Tag Archives: world building

World building Part 2 – the Commonalities of Need #amwriting

Need shapes the environment and forms an obvious but unobtrusive layer of the world our characters inhabit.

What our characters do for a living, the tools they use, what they must acquire – these things form a layer that grows out of need. This layer shows the reader the level of technology, the society they inhabit, and their standing within that culture. This layer is easy to construct in many ways but can be a stumbling block to the logic of your plot.

First, no matter what genre you are writing in, you must establish the level of technology and stick to it. Do the research and then create your technology.

The Romans had running water, central heating, and toilets in their homes. So did the Minoans. However, all their great architectural creations required human hands to do the physical work. They walked, rode horses, donkeys, or oxen, and were limited to wagons drawn by those same domestic beasts.

In the ordinary environment, cups will be cups, bowls will be bowls. The materials they are made of might be different, but those items will always be the same. Furniture will be similar—people need somewhere to sit or sleep. They need a place to cook and somewhere to store preserved food.

Clothing styles are up to you, but I suggest you keep it simple and don’t wax poetic about it.

Some aspects of a story require planning if you are to keep to the logic of your established world setting.

Characters remain the same, no matter what genre you are writing. Beneath the obvious tropes of a particular genre is a human being. Consider the soldier:

I write fantasy, so the following is an excerpt from a short story written this last year, The Way of the Seventh Door.

Worlds are like clothes. I could drop Jared into any world, and he would still be who he is—a young, hapless schmuck with potential. Genre defines the visuals, but the characters are paper dolls we dress to fit the society we have placed them in. The clothes and world of Soldier Barbie fits Corporate Barbie… and Malibu Barbie… and Star Wars Barbie.

We will take one protagonist and place them in one of three kinds of settings: fantasy, sci fi, or contemporary. As we go, write your own version of this scene.

  • A soldier, your choice of gender, gears up for an impending battle. It will take place on foreign soil and could involve personal, face-to-face combat.
  1. First, we must consider what garments they might wear.
  2. Next, we armor them.
  3. Then we give them weaponry.
  4. Finally, we equip them with some sort of rations and water, as sustenance becomes an issue if a battle stretches for several days.
  5. We do it in one paragraph.

Now let’s put Jared, my luckless protagonist from the previous example into this scenario. Fortunately for the safety of everyone in Neveyah, he isn’t preparing for war, but he does have a mission, and it requires dressing appropriately, and ensuring he has what he might need to complete it:

In any setting, there are certain commonalities with only minor literary differences for soldiers: they all need garments, weapons, armor, and sustenance, and you can use those things to

  1. offer more clues about your character’s personality and
  2. set your protagonist up for a meeting with destiny by inserting clues: white armor, new boots – what could go wrong?

Whether the weapon is a rifle, a sword, or a phaser is dependent on the level of technology you have established.

Logic determines how each need is met. In the case of weapons, within each category there are many varieties of each. Which kind of hand-held weapon your protagonist will use is dependent on their skill level and physical strength as well as what is stocked in the armory.

When it comes to weaponry, if you are writing about them, you need to research them to know what is logically possible. Within each of the three world settings, strength and skill are determining factors—a cutlass is an efficient blade and is much lighter than a claymore. A one-handed blade allows the wielder to carry a shield. A shotgun is much lighter than a machine-gun but is less effective, so be true to the logic and research what might be most useful to your characters and don’t introduce an element that doesn’t fit.

Sci-fi writers—I suggest that for advanced weaponry, you should do the research into theoretical applications of lasers, sonic, and other theoretically possible weapons. Sci fi readers know their science, so if you don’t consider the realities of physics, your work won’t appeal to the people who read in that genre.

For soldiers of any technology level, from Roman to medieval, to contemporary, to futuristic—armor will always consist of the same elements: breast and back plate, shin-guards, vambraces, a helmet of some sort, and maybe a shield. These elements won’t vary much, although the materials they’re made of will differ widely from technology to technology. For the sake of expediency and logic, garments must be close-fitting as they will go under the armor.

Expediency affects logic which affects need. The same is true for any occupation–bookkeeper, lawyer, home-maker–the setting changes from genre to genre, but the fundamental needs for each occupation remain the same.

In every aspect of a world, expediency decides what must be mentioned and how important it is. At times, you must go back to an earlier place and make changes that allow for a certain necessary turn of events.

For instance, in a battle situation, food must be extremely compact, lightweight, and must provide nutrients the soldier needs. Nutrition bars, jerky—battle rations and how the soldier carries them must be considered. How do you fit that into the world building? Casually, with one sentence, a few words.

What basic things do you need in your real-world? You need food, water, clothing, and shelter, and a means of providing those things. Place the character in a room and call it a kitchen, and the reader will immediately imagine a kitchen. Mention the coffeemaker, and the reader’s mind will furnish the cups.

Need manifests in other, more subtle ways.

Do you require a way to communicate with others quickly? Messengers, letters, telephones, social media, or telepathy? Choose a method for long distance communication that fits your technology and stick to it.

If you are writing a sci fi tale, what sort of personal power does that technology confer on the characters? What powers it? What are the limits of that technology, and how do those limits hamper the protagonist? What do they need to acquire to overcome those limitations?

If magic is a part of your world, you must design the way it is used, what powers it, and set rigid limits. Limits create opportunities for both failure and creative thinking.

