GUEST POST Not My Country: 5 Things I Learned About Worldbuilding from Traveling Abroad by Kameron Hurley

If you’re at all interested in serious, progressive sff, then you will probably have heard a lot about The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley lately; it’s the kind of convention-defying, mind-opening fantasy that all fans should be reading. Kameron won double Hugos this year, and I don’t doubt that The Mirror Empire will get her nominated for several awards again next year. She’s currently on one of her incredibly prolific blog tours following the launch of her novel from Angry Robot, and has been kind enough to make another stop at Violin in a Void. Welcome back Kameron!


The Mirror Empire

The best writing advice I ever got was to read outside the science fiction and fantasy genre and travel. There’s nothing like getting out of your everyday surroundings and plopping yourself into someplace difference to see just how much cultural baggage you’re carrying around. Here are the top five things I learned about how to build better fantastic worlds – simply by traveling around more in this one.

    • Knowing a thing and experiencing a thing are different, and you’ll have a whole new view of the world when you experience all those things you think you know. There were all sorts of things I knew, intellectually, about race and poverty and sexism and my place in the world. But getting out into the world and seeing those things in action changed the way I felt about them. It’s all very well to say one understands poverty and chronic illness, too, but until I had experience with those things in my personal life, they were still just concepts, like watching something that happened to someone else on TV. Traveling gave me a chance to see and experience different ways of living. Some good, some bad, all very different from mine. When it comes to building fictional worlds, it’s easier to build believable ones when you’ve had some inkling of wider experience beyond what’s in a book.


    • People are much better than we think. Our obsession with the evil of the world, with mass murder and serial killers and genocide, often gives a lopsided view of the world. If all we see presented are people being awful to each other, we’ll start to think that’s all people ever are. But the reality is that even the places that I went where not everyone was fabulous, the majority of people still were. Often in the most surprising places. Your world may be the grimmest of the grimmest darkiest dark, but without a ray of hope, without kindness, without a measure of good, none of us would survive very long. I discovered that adding hope and humor to my stories went a long way to making them more livable, and, frankly, more realistic.


    • Caution is fine, but saying “yes” will lead to far more opportunities. I got a lot of well-meaning folks cautioning me a lot when I did most of my traveling, alone, in my 20’s. Everyone sees a young woman traveling alone, and the only time we ever see that portrayed in the media is usually when some young woman goes missing. These things happen, yes, and it’s a real concern. But the truth is that these sorts of stories and cautions also work to hold women back from fully experiencing life in a way that men are not. I recognized early that traveling would come with risk, but so would sitting still. This experience, being a young woman traveling alone, led me to ask how dangerous the world was – or was perceived to be – for folks in my fantastic worlds, too. It turns out that building an escapist and fantastic world, for me, could be doing something as revolutionary as building a world where it was possible for a young woman to travel alone unquestioned. Madness!


    • Language is awesome, and you should learn to speak as many of them as you can. I spent some time traveling through Switzerland, taking a train ride across this country where one minute everyone is speaking French, and the next… German. In Durban, South Africa, I could hear three or four different languages and six different accents every single day, easily. Growing up in northwestern U.S., I led a pretty insulated life. The only other language I ever heard until my teens was French, and only because my grandmother and aunts spoke it. Once I had to start navigating the world outside my little slice of it, I wished I’d learned more of it, and two or three more languages besides. Language is rich, fun, complex – and adding this to your worldbuilding, instead of relying on a “common tongue” or monolithic language or magic translator, can add an incredible amount of depth to your work.


  • We’re all more alike than we are different. I talk a lot about difference in my work, and how we don’t show the full measure of diversity in the world – let alone diversity of the imagination, of what could be – in our fiction. But what interests me most is what stays the same when we change everything else, from what we eat to how we organize ourselves. When we pull everything else away, it turns out we all want to feel loved, to love, to feel that our lives matter. How we express that differs, but what makes us human across time, across cultures, is just as interesting as what makes us uniquely ourselves. And it’s that part of our humanity, our capacity for love, for kindness, for empathy, that I never want to forget in my fiction, either.


About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschie Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFEscape PodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

A few book-lover pics from Paris

One of the many things I loved about Paris was how literary the city is. It’s been the setting and subject of countless novels, and it’s the home of many great names in literature and philosophy. It’s an inspiring place to be, with plenty of literary sights to see. One a more day-to-day level, it’s also a city of people who love to read. Bookshops are everywhere, and people are always reading, in parks, on the metro, in cafés. Some of you might think this unremarkable, but I thought it was pretty cool; in South Africa (and more so in Ethiopia) reading isn’t quite as popular, and you won’t see that many people reading in public. As a result, Paris made my book-lover’s heart thump with pleasure 🙂

So I thought I’d share a few more book-related pics.

The Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Garden) outside the Louvre is full of exquisite sculptures based on mythical figures:

Theseus and the Minotaur

Not entirely sure about this one. The goddess Diana?

