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Posts tagged ‘world building’

World Building – Foundation and walls

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

World Building – Research Phase

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

Folktales in Fantasy

Something fantasy this way comes…

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 Norton uses a lot of folk tale and historical references in the Witchworld series, but so deftly that unless you are really looking for them, you’ll miss how she weaves them in.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


I’ve had a series of conversations I took part in this week, and in them answered, or helped answer, some questions that I thought applicable enough to repeat them here. Writing, publishing, cover art… it’s all fodder for the blog, right?

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who is also a writer (at some point I need to sit down and tot up how many of those I have) and we were talking about world building. He was telling me he was going to make me blush, because he’d been talking to his wife about my work and they concluded that I build my world around my characters while he writes a world and then peoples it. Both work, he pointed out. I sat back and pondered on this. He’s a long-time gamer, and furthermore, the DM for his group.

A DM, Sanford tells me, runs the game. He sets up the situation and determines whether the actions of the players are successful and what the reactions of the encounters are. I can certainly see how this would translate very well into storytelling. Probably with a lot more control over his characters than I can possibly have. I’m a pantser. I fly through my worlds by the seat of my pants, no IFR available. For the non-plane types in the audience, that means Instrument Flight Rules, opposed to Visual Flight Rules, and it applies rather well to my style of writing.

I can’t outline very much. I can do a little, rough out the framework of the terrain that lies ahead of my characters. But most of the time I am writing what I ‘see’ and hear in my head. This can be a challenge if I have a character who isn’t talking to me for some reason. And yes, my worlds do revolve around the perceptions of my characters. I have a tendency to not know more about the world my character lives in than they do – since I write largely SF and fantasy where I’m making up the worlds.

The question was posed in one of the groups I belong to on facebook, “Do authors here have author-blogs or websites? How essential do you think it is for a newbie to get their own site early (before publishing)? Also for those of you who have established sites, could I get a link to check them out?” I’ve written at length here on the Mad Genius Club about the way I blog, and my motivations behind it. Some of that is formed by a conversation I had with Peter Grant when we first met at LibertyCon 25. He was telling me that he’d blogged for a few years (I can’t recall the exact number, 3-4 years I think) before releasing his first book to build a large fanbase of people who wanted it. I think that’s an excellent idea, but it’s predicated on a couple of things. First, Peter was giving his readers good content. The blog he runs, Bayou Renaissance Man, is very interesting to follow as he dances from gun geeking to social commentary to just plain funny stuff. It is rarely on ‘writing and publishing’ and the few posts I can remember seeing on those, he admitted up-front that it was inside baseball and possibly not of interest to his readers. Because here’s the thing. We’re fascinated by all topics connected to writing and reading. We’re writers, after all, or working on it. That’s why we come to the MGC (that, and the sparkling wit and scintillating commentary). Ahem…)

However, unless you are marketing to writers, filling your blog up with posts about writing is not going to build a terribly big fanbase. I modeled my current blog schedule (and went to a daily post soon after talking to Peter, although it wasn’t consciously connected)  on this thought: building a broad base of people who come to my site to get interesting material. I give them value for their time, and in return, they have a trust relationship with me that means they are far more likely to lay some money down and take a chance on my writing. I blog on writing once a week, and vary it enough that I hope it’s not boring. I also blog on food, art, social stuff, and random bits that catch my attention as they flutter by (shiny! and if you doubt that, take a look at the list of topics on a day I do link round-up based on my open browser tabs! LOL) with the occasional book snippeting thrown in for good measure.

I’m a big fan of what I jokingly term the Jim Baen school of marketing: the first hit’s free. By snippeting the first quarter of the book, I should have hooked (or I need to hang up my author hat in disgrace) the reader well enough that on release day they are waving green folding stuff at me. But just snippets won’t bring the readers in, either. So, all the other stuff that I blog on does serve a purpose. The acronym WIBBOW, would I be better off writing? is yes. Blogging is writing. It’s just not paid writing, in a direct sense. Do you have to blog? No, you don’t. It will make building and maintaining a fanbase a little more challenging, but it can be done and blogging regularly isn’t for everyone.

Speaking of which, I have paying work to go do. So I’d better get my gear tidy and head out there… I will be back this afternoon to check on you all in the comments, so keep the sparkling and scintillating down, you hear? I don’t want to find this blog had burned down when I was out.

Enriching the soil

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.





Happy 4th Americans 🙂 

“There’s a world outside my window…”

I was peripheral to a discussion the other day asking authors to commend good examples of world building for a class on the same to wannabe writers. Unfortunately the discussion followed another in which a lady author told us that she’d looked at a number of sf author sites, and female authors were not able to put themselves forward the way males did. This unquantified generalisation resulted in someone else kindly explaining that it was solidarity with those who had been told boastfulness was immodest in a woman, so now I understand how this is so. The effect was that various female authors started putting themselves forward as world-builders par excellance… and not one male did. The law of unintended consequences triumphed again, and sadly, world-building and helping newbies did not.

You see, self-promotion may be part of being an author, but we’re really our own worst critics often enough. And the problem was no-one said ‘well, what _is_ good world-building?’ Because it’s easy enough for an author to judge if they’ve exerted themselves at world-building, and near impossible to judge if that world-building is good. That depends on the reader. And good requires a book world to feel ‘real’. 