In all levels of technology, some of what the characters need should be denied to them.

Obstruction offers the opportunity for heroism.

No matter the genre, need and human failure makes the story more real.

Next week, we will explore the commonalities of science and magic and how they are applied to world building.


Credits and Attributions:

Excepts from The Way of the Seventh Door, © Connie J. Jasperson 2019, All Rights Reserved.

Gladys Parker [Public domain] “Mopsy Modes” paper doll published in TV Teens, Vol. 2, No. 9 Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Mopsy Modes – TV Teens, Vol. 2, No. 9.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Mopsy_Modes_-_TV_Teens,_Vol._2,_No._9.jpg&oldid=344503399 (accessed May 21, 2019).

Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0] Japanese Paper Doll, ca. 1897-1898 Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:MET DP147723.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:MET_DP147723.jpg&oldid=305535412 (accessed May 21, 2019).

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World building part 1: visualization #amwriting

World building—a skill all writers must have, not just writers of fantasy or sci-fi. I don’t believe there is a magic formula. ALL world building comprises the ability to visualize yourself existing in an environment you currently don’t occupy, be it Seattle, Mars, or The Shire.

First, you need to know where you are.

Close your eyes. What does the world around you look like? Are you sitting in a lounger on a quiet back porch, drinking your morning coffee while you scroll through your favorite blogs? Perhaps you regret purchasing the blue and white patterned outdoor carpet. It jars the eye, clashes against the red-stained cedar decking.

Even more annoying, Stellar’s jays and crows are quarreling over something, which means no other birds will come until they have settled their dispute. Meanwhile, the neighbor’s garishly colored cat stalks through the rhododendrons toward the broken garden lamp, vainly searching for songbirds to bully. Who would want a cat so hideously colored, black, orange white and beige all in large patches? And why do they let it roam? What if it gets injured or killed?

While I visualize that scene, I am sitting in my frequently described Room of Shame, pecking away at a blog post like a good author. For that scene, I am only describing what is important to my alter ego at the moment she exists, a framework to hang your imagination onto. But I know that environment because it is one step away, out my back door.

If you can’t write what you know, how can you write what you don’t know but wish you did?

For your first exercise, write two paragraphs describing your personal environment, where you are in this time and space, what you see, hear, and smell. With that done, you have created the known world.

So how do we translate the known into the unknown?

For this exercise, we will imagine a setting, a world blasted by a global catastrophe. Not sure exactly of what happened, our protagonist, Jane, walks through the wreckage of the city, trailed by a large group of young children and several other teachers. In an overcrowded, under-funded urban school, they had been relegated to a classroom in the school’s basement at the time and may be the only survivors, but Jane believes that if they are alive, some others must be too. They are walking out of the city, hoping that some patches are still undamaged, that some plants and animals must have survived.

What does she see, hear, and smell? You write your scenario, but this is mine:

Jane walked, pretending a confidence she didn’t feel. Random piles of debris that once were shops and homes lined the broken street. Was that where the café had been? No, it had been a little further on, but with no familiar landmarks, it was hard to tell.

No birds sang, no cats prowled, and no dogs barked. Twisted metal, destroyed, burned-out cars lined the broken street. No rescuers combed through the tumbled ruins looking for survivors, and no voices called for help. The only sounds were the wind sighing through the ruins, the noise of their plodding steps, and occasional whimpers of the children who followed her.

They passed places where the smell of rotting flesh and other unpleasant odors triggered her gag reflex. Some children cried. Who could blame them? The charred, shattered ruins they now walked past had been their homes. Did they know? Could they recognize small details?

How does her environment affect her movements and emotional state?

She came to a large, long pile of wreckage in the middle of the street, cars that had been moving when it happened. She didn’t want to think of the bodies that remained trapped inside the twisted, melted metal, of the last moments they had experienced. The way between was narrow, but they could do it. She turned to her group. “Walk carefully, single file. No one is to touch anything. We have no way of treating injuries.”

“Yes, Miss Jane,” said Jason, the teacher shepherding the middle of the group.

“Yes, Miss Jane,” dutifully echoed the students, all the way back to Dave, the teacher bringing up the rear.

The world around you is complex. It is made up of what you interact with, things you see, hear, smell, and touch.

The world you want to create is the same. Visualize each scene. Trees, randomly placed furniture, doors, any obstacle that affects your protagonists’ movements becomes part of that world.

Your next assignment is to take one of these scenarios and write a scene that places your protagonist squarely in their environment. You can make these settings in a real world, sci-fi, or fantasy environment.

  1. A policewoman/man having lunch at the corner deli.
  2. A barista in a popular coffee shop.
  3. A woman watching her suspicious-acting neighbors.
  4. A soldier, preparing for a raid.
  5. A politician reading an exposé about their self.

I can make my back porch into a fantasy setting.

This is a passage from Edna’s Garden, a short story I wrote several years ago.

This morning I noticed there were fairies in the back garden. I was a little shocked, wondering if they were a side effect of my heart medication. At first, I couldn’t see them well, and wasn’t sure if they were bugs or birds, but no… when I looked closer, I could see they were definitely fairies.

It seems odd to me, to think that after all these years of wishing for a fairytale ending in my life, I should finally have a garden full of fairies. But life is what it is, and sometimes the things you want elude you until you no longer need them.

