Tag Archives: world building

#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

Today we’re continuing our NaNo Prep by imagining a world. These exercises will only take a few minutes unless you want to spend more time on them. They’re just a warmup, getting you thinking about your writing project. In our previous post, we asked ourselves who we think our characters might be. Now we ask, “Where do my characters live? How do they see their world?”

WritingCraftWorldbuildingEvery world in which every story is set is imaginary. This is true whether it is a memoir, a cookbook, a math book, a sci-fi novel, a contemporary novel set in London, or an encyclopedia.

All written worlds exist only in our minds, even those non-fiction books detailing recent events.

The world you paint with words will be inhabited by the characters you create. I write fantasy, and I have three created worlds, peopled with characters I cherish and places where I feel at home.

But my created worlds didn’t begin that way. They emerged as the first draft of the first novel evolved. Each world started as an idea and grew in detail as the narrative unfolded in my imagination.

But what if you aren’t writing fantasy? Creating a fantasy or sci-fi world is exactly the same as detailing a historical time or a current event.

The difference is in documentation. While you can use Google Earth to visit a distant city, read documentation concerning a historical event, or view maps drawn by contemporaries, you must create the history and landscape of your fantasy world. With fiction, your preparatory world-building is the documentation.

800px-Mount_Rainier_sunset_and_cloudsWhen writing our narrative, we want to avoid contradicting ourselves about our protagonist’s world. Keeping it all in your head is not a good idea, especially if you’re like me—too much data means I regularly have the eternal loading screen when trying to recall something. (I’ll never forget what’s-his-name.)

I recommend you create a file containing all your ideas regarding your fictional world, including the personnel files you are making. I learned to do that the hard way, so take my advice: write down your ideas, and update them with later changes.

I list all my background information in a separate Excel workbook for each book or series. You don’t have to go that far; you can use any kind of document, handwritten or digital. Many people make notes on their phones. You just need to document your ideas. If you want to get fancy, see my post, Ensuring Consistency: the Stylesheet.

Find images on the internet that are either historical or represent your ideas. Paintings and great photography inspire me and fire my imagination. Go to the internet and find maps.

If you are writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, sketch a map. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but I recommend you use a pencil in case you need to rearrange it.

Clementines_Astoria_Dahlia_Garden2019Just like we do when creating our characters, we want to begin with a paragraph that might be the encyclopedia explanation of where the action takes place. I write fantasy, so here is the one paragraph I might start with:

The Citadel of Kyrano, a port city along the River Fleet. Its population is around five thousand, and its primary industry is wool production. Every industry in Kyrano supports the cloth trade in one way or another. The merchants’ council rules the citadel and a small armed militia keeps the peace and patrols the walls, repelling the occasional band of highwaymen.

I will ask myself several questions about Kyrano.

  • What objects do the characters see in their immediate environment?
  • When they step outside, what ambient sounds do they hear?
  • What odors and scents do they encounter indoors and out?
  • What objects do the characters interact with?
  • What weapons does this society use for protection? (swords, guns, phasers, etc.)
  • How important is religion?
  • What are the layers of society, and where do my characters fit?
  • Is the use of magic a part of my story? If so, who can use it, and what is the science of that magic? What are its limits?
  • Are science and technology a part of my story? If so, who can use it, and what are its limits?

Keep your world-building document handy, or a notepad and pen. As you go about your life, observe the world around you and make notes of smells and sounds you can incorporate into your work. I spend a lot of time walking in my neighborhood, but my own backyard is a haven for birds and insects. If you plan to set your work in a fantasy or sci-fi world, what can you incorporate into it that is familiar, something the reader can identify with?

Write a paragraph or two about what you think your characters might see and hear in their environment. What do they smell? It’s been exceptionally warm and dry so far this autumn here in the Northwest. When I go outside, I smell smoke from distant wildfires. I see browning vegetation, falling leaves, and a militant spider colony attempting to annex my back porch.

An author takes an idea, translates it into words, and dares the reader to believe it. Successful fantasy and sci-fi authors take the world they see and reshape it just a little, just enough so it seems alien yet familiar.

Every novel requires world-building.

Make notes about possible places where events will occur, writing them down as they come to you. Remember, the setting for a contemporary novel requires the same thinking and the same imagining of place as a fantasy novel does.

Seattle from the w space needle 2011If I were to write a thriller set in the current Seattle of 2023, I’d want the reader to see the landscape as if they lived there. I would use the eternal gray of certain times of the year to underscore my dark themes.

In fact, world-building is nothing more than taking what we know and reshaping it into what might be and then dropping casual hints about it into the narrative. It is only the backdrop against which our characters live out their lives. But without that backdrop, the story unfolds on a barren stage.

Pike_Place_Market_SeattleThe internet has information about every kind of environment that exists on Earth. All we have to do is use it.

Google Earth is a good tool for contemporary world-building if you can’t travel to the place in person.

The websites of NASA and other international space agencies are bottomless wells of information about the environment of space and what we know about other worlds.

Over the next few months, it’s up to you who write fantasy and science fiction to take what we know and make that intuitive leap to what might be.

Those of you who write romance, or thrillers, or action adventures, cozy mysteries or any other kind of novel—you must also take what we know of this world and turn it into what might be.


Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting


Credits and Attributions:

Pike Place Market, by Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. (Accessed October 10, 2022)

Mount Rainier Sunset and Clouds, US National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (accessed October 10, 2022).

Downtown skyline in Seattle viewed from the w:Space Needle, by M.O. Stevens. Wikimedia Commons contributors, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, File:Downtown Seattle skyline from Space Needle May 2011.JPG – Wikimedia Commons (accessed October 10, 2022)

15 Comments

Filed under writing

Worldbuilding part 2: The Fantasy Map – Creating Geography #amwriting

Our modern lives are ruled by the geography of our area. Rivers, mountains, lakes, and ponds impede travel, forcing a road to go around them.

Untitled.pngworldbuilding-maps-LIRF07052022Unfortunately, maps have fallen out of favor thanks to satellite technology and the GPS in our cell phones. Many people don’t know how to read a map.

However, maps (and the ability to understand them) are a useful tool for authors of fantasy and speculative fiction, or indeed, any fiction set in any place and time.

1024px-Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version)

Satellite View of Puget Sound by Sentinel 2

Where I live, Puget Sound‘s shoreline determines the interstate highway’s path and the locations of cities and towns. Those detours add to the distance we must travel and increase the time it takes to go from one place to another.

The stylesheet is one of the most valuable tools an author can have to aid them in worldbuilding. It costs nothing to create but is a warehouse of information about your work-in-progress.

I suggest you include a glossary of created words, names, a list of sites where you got your research, and myriad notes related to that novel. Those are bits of knowledge you will be glad you made a note of, as they will contribute to the believability of your narrative.

If you are writing a contemporary novel or historical work set in our real world, this is where you keep maps and maybe a link to Google Earth.

If you are interested, a post on creating a stylesheet is here: Designing the Story.

protomapIf you are designing a fantasy world, you only need a pencil-drawn map. Place north at the top, east to the right, south to the bottom, and west to the left. Those are called cardinal points and the position of north at the top and the directions east, south, and west following at 90-degree intervals in the clockwise direction is standard in modern maps.

