge king fan, but in duma key he was just all talk of detail.

too much can be a bad thing.

the way i write my stories is this. first open the story. the story i'm working on now is about the ghost of a knight from king arthur's court falling in love with a present day girl. so i started it with the death of the knight.  second i let the story flow where it wants to. sometimes the story works itself out. other times i have to change an entire paragraph.

but you can't go so deep into detail that it bores the reader.

dean koontz. another of my favorite authors, but in some stories he goes so deep into the detail that it's hard to read.

just let the words flow from you.

hope this helped.