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The High-Resolution


If you zoom out a bit in Google Maps and head out over the ocean, you'll see that the resolution falls away to almost nothing. Where once you could make out individual waves if the light was just so, now all you're left with is a vast expanse of creamy blue that doesn't say anything about anything, except that it's blue. This, apparently, is the ocean.

For many years in my development of The Curious Tale, such was the fact of what we now know as Ieik, the village of Galavar's origins, and Sele, the city of the Galan capital. It's strange to think that, for all those years, such important locations had no more granularity than the open ocean on Google Maps. Only when I created The Great Galavar, and, later, undertook the Prelude, did the floodgates of detail open wide, until, now, these locations are some of the richest and most saturated in my imagination among all of Relance, even though there is endlessly more detail that I could potentially create.

When it comes to the Sodaplains, take all of that, and shift it somewhat farther back in the development cycle. As with the locations of Gala, the Sodaplains, other than Soda Fountain itself, had almost no detail. They were just expanses of brown desert, mostly the Sand Ocean and, farther out, scrublands. But this is the key setting, along with Sele and parts of Davoranj, of Book I of After The Hero and, as I look ahead to that work, I have been gradually developing over these last several years the details and richness of the Sodaplains. This week, I'll be talking with you about some of the things you'll find in the Sodaplains other than dirt.

The Engines of Resolution

The word resolution is an interesting one, because it has two common meanings that dwell fairly far apart: the one relating to willpower, and the newer one relating to depth of detail (screen or image resolution) in electronic graphics. Both can be better understood in light of their verb form, resolve, and in fact there are many other denotations as well. Ultimately, however, they are all the same word, with the same root and the same fundamental idea: unfastening, loosening, releasing, freeing. Resolution in the sense of focused determination essentially implies a breaking up of the established order or status quo, while the sense of electronic graphics evolved from an older, now largely out-of-use sense of "resolve" that would appear in English as something like "to resolve an image [from a complicated, intricate, and often messy signal]"—i.e., to liberate something meaningful from a complicated package. This is a concept not so different from the cognate dissolve, nor from the cognate solvent, nor from solution. All of these words, despite their highly distinctive individual meanings and usages today, imply a certain kind of liberation.

In the Sodaplains, the common heritage of these two common senses of resolution is in abundant evidence: As surely as I have resolved to flesh out these locations, so too have I set out to resolve them. And the engines of my resolution for resolution are twofold:

The Abstract Needs of the Story as a Whole

Essentially, this refers to my understanding that the Sodaplains need to be a gorgeously rich and realistically appropriate geographical region. This is a microcosm of the fundamental challenge of The Curious Tale as a whole: Where so many fantasy authors fall short of telling the kind of story I want to read is that they'll settle for that proverbial amorphous creamy blue ocean in their writing—pure backdrop, pure ambient scenery—without delving into the truths and wonders and details of the ocean. So many fantasy writers will invoke, for example, "desert," and then tell us next to nothing about what they have invoked, nor will they necessarily attach any plot or thematic relevance to it. It's filler, basically. It's a case of "Oh, I need something here. They're not in a black void. Let's say they're in a desert."

But have you lived in a desert? Can you imagine what goes on there? What it's like? What it feels like? What it offers? What it takes? Do you know what a desert really is, beyond "some brown, hot expanse with saguaro cacti"?

The same questions are true of any location, any place. Places demand of me to be known; as I have said before, Relance itself is the central story of The Curious Tale. The peoples, the customs, the very land...these things are the story. I could never settle for a Sodaplains so shallow that all you can think of is sand. Yet, for many years, the only details in my own imagination were, indeed, largely just sand. Thus, the engine of resolution to resolve something realer.

The Sodaplains must be a real(istic) place, a real(istic) land with real(istic) depth and breadth, which means real(istic) ecosystems and climates, real(istic) geology, and real(istic) cultures and customs. This isn't an onus, though of course in another sense it is, as it adds enormously to the level of challenge and the amount of time in writing the Curious Tale; it is, rather, the opportunity of a lifetime.

The Sand Ocean was baked into the Sodaplains from the beginning: In the RPG the two terms were interchangeable (for much of the story; there was an event later on that transformed much of the Sodaplains into a grassland). One of my first acts of resolving a better image of the Sodaplains was to distinguish between the two, declaring the Sand Ocean to be only one component of the larger Sodaplains. This opened up the possibility of great developments of geological, ecological, and cultural diversity in the areas of the Sodaplains outside the Sand Ocean. It was from this basic idea that, gradually, the very topography of the Sodaplains began to evolve in my imagination; for instance, gradually taking on the massive bowl formation that it now exhibits, providing a natural container for the Sand Ocean and more importantly allowing for higher-elevation lands as one moves further toward the periphery, which itself opens the door to even further development and variation. Higher elevations got me thinking about different kinds of vegetation, and hillscapes, and other features that further resolve the monotone brown plain of dirt into something much more real and thus much more interesting. Many years later, it is this richer shape of the Sodaplains that provides canvas for me to conceive of all sorts of interesting new ideas. Resolution builds upon itself.