Even if your story is set in a town, you need to map it out. Knowing which direction your people are going at the outset is critical if your characters are going from one spot to another. The lines and scribbles you add to your map are the information you can use to check for consistency in your narrative.

If, in chapter one, Hero leaves home and follows the river north to the Big City of Smallville, he won’t reach home in time to save his mother if he then races east in chapter ten. He must return south, and your notes on your little map will help you remember this.

Or perhaps Hero lives in a city and wants coffee at the shop two blocks north of his apartment. He will have to return past the same shops and buildings he passed on the way. If some of the action occurs in those buildings, you want to have your map out and update it as needed.

proto_city_map_LIRF07052022Use a pencil, so you can easily note whatever changes during revisions. Your map doesn’t have to be fancy. Lay it out like a standard map with north at the top, east on the right, south at the bottom, and west on the left.

You may need to note where rivers and forests are situated relative to towns, or in the case of towns, what streets and cross streets our Heroes must travel.

Map of Mal Evol, color full size, no roadsMany towns are situated on rivers. Water rarely flows uphill. While it may do so if pushed by the force of wave action or siphoning, water is a slave to gravity and chooses to flow downhill. When making your map, locate rivers between mountains and hills.

A river may emerge from a mountain spring or a glacier, but it will flow downhill to a valley where it will either continue on to the ocean or will pool and form lakes and ponds. Farms are usually situated near sources of water.

On your fantasy map, rivers, mountains, lakes, and ponds make travel difficult, forcing a road or trail to go around them. This creates opportunities for plot points, because the struggle is the story.

Those detours add to the distance and increase the time it takes to travel using the common mode of transportation.

Having a realistic grip on time is critical to keeping the narrative believable. I keep a calendar of events for each novel, which has saved me several times.

Map of WaldeynMaybe you aren’t artistic but will want a nice map later. In that case, a little scribbled map will enable a map artist to provide you with a beautiful and accurate product. An artist can give you a map containing the information readers need to enjoy your book.

Are changing seasons a part of your story?

In a first draft, it’s challenging to fit the visual world into a narrative without dumping it on the page because you are in the process of inventing it. Don’t worry about fine details when you are laying down the story. Go ahead and write “It was autumn” when you have an action scene that must be shown.

A blunt statement like that is a code embedded there for you to expand on in the second draft. It is there so that you can just get the story out of your head and move on.

However, in the revision process, I take those three words, it was autumn, and change them up, using them to lead into the action.

Ivan drew his cloak around himself, listening to the soft rattling of branches moving with the breeze. The occasional calls of night birds went on around him, as if he weren’t full of doubt and indistinct fears, as if he didn’t exist to them. Leaves fell, brown and harvest-dry, drifting, spiraling down to the forest floor.

3-Ss-of-worldbuilding-LIRF07182021In my part of the world, the native forest trees I see in the world around me are mostly Douglas firs, western red cedars, hemlocks, big-leaf maples, alders, cottonwood, and ash. Because I am familiar with them, these are the trees I visualize when I set a story in a forest.

When it comes to geography, the “three S’s” of worldbuilding are critical: sights, sounds, and smells. Those sensory elements create what we know of the world. What does your character see, hear, and smell? Taste rarely comes into it, except when showing an odor.

Silently, she ran back to the entrance, slipping from boulder to boulder until she disappeared into the shrubbery. Once hidden in the thick undergrowth, she breathed deeply. The metallic aftertaste of terror and bitter air lingered in her imagination, overriding the musty scents of earth and leaves.

What makes up your written world? How does your environment affect the way your characters live?

Seattle_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28

Seattle, by Sentinel 2 Satellite

Cities have complex geography. It is created by the terrain the city was built on and its architecture.

The odors behind the Flamingo Bar and Grill offered a pungent counterpoint to the aromas of burgers and barbecue emanating from inside. Above the back door, the weak bulb flickered but remained on, illuminating the litter.

Seattle is built between the salty waters of Puget Sound, and the fresh waters of Lake Washington, the largest natural lake in western Washington. This geography affects our modern society by limiting where highways can be built, as well as determining the good places to raise tall buildings or create suburban neighborhoods.

Humans have always created communities where resources are plentiful. Rivers, forests, lakes–these geographical places provide resources that allow towns to become cities.

Your narrative will mention all the different terrains and obstacles your characters must deal with. A little map scribbled on notepaper will help you keep things on track.


Credits and Attributions:

Image: Satellite View of Puget Sound, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Puget Sound by Sentinel-2, 2018-09-28 (small version).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version).jpg&oldid=670161517 (accessed July 4, 2022).

Image: Satellite View of Seattle, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Puget Sound by Sentinel-2, 2018-09-28 (small version).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version).jpg&oldid=670161517 (accessed July 4, 2022).

6 Comments

Filed under writing

Worldbuilding part 1: Climate and How We Acquire Food #amwriting

When we sit down to write fiction, no matter what genre, we must consider two aspects of worldbuilding: food and how the climate affects what is served for our fictional meals.

WritingCraftWorldbuildingEvery fantasy world has a setting, and that environment has a climate. Certain climates limit the variety of foods available.

First, let’s look at real life. You can’t create a believable fantasy unless you have some idea of reality.

We had a normal June this year, with only one day rising into the 90s and the rest almost (but not quite) as they should be: overcast, rainy, and cool. Climate-wise, we Pacific Northwesterners usually have similar weather as those of you in Wales or England.

Washington_state_high_termperatures_June_28,_2021

United States National Weather Service via Twitter

Last year in June 2021, we had an unprecedented heat wave that killed much of our locally produced crops. How did that heat wave affect crop production here in the Pacific Northwest?

Wikipedia says:

Farms experienced serious losses, as the heat wave baked the fruits and berries or otherwise destroyed the crop and the drought conditions worsened.

10 million pounds of fruit a day were being harvested in the Pacific Northwest at the time the heat wave struck. Farmers in Eastern Washington, facing a loss of the cherry and blueberry crop, sent workers into orchards at night to avoid the heat in the day.

The British Columbia provincial fruit growers’ association estimated that 50 to 70 percent of the cherry crop was damaged, effectively “cooked” in the orchards.

Raspberry and blackberry farms in the Lower Mainland, Oregon and Washington also endured losses. In Whatcom County, Washington, which produces four-fifths of raspberries in the United States, estimates varied from quarter to half of the harvest; elsewhere, they went as high as 80-90%. Lettuce producers in the Okanagan Valley also reported crop losses, and so did those who grew Christmas trees and apples. [1]

This year, 2022, June had an overabundance of rain, but I didn’t complain because the memories of last year’s heat wave were still too strong. However, the excessive rain and lack of sunshine impacted our spring and early summer crops.

