Sherwood Smith July 17th, 2006
One of the many complaints about fantasy writers (and is pilloried in Diana Wynn Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasy) is the Peasant Hovel villages, towns, streets just below the castle. If you feel your world requires the wide economic divide between rich and poor, at least spend a day in your own hovel thinking about what life is actually like.
Here are my Hovel Day suggestions:
One, go camping. i don’t mean at some lovely place that has rustic cabins with electric lights and clean toilets that you don’t have to clean yourself, hot and cold showers, and a dining hall just down the path that someone leveled for you, I mean out in the wilderness somewhere. Spend as long as you can. you probably won’t want to hunt for food, but to make the test work, while you are going through the labor or building a campfire, cooking your meal, serving it, then cleaning up after it, reflect on how and wherefrom you would have obtained that meal.
Next, experience the tasks of getting through a day: where are you going to the bathroom? How are you keeping clean? If you camp long enough, how are your clothes getting clean, or are you compromising and wearing them over and over? What are you doing for entertainment since there is no electricity? How are you protecting yourself if the area is known for roving wildlife searching out food?
If you can’t go camping, then have a no-electricity time at your house–a week if you are venturesome (and this opportunity might be given to you if you live in a hurricane or quake area) for at least a day. How do you perform your daily chores if you cannot turn on a light or stove or washer? How do you communicate if there is no phone? You are permitted to use the toilet, but post a sign in front of the can saying “Where would I put it when I am done?” Cook without gas or electricity. Get from room to room without electricity–this is where writers often fall down, characters run around as if the lights were turned on in Ye Olde Castle. What does a room look like when you enter it carrying a lantern or candle? What do the stairs look like when you mount them with a candle dripping wax if you are not careful? (And where did you get that candle?) What does it smell like? Writers often blithely have characters with tallow candles–do you know what tallow is, how much it stinks, and how poor its lighting is?
A day spent without amenities can help make those poor folk in your fantasy land more convincing.