Friday, June 29, 2007

Intelligent Questions

I subscribe to the pinoywriters mailing list mostly as a way to get in touch with the community. Half the messages that get posted there are spam, to be quite honest, but I suppose that if you're patient enough to slog through all the promotional messages and the bad treatises to author superiority, you'll find a few gems in there.

One such gem came up a few days ago, and it was a series of questions that was apparently interesting enough to garner a few immediate responses. I felt that these answers were fairly good already, and so I deleted the original thread and thought nothing more of it until I realized that the questions were still drumming at the back of my thick skull.

What follows, then, is a series of personal answers to a series of good questions. These are remarkably professional questions, an inquiry as to whether or not there are certain established rules in the writing field. These are my answers, and are by no means the final word on the matter; I only write this because these questions made me curious about exactly where I stood on the issue.

The questions, by the way, were originally asked by a writer named Natz. I did not acquire his permission to post these questions (nor edit them slightly) as of this writing, but I'll be notifying him about this entry soon. I feel that these are some important questions to consider, especially if you're the kind of person who makes a living off his imagination:

1. Is it okay to create a new, imaginary place and integrate it in a 'real' place or location? (e.g. Creating a new city in the heart of Metro Manila.) What's the literary rule on that one?

It's perfectly all right. This is fiction, after all. You can play with your setting however you want.

I think that you should be warned, however: It's more difficult to introduce readers to "revisionist" settings, because you'll need to spend time fleshing them out. I feel that a reader will always approach a story with certain assumptions in mind; You don't want to surprise them with details of a revisionist setting at a point when they've already gotten nice and comfortable.

That doesn't mean that you can't integrate imaginary places into real-world locations, though... you just have to be careful about doing so.

Before using your re-imagined setting, I would first ask if it's absolutely critical to the story. Can you, for example, set it in any real modern-day city without compromising much of your plotline? If so, then you could potentially save yourself a lot of trouble right there.

I don't think that there are any rules here that you should be concerned about. You do have to consider this carefully, though.

2. Is it okay to write about a fictional event that occurs in a real location? (e.g. Releasing a counterpart of the Black Plague within Metro Manila in 2006.)

Same as above, except that fictional events will usually produce a much larger impact on any story. Generally, events produce a "snowball" effect: The farther in the past that your fictional event takes place, the greater its consequences on yourc ontemporary setting. A deadly plague in 2006 Manila might not have far-reaching effects yet; That same plague in 1980s Manila might result in drastic changes in government and the rise of the medical profession; and that same plague in the 1940s might even prevent the Americans from retaking the Philippines from Japan.

My feelings here should be the same, though: Think this over carefully, and make sure that you establish this well enough for the readers to understand.

3. Is it okay to have a fictional community live inside a real community or place?

This is far easier, I think. Think of them as fictional characters who just happen to live in real-life locations -- most readers will probably be willing to accept the possibility that these people could easily live in such places. I suppose that just as long as you don't stretch this too far (like, say, an Eskimo community in Tondo), then you can usually pull this off without much trouble.

4. When using a real location as the setting, is it necessary to adhere to the history of the place? Can we say, for example, that an earthquake occurs there in 2006, when in truth, the earthquake being portrayed actually happens in 1986?

Assuming that the history of the place is essential to the story, you'll have to narrate it to the reader to begin with. If that's the case, I think that this is more-or-less the same question as #2, and should get the same answer: Watch the cause-and-effect, and make sure that you establish this well.

5. Will I get into trouble for using real locations in a piece of fiction?

Heck, no. Plenty of fiction is set in the modern world, after all. Some of them even try to put some neat little twists on our contemporary setting, much like what you're probably planning.

Sharp-eyed readers will probably notice that my answers above leave quite a few gaps: Specifically, while I did say that all of the above items were permissible, I gave little implication as to how one could possibly pull them off. That, I think, is already a question of literary style -- it's up to the author to figure that part out.

You're welcome to discuss this, of course. We're probably all writers or readers here, anyway. I'll even go as far as to say that each of us might have different answers for these questions. It's not as though we all have the same styles or imaginations, after all.

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