An article by Mai Hoang for Crosscut News (June 15, 2022) says:

This year, the cold and wet spring stunted the development of many cherries, leading to what looks to be the smallest crop of Northwest sweet cherries in nearly a decade. [2]

If I were writing a speculative fiction story set in Earth’s near future, I would look at current agricultural technology to see what is possible and to gauge future trends. After all, climate change is happening and must be accounted for, even in futuristic fiction.

Apples 8-25-2013We know from bitter experience that weather affects the food we produce and influences what is available in grocery stores. Abnormal heat waves across temperate states, category 4 hurricanes along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, and category 4 tornadoes down the center of the US and Canada, and even deep freezes in Texas and the deep south have been our lot in the last five years.

We humans must adapt our agriculture to withstand our increasingly unpredictable climate if we hope to survive. And, our fiction must reflect it, whether it is set in the current times or a not-too-distant future.

In real life, a new trend in agriculture is occurring. Farmers in Europe and Canada are increasingly turning to greenhouse agriculture, from small, owner-operated farms to industrial farms. Greenhouses in these countries reliably supply seasonal produce year-round, with far less need for chemical pesticides and highly efficient water use.

The Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019, tells us that the Canadian greenhouse vegetable sector is the largest and fastest-growing segment of Canadian horticulture. Greenhouse farming produces agricultural products in self-contained ‘controlled environments’ with systems supplying heat, water, and nutrients and often employing artificial lighting (in addition to sunlight) to nourish the plants. [3]

Wikipedia tells us: Greenhouses may be used to overcome shortcomings in the growing qualities of a piece of land, such as a short growing season or poor light levels, and they can thereby improve food production in marginal environments. Shade houses are used specifically to provide shade in hot, dry climates.

As they may enable certain crops to be grown throughout the year, greenhouses are increasingly important in the food supply of high-latitude countries. One of the largest complexes in the world is in AlmeríaAndalucíaSpain, where greenhouses cover almost 200 km2 (49,000 acres).

The Netherlands has some of the largest greenhouses in the world with around 4,000 greenhouse enterprises that operate over 9,000 hectares of greenhouses and employ some 150,000 workers. [4]

Lost_Country_Life_HartleyOnce you have decided your historical era, terrain, and overall climate, research similar areas of the real world to see how weather affects their approach to agriculture and animal husbandry. Look into the past to discover ancient agricultural methods to see how low-tech cultures fed their large populations:

Wikipedia says this about Incan Agriculture: Farmers usually had many different, scattered plots of land on which they planted a variety of crops. If one or more crops failed, others might be productive. In many areas of the Andes, farmers, communities, and the Inca state constructed agricultural terraces to increase the amount of arable land. [5]

Are you writing a narrative set in our current or near-future world? Post-apocalyptic stories often feature food shortages, detailing how starvation leads to civil unrest, making life unsafe for those clinging to their homeland. Refugees are driven to seek better lands where they may not be welcomed. This, in turn, often leads to more civil unrest.

Historical fiction must also be true to the type of food available in that area and era. Many common foods we now consume anywhere in the world were only available in South America, or in Europe, or in Asia, or in Africa. It wasn’t until after the time of Columbus that the cultivation and propagation of many now-common foods began to travel all over the world.

avacado dinner saladAlso, if your story is set in a particular era, how plentiful was food at that time? Famines occurring all across Europe and Asia over the last two-thousand years are well documented. Egyptian, Incan, and Mayan history is also fairly well documented so do the research.

Weather is a driving force in our real world. Rain, heat, storm, or drought—weather in its many forms destroys homes, destroys crops, and costs us billions of dollars annually.

How it affects our food supply is not just news for television. It is a reality our governments must consider if they hope to stave off civil unrest in the future. Subsidizing greenhouse agriculture could help resolve future food insecurity and make the best use of limited water resources.

Cucumbers waiting to become picklesWe have witnessed monumental changes since the turn of the millennium. We know California teeters on the edge of disaster, that a water shortage threatens the lives of millions, as well as one of the largest agriculture industries in the US.

Food and water insecurity leads to volatile politics.

Sit and think about your world, about the climate and how it affects the society you are writing about. Let your mind wander with no apparent destination. You will be amazed at what a mind technically at rest can come up with when it’s allowed to roam.

How well will your fiction hold up in two decades? Will you have the foresight of those who founded the genre of speculative fiction? Will you write another Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451? How much will you get right?

Build detail into your world in a separate document from your manuscript. Blend what you know about the real world into it. Write out all the details that will never make it into your story.

When you can see your written world as clearly as that which exists outside your windows, that vision will come across in your writing. The food they so casually serve, a meal that involves less than a paragraph, will be a part of the scenery. It won’t jar a knowledgeable reader out of the narrative.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors. 2021 Western North America heat wave [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2022 Jul 1, 03:55 UTC [cited 2022 Jul 2]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=2021_Western_North_America_heat_wave&oldid=1095905315. (Accessed July 2, 2022.)

[2] Quote: NW cherry crop this year may be the smallest in nearly a decade, Mai Hoang June 15, 2022, ©2022 Cascade Public Media. All Rights Reserved. https://crosscut.com/news/2022/06/nw-cherry-crop-year-may-be-smallest-nearly-decade (accessed July 2, 2022). Fair Use.

[3] Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019, Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019 – agriculture.canada.ca updated, 2020-12-30. (Accessed July 2, 2022).

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Greenhouse,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Greenhouse&oldid=1095255341 (accessed July 2, 2022).

[5] Wikipedia contributors, “Incan agriculture,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Incan_agriculture&oldid=1095070716 (accessed July 2, 2022).

9 Comments

Filed under writing

How the Written Universe Works – Warping Time #amwriting

In cosmology, the concept of space-time combines space and time into a single abstract universe. Apparently, we all move through time. Here on earth, time either passes us, or we pass the time. It’s all relative (Einstein humor) to how fast you are going and a lot of sub-atomic particle stuff I can’t really take the time to explain here, and you aren’t interested in anyway.

How the written universe works - warping time.Time interests me because I mostly write fantasy, although I write contemporary short fiction and poetry. Fantasy, and all speculative fiction, relies heavily on worldbuilding, and managing time is a facet of that skill.

But all genres, including contemporary and literary, require worldbuilding. Every story, true or fiction, is set SOMEWHERE, either in this world we are familiar with or in an alternate fantasy universe.

When I begin writing a book, I create a stylesheet in a spreadsheet program like Google Sheets or Excel for the universe, a workbook that has a page devoted to a glossary for that world, and a page for the calendar of events. A calendar is an essential tool that helps you with pacing and consistency.

  • Calendars are good for pacing, as they keep the events moving along the story arc.
  • They ensure you allow enough time to reasonably accomplish large tasks, enabling a reader to suspend their disbelief.
  • They ensure you don’t inadvertently jump from season to season in your visuals surrounding the characters.

So, for me, the calendar is a device that keeps the events happening logically.

Picture2HERE is where I confess my great regret: in 2008, a lunar calendar seemed like a good thing while creating my first world.

  • Thirteen months, twenty-eight days each,
  • one extra day at the end of the year,
  • a Holy Day on the winter solstice. They have two Holy Days and a big party every four years.