My boyfriend loves the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, so one of our early stops was for a light breakfast at Café de Flore, where Sarte, Simone de Beauvoir, and other intellectuals used to hang out and write.

I highly recommend their delicious hot chocolate (their own special blend, according to the menu). However, I do not recommend having more than a drink and a pastry there – the café is very much an overpriced tourist attraction, with the brusque, impatient service that seems to characterise touristy restaurants (people in less touristy places were usually very friendly). Next door is a souvenir shop with prices so ludicrous we didn’t even go inside.

One of the nicest things to do in Paris is relax in one the many beautiful parks with a good book:

There aren’t really any public parks in Addis Ababa and and the city is almost devoid of natural beauty, so I really appreciated this simple pleasure. The parks of Paris are perfectly maintained, and at this time of year they were all a stunning, lush green.

If I lived in Paris and spoke French, I would undoubtedly spend many Saturday or Sunday afternoons browsing the second-hand book stalls along the Seine:

Excuse the annoyed-looking man who got caught in the shot…

Of course, I had to get a few bookmarks. This yellow one is from Centre Pompidou, and is based on the design of the building.

I also bought a few bookmarks showing details from classic artworks:

From the left: Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, bought at the Louvre; Nymphe les bras levés by Adolf de Meyer, bought at Musée de l’Orangerie; Soleil couchant by Claude Monet, also from Musée de l’Orangerie, where you can view Monet’s Water Lilies, an utterly amazing series of works.

At Shakespeare and Company, Paris

It’s about time I shared some stuff from my Paris trip. One the destinations on the top of my list was the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore on rue de la Bûcherie in the Latin Quarter. The original store was opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, and is well-known for having published James Joyce’s Ulysses. Unfortunately that store was closed down by the Nazis in 1940, supposedly because Sylvia Beach refused to sell her last copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German officer.

In 1951, George Whitman opened another English-language bookstore on the Left Bank. It was initially named Le Mistral, but after Sylvia Beach’s death in 1964, Whitman changed the name to Shakespeare and Company as a tribute. On the top floor of the store is a small library dedicated to Sylvia Beach, where visitors can come to read or write. George Whitman died in December 2011 at age 98. Today his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, continues to run the store in the same manner as her father, allowing young writers to live and work in the shop.

I visited the store on 15 May. One the left (just outside of this shot) is the antique book section of the store. Behind me is the normal store, selling new and second-hand books.  According to the store’s website, it hasn’t been changed much over the decades, as you can see by comparing the store with the postcards showing old photographs of the place. It certainly has the quaint, cosy feel of an old bookstore. The wooden floors and staircase creak, the books are tightly packed from floor to ceiling, and it’s very cramped. In the library you can sit on the leather bench, a worn armchair, or one of the old cinema seats. There are some antique typewriters in the shop, one of which sits on a writing desk in the library, in front of a window overlooking the street. You can put up little notes in the shop, either on a wall in one little room, or inside the tiny, tiny writing cubicle upstairs.

On the day we visited, an American singer and songwriter called Sweet Soubrette did a short performance on ukulele in the library.

Unfortunately we didn’t have a camera good enough to show how pretty this really looked. Besides the beautiful library, there were pretty pink flowers in the window, and the view was of lush green trees and quintessential Parisian buildings.

There weren’t actually any Parisians at the performance, which I guess isn’t that surprising, since the store sells books in English, and it’s as much a tourist attraction as anything else. There are signs asking people not to disturb readers and browsers by taking photos, but there are still people snapping away all the time. You’ll hear lots of American accents too, by virtue of the fact that they’re somehow louder than any other.

I had to buy some books and postcards of course:

Design as Art by Bruno Munari and Ways of Seeing by John Berger are both collections of essays on art. Buying them was a reaction to our visit to Centre Pompidou, a huge modern art gallery. Out of the galleries and museums we visited, the Pompidou was undoubtedly my favourite, but I won’t deny that I was baffled by a lot of what I saw there. Hence the art books. I also wanted a French novel, and Palafox by Eric Chevillard appealed to my taste for weird and wonderful things.

I also bought this cool Shakespeare and Co. book bag:

The picture on the bag is of the entrance to the upstairs library. The writing above the doorway reads “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise”.

We took one more photo, on May 23, when we passed by the shop after dinner on my birthday:

All in all, I thought Paris was an unbelievably beautiful, utterly enchanting city. Two weeks isn’t nearly enough time to experience even a fraction of all the incredible things it has to offer.

I’m off to Paris!

I’ll be MIA for the next two weeks, because tonight I’m leaving for a holiday in Paris! It’s partly a birthday present from my boyfriend, but more than that it’s our first major travelling endeavour (aside from moving to Ethiopia!), and my first time in Europe. Blogging and even reading are going to have to take a backseat as I spend the next 14 days wandering the streets of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, eating superb food, and exploring an endless wealth of history and culture.

Violin in a Void won’t slumber though – I’ve got a few scheduled posts ready. And you never know – Paris may well inspire me to write something more, or at least take some pictures to share 🙂

Au revoir!