World building is like cooking (or alchemy, which is the same thing). Writers start with basic ingredients found in the world they know. Cooks begin with common ingredients and add spices, the flavors they like that make their food unique to them. Writers do the same: we take the familiar world and reshape it until it is our creation.

If the world has some familiar elements the reader can relate to, they will suspend their disbelief when you casually place an alien element in the setting. We bend what is familiar, shaping it into something that feels new and unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity to the reader adds the mystery, the intrigue, lets them experience a sense of discovery.

At the outset, you plant the seeds of the world in the opening scene. As the story progresses, the world grows, building itself. This happens because the protagonist interacts with the environment. Fulfilling the needs of the protagonist also contributes to the world you build. Logic comes into play—you may have to go back and change things up a bit when new needs emerge.

We will talk more about how need shapes the fantasy world in my next blog post. In the meantime, go to your personal library and re-read one of the fantasy books (or whatever genre you are writing) that fired your imagination, a book you fell in love with. How did that author show the world? How did they take the real world and merge it with fantasy elements?

How can you apply that lesson to your own work?


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Martinus Rørbye – View from the Artist’s Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Martinus_R%C3%B8rbye_-_View_from_the_Artist%27s_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=326761582 (accessed May 17, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An architectural capriccio with figures amongst ruins under a stormy night sky, oil on canvas painting by Leonardo Coccorante.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_architectural_capriccio_with_figures_amongst_ruins_under_a_stormy_night_sky,_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Leonardo_Coccorante.jpg&oldid=291488853 (accessed May 19, 2019).

Hunter in Winter Wood, by George Henry Durrie 1860 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Fantasy Food #amwriting

As many of you know, I have been vegan since 2012. However, I write books set in fantasy environments. An important part of world building is including the appropriate food for your level of technology.

I recently read a fantasy book where the author went to a great deal of trouble to give each kind of fruit, bird, or herd beast a different (and in some cases, an unpronounceable) name in “their” language.  This ruined what could have been a great book for me. Every time the protagonists halted on their journey, they pulled some random fruit with a gobbledygook name out of the bag and waxed poetic about it.

For me, Tolkien had it right. When I am reading, I don’t want to have to learn a new language. Fantasy food should be kept to the familiar. Bacon should be bacon, apples should be apples. Food is part of the world building, so it needs to something a reader is familiar with.

During the 1980s, much of the meat I served my family, we raised ourselves. Our chickens were cage free and had good lives, and our sheep were raised using simple, old-style farming methods. I grew up fishing with my father, and I 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 smelly.

SO – in a medieval setting meat won’t be served every day, and not just because it is a real job to slaughter it. 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 that were being culled from the herd. And chickens were no different because once a chicken is dead, you lose the many meals her eggs would have provided. Cattle were also more valuable alive: cows as milk producers and bulls as oxen, draft animals.

In medieval times, on many estates, it was a felony for commoners in Britain to hunt for game. 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.

Therefore, eels, eggs, grains, and vegetables were easy and figured most prominently on the menu. Pies of all sorts were the fast food of the era.

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

Even a century ago, the average person didn’t eat meat every day because it was difficult to acquire. To buy it from the butcher, you paid them for their time and labor as well as for the cut of meat. It was not cheap.

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 did. The main source of protein would be eggs and cheese. 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.

So, in Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers, when food is mentioned, it’s likely to be oat porridge, soup or 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.

For Huw (pronounced Hugh), starvation is his most urgent problem, so food and the difficulties of obtaining it are an integral part of his story at the outset.

Knowing what to feed your people keeps you from introducing jarring components into your narrative. In the world of Neveyah (Tower of Bones), my people have a New World diet. It isn’t really mentioned, but maize and potatoes are important staples as are beans and wild greens.

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 world building. 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:

Wikipedia contributors, “Medieval cuisine,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medieval_cuisine&oldid=896980025 (accessed May 14, 2019).

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

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Stormy Weather #amwriting

Today is one of the darkest days so far this winter. As I write this, it’s noon, but the sun struggles to penetrate the gloom. Wind-driven rain bullets pound at the windows and all I want to do is hibernate. The wind howls around my house, seeming like a living thing.

I am warm and snug and wrapped in a cozy, fleece-lined blanket, with a cup of hot tea in my hands. I sit with my eyes closed, imagining warmer places, lands where the sun shines every day, and a gentle rain only falls in the small hours before dawn.

Yep. I write fantasy.

This post was supposed to be about world building. I could probably look out my window and tell you what my world looks and feels like. I’d intended to show you how the rain and murkiness make the world seem two-dimensional, a study in shades of gray. I wanted you to feel the cold and damp working its way inside your hood, making walking to the store a misery. I should  warn you, though. Today is a bad day to walk anywhere. Flying branches and airborne trashcans might make your walk…an adventure.

Had we gone through the exercise that was planned, I would have asked you to talk to the friendly golden Labrador who lives inside the fenced yard on the corner and reassure him that his owner will indeed come home after work. The poor dog is doubtful, awash with separation anxiety despite the fact his owner has never failed to return.

But no.

I don’t think I will write a blog post today. Instead, I’m going to sit in my favorite chair and read. And when I put the book down for a moment, I will remember how warm the breezes of Oahu were, how different from my cold, dark, inland home. I’m going to think of Waikiki and mojitos at Duke’s Canoe Club. Sitting on the beach afterward and feeling the softness of golden sand against my bare feet. How gentle the surf seemed during our stay there, as compared to the chill of the wild North Pacific as it crashes into the Washington coast.

