An Alien Mindset

Sold for Endless RueWhen I first started writing science fiction, my workshop buddies and I talked a lot about aliens and whether it was possible to write from a truly convincing alien mindset.  In the years since then I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have to write from the viewpoint of dolphins or martians or vampires in order to create someone who doesn’t think like me. I just have to write someone from a time other than now.

What was the world like when you were a kid?  I grew up in the tail end of the 50s and the 60s, when the imminence of nuclear war was a toxic, ever-present fear, when girls went to college to get their MRS. degree, and equal civil rights for persons of color, or for gays and lesbians, were pipe dreams.*  And that’s only half a century ago.  Things have changed; things are always different from the way they were.  And there’s the joy and the challenge of writing historical fiction.

Which brings me to Sold for Endless Rue.  

Rue is unlike anything I’d written before: it’s a retelling of the Rapunzel story, set at the medical school in Salerno, Italy, in the early 1200s.  I did not start out knowing much about medieval Italy, and most of what I knew–the “everybody knows” stuff–was wrong.  So I set out on a serious course of study, until I could tell you a whole lot about medieval medicine, university education, and the politics and warfare of 13th century Italy, about Salerno and about medieval family structure. I learned a lot about the practice of religion at the time, about saints and feast days.  I have files and files of information.  But all that is just the skeleton of the story; I still needed the flesh: characters who could carry the story.  To understand them I needed to understand, for want of a better word, faith. Because faith suffused life in medieval life in a way that–well, it certainly never has in my life.  I needed to remind myself, with every word a character spoke, that belief in God and (for the majority of the characters in the book) in Christianity was not an intellectual thing, but a matter of bedrock certainty.   I had a little cyber-sticky on my desktop while I was writing Rue that said: God is, to remind myself of this very alien mindset.

In writing Rue I wanted to be very careful not to condescend to the people of that time or sneer at their quaint ideas, in the same way that I didn’t want to give my medical personnel unusually advanced notions of germ theory or antiseptic procedure.  Writing human characters from another time is both easier than writing aliens (I don’t have to worry about how my alien scientist feels about his prehensile tail) and more difficult (it’s so easy to fall into thinking that because I, as a human, feel one way, my character, as a human, must feel the same way). The Olden Days are not just like now but with fancier clothes, and it would do the characters in the book a disservice to treat them that way.

Now I’m wondering if the next time I try to write an alien, I’ll treat it as if it were an historical character.  What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.


* In the same weekend I saw Ginger and Rosa, a film set in London during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when everyone thinks the world may be on the edge of annihilation, and “Twenty Four Hours in Tyrantland,” a Very Special Episode of Father Knows Best which…well, go watch it.  To watch either or both of these is to be reminded of how very different the mindset of the past, even a half-century-ago past, is from today.



An Alien Mindset — 5 Comments

  1. I write a lot of novels with male protagonists. I realized that this is the fascination with the alien. How to fathom their masculine minds? Fiction is the tool. You don’t have to travel through time or space; look across the breakfast table.

  2. Getting that mindset is what keeps me from being able to read most steampunk, or a great many historical novels: though many readers really want modern people dressed in historical clothing (and there’s nothing wrong with it!) I read so much period stuff that I can’t sink into those stories. Finding ones that evoke that alien mindset, and without making them the villains (while the heroes are like us) is a toughie.

  3. I call it writing historicals with attitude. Our ancestors–wheather 50 years ago or 500 years ago–approached life differently. They had different attitudes. They firmly believed the necessity of throwing salt over the left shoulder to appease death, and fear the consequences if they didn’t. We see it as a stupid waste of good salt.

    Choosing beta readers who will make this leap of faith is difficult. The over logical ones who are committed to strict action/reaction can’t understand and want those things struck. But that attitude is what makes it real. And special.

    • In my Sarah Tolerance books, in order to make sure that the audience understands the mindset that underlies the entire series, I have a cheery little info-dump that pertains to the place of women in Regency England. If you think that sex before marriage is no big deal, you’re not going to understand how catastrophic being “ruined” was for a young woman of good family, and thus the whole book will make no sense. I figured it was easier to just say upfront what the attitudinal ground rules were.

  4. I’m writing a time travel novel, and the hero, now back in Victorian England, is pretty peeved at how people are treating the heroine. Why can’t she vote? Why can’t she go to the library? Why can’t she travel without a male escort? In a little while he’s going to pop…