There’s only one place in the world you can find reproducing pandas, dancing culebras, kissing camels, the snake from the Mexican flag, and the physical manifestation of the Aztec God of Death: Chapultepec Zoo.
Just released Episode One of our Warcraft series, Exploring Azeroth! Despite some technical difficulties, it was a really fun time and a great introduction for anyone new to the universe.
In this episode, Venezia masters the controls, completes her first quests, and learns to slay her enemies with ice and fire. Meanwhile, Evaric suggests a backstory for the Malos, based on a true story. There’s also an awkward allusion to a Hemingway novel, because it just wouldn’t be us if there wasn’t.
Since moving to Mexico City just over three months ago, every story I write has taken a turn for the Mexican. At the time I was writing a thriller set in an unspecified American city, but it took less than a week for me to realize it would be far more exciting if it were set here. Now for Camp NaNoWriMo I’m writing a fantasy adventure, set in what is essentially a medieval fantasy version of Mexico.
That’s not much of a stretch since Mexico is almost a fantasy setting already. Ancient pyramids rise from the desert, and in their shadow prowl creatures which could fell a man with a single bite or sting. Mexican history is a collection of desperate uprisings, unlikely alliances, and prophecies that came true.
Today we’re going to talk about how we, and all writers, can take advantage of where we come from and where we travel to create richer, fuller stories.
I’ve always been a sucker for pyramids. The first place my mind went when concocting the setting for A Memory in Indigo was pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and the amazing societies that ruled it. My gringo compatriots probably think, as I used to, that the Aztecs and Mayans were the only real players before the Spanish came. Some of the most impressive pyramids in Mexico – like the one above – were built nearly 1500 years before the Aztecs existed. Here’s a fact that sends shivers down my spine: the time between the disappearance of the Teotihuacan (who built the aforementioned pyramid) and the rise of the Aztecs is over three centuries greater than the time between the fall of the Aztecs and the present day.
When something inspires you, it’s helpful to dig deeper and find out why. I know that pyramids make me happy, but if I just throw a pyramid in my story for no reason it will fall flat. After some reflection, I realized the appeal for me comes from the inherent, beautiful irony. Thousands of years before we were born, people created something we still find impressive today, but in the end it didn’t do them any good. Their society became dust, and all that remains of them are these structures that have long outlived their usefulness. Now that’s something I can tell a story about.
Mexico City at Night
I was a little disappointed when I first moved that I wasn’t able to pull off an insane Vancouver to Mexico City road trip and had to fly. Venezia told me the view of Mexico City at night would make up for it. She wasn’t kidding. Since that beautiful first impression, Ciudad de Mexico has continued to take my breath away at every turn.
When I started writing this month I didn’t think anything to do with CDMX would make it into the story. After all, it’s a medieval fantasy set in a fairly small town on a backwater archipelago, not a sprawling urban metropolis. Then, as I had with the pyramids, I thought deeper.
My first glimpse of the city was inspiring because each of the hundred million points of light (probably not even an exaggeration) represented some new experience or opportunity for me. The main setting of my story, the City of Fuscia, may be tiny by modern standards, but my main character wouldn’t see it that way. He comes from a fishing village with a population south of 20. To him, the modest harbors and ramshackle taverns of Fuscia are a whole new world.
Just this morning, as I was walking to the cafe where I’m writing this, I had another thought. An interesting quirk of this city is that each self-contained neighborhood is well-planned out, organized, and aesthetically coherent, but the way these neighborhoods are laid out in relation to each other is sheer nonsense. The result is a diverse and beautifully chaotic patchwork of a city.
My fictional city of Fuscia is constructed across a scattering of small islands linked together by bridges. With borders clearly defined by water, the city is unable to expand outward and new neighborhoods are literally stacked on top of old ones: second stories are added to houses and shops, linked together by catwalks. It seems blindingly obvious in hindsight, but until now I’d never thought about how the design would affect the feel of different neighborhoods. Now my mind is reeling with possibilities: you cross a bridge from a harbor neighborhood, packed with bustling sailors and fish markets, and after walking all of ten feet come to a somber island full of ancient government buildings, a neighborhood that has stood for thousands of years. Climbing a ladder up the side of one of these structures, you find yourself again in an entirely different neighborhood, a recently constructed residential neighborhood of wooden shacks strung with colorful banners where the air is full of laughter and music.
You can find inspiration anywhere. The old adage “write what you know” is both true and not true. You can certainly write about places you’ve never been, jobs you’ve never done, and experiences you’ve never had, but drawing from your own experience lends truth and depth to your story. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a medieval city ruled by pirates and smugglers, but I do know what it’s like to move to a new place and feel your life has suddenly begun.
Venezia has been very busy applying to and interviewing for universities so was not around to share her thoughts this time, but fear not! There is plenty more to come.
¿Y Tú Tambien?
What about you? How have the places you’ve lived or traveled shaped your creative works?