That arrangement of thirteen months is actually quite easy to work with. Where it becomes difficult is in the choices we made in naming things. You know how planning meetings are–ideas tossed at the wall like spaghetti and seeing what sticks.

We were just beginning to design the game, and while I had the plot and the synopsis, I didn’t have some details of the universe and the world figured out. So, in a burst of creative predictability, I went astrological in naming the months, to give the player a feeling of familiarity.

  • Caprica, Aquas, Piscus, (winter).
  • Arese, Taura, Geminis (spring)
  • Lunne, Leonid, Virga (summer)
  • Libre, Scorpius, Saggitus (harvest)
  • Holy Month (begins winter). Holy Day falls at the end of this thirteenth month, occurring on the winter solstice. The premise of the game was the War of the Gods, so religion is central.

strange thoughts 2In an even worse bout of predictability, I went with the names we currently use when I named the days, only I twisted them a bit and gave them the actual Norse god’s name. (The gods and goddesses of Neveyah are not Norse.)

That choice is an example of how what seems like a good idea at the time, may not be.

  1. Lunaday
  2. Tyrsday
  3. Odensday
  4. Torsday
  5. Frosday
  6. Sunnaday – this is the confusing day, as it falls where Saturday is in our normal calendar.
  7. Restday

One thing I did right was sticking to a twenty-four-hour day. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep things simple when we are worldbuilding. Simple things are less likely to add to the chaos when the plot gets complicated.

That game was never built for several reasons, but I retained the rights to my work. I took my maps and the storyline and wrote Mountains of the Moon, an epic portal fantasy. That story was the genesis of an entire series set at various points along the timeline of that universe.

I couldn’t get that story out of my head and onto paper fast enough—it obsessed me. As I wrote, the calendar I had invented for the RPG was incorporated into the world of Neveyah, and now it is canon.

Time can be an abstract thing when we are writing the first draft of a story where many events must occur. Things are accomplished in too short a period to be logical, or we take too long.

Calendars are maps of time. They turn the abstract concept into an image we can understand.

Even though I regret how I named the days in Mountains of the Moon, my characters progress through their space-time continuum at a rate I can comprehend. I can move events forward or back in time by looking at and updating their calendar. The sequence of events forming the plot arc remains believable.

calendarI LEARNED from my mistakes – the timeline for the Billy’s Revenge 3-book series, Huw the Bard, Billy Ninefingers, and Julian Lackland, uses the familiar calendar we use today.

I heartily suggest you stick to a simple calendar. That is the advice I would give any new writer—stick to something close to the calendar we’re familiar with and don’t get too fancy.

Next up: Time and Distance – how calendars and rudimentary maps work together to keep the plot moving and believable.

2 Comments

Filed under writing

World-Building: Dressing the Set #amwriting

In any environment, fictional or real, the following is true: no matter how costly and rich or poor and rundown, personal belongings in a scene are only necessary for what they say about the people who own them.

WritingCraftWorldbuildingWhy is this so? Let’s look at an example.

Consider the protagonist in a scene set in a kitchen.

I cross to sit at the table. In front of me are a laptop, a cup of tea, a notepad, and a pen. The white page of the notepad stares back at me, accusing, as if to say, “Write, you fool.”

But words elude me.

As a reader, what do you see?

You see the word kitchen and assume it is furnished with everything you think should be there. You assume there is a sink, a stove, a refrigerator…and so on. Instantly, it becomes a room you can understand. Yet only the tea, the table, the notepad, and the pen are mentioned. The code word, the one that triggers the mental picture, is kitchen.

If we mention how the dark, heavy furniture lends an atmosphere of gloom to the room, that’s all the description we need to offer. The reader sees the laptop, notepad, and pen, along with a cup of tea against a version of dark and heavy dining furniture. The style of furniture will be something the reader is familiar with.

We don’t need to explain any further.

Possessions that are mentioned give the reader clues about many things. Some things will show economic class and background, but all should hint at the owner’s personality. Are they neat or untidy? Fond of some sort of art? Are there a lot of books? Maybe they are fond of music.

Perhaps they are a person who cares about style, or maybe they don’t. Their possessions reflect their personal tastes.

desaturated alice Tea setSo how is social class different from economic class? In some parts of the world, they are the same. In others, social class is inherited, and economic class is acquired.

When we meet them away from their environment, people’s social class can be hard to nail down just by looking at them. Behavior and manners are one clue, showing the standards and values a person was raised with, irrespective of their financial standing. You’d have to see their family and early lives to know their social class, if class matters to the story.

Most people from impoverished backgrounds are raised with good manners—politeness and respect are personal qualities everyone appreciates. People working in blue-collar jobs are curious about science and the world around them. They might love their work, but they may also value education and go out of their way to educate themselves. They might love all things NASA and look for science shows featuring space exploration.

 Many rich families lose their money and social standing over the course of generations. Who they once were no longer means anything. Who they are is all that counts.

Many children who start life in poverty grow up to own expensive clothes and cars, earning them through hard work. So, if you mention a brand name with “cool” status, such as Rolex or iPhone, you are only scraping the surface of the person. You have to go a little deeper, look into their personal values.

Consider the table in our fictional kitchen. Is it a beautiful antique? Maybe it’s a high-quality table from a high-end furniture store. Could it be a secondhand table with mismatched chairs? Or is it a modern-looking matched set from the chain store that sells overpriced furniture on contract and advertises huge discounts on TV, the used-car-salesmen of the furniture world?

We have a good-quality but overpriced matched set in my real-life dining room. What can I say? We are suckers for flashy advertising.

How do we use furnishings to show personality, wealth, background, or class?

People from impoverished backgrounds may value nice things and take care of them because they understand how difficult it can be to acquire replacements. They purchase items as much for durability as for style.

Our personal background formed the first two decades of our lives, but that is all. Once we leave home, that is behind us. Over the next forty to eighty years, life shapes us, forms our likes and dislikes. 

IMG_1206For instance, I grew up in a financially stable lower-middle-class family. But I never buy pre-distressed furniture, no matter how much the designers on TV love it. This is because, by the time my youngest child left home, all my hand-me-down furniture was distressed. I like my furniture to reflect my life—un-distressed.

The way a person dresses and sets out their possessions in their environment can be shown briefly. Clothing, even uniforms, can show personality, and objects can foreshadow things.

The following scene takes place on a starship. The crew is on a scientific mission:

Ensign Kyle Stone left his rooms and walked to Ensign Price’s door on the opposite end of the passage. He pressed the bell, and after a moment, the door slid open. He said, “I might be a bit early. Sorry.” “Kyle” was a name he’d like to lose. “Stone” was what he answered to.

“No problem.” Emma stood there, her uniform perfectly neat, as fresh as if they hadn’t just spent the morning wrangling with a broken levitor. “I’m not quite finished adding this morning’s notes to the brief, so if you don’t mind, I’ll get that done. Have a seat.” She turned and went to the little alcove that served as a study in all the quarters.

