Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Your Modern Hobbies, 
Your Ancient World

By Valerie Serdy

2001, Valerie Serdy 

Before our heroes and heroines became the adventurers we needed them to be to make our stories interesting, they had some occupation. Despite what I keep seeing in fantasy novels, not all of these characters need to be warriors looking for work, mages looking for magic items, or youngsters running away to discover fortune. By looking at your hobbies and interests, you may discover an unusual occupation for your main character: an occupation made more real because you already know many of the small details that translate to believability for your readers.

It may be easier to see how hobbies like sewing or pottery translate to a fantastic world. After all, these occupations have all been around for centuries. So, we’ll start with my hobby. I’m a scuba diver. I got certified a year ago and since then have logged just shy of 50 dives in the Puget Sound area. I’ve seen the most amazing things underwater: anemones waving in the current, octopus hiding, starfish mating. I’ve been stung by a jellyfish and attacked by a cabezon guarding its eggs. I’ve been buffeted about by strong current. I’ve stood on the edge of the shore and watched the tide roll out, leaving crabs stranded on the beach for the seagulls to pick over. I’ve smelled the ocean throughout the year, noting its changes. And I’ve anxiously anticipated the start of a dive whenever I’m trying something new. In short, diving has given me wonderful sights, sounds, and experiences that would make great fodder for a story.

But how do I do it? I wear a dry suit made of latex and nylon. I carry a steel cylinder on my back filled with a mixture of compressed gases to help avert decompression sickness. That gas is delivered to me by a regulator that carefully delivers the same amount of air when I breathe in regardless of the ambient pressure. I am using equipment and materials that were not available, would not have been dreamed of, in a world with a technology level matching that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. What’s a girl to do?

I had to first remember that I wanted to use my diving experiences in my story: the creatures I’d seen, the sound and smell of the ocean, the numbingly cold water.  The equipment I use is hardly interesting in a fantasy story, but it allows me to stay underwater for an hour at a time. I didn’t know how long people with no equipment could typically stay underwater or how deep they could dive or whether they were still at risk for decompression sickness.

I wanted believability, so I cracked open a few books. I started with the book we used during our certification course. It began with a brief history of man’s desire to get underwater, including the type of equipment that became the precursors to my steel and nylon and latex. In less than a page of text, I discovered breathing tubes, however inefficient, have been around practically forever. Early divers created breathing bags out of goat or sheepskin. Diving bells have been around since 330 BC, invented by Aristotle and used by Alexander the Great to destroy the underwater defenses of his enemies. In fact, ancient Greeks often used divers in warfare: they smuggled supplies past blockades, cut enemy mooring lines, sank ships. Those same divers later plundered the ships they had earlier sunk.

In addition to warfare, divers were used for the more obvious task of collecting sea creatures; much of it was used for food, though sponges were collected to cushion the heavy armor soldiers wore. A little more research using a general encyclopedia showed divers in the Caribbean and Japan making hundreds of dives a day, some as deep as 50 feet to collect lobsters, shellfish, and seaweed.

And there, an occupation was born. My main character, Shara, is a diver providing for her family by gathering shellfish for food, sponges for cushions, seaweeds for dyes and medicines. She can hold her breath a maximum of four minutes, chooses not to use the breathing bags others use, and will help develop a rudimentary diving bell when the need arises. Now I can use my hobby.

Then I ran into another problem. For Shara to see the same things I’ve seen, the water needs to be cold, say around 55 degrees in the summer time (this is why I wear a dry suit). So, in order to stay warm, Shara uses magic to warm the water around her, using the same principle wet suits use. Not such a problem after all. Shara will now be able to see the wonderful creatures I have seen, smell the ocean I have smelled, feel the anxiety I have felt when diving in strong current. Write what you know.

Those hobbies I mentioned at the beginning of this article (sewing and pottery) are wonderful resources to make everyday scenes more believable. Do you make your own clothes? You probably use a sewing machine. But if you’ve chosen to stitch a small hole closed by hand, or sew on a button, you’ve a pretty good idea how it feels to hold a needle for an extended period of time: how the needle leaves indentations in your skin if you grip it too firmly, how your hands and fingers can cramp up, how hard it is to thread that needle if you’re tired or your eyes are bleary.

Are you a potter? Your kiln and wheel may be more advanced than that of your world, but you know what the clay smells like, what it feels like, the anxiousness you felt as a beginner when you placed that first attempt into the kiln and prayed it would come out unharmed. Research the history of the potter’s wheel and kiln to determine what tools people in your world might use.

Perhaps you’re reading this article and saying to yourself, this won’t help me, I play soccer. Most ancient peoples, and this includes those of the European Middle Ages, had more free time, more holidays than we do in America. Perhaps your world also has free days and festivals: some variant of soccer could become the game of choice. Perhaps over time your character is a referee or an excellent kicker. Your character could be a spectator gambling on the outcome or an entrepreneur looking to sell drinks or snacks to tired players. If your world disapproves of either occupation, you’ve already provided trouble for your character. A short scene like this allows you to show some richness in your world and lets us know your characters a little better.

You can place your modern hobbies into your fantastic world to allow you to write what you know. By adding a bit of research to the visceral experiences you gain from your hobby, you can add reality and depth to your world. And as each individual is different, your hobbies could provide a new occupation for your main characters that we, as readers, haven’t seen many times before.

Valerie Serdy recently left the software industry after 6 years. She’s now staying at home and devoting time to her writing and her husband, who’s willingly agreed to support her during this time. 

She can be contacted at vserdy@hotmail.com .