Feeling inspired? Check out our video series Exploring Mexico to see more of this beautiful country.
By the end of yesterday, the second day of Camp NaNoWriMo, I had written nearly 10,000 words (9,666 to be exact). This is more than I’ve written in the entire month on previous attempts. This is not a boast, but an example of the results of making tiny changes to your mindset and creative process. The difference between my output this year vs. previous years has nothing to do with me becoming a better writer or receiving a sudden burst of divine inspiration (hardly). It has everything to do with definitions.
Redefinition (or: the Secret to Doing It is Trying to Do It)
To win NaNoWriMo, you have to write 50,000 words. That’s it. Quality and coherence are not factors. This is not a loophole; according to the movement’s founder, Chris Baty, it was a deliberate decision to help writers get past hang-ups about quality and inspiration and just get words on the page. I, like thousands of other writers each year, approached NaNoWriMo falsely believing that I had committed to this quantity over quality mindset yet still finding myself unable to meet word count goals.
There’s no reason writing 50,000 words in a month should be challenging once you accept the rules of the game. You could literally type “dog” 50,000 times and you would win. The problem was I had not accepted this definition of success. Secretly, I still hoped to meet the 50,000 word goal and come out of it with a decent manuscript. I was setting myself up to fail.
But then what’s the point? Will typing “dog” 50,000 times help you improve as a writer? Okay, probably not, but that was an extreme example. As long as you’re trying to write a real story, whatever you come up with will be worth something even if it is barely readable. To prove this point, here’s an exercise you can try at home next time you have writer’s block: go to the point where you’re stuck and type “Then the dead dog got up and did a jig.”
I’m willing to bet money that sentence doesn’t work. Most likely there is no dead dog in your scene, and even if there is, chances are it does not make sense in the context of your story for dead animals to stand up and start dancing. What did you learn from this exercise? First of all, that you don’t have writer’s block.
Writer’s block is having no idea what happens next in your own story. If that was true, you’d have no objection to dropping that sentence into your scene. You have no idea what’s going to happen, so how do you know a dead dog doesn’t do a jig? The truth is, you have some guesses about what’s going to happen next, and you know for sure capering canine corpses are not involved. You just don’t want to write it down because you’re afraid it won’t come out perfect on the first try. And that’s just nonsense.
A Truly Shameful Excerpt
In case you find it hard to believe I can write 3,000 words of prose in an hour, or worse, you are impressed by the fact, I’m going to share a sample of my output (though it pains me to do so).
He found Armand asleep against the trunk of a jacaranda tree, with purple petals scattered across his face and chest. Nando stpked th\e fire back into some semblance of life and let him sellep.
WHne he awaoke they explored the island a little more. This time, rather than climbing the central hill, which was, in fact, a pyramid, they circled around the degs. Nando traced the pyramid form with his yes and an idea began to occur to him.
“We’re still on it, aren’t we?”
“What’s that, boy?”
He was gflad to hear some of the gruffness had returned to the old hunter’s voice; he must have been okay.
“The pyramid. I think, well whatg if the pyramid isnt on the island. WHat if the pyramid is the island?”
The old bhunter looked down at the gleaming white sand beneath his feet. “DOnt know about all that, he muttered.”
Even ignoring the spelling and grammatical errors, it’s not exactly Hemingway. This scene is so boring it probably won’t even appear in the final draft, but it took all of a minute to write and I came up with some ideas I liked in the course of writing it: rather than an island having a pyramid on it, the entire island is an ancient partially-submerged pyramid; and the health of the old hunter character can be gauged by the gruffness of his voice. I don’t know if I would have come up with either of those ideas through slow, deliberate writing or outlining.
We learn by doing. If you spend more time thinking about writing or planning what you are going to write than actually physically writing, you are not learning nearly as much about how to write as you could be.
At least that’s my take on it. Venezia has a different perspective.
On Writing Really Really Slow
Writing really fast would have helped when I started five years ago but I’m at a different stage of my book. I know where the story is going and most of it is written. It’s a matter of putting on the finishing touches and finding a way to say what I want to say.
I chose hours instead of a word goal so I can focus on getting the words right. 90% of the work I have left to do is reading and rereading my book as if someone else wrote it, making small changes until it feels right.
English is not my first language, so sometimes I feel self-conscious about the way my writing sounds. I write slowly because writing for me is a process of trial and error, writing and rewriting until I find the words that sound right. Knowing I can go back any make changes at any time helps me feel better and more confident about what I write.
Even if you choose an hourly goal, it is not an excuse to not get anything done. If you only have two hours a day to write you want to get the most out of them. For example, I write a lot better at night. Two hours at night counts for more than two hours during the day. Choose a writing time that works and stick to it.
If you’re a creative you may have heard of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. In short, it’s a friendly worldwide challenge in which aspiring authors try to write a 50,000+ word novel, from start to finish, during the month of November.