Stone sat and looked around, absently wondering how Emma had managed to make the same kind of utilitarian rooms all the unmarried personnel occupied feel so personal, so—lived in. The furnishings were exactly the same as his, built into the floor so you couldn’t rearrange things. Certainly, his quarters looked as personal as a hotel, with only his dirty laundry to show for his existence.

Yet Emma’s quarters had a feeling of permanence. Maybe it was the plants she had set in various places. He noticed a carved wooden box on a shelf above the entertainment console. Beside the box was a framed picture. She never mentioned family, never discussed her personal life. He was about to look more closely at it when she returned.

 Emma said, “I uploaded it to Lieutenant Arrans, so we’re all set. Did you manage to find the schematic?”

Glad she hadn’t caught him snooping in her personal space, Stone said, “I did, and uploaded them. But I still doubt it’s what we need.”

Still talking, they left Emma’s quarters, heading to the small conference room.

What does the box signify? Who is in the picture? What did Stone’s observation of Emma’s tidy uniform and her plants tell you about her? How do these things relate to the larger story?

2016-08-12 21.26.16

Sunset at Tillamook Head, Copyright 2016 Connie J. Jasperson

In a sci-fi story, just as in a contemporary or fantasy story, the way we use observations and visuals says a lot about our characters, things we don’t have to write out in detail.

Use these visual observations to your advantage.

Your assignment is this:

Invent two characters and write a short scene set in any room, any genre. Be selective in the visual items you mention and only mention the things the protagonist finds important.

Readers will extrapolate information from those items, clues that will build an entire picture in their imaginations, populating the space with many things you won’t have to mention.

14 Comments

Filed under writing

Food, culture, and what your characters eat #amwriting

I write books set in fantasy environments. An important part of worldbuilding includes the appropriate food for your level of technology.

feeding your fictional charactersSeveral years ago, I read a fantasy book where the author clearly spent many hours on the food of her fantasy world and the various animals. She gave each kind of fruit, bird, or herd beast a different, usually unpronounceable, name in the language of her fantasy culture.

The clumsy way she inserted the information into the narrative ruined what could have been a great book for me.

The book started out well, and I really liked the characters. It was a portal story, and the group had been dropped into a strange world. One of the local farmhands agreed to be their guide.

However, every time the protagonists halted their journey, they pulled some random fruit with a gobbledygook name out of the bag and waxed poetic about it. As they passed each field or forest, their guide would stop and explain the various fruits, herbs, and creatures in nearly scientific detail.

As a reader, I think Tolkien got the food right when he created the Hobbit and the world of Middle Earth. Food is an essential component of a culture but should be only briefly mentioned. Whether commonplace or exotic, it should be similar enough to known earthly foods to create an atmosphere a reader can easily visualize.

Plow_medievalAs many of you know, I have been vegan since 2012. However, during the 1980s, my second ex-husband and I raised sheep. Most of the meat we served in our home was raised on his family’s communal farm. Our chickens and rabbits roamed their yard and had good lives, and our family’s herd of twenty sheep was managed using simple, old-style farming methods.

We were self-employed in the photography industry and were able to rotate whose turn it was to spend a week caring for the animals. Fortunately, my sister-in-law’s husband was Palestinian. He ensured our sheep were raised and butchered according to halal dietary laws.

I could write a book about those five years, but no one would believe it.

I grew up fishing with my father and have a first-person understanding of what it takes to put meat, fish, or fowl on the table when a supermarket is not an option.

Take my word for this: getting a chicken from the coop to the table is time-consuming, messy, and stinks. We had as many vegetarian meals as we did those featuring meat of some kind.

Village_scene_with_well_(Josse_de_Momper,_Jan_Brueghel_II)

Village Scene with Well, Josse de Momper and Jan Brueghel II PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

That experience taught me many things. As far as food goes, in a medieval setting, meat, fish, and fowl won’t be served every day in the average person’s home.

Yes, it is a real job to slaughter and prepare it for the table, but other, more subtle factors come into play, things that affect the logic of your plot.

In the Middle Ages, the wool a sheep could produce in its lifetime was of far more value than the meat you might get by slaughtering it. For that reason, lamb was rarely served. The only sheep that made it to the table were usually rams culled from the herd.

Chickens were no different because you lose the many meals her eggs would have provided once a chicken is dead. Young roosters, however, were culled before they got to the contentious stage and were usually the featured meat in any stew that might be on a Sunday menu. Only one rooster was kept for breeding purposes and if he was too ill-tempered, he went into the stew pot and a young rooster with better manners took his place.

Cattle and goats were also more valuable alive. Cows were integral to a family’s wealth as they were milk producers and sometimes worked as draft animals. Only one bull would be kept intact for breeding purposes in a small herd. The others would be neutered, made into oxen and draft animals that pulled plows, pulled wagons, and did all the work that heavy farm machinery does today.

In medieval times, it was a felony for commoners in Britain to hunt for game on many estates. Poachers were considered thieves and faced hash penalties, horrific by our standards if they were caught.

However, most people were allowed to fish as long as they didn’t take salmon, so fish was on the menu more often than fowl, sheep, or cattle. Eels were a menu staple.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Peasant_Wedding_-_Google_Art_Project_2

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) via Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, eels, eggs, dried beans and peas, grains, and vegetables were easy and figured most prominently on the menu. Pies of all sorts were the fast-food of the era, often sold by vendors on the street side or in bakeries.

Wheat was rare and expensive. For that reason, the grains most often found in a peasant’s home were barley, oats, and most importantly, rye.

Common vegetables in medieval European gardens were leeks, garlic, onions, turnips, rutabagas, cabbages, carrots, peas, beans, cauliflower, squashes, gourds, melons, parsnips, aubergines (eggplants)—the list goes on and on. And fruits?

Wikipedia says:

Fruit was popular and could be served fresh, dried, or preserved, and was a common ingredient in many cooked dishes. Since sugar and honey were both expensive, it was common to include many types of fruit in dishes that called for sweeteners of some sort. The fruits of choice in the south were lemons, citrons, bitter oranges (the sweet type was not introduced until several hundred years later), pomegranates, quinces, and grapes. Farther north, apples, pears, plums, and wild strawberries were more common. Figs and dates were eaten all over Europe but remained rather expensive imports in the north. [1]

For the most part, my characters eat a medieval/agrarian diet. In medieval times, peasants ate more vegetables, grains, fruits, and nuts than the nobility. The primary source of protein would be eggs and cheese, and fish. Herbal teas, ale, ciders, and mead were also staples of the commoner’s diet because drinking fresh, unboiled water was unhealthy. Medieval brews were more of a meal than today’s beers.

In my world of Waldeyn, the setting for Billy Ninefingers, when food is mentioned, it’s likely to be oat or bean porridge, soup or fish stew, ale or cider, or bread and cheese.

Billy is captain of a mercenary company and an innkeeper, and for most of his story, he does the cooking. I keep the food simple and don’t make too big a deal out of it. The conversations that happen while he is trying to feed the Rowdies are more important than the food. The food is the backdrop.

avacado dinner saladKnowing what to feed your people keeps you from introducing jarring components into your narrative. In Mountains of the Moon, set in the world of Neveyah, my people have a melding of familiar New World ingredients for their diet and do a lot of foraging. For a good list of what this diet might entail, go to this link: Indigenous cuisine of the Americas. You will be amazed at the variety of common foods that originated in the Americas.