I’m going to remember the exhilaration of snorkeling in Hanauma Bay. The pictures didn’t do it justice, but it shines in my memory. And the next day? How do I show you the incredulous joy of sitting on a North Shore beach and being visited by giant tortoises?

Instead of being visited by thunder and lighting.

The storms may swirl and rage outside my house, but I am warm and cozy. I have orange spice tea to keep me warm and the memories of warmer places and gentler breezes to keep me company.


Credits and Attributions:

The Plaza After Rain, Paul Cornoyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Waikiki Beach by Helen Whitney Kelley, c. 1900 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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World building, ensuring consistency #amwriting

The key to making both fiction and nonfiction real for the reader is subtle but crucial: world building. Maps, no matter how rudimentary, are the foundation of world building in my writing process.

The first map of what eventually became my world of Neveyah series emerged from a conversation with a game designer and was scribbled on a piece of note paper in a Starbucks. I transferred the scribble to graph paper, and over time, that map grew, evolving into a full color relief map of the world as it exists in my mind.

I love maps. Since that early scribble, my maps all start out in a rudimentary form, just a way to keep my work straight. I use pencil and graph paper at this stage, because as the manuscript evolves, sometimes towns must be renamed. They may have to be moved to more logical places. Whole mountain ranges may have to be moved or reshaped so that forests and savannas will appear where they are supposed to be in the story.

And that tendency for embellishment and evolution in the story teller’s mind is what has led to my most embarrassing moment of the week.

I went back to the original manuscript of Mountains of the Moon, Wynn Farmer’s story, just to check on how I had described the terrain of the high country of the Escarpment, as I am writing a short story set there. While I was searching for the passage I wanted, I noticed that I had described Widge as the northernmost navigable port on the River Fleet.

Which means that Dervy can’t be the northernmost port, and the novel I am not working on for the duration of NaNoWriMo has a large plot-hole that won’t be fixed until December.

Fortunately, it is set five hundred years before Wynn’s time, so I’m not going to scrap that portion.

Instead, I made a series of notes for when I get back to writing that novel after NaNoWriMo is over. I will show how at that time, Dervy had some commerce via flat-bottomed barges owned by daring traders. The courses of rivers are changeable, like the Mississippi or the Nile. Where a harbor was possible three hundred years ago, it may not be possible now. (see How The Nile Has Changed Course Over The Past 5,000 Years.)

So, I just had a sharp reminder to check my work for inconsistencies while I still have the chance to either make them possible or remove them.

Perhaps you think you don’t need a map. You aren’t writing fantasy, so the real world is your setting. If your characters are traveling and you are writing about their travels, you want to be accurate. Google earth and a good map will help, as will timetables for trains and airlines.

In my books, people are going hither and yon with great abandon, and if I am not really on top of it, the names of towns will evolve throughout the novel.

The basic pencil-drawn map, in conjunction with my style-sheet, is my indispensable tool for keeping the story straight. I just have to keep referring back to them, rather than trying to keep it all in my head.

What is a style-sheet? When a manuscript comes across their desk, editors and publishers create a list of names, places, created words, and other things that may be repeated and that pertain only to that manuscript. This is called a style-sheet.

The style-sheet can take several forms. It’s a visual guide to print out or keep minimized until it’s needed. I copy and paste every new word or name onto my list, doing this the first time they appear in the manuscript. If I am conscientious about this, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale. I also do this for my clients when I edit a manuscript.

Some people use Scrivener. I prefer to keep it simple, so I just use Excel for this because I like keeping my maps and the glossary in the same workbook. Google Docs works just as well, and it’s free, or you can just keep a list on a document or notepad.

Regardless of how you create your style-sheet, I suggest you include these elements:

  • The cast of characters and how their names are spelled
  • Their home town
  • The places they go
  • Every made-up word or name
  • The page on which it first appears
  • What it means

What should go on a map? When your characters are traveling great distances, certain differences in the terrain will impede your characters. If they are pertinent to the story, you will want to note:

  • Rivers
  • swamps
  • mountains
  • hills
  • towns
  • forests
  • oceans

What if your setting is indoors, such as an office, a mansion, or a hotel? You want to make sure the rooms and corridors that get mentioned in the narrative aren’t described in a contradictory way. If a room is next to the kitchen in the opening scene, it should still be there at the end of the story, barring a tornado.

Billy Ninefingers is set in a wayside inn. I made a drawing of the floor plan for my purposes because the inn is the world in which the story takes place. If you are writing a space opera, map out your ship or station, just for yourself.

Know your world.

As a side note, 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.

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A league is a unit of length (or, in various regions, area). It was long common in Europe and Latin America, but it is no longer an official unit in any nation. The word originally meant the distance a person could walk in an hour.[1] Since the Middle Ages, many values have been specified in several countries.”

Therefore, a league is what you say it is, within some loose parameters. I go with the distance you can walk in an hour, which means you must take the terrain into consideration. In my current work, I don’t even mention distance by measure. Instead, I use time—they travel for an hour, or day, or two days.

Not everyone is an artist. Perhaps your work is set in a fantasy world, but you feel your hand-drawn map isn’t good enough to include in the finished product.

