(Originally published in the Tor e-mail newsletter)
A man walks into a bar.
If this happens in a science fiction or fantasy novel, the author has his job cut out for him. Not only does he have to describe the bar physically, but also its patrons. They might include aliens, ogres, trolls or elves, all of which can have any number of permutations. Then the drinks have to be laid out, and the money system enumerated. When all that’s done, the author might have enough imagination left to finally describe the man who walked in.
I’m unusual as a fantasy or science fiction reader, in that the details of made-up societies, worlds and cultures hold far less interest for me than the people (I include non-humans in that term) who inhabit them. I remember listening in wonder to another well-regarded fantasy author describe the elaborate monetary system he’d designed, and for which so far he’d had no use. It’s something I could never do.
When I wrote The Sword-Edged Blonde, I wanted to pare it down to the things I, as a reader, cared most about: namely, the people. Anything that distracted from them, and from the reader’s emotional commitment to them, I either left out or minimized. For example, many fantasy characters have names that, if not literally unpronounceable, at least challenge the tongue; I named my hero Eddie LaCrosse. Eddie’s office is, in fact, above a bar, one that is no different in feel and atmosphere from any you might walk into today. Eddie uses swords that, like modern guns, have make and model names, and the people speak in rhythms, patterns and tones that don’t try to sound “otherworldly.” There’s no time spent digressing into societal details that don’t apply to the immediate situation; this is not to belittle authors who do that sort of thing well, it’s just something I neither crave as a reader nor excel at as a writer.
I did invent one term. Eddie is essentially a private investigator functioning in an Iron Age world. In our world, PI’s are known by various, vaguely derogatory terms: shamus, dick, peeper, etc. I decided that Eddie’s reality needed a similar term, and came up with “sword jockey.” To me it rings with the same thinly-veiled contempt as “gumshoe” or “snooper.”
The Sword-Edged Blonde (and its upcoming sequel, Burn Me Deadly) have been called high-fantasy stories written as if they were Forties pulp detective novels. That’s exactly my intent, but it’s not just an ironic stylistic choice; rather, it’s a sincere attempt to let readers connect with the characters by letting as few things as possible get in the way.
So the man (or woman) who walks into a bar in Eddie’s world could, hopefully, be you. And you’d be right at home there.