In recent years, they’ve been doing Camp NaNoWriMo each April. Same idea, except each user sets their own goal which can be any number of words or pages written or even hours spent writing. Being aspiring writers, both Venezia and I are going to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo this year.
Camp NaNoWriMo: In So Many Words
The beauty of NaNoWriMo is that it forces you to attempt something that should be impossible, yet most participants find it surprisingly doable once they get in the right mindset. In fact, it gets easier and easier every year, and I’ve personally come to believe that it is possible to write a complete novel every month without spending more than an hour or two a day doing so. More on that later this week.
Throughout April, we’ll post updates of how we’re doing as well as talking about what’s going on in our stories, what tools and tricks we’re using to get through the month, where our inspiration’s coming from, and so on.
Even if you are not a writer yourself, we think you’ll find the experience interesting. The creative process transcends any one art form, and whether you’re a painter, game designer, or bodybuilder, pushing yourself to accomplish the impossible is a valuable skill.
Without further ado, let’s meet the campers.
Evaric: A Memory in Indigo
Goal: 50,000 words
I’m writing a high fantasy adventure, with a twist. The genre is usually about battles and cosmic evil and saving the world, but it doesn’t have to be. My novel, A Memory In Indigo, follows a budding mixologist on a quest to discover the recipe for a particularly well-crafted spirit he tasted in his youth. There’s pirates and sea monsters and a hint of magic, sure, but the story is first and foremost about an artist’s struggle to master their craft. At least that’s the plan. I haven’t started writing it yet, so who knows how it will pan out.
I opted for the traditional NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words just for consistency. As I mentioned before, I have a theory about making a lifelong habit of writing a book a month. Starting tomorrow, I’ll put my theory to the test.
Venezia: Untitled (???)
Goal: 60 hours
I’m writing a mystery, although it’s not a very mysterious mystery. It’s a lot more about the characters than about finding out the answer to the mystery itself, so I’m not really sure how to classify it.
I am writing the end of a novel I have been working on for a very long time and I don’t know how many words I left. I am a slow and inconsistent writer so I don’t want to stress about word count. I’m just going to sit down and write for 2 hours every day.
Grab a Seat by the Fire
If you’re participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this year, or have participated in any NaNo event in the past, we would love to hear from you. If not, and if you’ve ever wanted to write a novel, consider giving it a try! You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish, and it’s a great way to meet people with similar interests. As a matter of fact, Venezia and I met at a local NaNoWriMo meetup – but that’s a story for another day.
If you have not lived or traveled in Mexico, you have not tasted Mexican food. Even if you go to Mexican restaurants (or God forbid, Taco Bell), chances are you have no idea what pastor is and think that burritos are something that actually exist south of the border. You just can’t get the best Mexican foods outside of Mexico, and believe me, you are missing out.
5 Mexican Foods You Need in Your Life
5. Oaxaca Cheese
With the consistency of string cheese and the shape of a soft pretzel, Oaxaca cheese can be a bit confusing at first. Try it, though, and you will find it puts all other quesos to shames. It’s mostly used in cooking, but I find myself eating strings of it raw as a bedtime snack more often than I care to admit.
4. Mexican Junk Food
Mexico’s colorful and ancient culinary tradition mixes classic Aztec and Mayan dishes with flavors drawn from all over the world, creating something truly unique and beautiful. Sometimes, though, you’re just not in the mood for unique and beautiful. Mexico has you covered: just head down to the Oxxo on the corner and grab a bag of Sabritas Adobadas (read: Lays but better) and a couple Carlos V’s (read: Hershey’s but better [but actually read: Carlos Quintos]).
There was more than one episode of Friends mocking this traditional Mexican dessert, which pretty much confirms none of the cast or crew every tried it. With a consistency somewhere between jello and pudding and a taste somewhere between “I’m happy because I’m eating flan” and “I’m depressed because my flan was so delicious I ate it all already”, this is a unique treat that can’t really be compared to anything.
What is pastor? Hell if I know. I’m not even sure what type of meat it is – pork, I think? It’s probably the one food on this last you would be hardest pressed to find outside Mexico – some gringo restaurants offer “pastor” on their menu, but if you don’t see a spinning fiery pineapple-topped meat wheel in their kitchen, it is not even close to authentic. There are a million ways to eat pastor, but the best way is no contest….
Not a lot needs to be said about tacos. If you haven’t been to Mexico, you haven’t had tacos. If you haven’t had tacos al pastor, you haven’t lived.
Not technically a food, but this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning authentic Oaxaca mezcal. I’ve known a lot of gringos who like to think of themselves as serious drinkers, but I’d love to see any of them pound back a shot of real mezcal. It’s hard to describe the experience and do it any justice. You know when you take a swig of tequila and get that sudden burn in the back of your throat? Imagine if just as that burn started to go away, it came back again, stronger than before. And then again and again and again. Literally forever. That’s mezcal.