if you’re gonna break the rules …

… do it on purpose.

Because I’m more familiar with princess movies than, uh, a lot of things (what can I say: I grew up on Disney) we’re going to do the comparison using princess movies. But I’m sure you can find other examples in sci fi, or action, or any number of other genres.

Three princess movies that all contain fairytale magic, but are set in a sort of medieval/baroque/otherwise “period” era: Ella Enchanted, Cinderella 2015, and Beauty and the Beast 2017.

You know, right off the bat, that not everything is going to be realistic, because duh, there’s magic involved. At least one of the main/supporting characters is going to be inhuman. But the attitude that each of these movies takes toward that old-timey setting is very different.

You’ve got Cinderella 2015, what I’d call the middle of the spectrum. Most of the sets, the costumes, are based solidly in an 1800s French sort of style. The only obvious anachronisms are in the stepmother and stepsisters’ costumes, which are clearly done on purpose in order to show how different they are from everyone else in the story. And the fairy godmother, while she has little sparkly wings attached to her dress, is more glamorous than everyone except Cinderella — with LEDs in the skirts! — but in a way that doesn’t stick out badly, even if she only has one scene in the movie. The dialogue and setting and costumes mesh pretty well to provide that historical-feeling ambiance. (You can read a more detailed analysis of the costuming in Cinderella 2015 here.)

Then there’s Ella Enchanted, which has the fairy godmother in a mini skirt and go-go boots, and Eric Idle narrating, and Hattie as the president of the Prince Char Fanclub (zomg u guyz!), and the main character singing a Queen song during karaoke. None of this existed in the book this movie was loosely based off of, but the movie doesn’t care; it’s delightedly zooming its way through a story that can be whatever it wants, because there’s magic and elves and ogres, darn it, it doesn’t have to be realistic. The dialogue, setting, and costumes are all consistent in this regard. So the anachronisms, instead of being annoying, are entertaining. (See also: A Knight’s Tale, even though that one doesn’t have any magic involved.)

And then you have Beauty and the Beast 2017, which is very clearly trying to be modern in its sensibilities but historical in its setting and costumes, Which … really doesn’t succeed, because the modern sensibilities bleed over into the costumes, and not in a way that feels like it was done on purpose. Belle wears period clothes throughout the film except for the ballgown in the iconic scene. The contrast is pretty jarring, especially when you realize that that yellow dress wouldn’t look out of place in a high school prom; and that kind of dissonance is usually reserved for the antagonists, not the main character (c.f. Cinderella). Then you also have the dialogue, which in some moments is lifted straight from the original movie, and in some moments feels like it could have been lifted straight from the original movie, and in some moments has words straight from 2017 that just immediately ruin the moment. (At least for me: the Beast saying the phrase “too touristy” was a definite nope.)

I won’t even begin to go into the dance choreography.

The thing is, there’s always going to be something that doesn’t quite mesh with everything else. And that’s okay. But it’s like writing an essay for English class. If you want there to be a Solid Theme (i.e. Belle being “not like other girls”), then everything you do has to be related back to that theme. Make her other clothes more modern too, instead of just the ballgown. Or, if you want the solid theme to be “this could have taken place in a palace not far from Paris in the 1700s”, then even if you’re stuck on Emma Watson not having to wear a corset, you could at least make some kind of nod to the fashions of the time instead of that .. ruffled, cake-layered … thing. But the key is consistency.

I don’t care — and your audience won’t care either — whether you go full-on Research Mode and toss in as much trivia/jargon/whatever from that time period as you want, or whether everything is neon lights and karaoke. Just as long as it’s entertaining, and as long as it’s consistent.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

“Too much traveling on the railway could turn you into a philosopher, although, he conceded, not a very good one.” (Sir Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam)

I’ve been traveling by plane, train, or car since I was very small. I don’t remember a lot of those childhood travels — cassette tapes were a big factor on long car trips, as I recall, and that’s about it. But as a slightly older person I remember a lot more, not least because I wrote some of it down.

The first time I was on a plane I was too young to have even the slightest shred of a memory. But the first time I remember being on a plane was for a family trip down to Florida with the grandparents. It was a two-hour flight, and the sheer novelty of being able to see the tops of clouds was amazing. If I had had a camera phone, I’m certain I would have taken a million pictures. (And later, on a plane with a smart phone, yes, I’ve taken a million pictures.) On one level, the fact that a whole bunch of people have been crammed into a giant tin can and are zooming through the air at high altitudes might be ho-hum; after all, we’ve been doing it for just over a hundred years.

It’s interesting to think about all the technology that we’re used to, that people two hundred years ago would have boggled at. But the fact that we’ve constructed these tiny worlds that go far faster than we ever could, on pavement or on rails or in the air, I think that’s pretty neat. I think, however we get used to it, we shouldn’t forget a little of that wonder.

All of which goes to say two things. The first — whatever you write, put some kind of wonder into it, no matter how familiar you are. The second — this post is a little abbreviated because, well, guess who’ll be flying in a tin can in a few hours?

See you on the flip side!

Write What You (Don’t) Know

That “write what you know” adage is a mixed bag of cats, in my opinion. The technical word for it that they whip out in English classes is verisimilitude — the feeling of truth in fiction. That’s well and dandy, but some people seem to think that means you can’t write about anything that doesn’t happen in real life.

Sorry, what?

I remember reading a picture book with my second grade class full of vocabulary words. It was a retelling of the Cinderella story, but with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs! It was the best thing in the world. (It’s called Dinorella: A Prehistoric Fairy Tale. Talk about a blast from the past, eh? Wink wink, nudge nudge.) It was fantastic, in every sense of the word.

Speaking of, there are entire genres, thousands of stories, devoted to turning “verisimilitude” on its head. Do you think Tolkien ever met an actual, scaly, fire-breathing dragon? He wrote five or six of the darn things. I have never been on an intergalactic spaceship in my life, but darned if I’m going to let that stop me from writing a space opera. I’ve never met a fairy from the Summer Court, but I wrote a book about them. So what if these things aren’t real right now? That’s the thing about words. You can do anything with them. If you want to write a book about cowboy aliens feuding with mermaids, you can do that. If you want to write a book about a cactus’s search for love, you can do that. It’s your brain, dude. Go nuts.

But now that you have your crazy cool world, it has to be relatable. This is what I mean by a mixed bag — there’s got to be some element that the readers can recognize and identify with. I don’t care whether your protagonist has tentacles. Maybe blue spots lighting up on his face is the alien equivalent of a blush, and he can’t stop glowing when he sees the other alien down the hall. Or maybe the protag is a dragon who’s trying to outdo that green-scaled idiot across the mountainside in a contest on whose lair is the most bedecked with jewels.

And not just the characters, the setting, too. Even Mars has crunchy sand underfoot that gets everywhere and annoys the crap out of your characters. Playing in fantastic genres is a lot of fun, but it won’t work if the only cool thing is the genre itself.