Locked Up Abroad: Lessons From the Streets of Fantasy – Guest Blog by K. S. Villoso
You ever wonder if a fantasy novel can actually help you survive in a real life situation? I don’t mean teach you about sword-fighting and how to slay dragons, or brew your own magic potions to help you teleport out of dicey situations. I’m talking about something more realistic, such as how to survive in a strange environment you’ve never been in before, when calling for help seems all but impossible.
When I was little, my parents were forced to leave a rental home and take up residence in what was essentially a slum area. From a nice, two-bedroom house with a yard in a subdivision, we went to a cramped one-bedroom in a dark street where houses were all crammed together, as many as could fit, the gutters stank of sewage, and rats nearly the size of cats ran amok.
I didn’t have to do any actual surviving there, obviously. I didn’t spend time trying to steal food or kill pigeons in exchange for a bowl o’ brown. But still, there was no denying what sort of environment it was. It was not always the safest place to be in, and I learned a lot living there – lessons I would later carry over when writing my novel, The Wolf of Oren-yaro.
Much of The Wolf of Oren-yaro involves Queen Talyien’s adventures through the dark alleys of the city slums, and what appears to be her gradual descent from one shoddy decision to the next. Readers have expressed frustration over her actions during the course of the novel, with many wondering how a queen—of all people—could be reduced to such circumstances. Couldn’t a queen just clap her hands and make everything go away?
While discussing these reactions with a beta-reader, he kindly pointed out the difference in perspective. I wrote the novel using my background, with Talyien responding with the wisdom of her father, a sharp, strategic man who trained her how to survive in the wake of a civil war he created. While she wasn’t expecting something as drastic as what she found herself in in the novel, the beta-reader thought she actually responded appropriately considering her limited resources. “Haven’t you watched episodes from Locked Up in Abroad? Did you see all the mistakes those people made?”
Lesson One: Observe Everything
In The Wolf of Oren-yaro, Talyien observes everyone she meets with startling acuity. She was trained by her father since childhood to look at people’s actions and then try to determine whether they are being truthful or not—to find their motivations and use it to her advantage. This observation allows her to get out of at least one scrape she finds herself in, including allowing herself to be able to manipulate a gambling lord. When she is tempted to ask for help a couple of times, she ultimately decides against it when she observes that the other person would have other intentions.
Lesson Two: Act Inconspicuous
It’s normally good practice not to stand out, because in a seedy place, bad characters are out there looking for an opportunity to strike. Everyone is out for themselves, and even good people are sometimes driven to do bad things for the sake of their own families.
Talyien makes this mistake in the beginning of the novel, but once it was pointed out to her by the man who observed how out of place she seemed—especially with regards to how she spoke—she learned very fast, and learned to keep quiet. If she had gone thundering through the streets proclaiming she was queen, dangling reward money to any who would dare listen, who knows what would’ve happened to her? The Queen of Jin-Sayeng might’ve been lost forever, unrecognizable as the chopped-up body parts in a sack in the bottom of the Eanhe River.
Lesson Three: Trust No One
After two decades in a western country, I’d forgotten how suspicious my environment had been until my cousin, who lived in our house in the slums after we left, came here. We were sitting in the car waiting for the light to turn green, and a man with a squeegee came by to offer to clean our windshield. He freaked out, saying, “That man has a hammer! He’s going to smash our windows!”
It sounds funny until you realize the context from where it was coming from. In a world where people don’t have much, there will always be those looking to take advantage of you. In fact, people who want to take advantage of you are the norm, not the exception. When I was young, I was taught never to open the door to anyone, no matter what, and to not talk to anyone outside unless it was people my parents had approved. It could get unpleasant—I didn’t like that one time a woman came by asking for money to feed her children, and I had to shake my head and close the window to her face. I had money to give her and would’ve done it in a heartbeat, but my training overrode my compassion. I still regret that to this day, but that’s how it was. You assume that everyone is out to get you.
In The Wolf of Oren-yaro, Talyien has trust issues, for good reason. This is not a world where she has plot armour—it is a realistic, dark, gritty world where she could get killed at any time. I always tell my readers that just because the book is told in first person doesn’t necessarily means she’ll survive. These may or may not be journal entries—they can be thoughts occurring in real time. They can be entries being written by someone else, filling in for her. I can always switch POVs.
After Talyien finds herself betrayed, she is no longer sure of people’s intentions, and being lifted from her natural environment causes her to distrust people to the point where she is willing to take matters into her own hands. While her decisions may cause her situation to worsen at times, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. In Talyien’s case, she prefers to jump into the fire herself than let someone push her into it.
Lesson Four: Blend In. Belong.
This is something I learned from my cousin when we were kids, as he has way better street cred than me. You need to learn to be a chameleon, fast. In certain well-off environments, if somebody offers you something, you can say things like, “Oh, I don’t eat that,” and people will be polite and try to make room for your preferences. And it wouldn’t sound rude at all.
In the streets? If you’re around people who are nice to you and they offer something and you turn it down because it’s just not your thing? Watch as they become highly suspicious of you and you lose whatever upper hand you may have had. All eyes will turn on you.
You want people to drop their guard so you can proceed with Lesson One. And to do that, you have to belong. You accept hospitality, even if you don’t want to. You pretend you trust them, even if you don’t. Most importantly, you try to talk and act like they do so that you get treated like one of us instead of who died and made you king?
Talyien, in the novel, blends in pretty fast, adapting as much of the surrounding mannerisms, customs, and speech patterns as she could. This isn’t always easy, as she slips here and there, but she keeps an eye out for this. When someone offers her hospitality, she takes it, and bides her time, which leads us to…
Lesson Five: Wait For The Right Opportunity
You shouldn’t start a war if you don’t have the upper hand.
You need to learn to wait out discomfort expertly, because discomfort was part of everyday life. Sometimes you just want to come home after a long, tiring day, but it takes two hours to make a 12 km trip in traffic and rain and flood, there’s seedy taxi drivers whose cars you don’t want to get into if you want to make it back alive, and the streets are overflowing with garbage and impossible to walk on.
Talyien, obviously, isn’t the most patient person. In fact, she prefers to take matters into her own hands, reasoning that she’d rather die doing something than nothing. But it doesn’t mean she can’t abide discomfort, which is something she was trained in by her father, as opposed to being a princess who was pampered from the start.
In the novel, she finds herself in certain situations where the wisest thing was to sit and wait. We know, in theory, that she could probably have fought her way out of these situations, but she chose to let things pass her by while she finds the right time to strike. Sometimes this works, sometimes it backfires.
Of course, at the end of the day, certain things happen that are beyond Queen Talyien’s control. It is, after all, a big world, and there’s other players at work.
I’ve got a penchant for putting my characters between a rock and a hard place, and Talyien certainly finds herself in a pretty tough one in this novel. There’s situations where there is no right answer, and we’re watching a stressed-out and highly emotional individual try to respond to a situation where perhaps every option will lead to disaster, but she has to try to do something anyway. As the same reader told me, “I personally wasn’t frustrated with her choices themselves, but with her situation in general. She’s queen of a small country in an empire with no diplomatic ties to it. She didn’t have a cellphone, there was no embassy, she’d just been betrayed, and at best people have no reason to believe her—she didn’t know where to turn to. I kept thinking, I hope she finds someone who can help her soon.”
In any case, there you have it, some simple lessons on how to survive if you, too, find yourself in such a questionable environment. But of course, in case that doesn’t work out, please sign the waiver of liability form below…