Likewise, as surely as a region must be rich and high-resolution, so too must its boundaries with other regions be equally compelling. In the real world, boundary regions are actually some of the most complicated and fascinating places. With this in mind, over the years I spent a lot of time thinking about what the Sodaplains looks like on its three traversable boundaries: the boundary with the Landstorm, with the Howl Riada, and with Davoranj. In fact, most of the settings that I've developed in the Sodaplains thus far are in these boundary areas.

Specific Needs of the Plot, Setting, and Key Characters

This is the second but greater of the two engines of resolution. Once the bare bones are in place and the abstract needs of the story as a whole are met, the specific needs of the plot, setting, and key characters begin to show themselves.

Originally, Soda Fountain was the only settled land in the entire Sodaplains. This was at odds with the fact that Soda Fountain has great commercial sandships. Where, exactly, do those sandships stop when the Sand Ocean ends? It's not like they can travel over mountain crags or through forests.

In Chapter 1 the sandship Dunestorm escapes from the Galan sand fleet through divine aid, and from this single question alone—"Escapes to where?"—I had to create a whole new society. Because the Dunestorm has to escape west, not north to Davoranj (for plot reasons that I needn't get into), I had to resolve a new image. In the RPG the Sodaplains went nearly all the way to Junction City, and there was no Howl Riada, so it was a straight shot to a clear destination, but in the era of the novel I had to come up with something else.

This new location, a large village or small town, has very little resolution compared to someplace like Ieik, which has had many dozens of pages of descriptions and hundreds of hours of time in the spotlights of my imagination, yet it is infinitely more detailed than what had been there before it—no town at all. And from the existence of this town comes the need for other physical connections to the wider world, demanding roads and thus reshaping (and sometimes shaping for the first time) whole swaths of the Howl Riada and other regions in that part of the world.

And what of Silence and her Handsel Band? That budding organization needs somewhere to begin. Soda Fountain is kind of its own, separate thing, and nothing else is accessible at first. Thus, most of Silence's early work has to take place in the Sodaplains. That meant the creation of new life forms and new civilizations for her to boldly seek out. There's one village in the foothills of the Howl Riada where the entire point of its existence so far is for Silence to discuss property and civilization and imperialism with the village elder, and then transform most of the villagers into ravens so that they can experience life from a different perspective.

Over the years I have indeed come up with at least a very basic (and sometimes better) idea for over half a dozen societies, and many rich subplots to go with them. Sometimes it's very simple—a whole society whose current level of resolution in my imagination is only one step better than that proverbial amorphous blue, with only one or two defining elements.

But even that, over time, grows, especially with the help of other pieces of worldbuilding looking for natural connections. So, that town I mentioned where the Dunestorm escapes to? You can be that it definitely becomes the focus of the Handsel Band's attention. And do you remember the Soda Fountain characters Spade and Celithemis? Well, I created Celithemis as a very fat character—her name literally means "one whose belly is just"—and she was raised that way for cultural reasons, and it occurred to me at some point that this could become a hallmark of another society in the Sodaplains, the homeland of Celithemis and her family, who now would be immigrants to Soda Fountain rather than natives. Where once there was nothing, suddenly there's a character who has an immigrant heritage and, separately, there's the society she immigrated from.

Speaking of Silence, the scene that single-handedly marked the arrival of the Draft 10 Era, all the way back in 2010, was a conversation between her and Benzan, on location in one of these foreign tribal city-states. The scene occurs in her tent, so little description of the outside is actually given on the page, but I was thinking about it. It's hot there, but also higher in elevation, and there has to be vegetation of some kind—there wouldn't be a settlement there otherwise. Eventually I identified this place as being in the southern Sodaplains, just north of the Landstorm, in a place where the Sirocco (the brutally hot winds that come down the cliffs and fan out over the desert) is weak. In my mind, therefore, there's actually quite a bit of geological, topological, and ecological detail in this setting, even though I've never explicitly thought about it.

Book I of ATH begins with a description of the Sodaplains at dawn. The scene is two word-processor pages long and describes all aspects of the Sodaplains in one grand swoop: the skies, the minerals, the flora and fauna, the character of the people. It also achieves something I've never accomplished before: a feature in the otherwise featureless Sand Ocean. This scene needed a high vantage point to be able to describe the appearance of the lights of the Galan sand fleet on the twilit horizon, and it also needed an encampment for Davoranjan sentinels to be staying, so I created an island oasis of sorts, a large outcropping that rises above the dunes and offers all needed features. From this, of course, it stood to reason that, if one such feature, then many, and suddenly the entire Sand Ocean took on a new layer of detail.

The following scene features mention of a Davoranjan "frontier citadel" on the other side of the Sodaplains, where the Sodaplains borders Davoranj. This not only lends itself to the creation of a significant new location for fleeing refugees to encounter later in Book I, but also insinuates new characters and an entire new Davoranjan house (to own that impressive property).

From the Ground Up

As I said at the beginning, the Sodaplains are still quite spare in detail compared to the Galan locations of Ieik and Sele (and the Fortress of Galadrim), but they've come such a long way and these days are ringing out with richness and depth. How gratifying, when once upon a time it was all just a single shade of brown on a flat plain, punctuated by a solitary city.

That's all for this week. Join me here next week when I discuss political correctness and its intersection with The Curious Tale.

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O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!