Literary Archaeology: Uncurling the Armadillo: Reflections from ArmadilloCon

By Jon Black

The first weekend in August, I had the privilege of attending ArmadilloCon, an annual literary convention in Austin aimed specifically at writers and serious fans. While focused on Science Fiction and Fantasy, many of its sessions and panels can benefit HisFic writers as well. This week’s blog post is a distillation of take-aways from some of my favorite sessions from the convention.

Your author at ArmadilloCon 2017

Writing Golden Age Fiction Today

The Future We Think We Deserve

One of the panelists observed (I’m paraphrasing here) “Golden Age sci-fi is set ‘in the future we think we deserve’ not ‘the future we actually get.’”

That kind of emphasis on tone applies to writing about the past as well as the future. Certain eras naturally lend themselves to certain tones. As with Golden Age Sci-Fi, the Renaissance, for example, is easy to paint as a hopeful period of unlimited opportunity. Ditto the Industrial Revolution, though it often comes with the question of “Progress at what Price?” Examination of that era’s environmental, social, and other consequences makes it virtually a mirror of our own era. Conversely, with the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, it is easy to revel in tales of the center not holding, of disintegration and despair.

That having been said, a tale that bucks the natural tone of an era (for example, a Dark Ages tale, focusing on what can be salvaged or on bringing light forth from the darkness) can be very rewarding, but requires a steady hand and masterful execution.

Social Media for Writers.

I’ve been to tons of sessions on this topic. We all have. But this was the best I’ve seen, notably for the straightforward, unambiguous feedback from panelists. Two big takeaways: First, rather than rushing to maximize the number of friends/followers, focus on quality of online relationships. One hundred people with whom you meaningfully interact are more important that 5,000 people who scroll past your posts. Second, none of the panelists found the returns on paying to boost social media posts worth the expense.

Frodo had Samwise, Han had Chewie

Buddies, Sidekicks, or Ensemble Cast?

This session focused on buddies, sidekicks, and ensemble casts. The primary distinction between the first two is a question of capability and liability. The third category depends largely on how challenges are overcome. Buddies are relatively equal both in terms of capabilities and liabilities. A sidekick is clearly less competent than his or her main character. This can be a question of liability rather than competence. The intellectually brilliant academic who requires constant rescuing by the man/woman of action may still be a sidekick.

In Ensemble Casts, regardless of the number of protagonists and their overall level of competence, they regularly alternate “saving the day.”

Many writers have discovered themselves in the positon of finding sidekicks more enjoyable and entertaining to write than main characters. Panelists stress that perfectly normal, and not every such character is suitable for a main protagonist or antagonist.

Libraries and Librarians as Protagonists

Amazing stories.

This panel discussed at length the role of librarians (and archivists) as gatekeepers and dispensers of knowledge. I was more interested by the discussion of libraries themselves. Panelists advanced the idea that libraries remain popular in fiction because discovering a lost text in some musty old repository is inherently more atmospheric than finding the information online. I’m not sure I agree. Even more importantly, in 2017, I don’t think having characters always discovering their vital clues in that matter rings true. As authors, we need to develop techniques for making our characters’ online research and discovery exciting, too.

Planning and Writing a Series and Serial Killers: Books that Ended a Series  

I’m combining two panels with similar themes. I attended with considerable enthusiasm as I currently in the midst of navigating my way through the second novel in the Bel Nemeton series and finding that a second book presents some challenges that are new to me.

There was little consistency between panelists regarding what had worked for them in planning and writing their series. All the usual differences between pantsing and planning, for instance, emerged: now on the scale of an entire series rather than a single work. One point of agreement was the importance of ensuring that editors/publishers are on the same page as the author regarding the overall vision for the series.

Over the course of the session, panelists concluded that a “series” could really refer to three different things. First are books with a consistent universe and cast of characters but that are otherwise completely stand-alone narratives. Examples include much of Star Trek and Dr. Who cannon (both TV and novelizations). Second are series where each book presents a related but largely independent story arc, such as The Chronicles of Narnia. Third are series where each book tells one part of a single multi-book plot arc. The most celebrated example of the later is the Lord of the Rings.

While not arguing that any one definition of series was superior, they agreed it was best to choose one and stick with it throughout a series.

Another pitfall discussed was increasing focus on secondary characters at the expense of main characters as the series progresses. Panelists agreed that, while it was possible to transform secondary characters into new main characters over the course of a series, it was an extremely challenging thing to do.

Religious Horror and Horrific Religion

Pea soup, anyone?

Some of the most influential (and just plain terrifying) horror deals with explicitly religious themes. Think The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. This session put forward the fascinating notion that one reason religion and horror work so well together is that they utilize nearly identical narrative vocabulary to tell diametrically opposed stories. Elements such as returning from the dead, mysterious events defying presumed laws of physics, and omniscience or precognition are staples of both religion and horror. And, of course, an author aware of this duality can deploy it deliberately to his or her advantage. 

Cartography and Maps in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Howard’s Map of Hyperboria

Maps have often been the icing on the cake for many great fantasy works. The renderings of Tolkien’s Middle Earth or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia are as instantly recognizable as they are beloved. Even authors not interested in incorporating them into works may find them useful tools for plotting action and keeping it consistent. Robert E. Howard used this approach, creating a functional map of Hyperboria (later reproduced in a fancier version sometimes included in Conan novels) as well as his lesser known map of El Borak’s Central Asia. The fussily precise Lovecraft produced a similar map of Arkham for his own use in keeping his tales consistent.

Sci-Fi has been less fertile for maps, various maps Herbert’s Arrakis being the most notable exception. One reason for the sparsity of sci-fi maps may be the lack of conventions for interplanetary and interstellar cartography.

On a personal note, I have to add this was the most enjoyable and professional useful con I’ve attended, if you’re remotely in the area, I would encourage you to seriously encourage attending next year.