One option is to go to a game designer’s map generating site, play around with it until you find a map you like, then write the story to that map. Another option indie authors might consider is hiring an artist to make a map from their notes.

I’m fortunate to have some skill as an artist, so my pencil-drawn map always evolves into artwork for the book.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “League (unit),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=League_(unit)&oldid=865343305(accessed November 4, 2018).

Map of Neveyah ©2015 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

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Layers of a Scene—Immediate Environment #amwriting

While you are reading this post, you are probably sitting in a room, or perhaps sitting in some form of public transportation and reading on your phone. Wherever you currently are physically, you are reading a blog post. Because you are reading this post, your attention is in my room. The sounds of your environment have faded, and you are here with me, observing as I write about writing.

It’s 05:38 am, and my house is quiet, but not quite silent. It’s not a dark place, as the nightlight in the living room casts a warm glow, and the ceiling light in the room I call my “office” keeps me hitting the right keys, mostly. The furnace has come on, and the vents are making that familiar soft wooshing sound.

A cat once lived in this room, but she is gone, nine years now. Still, her spirit lingers among the dusty books and boxes of the storeroom that is my Room of Shame—a room no one is allowed to see when they visit. A sign on the door clearly warns, if you’re not in my book, keep out.

I wear a blue robe and ratty pink slippers. My feet are propped on a folding chair from Costco and the keyboard rests on my lap. Filing cabinets, boxes, shelves, dusty books, my husband’s citronella plants in the window, boxes and more boxes—this room is a cacophony of visual noise.

And yet this room is my haven, my quiet space, my room to write.

My keyboard has a certain rattle to it, a few keystrokes forward and the backspace key is pressed several times, then we go forward again. The end of a sentence arrives, and the punctuation is firmly added.

The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee calls to me. I set my work aside and go to the kitchen, the room that, despite its location in the rear corner of the house, is the center of my home. As I pour my first cup of coffee, my plan is to make a Sunday breakfast, bake bread, and maybe make oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries and walnuts.

But perhaps not. Perhaps after breakfast, I’ll return to the Room of Shame and write.

This is my immediate environment.

Our characters also occupy a particular environment at any given moment of their story. Whether they live in a condo, a house, or a caravan, their immediate environment reflects their personality.

The larger world is comprised of sound and scent as much as it is physical objects. The out-of-doors has a certain smell, perhaps of damp grass, or fresh-turned earth. In the city, smog has a scent all its own.

The smaller world, the immediate environment can be shown with brief strokes. My room has sounds that are unique to it: the furnace vents, the keyboard, the sound of the TV in another room. But some things are universal–coffee cups, small appliances, etc. We all have an idea of what a kitchen looks like. Place your character in a room with certain common props and the reader’s imagination will supply the rest of the scene:

Rick closed the drapes, which smelled faintly of cigarettes. He switched the TV on—for light or companionship? Maybe both. The hotel’s movie selection was minimal, but The Maltese Falcon seemed appropriate. Unable to relax, he sat on the worn sofa, waiting, his gun at the ready.

Whenever you mention an object in a scene, it becomes important. When you mention odors, they become important, as do sounds. This is why using your character’s senses is a part of world building. What they see, hear, and smell shapes the world the reader experiences.

As an exercise, picture your immediate environment. What are your impressions of the place where you are now? Write a brief word picture of those impressions. For me, the impressions of my immediate space are: Glow of monitor, rattle of keyboard, looming boxes, cooling coffee.

Those four things show my environment.

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World building: what was, what is, and what may be #amwriting

All novels are set in one of three time periods: the past, the present, or the future.

Readers are much smarter than we are, so knowing what you write about is critical no matter what the level of technology. Even when setting a novel in the present day, the actual technology available is an unknown quantity to most of us.

However, targeted research can shed some light on what was once possible, what is possible, and what will one day be possible. Here are some of my go-to sources of information:

The Past:

My best source of information on low-tech agrarian life and culture comes from a book I found at a second-hand book store in Olympia in the mid- to late-1980s. Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley is still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon. This book was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who knew the people she was writing about.

What I find absolutely charming is the way the author used excerpts from medieval rhymes and literature to put their lives into context, forming a picture of how we really lived before the industrial revolution. In fact, many rural communities were still living this kind of life in the early twentieth century. The author knew and interviewed farmers whose lives had been spent working the fields and raising animals the old way.

Best of all, even though the book makes no apologies for being a textbook, Hartley’s prose is so enjoyable I found myself reading it with the sort of enjoyment one gets from a novel.

I also get a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons.  There, under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830) you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters, artists living in what is now The Netherlands. In the course of their work these painters created accurate records of the everyday life of the common people, how they dressed, and what was important to them.

The Present:

You can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there. If you need to know how many bodies you can fit into the trunk of a Mini Cooper, don’t guess. Look it up and write with authority. (The answer is NONE—Mini Coopers have no trunk.)

Available on the internet today:

TED Talks are a wonderful resource for information on current and cutting edge technology.

ZDNet Innovation is an excellent source of current tech and future tech that may become current in 25 years.

Tech Times is also a great source of ideas.

If you want to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society, go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Barnes & Noble and look at the many publications that are available to the reading public. You can find everything from culinary to survivalist, to organic gardening—if people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.