When it comes to writing about meals, I feel it’s best to concentrate on the conversations. The food should be part of the scenery, a subtle part of worldbuilding. The conversations that occur around food are the places where new information can be exchanged, things we need to know to move the story forward.


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Medieval cuisine,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medieval_cuisine&oldid=896980025 (accessed Feb 06, 2022).

The Medieval Plow (Moldboard Plow) PD|100, File:Plow medieval.jpg – Wikipedia (accessed Feb 06, 2022).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

Village Scene with Well, Josse de Momper and Jan Brueghel II PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

4 Comments

Filed under writing

Worldbuilding part 4: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic #amwriting

Personal power and how we confer it is the layer of worldbuilding where writers of science and writers of magic come together.

  • WritingCraftWorldbuildingScienceVSMagicMagic and the ability to wield it confers power. Magical creatures, elves, mythical races, mythological gods and demigods – these are some of the many natural and supernatural components of fantasy.
  • Science and superior technology also confer power. Science fiction embraces current physics and theoretically possible technology, taking them into the near or distant future.

Speculative fiction is comprised of two overarching genres: science fiction and fantasy. The choice to make the technology of science or the technology of magic the primary source of power in your story determines which side of the coin lands up. The way you choose to go determines the sub-genre.

A novel set firmly in the technology of the past with no magic is not mainstream sci-fi. If it falls in late Victorian or early Edwardian times and uses the technology available in that era in advanced ways, it could be a branch of sci-fi called Steampunk.

If it takes place in an earlier era and contains magic, magical creatures, or advanced technology, it is an Alternate World fantasy (magic) or sci-fi (tech). If it has no magic or advanced technology, it could be a different genre altogether: historical fiction.

Science fiction has strict parameters established by its readers. The wise author will pay attention to those limits if they want their work to resonate with that audience.

I have said this before, but I feel the need to repeat it. Science is not magic, and it should not feel to a reader as if it were. It is logical, rooted in the realm of both factual and theoretical physics.

David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_The_AlchemistAuthors of sci-fi must do the research and understand the scientific method. This path of testing and evaluation objectively explains nature and the world around us in a reproducible way. The physics of our current technology, everything from toasters and cellphones to microwave ovens and spaceships has been created using scientific discoveries by people who understand the scientific method.  

Skepticism and peer review are fundamental parts of the process.

An important thing for authors to understand is who their readers are. Those who read and write hard science fiction are often employed in various fields of science, technology, or education in some capacity.

They know the difference between physics and fantasy.

The same goes for those who read fantasy: they are often employed in fields that require critical thinking.

Often, readers of both genres are avid gamers. Gamers learn to develop skillsets within strict parameters to advance in the game. Thus, logic and limitations define how much enjoyment they get from a gaming or reading experience.

I read a great many books in all genres. If I have one complaint, it is that many authors indulge in mushy science or magic. They make it up as they go, which is what we all do, but they don’t bother to cover their tracks.

When they get to the editing stage, they don’t go back and look for the contradictions in their magic or science, the places where a reader can no longer suspend their disbelief.

Magic is also a science and should be held to the same standard as physics. Having magic conveys power in the same way that having superior technology does.

If magic is a tool that your characters rely on, it must be believable. I write fantasy, so the science of magic is an underlying, invisible layer that is part of my worldbuilding process.

915px-An_alchemist_in_his_laboratory._Oil_painting_by_a_follower_o_Wellcome_V0017631The following is my list of places where the rules of believable magic and technology converge in genre fiction:

  1. The number of people who can use either magic or technology should be limited.
  2. The ways that characters can use magic or technology should be limited.
  3. Characters with those abilities or equipment should be limited to one or two kinds of magic/technology. Only specific mages/technicians can make use of all forms of magic/technology.
  4. There must be strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic/technology can do.
  5. The author must clearly define the conditions under which this magic/technology will work.
  6. There must be some conditions under which the magic/technology will not work.
  7. There must be limits to the damage magic/technology can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform.
  8. The wielder of this magic/technology might pay a physical/emotional price for using it.
  9. The wielder of this magic/technology should pay a physical/emotional price for abusing it.
  10. The learning curve for magic should be steep and sometimes lethal.

For the narrative to have a realistic conflict, the enemy must have access to equal or better science/magic.

Often in the case of magic, the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school.” When this is the case, the author has two systems and sets of rules to design for that story.

The same goes for technology. One group may have found a way to exploit physics that places the other group at a disadvantage. This disparity is where the tension comes into the story.

We authors must create the rules of magic or the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist. We must do it in the first stages of the writing process. If you have been creating your stylesheet, take the time to include a page defining the laws of physics/magic that pertain to your universe.

It will only require fifteen minutes to half an hour to brainstorm and create a system that satisfies the above ten requirements. This way, you will be sure the logic of your magic/technology has no hidden flaws.

When you take the time to research science technologies or create magic systems, you create a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Limits force us to be creative, to find alternative ways to resolve problems.

There can be an occasional exception to a rule within either science or magic, but it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

There must be an obvious, rational explanation for that exception.

An_Alchemist_attributed_to_Joost_van_Atteveld_Centraal_Museum_20801Science or magic is only an underpinning of the plot. They are foundational components of the backstory. 

The only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is at the moment it affects the characters and their actions. When Gandalf casts a spell, or Sulu fires his phaser, the reader knows the characters have these abilities/technologies.

The best background information comes out only when that knowledge affects the story. It emerges naturally in actions, conversations, or as visual components of the setting.

By not baldly dropping the history or science/magic on the reader in paragraph form, the knowledge becomes a normal part of the environment rather than an info dump.


The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Designing the Story (includes creating a stylesheet)

Worldbuilding Part1: Climate

Worldbuilding Part 2: Maps, Place-names, and Consistency

Worldbuilding Part 3: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic

This Post: Worldbuilding Part 4: Creating the Visual World


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:David Teniers the Younger – The Alchemist.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_The_Alchemist.jpg&oldid=528972179 (accessed July 18, 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An Alchemist attributed to Joost van Atteveld Centraal Museum 20801.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_Alchemist_attributed_to_Joost_van_Atteveld_Centraal_Museum_20801.jpg&oldid=531124885 (accessed July 18, 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower o Wellcome V0017631.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_alchemist_in_his_laboratory._Oil_painting_by_a_follower_o_Wellcome_V0017631.jpg&oldid=303482875 (accessed July 18, 2021).

5 Comments

Filed under writing

Worldbuilding Part 3: Creating the Visual World #amwriting

One of the most valuable tools an author can have to aid them in worldbuilding is the stylesheet. It costs nothing to create but is a warehouse of information about your work-in-progress. If you’re smart, it contains a glossary of created words, names, a list of sites where you got your research, and myriad notes that relate to that novel.

The post on creating this essential tool is here: Designing the Story (includes developing a stylesheet).

