I finally went to see the latest Batman movie, and mostly liked it. It was way too long and noisy, and could easily have been split into two movies, but still, it was okay. I found myself analyzing it, on several levels. As a writer I noticed the various conventions used to establish location, time, and genre. It is obiously set in a modern New York City, There were establishing shots of the City skyline, and of various landmarks. There were shots of grimy streets, elaborate mansions, and sleek, modernistic boardrooms. There were the standard stock characters, the Irish Cops, the Eastern European Mercenaries, and the English butler (Michael Caine alone was worth the price of admission) All to set the background for the type of story it would be.
It all got me to thinking.
In writing we use standard conventions to set the time and place for our stories. These are assumed to be present in the minds of the reader, easily recognized by everyone. If a story is set in Ancient Rome there will be Legionaires, Senators in togas, seductive maidens in diaphanous stola, gladiators and slaves, all set against a background of the Colliseum, the forum, and villas with marble columns. A story set in the European Middle Ages will feature mounted knights in armor, stone castles, monks, lords and ladies, jugglers and jesters.
Stories set in the modern era will include familiar landmarks and skylines. If set in my home city, San Francisco, there will be cable cars climbing hills, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Tower, Chinatown, and colorful Victorian houses. Depending on the era there will be hardboiled detectives prowling fog-shrouded streets, Beatniks, hippies, or yuppies.
Such stock settings and characters save time and make it easy for the reader to slide into the story with minimal exposition.
But they can also be traps. By selecting easily recognized characteristics and bringing them to the forefront we present an unrealistic portrait of reality. We ignore all else, often to the detriment of an accurate, well-rounded picture. San Francisco is so much more that the standard images shown to the rest of the world by Hollywood and the tourist industry. There are all the ethnic neighborhoods, with their own restaurants, bookstores, and coffee or tea shops. Italian, Russian, Serbian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese. There are bookstores, and art galleries, Golden Gate Park, and The Beach House Chalet. Those of you who live in other well-known cities can doubtless contribute more examples.
My stories of Lin Mei and Biao Mei are set during the Tang Dynasty in China. Most people, when they think of China, think of Hollywood China, with pagodas, lavish palaces, eunuchs, high-flying warriors with slashing, razor-edged swords, lovely warrior-maidens in silk robes, Mandarins in heavy brocade silk robes, and some serious costume-porn.
Tang China was not like that. While sharing some attributes with later eras, it was unique and interesting in ways not known by most people. At that time China was at a height of power and glory, the most powerful empire on Earth. It was cosmopolitan, with Japanese, Koreans, Persians, Arabs, and Indians all present, with their own neighborhoods, along with many other ethnic groups. Trade goods from as far away as Europe were to be found in the markets and state warehouses.
Abroad Tang armies marched as far west as Herat, in modern-day western Afghanistan, They clashed with Tibet, (called Tifun at that time, a war-like and predatory barbarian empire), the Turks, the Arabs, and the nomads of the steppes.
At home it was not like most people today envision it. For one thing the language was different, being more like Burman or Tibetan. China is divided into regions, the most important being North and South. The North, where Lin Mei and Biao Mei come from, had a strong Turkish influence, with dress, food, and customs markedly different from the South. It had a barbarian tinge to it.
The stories are set in the Far West, in what are now called Turkestan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgystan, as well as Tibet.
Today the land is arid, Moslem, and mainly Turkic. Then it was peopled mainly by Indo-Europeans, akin to modern day Iranians, of varied religions, but mainly Buddhist, with a strong Greek culteral overlay, thanks to the armies of Alexander the Great. Canals and Qanats (underground aqueducts) brought water down from the mountains, making the land fertile and rich. It was a land of lords and ladies, knights in mail armor on sturdy horses, merchants and trade. A time and place like none before or since.
To describe such a setting without taking up too much time in exposition and description requires using a few well-placed descriptive sentences. Most authors are familiar with that.
But the same can be said of any other setting. For example, most western fantasy stories are set in a medieval European setting as described above. But anyone familiar with European history will tell you it was much more complex, with kingdoms and lands that have since vanished. Most of modern Europe did not exist prior to the Renaissance, or even later. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for example, spread across half of Europe at one time, and their armies campaigned against Russians, Swedes, Turks, and Huns. It was the famous Winged Hussars (one of the most colorful armies ever) that lifted the siege of Vienna.
The Empire of Aragon covered much of the Mediterranean, and played a vital role in history. Burgundy was a series of states, kingdoms, and duchys that played a crucial role in making modern Europe.
And Japan was much more that the generic lords, ladies and samurai depicted in popular stories.
A closer look at real historical lands and times will yield a plethora of potential settings and backgrounds for stories, and give the readers a greater selection of stories.