Thursday, June 8, 2017

World Building, Observation and Crackers

I'm eating crackers tonight. Crackers I purchased yesterday from Walmart because I'm classy like that. To be precise, I am eating Stoned Wheat Thins which I would lovingly describe as the very best boring cracker out there. They're like the big sister of soda crackers - a little wider, a little heftier and substantially more crunchy. When I want to eat some cheese or a spread but I don't have the time or resources to properly pair toppings and cracker, I shrug my shoulders and say, "well, a Stoned Wheat Thin won't taste WRONG with that" and off I go. A well-paired Triscuit might taste superior to a stoned wheat thin, but you can get a Triscuit wrong. That's a lot of pressure.

Stoned Wheat Thins also happen to be my personal favorite metaphor for perspective shifting, which I think is one of the most underrated skills when it comes to world-building.

The Pittsburgh Cracker Caper

Image result for stoned wheat thins

It all comes down to a night where I was in a Giant Eagle grocery store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvannia. I had some fancy goat cheese I'd never tried before and needed a good, solid cracker to pair it with. The problem was, I wasn't confident I knew what that cheese tasted like well enough to pick out a truly sophisticated cracker. Plus, I'd already blown my wad on the cheese. (Like most MFA students, my desire to eat overpriced, fancy food was not proportional to my ability to purchase it).

But no matter. I knew that in a pinch, a box of Stoned Wheat Thins would do the trick, plus they would go fine with hummus and whatever else I picked up after the cheese was gone. I entered the cracker aisle, scanning for a nice big box only to be greeted with a wall of Triscuits and Pepperidge Farm and hundred other crackers I couldn't afford.

I honestly can't remember another time I've ever been so confused in a grocery store. Maybe the first time I went shopping in the UK and there was only one type of peanut butter on the shelf, but I expect cultural dissonance when it comes to the British. America, I figured, must have Stoned Wheat Thins, because what on earth did they do when they wanted a cheap cracker that didn't instantly dissolve under the weight of dip? You can buy massive boxes of Stoned Wheat Thins in Canada, yet in America, the very land of large boxes of carbs, there was nothing.

I scanned the Triscuit section, hoping some equivalent would appear. By now, I was deeply worried for myself and my cheese. Was I going to have to develop a taste for Melba toasts?

Luckily, this story has a happy ending. After about ten minutes of pacing the aisle, I spotted a tiny box that held a single sleeve of crackers, packaged in a box that wasn't blue, which was weird for Stoned Wheat Thins, let me tell you. I laughed, relieved as I realized that some idiot had put them in the International section, next to all the fancy Italian and French crackers.

Then I looked at the box again and saw it stamped to high-heaven with REAL CANADIAN WHEAT labels. And bam, there it was. The paradigm shift.

In America, Stoned Wheat Thins are a very fancy cracker and they are priced accordingly. It was, like, $3.50 for a sleeve of crackers but I'd just spent ten minutes looking for them and I was an MFA student, and it's always a little exciting when you over spend on food if you're an MFA student.

On Paradigms and World Building

One of the things that experience reminded me of was that Canadian things are almost always much more exotic to Americans than American things are to Canadians. The exception to this might be those American cities that hug the Canadian border, where the people are often from smaller towns than the cities just north of them in Canada and they're likely to visit and shop up there frequently. But drive just a few hours south of Canada, and the reactions to meeting a "Canadian" start piling up.

People in Washington never comment on my accent, but people in Utah and Pennsylvania absolutely do. Sometimes it's annoying, sometimes I enjoy the attention, but in the back of my mind is always this sense of wonder that they find me interesting at all. They are so ordinary to me. I'd never put their crackers in the International section.

Intellectually, I get why this is the case. We live in a globalized world where unequal distributions of wealth and power impact the rate of cultural exchange, but what catches me off guard are the small, personal ways that impacts life. Since that instance in the cracker aisle, I've had a few more of these, like when I realized I'd never seen a gas station in the States with open bins of loose, five-cent candy. Those exist at bulk food stores and a couple other small enclaves. But on the whole, kids in the US are not going to 7/11 so they  can hand select a bag of gummy frogs and coke bottles with a hard earned Toonie.

In writing, I tend to be the most impressed with world building when it documents these small moments. Any writer can tell you "the Queen sits on a throne of carbuncles" or that "the council is made up of yeomen from all the villages round about" but the ones who can capture the inner lives of different people are the ones worth paying attention to. Those are the ones that have the ability to bring you down to a character at eye level.

Here are just a couple of examples of fabulous authors who have found ways to strike that balance:

- In the first chapter of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, the narrator is struggling to grow a proper mustache and very self-conscious about it, because he's trying to impress a girl from another culture and is convinced she'll be into good facial hair.
- Early in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Junior takes a few paragraphs to rhapsodize about why he loves fried chicken so much and why it's such a treat for his family, making every time chicken shows up in the rest of the book unexpectedly poignant.
- In the Oryx and Crake series by Margaret Atwood, fictitious brand names litter the pages and provide a good indicator of how off the rails society is going. Jimmy's evolving acceptance of ChickieNobs (chicken parts grown in a lab without an actual chicken. What is it with books and chicken, exactly?) is a particularly good example.
- During the scene in the second Harry Potter book where Draco first calls Hermione a Mudblood, she and Harry have no clue why Ron reacts so intensely to the insult.

Aside from being about the small details of life, the other thing all these examples have in common is that they're really well filtered through the viewpoint of the characters. They show a personal relationship to the worlds the books take place in, whether those worlds are fantastical or real. If those moments were told through someone else's eyes, they'd read completely different and perhaps wouldn't have any impact on a story at all.

Not everyone is going to relate to crackers the same way I do. I've come to accept that over the years, as I've retold my cracker tale to anyone who has the nerve to open a box of Stoned Wheat Thins around me. But it still strikes me as an example of how our world is built up of small things and even smaller moments. Switch the country a box of crackers is in, and it becomes something fancy and exotic. But even if it is sitting next to a selection of French and Italian crackers, it can still be the most boring, ordinary, glorious cracker out there to a homesick Canadian.

It all depends on whose story you're telling.

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