WritingCraftWorldbuildingIf you are writing a contemporary novel or historical work set in our real world, this is where you keep maps and maybe a link to Google Earth.

The original plot and characters of Mountains of the Moon began life as a storyline for an anime-based RPG that never went into production.

I had created the maps for the game, so I knew the topography was as much an antagonist as was the ultimate threat posed by the minions of the Bull God. I had to first build and then destroy the ecology for the game because the dangerous environment and creatures capable of elemental magic are a core plot point in the story, a threat with which the protagonist must learn to coexist.

The world of Neveyah, where Mountains of the Moon is set, is an alien environment. Yet it’s familiar, based on the world I live in, the Pacific Northwest. The plants and geography are directly pulled from the forested hills of Southern Puget Sound and Western Washington State.

The foods they have available to them are primarily those available in the pre-Columbian Americas, although chickens and sheep aren’t native to this continent. I also invented plants that served as medicines and were helpful as tools or dyes.

In 2010, I wrote the proto novel of what later became Julian Lackland as my first NaNoWriMo project. I drew on the landscape around me to create the world of Waldeyn, where the Billy’s Revenge series is set. I used familiar landscape and flora, but in this case, I invented creatures born of magic. These are beasts whose predations limit travel and the ability of technology to advance beyond the waterwheel. The quest for indoor plumbing is a thorn in the side of my favorite innkeeper, Billy Ninefingers.

How do you fit the visual world into a narrative without dumping it on the reader? I try to use the scenery to show the mood and atmosphere.

Ivan drew his cloak around himself, listening to the soft rattling of branches moving with the breeze. The occasional calls of night birds went on around him, as if he weren’t full of doubt and indistinct fears, as if he didn’t exist to them. Leaves fell, brown and harvest-dry, drifting, spiraling down to the forest floor.

For a moment, he caught the faint, disgusting scent of a water-wraith and drew his blade in case he had to rouse the others.

3-Ss-of-worldbuilding-LIRF07182021The “three S’s” of worldbuilding are critical: sights, sounds, and smells. Those sensory elements create what we know of the world. Taste rarely comes into it, except when showing an odor.

Inside the lair, the caustic atmosphere burned her eyes and throat. “Shallow breaths,” she reminded herself. The nest was huge, but Sofia climbed in and quickly grabbed the egg, slipping it inside her shirt, next to her skin. She switched the round rock into its place, positioning it as the egg had been.

 Silently, she ran back to the entrance, slipping from boulder to boulder until she disappeared into the shrubbery. Once hidden in the thick undergrowth, she breathed deeply, but the metallic aftertaste of the bitter air lingered.

In my part of the world, Douglas fir and western red cedar are the most common tree species. They both can reach up to 80 – 100 meters with a trunk up to 3 meters across. Western hemlock is shorter, only 60 meters, but has a larger trunk, up to 4 meters wide. Once a familiar tree, it became less common as old-growth forests were cut down and replaced with plantations of fast-growing Douglas fir.

Modern forest management has developed an understanding of the interdependence of diverse forest species, so a more natural approach to managed forestry has evolved.

These are the native forest trees I see in the world around me, along with big-leaf maples, alders, cottonwood, and ash. This is the world I visualize when I set a story in a forest.

What makes up your written world? How does your environment affect the way your characters live?

Darkness had fallen, but the alley’s gritty pavement still radiated a low heat. Wanda raised her eyes to see the new moon high in the black velvet sky, the distant stars obscured by the glow of neon signs and halogen streetlamps.

The odors behind the Flamingo Bar and Grill offered a pungent counterpoint to the aromas of burgers and barbecue emanating from inside. Above the back door, the weak bulb flickered but remained on, illuminating the litter.

Just a few more minutes and Bill would emerge. She knelt beside the dumpster, the gun pointed, cocked, and ready.

You might believe you can’t picture a place you haven’t been. Why?

Open your eyes and look around.

Sunset_Cannon_Beach_05_August_2019At this moment, inside your room and outside your door, you have all the elements you need to create an alien or alternate world.

These elements might exist before your eyes, or they live in your memory. Use what you know.

Reshape your environment, reuse it, and make it your fictional world.

 


The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Designing the Story (includes creating a stylesheet)

Worldbuilding Part1: Climate

Worldbuilding Part 2: Maps, Place-names, and Consistency

This Post: Worldbuilding Part 3: Creating the Visual World

Up Next: Worldbuilding Part 4: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic


Credits and Attributions:

Sunset by Connie J. Jasperson © 2019, All Rights Reserved.

7 Comments

Filed under writing

World-building, part 2: building reality #amwriting

When I write a world that my characters might live in, I want to express more than merely the sights, the sounds, and the smells. I want to convey the emotions that place evokes for me, the author.

The fact is, unless we are there physically, other places don’t really exist for us. For this reason, the only world that really exists in this incarnation is the space we physically occupy as individuals.

The only true reality is the space we can see, hear, smell, and touch. This is our setting, the world in which our life story plays out.

In literary terms, what is setting? It is the environment your characters live and interact with. It is scenery, topography, plants, and animals. The setting is also comprised of a place in time, defined by an era, or a level of technology.

These aspects of the setting are crucial to making a story real to a reader. However, if they are shown as unconnected elements, this setting lacks something. We must inject these elements with the indefinable fantasy thingamajig we call atmosphere.

Perhaps you experience a sense of longing when remembering a particular place.  For me, one place represents a feeling of home and lingers in my heart. When I am writing in my fictional world, I am drawing on the memory of that long-ago place.

That lost time and place has a hold on my emotions and is made brighter and shinier by the false lighting of memory. This is why, despite the fact my childhood home is a real place, it is also a fantasy.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s reality is affected by emotions they aren’t even aware of. We must give the reader something they can subliminally recognize, something they can relate to. We need to convey a sense of familiarity to a place the reader has never been.

“Familiar” does not mean safe or comforting. It means the elements of the environment are recognizable on a subconscious level, something the reader can understand without having experienced it, or being bluntly told.

This is why I draw maps. If your characters must do any traveling in a fantasy world, you probably should make a rudimentary map. The map is my indispensable tool for keeping my story straight.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. All that is required is a pencil sketch showing a few lines for roads and the general location of any cities or topographical features that come into the story.

When your characters are traveling great distances, they may pass through villages on their way, and if these places figure in the events of the book, they should be noted on the map. This prevents you from:

  • accidentally naming a second village the same name later in the manuscript
  • misspelling the town’s name later in the narrative
  • forgetting where the characters were in chapter four

Perhaps the land itself will impede your characters. If geologic features are pertinent to the story, you will want to note their location on your map so that you don’t contradict yourself if your party must return the way they came:

  • rivers
  • swamps
  • mountains
  • hills
  • towns
  • forests
  • oceans

Even if your work is wholly set on a space station/ship, consider making a floor plan.

My novel, Billy Ninefingers, is set almost entirely in a wayside inn. I made a drawing of the floorplan for my purposes because that is the world in which the story takes place.

