I recently finished slogging through a non-fiction book for Day Job. The book is very well written, but has a cast of hundreds, covers at least six states, and provides no background. The authors are telling the story of a small group of people involved in the Civil Rights movement, so their focus is appropriate. But I kept falling out of the book thinking, “Sheesh, I know why this happened, and I know what that term means, but I bet other folks are really going to be confused.” Unless you already know a great deal of history, the adventures take place in a vacuum. Read more
Posts tagged ‘world building’
A friend was bemoaning the necessity of making a world the other day. Now, since I happen to think that is one of the fun parts of pre-planning a story, I found his reluctance baffling. So I decided to think about how to do such a thing in a methodical fashion.
With my gaming dice. 😀
Now, first and foremost are the plot requirements of the story that’s being planned. They can load the dice at any point, including backing up and rerolling four steps ago.
So let’s start with the big picture.
A star, or stars. Roll a die. Read more
So, you have amazing nifty sources and details for your world. Now all you need is a story to stuff them into! That is, without having too much of a good thing. James A. Michener was (in)famous for starting a novel about, oh the Front Range of Colorado with the Laramide orogeny and then working forward 70-80 million years before introducing his first human characters. OK, maybe not that bad—he starts in the Pleistocene*… That’s taking world building too far, unless there is an in-story reason for it. You also don’t want a series of info-dumps loosely connected by a character. (Parts of Dune might be an exception, but most of us are not Frank Herbert, and he was writing a milieu novel that happened to have an adventure story tucked into it.)
So what do you do? Read more
So you decide you want to create a new world for your characters to play in, or you get the wild idea—after one too many children’s dinosaur books read at bedtime—to write a story where the dinosaurs didn’t get offed by [insert disaster here]. Or a world where reptiles rule. Or whatever.
You can just start writing whatever pops into mind and hope for the best. Or you can do some research. Me being me, I research. But where do you start? Read more
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about using folktales in fiction, especially fantasy. I bought a CD of Songsmith, filk written to go with the novel of that title. The book was a collaboration set in Andre Norton’s Witchworld, and the songs are about events in the book, or are referred to by one of the main characters (a bard). Norton uses a lot of folk tale and historical references in the Witchworld series, but so deftly that unless you are really looking for them, you’ll miss how she weaves them in.
That’s what I want to focus on. Not on re-working fairy tales and folk-tales as Mercedes Lackey, Diana L. Paxton, Robin McKinley, and others have done, but using details from folk-tales and history as story elements. Read more
A big part of SF and Fantasy writing is the world-building – creating the illusion of an entire culture out there that exists independently of the story you’re telling. If the illusion is well done, the piece feels more solid and will often be much stronger even though the world-building doesn’t directly impact the characters or plot (it does, and should, impact them indirectly by informing their choices and their view of how their world works – Athena Hera Sinistra’s shock and confusion dealing with Eden in Sarah’s DarkShip Thieves is a good example of how this works).
So how do you do it?
The reality is that many authors “cheat”. Just as plots are borrowed wholesale from history and have the serial numbers filed off, so too are settings. The best borrowings enrich the story soil by working with the plot and characters to make the whole piece stronger. Pratchett’s Discworld books are probably the best example of this: Ankh-Morkpork is sufficiently developed that the city is damn near a character in its own right, complete with interesting history, landmarks, and of course the river Ankh. The broad base of a medieval European city is there, with the Discworld version of early Victorian industry, and such a collection of bits and pieces from different places and times that the effect is much like a place that has grown and evolved from its earliest settlement.
Just how much Pratchett has borrowed from different parts of history (and any other field of knowledge he can get hold of) is astonishing. I’ve yet to encounter an obscure bit of historical trivia that wasn’t at minimum a throwaway line in a Discworld book – but I doubt Pratchett is going consciously “Oh, I’ll do a piss take on the Peelers next.” No, what he’s doing is absorbing an eclectic mix of odd facts (he said at the last North American Discworld Convention that he collects books of obscure Victoriana and history) and they take a twist in his brain before emerging into something that looks and feels fresh – but if you look you can see the original source there. The clacks in Going Postal did exist. They were used in France about 50 years before the telegraph got started – but not quite the way Pratchett revisioned them for the Discworld.
There’s also explicit borrowings. I won’t spoiler anything, but Sarah’s A Few Good Men has very strong echoes (deliberately) of the American Revolution. There are hints there of pre-revolutionary France as well – also deliberate, and Sarah has said that Liberte Sea City will have a French-style revolution which will end about as well as the real one did (badly). Those who know their history will find A Few Good Men and its direct sequels have a much deeper resonance for it. Oh, yes. Buy the book. It’s that good.
My method is to not explicitly borrow anything, but to set up resonances. If a culture has names that sound vaguely Celtic, they’ll have cultural patterns that follow the appropriate Celtic model, and their history will have echoes of one of the Celtic nations. Similarly English-y names will go with an English-y culture and an English-y kind of history. If I want it really alien, I’ll use patterns that I’ve built myself and build in stressors to the culture that force it in a direction likely readers will find very unfamiliar. What I’m doing is letting people’s subconscious pattern-recognition do the heavy lifting for me – and I have no shame about this. If there’s something that’s not likely to be in the common view of “what medieval English life was like” (as an example), I’ll do the groundwork so it doesn’t surprise Joe Reader too much. Otherwise the general idea, however incorrect it is, is enough to give the feel of something bigger.
Yes. I admit it. I use tropes and collective ignorance to hook my readers and leave them with something a bit more than they expected. Go thou oh lazy writer, and do thee likewise.