In my humble opinion, as reader foremost, and writer secondly, good world building depends on three things: Firstly–that the writer has done adequate research or has the background to build a world in first place. Now, worlds are big, complex places, and if you’re starting from scratch and not appropriating large chunks of Earth’s biology, geology, geography, history and socio-political dynamics (just to start with), you need to be either a polymath, and a well-read one at that, or a very fluent liar (more on this anon.) Or preferably, both… Of course not all of any audience are going to well-enough versed in any one of the disciplines to notice that you’re a plonker (there is lot of ignorance out there. Some of it saying ‘great world-building’ in reviews) but inevitably there are SOME readers who are experts, and they only have to be experts in one of the disciplines you need to pick holes in your world. And wrong in ONE area mentally translates to wrong everywhere.

The mistake so often made is to conflate vast amounts of detail with veracity. For example I ran across (some years ago) a fantasy novel I threw across the room (TBAR) because the author (one of the self-elected great, who teaches worldbuilding) had worked out all sorts of details. And drawn a really pretty map, even including the fields… The trouble was the map – to anyone who ever used a map, who ever had an inkling of geography said… impossible. And to boot, non-arable without massive terracing. Certainly never going to support more than a very tiny population per square km (and yes, distances were included). The fields growing oats in a world totally unlike our own, would have fed one family. Maybe. When you added a load of peaceful lady knights in different castles who were great warriors and experts in martial arts… (thus displaying a nicely politically correct world which was as probable as no-one celebrating the 4th of July, as, sorry, feudal society didn’t get told it had to be PC and evolved separately in at least seven locales I can think of and… didn’t work like this. Being warriors requires a reason… and it’s not peace. And castles are not built to look ornamental and romantic either. There are reasons for Amazon corps to arise, and there are exceptional female martial-artists… but it ain’t peace and lurve either. Men are bigger and stronger and more aggressive on average, and therefore, without other major factors, dominant in conflict societies. There has to be a very good reason, pretty quickly upfront why the inverse could possibly be, or it is TBAR time. Sorry if it doesn’t fit your PC world-building.

Nor does expertise in say Norse myth or medieval English help that much… unless you are writing in a setting which uses those in situ. But for building a ‘de novo’ world, you need to be an expert in so much more (or research them or lie plausibly) Because a REAL world has real biology, real geology… and ignorance of these can make your world as real as a salary cut for politicians.

Which appropriately brings me to my second need for good world building. To be a fluent liar.

It’s happened to me a good 5 times (3 at cons) now and I believe it is an occupational hazard… you’ll get buttonholed by this rather bright-eyed guy (so far it’s been 4 males, 1 female for me) who will fix you with a crazed tremulous smile and a satchel… with three chapters of their manuscript and 5000 pages of ‘world-building’ background in it. They have entire languages, societies, maps by the dozen, complete histories…geology, physiology… you name it. Some are rather like their fave RPG or Tolkein, and some are truly wildly detailed exercises in imagination. FAR, far better researched than the lady knights or Medieval English… And yet those first three chapters suck most spectacularly. Even worse than the Lady Knights…

Quite simply the writer is making the same mistake as the Lady Knights, but with more material to do it with. They always put _everything_ in. The correctness of the detail might be better thought out… but it’s all there is. And sorry, with too much, and if you don’t bore me rigid, you will, sooner or later, get it wrong. The world is too big and complex for any one normal head, even in a lifetime, let alone the few months/years at most, generally put into these efforts.  And ‘wrong once’ in the reader’s mind, often just translates out as implausible and wrong about the lot. Find one mistake and they’ll pick until they find many.

The skilled liar knows that the well-cut garment is often a lot sexier than the nude. And a poor light hides a multitude of sins and cellulite. He knows enough detail, and puts just enough in sight to convince you that the liar (AKA author) knows the curves behind the cloth intimately. The liar knows that WHAT TO LEAVE OUT is as important as what to put in.

And why does it work? Because it is plausible, and internally consistent. The author may really know every detail about his world. Tolkein did. Diana Wynne Jones probably didn’t… . Good world-building, put simply, is a SMALL amount of well-crafted minutiae, and vast amount of plausible, logical internal consistency. Some of us need ALL the detail worked out precisely to make us that consistent. But don’t confuse doing that with being a good world-builder. There are those who can do without it, who make the reader fill in the gaps… and readers get it right for themselves. PERFECTLY right.  That was Diana Wynne Jones. Tiny precise details, and she was plausible and internally consistent most of the time, so you believed that she did have that whole world in her head. You just weren’t seeing more of it than needed for the story.

Which brings me to my third and final point – that which separates the Ok and even good world-builders from the truly great. The good show you a plausible internally consistent world, which you see through their writing and the eyes of their characters. The great — and they’re out there (and not particularly confined by gender either) create the illusion of bigger world outside that window that the reader sees. That is genius. It does get done. I’ve tried to work out just how to do it myself for years. A part at least is to bend the Chekhov rule, just a little. (Not smash it!) and allow detail that is germane but not directly so into bits of ‘irrelevant’ text. Like junk DNA… we’re not too sure what it does, but it’s POSSIBLY relevant so we keep it in mind. It’s a balancing act.

Great world-building… near invisible if done well. So who would you commend?