Know what your community is interested in, and your setting will have depth.

The Future:

We can only extrapolate how societies will look in the future by taking what we know is possible today and mixing it with a heavy dose of what we wish were possible.

But many business people and scientists have incredible imaginations, and their life’s work is making the future knowable, and a reality.

SPACEX

NASA

Digital Trends

If you write sci fi, you must read sci fi as that is where the ideas are. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the classic science fiction is now current tech—ion drive, space stations—these are our reality but were only a dream when science fiction was in its infancy. Think about it: your Star Trek communicator is never far from your side.

Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the amazing bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing.

Above all, enjoy the act of creating a world that a reader will want to live in, whether it is set in the past, the present, or the future.


Credits and Attributions:

Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley, © 1981 by Pantheon, cover illustrated by Beatrice Fassell, fair use.

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Creating Societies #amwriting

I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government. When I first began writing, I was woefully ignorant about many things, but I knew it was important to create a solid feeling of reality in any fantasy world. My first efforts were less than good, but as time went on and I read the works of other authors, and played certain, world-heavy video games, I learned how important creating a sense of depth is in world building.

We all know the importance of giving depth to the physical setting of your story. The environment must be absolutely clear in your mind. But the society your characters inhabit is just as important as his physical world–how they live in that environment a key component of world building.

You achieve depth in a society by creating layers. What those layers are is listed below, but key is in how you apply the layers. The society must be there in YOUR mind, rock solid and with no apologies. The reader doesn’t need to know the details or the history, only that it is.

The World of Neveyah was originally invented as the setting for an anime-based platform-style RPG (Role Playing Game) that was never built. We intended to create a Final Fantasy style world and game, but the tech crash happened, and the game didn’t materialize.

However, I had retained the rights to my maps, my characters, and my story line—which eventually became the Tower of Bones series. Mountains of the Moon is the original story that the series grew out of, although it was the fourth book to be completed and published.

In a large console/computer RPG, world-building is critical. When you look at the great games that are considered classics, you find one commonality: Whether the classic game is a Platform game, ‎a Beat ’em up game, ‎a Shooter game, ‎a Stealth game, or an MMO game—they all have memorable worlds and deep, involving story lines.

What I originally did for the game was to write the story of the community my protagonist grew up in, a word-picture of that world and how the environment shaped their society. I made a list of questions about the society and the answers formed the picture of Wynn’s world and his place in it.

With that done, I set it aside, to use as reference material when I need to know how a particular character would react in a given situation. This is the method I still use today when I create a new world.

I have posted the following lists before, so if you have already seen them, thank you for stopping by!

Society is always composed of many layers and classes. How is your society divided? Who has the wealth? are there

  • Nobility?
  • A servant class?
  • A merchant class
  • A large middle class?
  • Who makes up the poorest class?
  • Who has the power, men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect?

Do they have a written language? This is really important if you are setting your people in a medieval world or in a really low-tech society because it determines how knowledge is passed on. Low-tech generally equals an oral tradition.

  • How are people educated?
  • Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
  • How are bards, storytellers and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?
  • How is monetary wealth calculated?
  • Do they use coins? What is their monetary system? If you are inventing it, keep it simple. (I generally use gold, divided into tens: 10 coppers=a silver/ 10 silvers=a gold)

Ethics and Values: What constitutes morality?

  • Is marriage required?
  • How are women treated?
  • How are men treated?
  • How are same-sex relationships viewed?
  • How are unmarried sexual relationships seen in the eyes of society?
  • How important is human life? How is murder punished?
  • How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
  • What about drunkenness?
  • How important is the truth?
  • What constitutes immorality?
  • How important is it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?

Religion and the Gods: How important is religion in this tale? If it is central, ask yourself: Is there one god/goddess or many? If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.

  • What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
  • What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
  • Who has the power?
  • Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
  • How does the priesthood interact with the community?
  • Who can join the priesthood?
  • Do people want to join the priesthood or do they fear it?
  • How is the priesthood trained?

Level of Technology: What tools and amenities do this society have available to them? What about transport?

  • Hunter/Gatherers?
  • Agrarian/farming
  • Greco-Roman metallurgy and technology?
  • Medieval metallurgy and technology?
  • Pre-industrial revolution or late Victorian?
  • modern day?
  • Or do they have a magic-based technology?
  • How do we get around and how do we transport goods? On foot, by horse & wagon, by train, or by space shuttle?

Government: There will be a government somewhere, even if it is just the local warlord. Someone is always in charge because it’s easier for the rest of us that way:

  • Is it a monarchy, theocracy, or a democratic form of government?
  • How does the government fund itself?
  • How are taxes levied?
  • Is it a feudal society?
  • Is it a clan-based society?
  • How does the government use and share the available wealth?
  • How is the government viewed by the citizens?

Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?

Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?

  • If not, why? What causes the tension?

Waging War: This is another area where we have to ask what their level of technology is. It is critical for you as the author to understand what sort of weapons your characters will bring to the front, and also what the enemy will be packing. Do the research and choose weaponry that fits your established level of technology.

  • What kind of weaponry will they use?
  • How are they trained?
  • Who goes to battle? Men, women, or both?
  • How does social status affect your ability to gain rank in the military?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a jumping off point. Considering this little list of ideas always leads to my realizing other large concepts that combine to make up a civilization. You are welcome to use this roster to form your own inventory of ideas about society.

