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Posts tagged ‘world building’

How Much Context?

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

Let’s Make a World

 

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

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

Conversations

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.