In the narrative, if you are writing fantasy, I suggest you keep the actual distances mushy because some readers will nitpick the details, no matter how accurate you are. Yes, you wrote it, but they don’t see it the way you do.

Using medieval distances won’t help, because they’re not concrete—a league might be three miles or one and a half, depending on the country and era. Some readers will argue that their version of a league is the only real version and blah blah blah….

When it comes to creating reality on paper, a perception of familiarity is everything. Use your memory to visualize the scenery:

Imagine the surface of a pond. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it.

Add in a storm, and things change. The waters move. Ripples and small waves stir the surface, which now only reflects the dark gray of the stormy sky.

Atmosphere is the part of a world that is created by colors, scents, ambient sounds, and how the visuals are shown. It is visual and tied to the setting, but the perception of it is affected by the moods and emotions of the characters.

From the first paragraph of a story, we want to use the setting to establish a feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.

We do this by employing lighter or darker descriptions. A dark, gloomy setting created by “weighted words” establishes an ominous atmosphere, which will be reflected in the mood of your characters.

I think of “weighted words” as those with strong descriptive power, and which don’t need a lot of support from adjectives and adverbs to convey their intensity.

Lighter words will create an atmosphere that feels brighter.

We have mentioned before that while the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, they are different from each other. In literature, mood refers to the internal feelings and emotions of an individual as often as it does the overall atmosphere of a piece. The term atmosphere is always associated with a setting.

Many sci-fi and fantasy novels are set in real-world environments. The settings are familiar, so close to what we know, that readers have no trouble accepting that world.

I love books where the author’s gift for world-building creates a layer of reality I can immediately “fall” into. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components combine to showcase the more profound aspects of the story.

I have been returning to the works of other authors to see how they create their worlds, how they choose words to build a setting and create atmosphere and mood.

Some of their tricks work, and some not so much, but I keep reading and learning. By figuring out what didn’t work for me in a novel, I hope to avoid those mistakes in my own work.

8 Comments

Filed under writing

World-building, part 1: Place #amwriting

My novel, Mountains of the Moon, was born in 2008. It began life as a storyline for an anime-based RPG that never went past planning into production. The original title was Neveyah, named after the world in which it was set.

MOTM is set in an alternate universe and takes place in an environment that was ground zero for a war between gods. As a result of that battle, the gods were prohibited from acting directly against each other and must now act through their people.

When the story opens, the World of Neveyah has been recovering for a thousand years.

I had created the maps for the role-play game, so before I began writing Wynn’s story as a novel, I knew the topography of his world.

Of course, I got distracted and wrote Tower of Bones, a story set two generations later before I finished MOTM, but that’s how writing works for me.

I went to science to see how long it takes for an environment to recover from cataclysmic events. I took my information from a place I live a two-hour drive away from, the Channeled Scablands of Washington State. This vast desert area is  comprised of the scars of a natural disaster that occurred around 18,000 years ago.

From Wikipedia: The Cordilleran Ice Sheet dammed up Glacial Lake Missoula at the Purcell Trench Lobe.[10] A series of floods occurring over the period of 18,000 to 13,000 years ago swept over the landscape when the ice dam broke. The eroded channels also show an anastomosing, or braided, appearance.

I had to first build and then destroy the ecology for the game. All RPG players will tell you that a hazardous environment and correspondingly dangerous creatures are a core part of a game’s story. Hazards present threats the protagonist must learn to coexist with. Overcoming and surviving danger raises a player’s skills and strength.

That concept of personal growth through action is a feature of all adventure stories.

Thanks to that year of prep-work on the game, when I began writing the book, all the hard work was done. Many hours of work and years of writing is why the world seems so solid from the opening paragraphs.

When we first brainstormed the idea of writing a fun, yet deep and meaningful story and making a computer game out of it, my partner had two requests. He wanted the central character to be under a curse. Also, he wanted Wynn’s arc to take him from the most naïve, sheltered twenty-year-old ever to walk the planet, to a strong adult capable of making a difference in a world that could sometimes be a terrible place.

So, with those requests in mind, I sat down and wrote a 3500-word outline of events, and answered as many questions about the world as I could think of at the time:

  • What is the name (and the meaning of that name) of the worlds involved in the character’s journey?
  • Who are Gods involved, and what is the core of their conflict?
  • This is a portal story, so where was my protagonist, Wynn Farmer, when the story opened? Why was he unaware of the portal before he fell through, and why wouldn’t it take him back to his world?
  • Where was he at the end of the opening chapter? How did the air feel? What scents and odors were common to that place?

Blue camas and wild mustard on the Violet Prairie, Tenino Washington, in May 2014

The world of Neveyah is an alien environment, yet it’s extremely familiar to me. I based the plants and topography on the world I live in, the Pacific Northwest. The plants and geography are directly pulled from the forested hills and farmlands of Southern Puget Sound and Western Washington State.

Who did he meet (Jules Brendsson)? What did he see, and how did that meeting go?

When he realized he couldn’t go home, how did Wynn react to his new environment?

It was written as a game, so the environment plays a part in the characters’ learning curve. Coping with it is how the characters “level up” or grow in strength. While Wynn didn’t expect to fall into Neveyah, Jules had been sent specifically to meet and instruct him in the use of magic. Wynn and Jules must walk from the meeting place to a town.

As they are walking, Jules must get to know Wynn and teach him how to use a form of magic. What does Jules think about his student? Looking through Wynn’s eyes, what does he see in each scene?

This is where atmosphere comes into world-building, something we’ll go into detail about on Wednesday.

On this original world-building document, I wrote every detail I could think of, from the largest and most dangerous creatures down to the insects. Over the next four years, as I wrote the novel, I added to it whenever I thought of something new.

In the process of building the world that Wynn Farmer fell into, his storyline began to write itself.

The act of designing the immediate scenery builds the entire world in your mind. I go with the familiar, with some strange twists thrown in for fun.

You might tell me that you can’t picture a place you haven’t been to. But what does that really mean?

Sunset on Cannon Beach, August 2019

Open your eyes and look around. At this moment you have all the elements you need to create an alien or alternate world. These elements could exist before your eyes, or they exist in your memory.

Use what you know, reshape it, reuse it, and make it yours.

Everyone has a place they want to be more than anywhere else. For me, one place on earth represents my serenity, my creative happy place, and it exists in the real world but is a four-hour drive from my home.

Yet, when I need to, I can pull that place up in my mind. By visualizing my summer retreat, I recharge my serenity-batteries.

Open a new document, one that will be your world-building work sheet. What kind of place seems to build itself in your mind? This is an environment you are mentally connected to. In writing that that place, it will flow from you and convey itself to the reader. Write down the sights, smells, and the emotions you experience when thinking about it.

Perhaps it is a real place, and maybe you experience a sense of longing when remembering that place. If so, write how it makes your physical self feel.

This the point where cosmology and human nature intersect to create atmosphere, and we will continue this discussion on Wednesday.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Channeled Scablands,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Channeled_Scablands&oldid=963105167 (accessed August 1, 2020).

All images and maps used in this post are the creation and intellectual property of Connie J. Jasperson.

2 Comments

Filed under writing