Know your world, know the society, and write with authority.

Give the reader just enough detail to show the world as one that is real and solid, but don’t devolve into dumps about how that world came to be. You, as the author, are the only one who needs to know those details.


Credits and Attributions

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Milano Duomo 1856.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Milano_Duomo_1856.jpg&oldid=146639100 (accessed September 23, 2018).

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Weather, a central component of world building #amwriting

Whether you write literary fiction, epic fantasy, historical fiction, or any other genre, you must carefully construct the environment your novel is set in. The weather is a constant in our lives and affects how we dress, how we travel, and what we eat. Therefore, it is a central component of world building. How does the weather come into play in your novel?

If your novel’s setting is a low-tech society, the weather will have more of an effect on your characters than one set in a modern society. However, in any era, the weather will affect the speed with which your characters can travel great distances, and it will affect how they dress. Bad weather always has a detrimental effect on transportation, a serious point to consider.

The weather can be shown in small, subtle ways. We use the weather to show the world in such a way that it doesn’t become the star of the story. What follows are excerpts from three of my works in progress, using weather to show the world in three different genres.

Weather is an integral part of world building in contemporary literary fiction:

The path was slippery and required scaling the cliff in some places. By the time they arrived at the clifftop, the weather had begun to clear, and the low fog was dissipating. Patches of blue peeked from behind the gray clouds, and the wind had picked up.

Parker absorbed the solitude, enjoying the way he could see the entirety of Baron’s Hollow, from one end of the cove to the other. He turned to Dominic. “You were right. This is perfect.” Gazing down on the world, he saw Izzy running with the dogs at the south end, heading toward the lighthouse as if she were trying to outrun her anger, the wind tearing her blonde hair from its braid. At the house, John stood on the deck, absorbed in whatever it was he was painting, oblivious to the drama.

Far down at the north end of the cove, Leo and Claire walked beside the surf, with Leo’s gestures emphasizing his words. Claire was alternately agitated and hunched against the sharp breeze in her hooded sweatshirt. It was clear her agent had told her something she didn’t want to hear. Parker chuckled; she looked like a little girl being chastised by her father.

How does the weather look, feel, smell? What does it sound like? I use it to show the world in my medieval fantasy:

In the absence of battle noises, the hissing of the rain on the foliage was loud in Julian’s ears. The odors of wet horses mingled with the scents of blood and damp, musty undergrowth.

Our characters are not always traveling or fighting in the rain. Use the weather:

Dust hung in the air, burning his eyes, a thick pall that concealed him but also hid his quarry.

Even in an epic fantasy, at times our characters are moved by the beauty of the world around them.

Alf’s gaze was caught by a giant maple, far across the valley. The setting sun lit the halo of spring’s new leaves, and the maple’s glowing crown of iridescent green became a beacon, shining in the forest of dark evergreens. The thought crossed his mind that the tree was like hope. It shone against the darkness of the trees around it, a guiding light for the weary to cling to. Maybe his son would live. Maybe the new treatments would work.

We are able to find out how various modern societies deal with severe weather, simply by looking on the internet. Hurricanes, blizzards, wildfires–how local communities prepare for and deal with these events is newsworthy. But historical societies also had ways of dealing with the weather when they had to be out in it, and the internet is also your friend when you are researching this.

In early medieval times, people of England, Wales, and Ireland didn’t have to deal with the extreme temperatures they experienced in the 17th and 18th centuries, as it was a warmer time. However, they did get some occasional snow and cold in the winter, and at times they suffered heat waves during the summer.

In a cold, wet winter, a simple shawl won’t cut it. Layers are critical, and the materials they would use are simple and readily available—linen and wool.

I hate it when I come across an improbability in an otherwise good narrative. If you write fantasy or romance, you must remember that while fur-trapping is a common way of earning money in a lower-tech society, only the wealthier classes, the merchants, and nobility, will be able to buy those furs. The trapper and his/her family will have fur lining and fur trim on some of their cold-weather garments, but they won’t be ostentatious or stylish. Their clothes will be strictly utilitarian, designed for warmth, as everything they trap will be sold. Certainly, the best furs will be sold, so what they wear will not be the rarest. After all, the trapper is working to earn money for their family.

In tropical climates, people wear fewer clothes, and those they do wear are much lighter in weight. They protect the wearer from the sun, but breathe, allowing for comfort in times of high heat and humidity.

The average medieval agrarian society will have access to fleeces, though spun wool is more common. Also, in the more urban centers of a low-tech society, the average person’s winter garments, hooded cloaks, gloves, and even bedding would be made of thick wool, layered and felted.

Wool has been a winter mainstay since humans first began making cloth. Some garments will be made of heavy canvas or oil-cloth. Oilcloth, close-woven cotton canvas or linen cloth with a coating of boiled linseed oil,  was a product available from the late middle ages on.

Clothing and cold weather gear will make their appearance in relatively few sentences in your novel. Most likely it will only be mentioned in passing, but it is important as part of what builds the world you are creating. A little research on your part regarding what technology might be plausible in your society will lend a sense of realism to your work.

The world we set our character in is far more than whether they travel on horseback or in a Maserati, more than clothes and fashion, more than décor and food. The world has weather, which affects everything and makes the décor and the Maserati real. When you include the sounds and sensations of the weather, it lends a sense of solid reality to the words you write on paper.

These words we write are, after all, only a dream with a beginning, middle, and end, a vision we want to make believable through solid world building.


If you need to know how people protected themselves against the weather in the middle ages, here are several good websites for research:

Sarah Woodbury, Romance and Fantasy in the Middle Ages

Medieval Gloves, etc.

Castles and Manor Houses


Credits and Attributions:

The Plaza After Rain,  Paul Cornoyer PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

After the Hurricane, Bahamas by Winslow Homer, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Subtext #amwriting

A good story is far more than a recounting of he said, and she said. It’s more than the action and events that form the arc of the story. A good story is all that, but without good subtext, the story never achieves its true potential.

Within our characters, underneath their dialogue, lurks conflict, anger, rivalry, desire, or pride. Joy, pleasure, fear–as the author, we know those emotions are there, but conveying them without beating the reader over the head is where artistry comes into play. The subtext is the hidden story, the hints and allegations; the secret reasoning. It is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the personal events.

These are implicit ideas and emotions. These thoughts and feelings may or may not be verbalized, as subtext is most often shown as the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters — what they really think and believe. It also shows the larger picture. It can imply controversial subjects, or it can be a simple, direct depiction of motives. Metaphors and allegories are excellent tools for conveying provocative ideas.

Subtext can be a conscious thought or a gut reaction on the part of the characters. It imagery as conveyed by the author.

When it’s done right, subtext conveys backstory with a deft hand. When layered with symbolism and atmosphere, the reader absorbs the subtext on a subliminal level because it is unobtrusive.

An excellent book on this subject is Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger. On the back of this book, subtext is described as “a silent force bubbling up from below the surface of any screenplay or novel.” This book is an important source of information on how to discover and convey the deeper story that underpins the action.

Because subtext is so often shown as internal dialogue, some writers assume that heavy-handed info dumping is subtext.

It’s not. It’s description, opinions, gestures, imagery, and yes–subtext can be conveyed in dialogue but dialogue itself is just people talking.

When characters are constantly verbalizing their every thought you run into several problems:

  1. In genre fiction, the accepted method of conveying internal dialogue (thought) is with italics. A wall of italics is a daunting prospect to a reader, who may just put the book down.
  2. Verbalizing thoughts can become an opportunity for an info dump.

Nevertheless, thoughts (internal dialogue) have their place in the narrative and can be part of the subtext. The main problem I have with them is that when a writer is expressing some character’s most intimate thoughts, the current accepted practice for writing interior monologue in genre fiction is to use italics… lots and lots of italics… copious quantities of leaning letters that are small and difficult to decipher. I recommend going lightly with them.

A character’s backstory is subtext, their memories and the events that led them to where they are now. We use interior monologues to represent a character’s thoughts in real time, as they actually think them in their head, using the precise words they use. For that reason, italicized thoughts are always written in:

  • First Person: I’m the queen! After all, we don’t think about ourselves in the third person, even if we really are the queen. We are not amused.
  • Present Tense: Where are we going with this?

We think in the first person present tense because we are in the middle of events as they happen. Immediate actions and mental commentaries unfold in the present so they are written as the character experiences them.

But memories are different. Memories are subtext and reflect a moment in the past. If brief, they should be written in a past tense to reflect that. If it was a watershed moment, one that changed their life, consider writing it as a scene and have the character relive it.

This will avoid presenting the reader with a wall of italics and gives the event a sense of immediacy. Having the characters relive it brings home the emotion and power of the event and shows the reader why the event was so important to the character that they would remember it so clearly.

Subtext expressed as thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the readers’ interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters as in this example:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she was rich. The gold watch, the sleek sports car she drove could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

These are Benny’s impressions of Charlotte, and we could put all of that into Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is told all that they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things must be expressed as an interior monologue.

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot.

The reader has  gained a whole lot of information, in only two sentences.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is who Benny really is and why he is posing as a janitor. That too will emerge via subtext and through descriptions of the environment, conversations Benny has with his employer, his interior monologues, and his general impressions of the world around him.

Don’t forget the senses. Odors and ambient sounds, objects placed in a scene, sensations of wind or the feeling of heat when the sun shines through a window—these bits of background are subtext. Scenes require a certain amount of description. Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. How do you convey that in the least obtrusive fashion? I would write it this way:

Willard gazed at the icy stairs leading from the unshoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

Sometimes we see the world and the larger issues through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist through the setting—what is shown in the scene.

People read the subtext and make conclusions based on what they infer is important in that scene. If it is just there for looks or shock value, it becomes an instance of Chekhov’s Gun and should be removed. Everything that is remarkable (such as a gun) must be important to the scene or serve a later purpose.

The subtext must be organic, purposeful, and not just there to dump info or fluff the word count. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions, and the reader sees only what needs to be there, so we aren’t distracted by unimportant things. Detail implies importance, so choose what you detail carefully.

Subtext—metaphor and allegory. Impressions and images that build the world around and within the characters are as fundamental to the story as the plot and the arc of the story. Getting it right takes a little work, but please, do make an effort to be subtle and deft in conveying it. As a reader, I’m always thrilled to read a novel where the subtext makes the narrative a voyage of discovery.


Credits and Attributions:

Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger © published by Michael Wiese Productions; 2 edition (March 1, 2017) 

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