Tag Archives: world building

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.

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under writing

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.

4 Comments

Filed under writing

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.

3 Comments

Filed under writing

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).

6 Comments

Filed under writing

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

17 Comments

Filed under writing

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) 

34 Comments

Filed under writing

Maps, the Foundation of Worldbuilding #amwriting

The town I grew up in today bears little resemblance to the place it was even five years ago. New subdivisions, new shopping centers, replacing stop lights at heavy traffic intersections with roundabouts—the changes that have occurred in those five years have radically altered the landscape to the point that my father, who was born in this place and died in 1990, would be completely lost.

Perhaps you are writing a historical accounting of the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive. This battle was a pivotal point in World War II. American forces endured most of the attack, suffering their highest casualties of any operation during the war. The battle also severely depleted Germany’s armored forces, which they were largely unable to replace.

You might think researching this battle will be easy because a great deal of information about this battle exists, documents and accounts from both sides of the war. The Ardennes region covers the province of Wallonia in eastern Belgium, northeast France, and Luxembourg, and many maps showing as it was in 1945 are still available in libraries and on the internet.

But, even though your book may explore a soldier’s true experiences through newsreels, the pages of his diary, and the interview you had with him just before his death at the age of 94, you are writing a fantasy. This is because, in reality, the world of this book exists only in three places:

  • it flows from the author’s mind
  • to the pages of the book
  • into the reader’s mind through the written word

Because we can only view history through the stained glass of time, we must accept that it assumes a mythical quality when we attempt to record it. Even a documentary movie that shows events filmed by the news camera may not be portrayed exactly as it was truly experienced. The facts are filtered through the photographer’s eye and the historian’s pen.

The historian of this battle is fortunate in that many maps exist, showing the terrain of the Ardennes in 1945, and detailing the placement of troops. The generals of both sides left many documents detailing how the terrain they were forced to fight on affected their decisions. The maps are already drawn.

However, if you are writing a tale set in an alternate world, you must create those maps. The first map of my world of Neveyah series was scribbled on graph paper, and over time it evolved into a full color relief map of the world as it exists in my mind.

I love maps. My own maps 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 rough draft 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.

Perhaps you think you don’t need a map. If your characters are traveling and you are writing about their travels, you probably should make a rudimentary map. 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 over the course of the novel–Maudy will become Maury (this actually happened), and distances will become too mushy even for me. The map is my indispensable tool for keeping my story straight.

What should go on a map? 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 certain things will impede your characters. If they are pertinent to the story, you will want to note their location of 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

If your work is sci-fi, consider making a map of space station/ship. My forthcoming novel, Billy Ninefingers, is set in a wayside inn. I made a drawing of the floorplan for my purposes because this 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. This is because their perception of a league may be three miles while yours might be one and a half.

Even though a league has no finite length and is whatever the author decides it is, some readers feel their opinion is of such worth that they will never back down. They will become so annoyed by this that they will give your book a three-star review, simply because they disagree with the length of time your character took to travel a certain distance. 

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.

Huw the Bard takes two months to travel between Ludwellyn and Clythe. In his story, Huw Owyn is walking through fields, woods, and along several winding rivers for the first half of his journey. He must backtrack as frequently as he goes forward; an effort to sneak around those who would kill him. It’s only safe for him to walk on the main road once he makes it to Maury, weeks after fleeing Ludwellyn.

When you look at the relief map of the Eynier Valley that is in the front of Huw the Bard, you can see it’s a long stretch of road. On foot, he could have made the trek in two weeks if he had been able to stay on the main road, and if he hadn’t had to do so much backtracking. But that inability to make progress created the opportunities for tension in Huw’s story.

Fantasy readers like maps. If you are writing fantasy but feel your hand-drawn map isn’t good enough to include in the finished product, consider hiring an artist to make your map from your notes. Because I am an artist, my pencil-drawn map always evolves into artwork for the book.

Your mind is the medium through which the idea for a novel or story is filtered, and words are how it is made real. The key to making both fiction and nonfiction real for the reader is subtle but crucial: worldbuilding. Maps, no matter how rudimentary are the foundation of worldbuilding in my writing process.


Credits and Attributions

German progress during the Battle of the Bulge. Scanned from map insert in The U.S. Army in World War II–The Ardennes: The Battle of the Bulge. This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Sample pencil sketch map, © 2017 Connie J. Jasperson for Life in the Realm of Fantasy

Map of Eynier Valley, reprinted from Huw the Bard, © 2014 Connie J. Jasperson, all rights reserved

2 Comments

Filed under writing

Crafting Worlds #amwriting

I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government. I’m an avid reader, and always have been. Some of the worst books I have read were bad because the setting made no sense or was unclear. This has been as true of stories set in modern New York City as well as fantasies set in wholly imagined worlds.

The author is responsible for making the setting clear and real in the mind of the reader. To do that, the author must pay attention to building that world, even if that world is a well-known city. I can’t write about Seattle if I have no idea what it is like to live there. I can’t stress this enough: do the research.

Because I had noticed these shortcomings in some less than stellar traditionally published works, I made a list of questions to consider when I begin constructing a new society. The Tower of Bones series began as the core story for an anime-based RPG that was cancelled before it was built. For the game’s original concept, I made a checklist of questions about the world and used the answers to write the story of the community the game’s protagonist would live in, a word-picture of about 2000 words.  This is the method I still use today.

Answering the questions posed by the following list of ideas always leads to my considering a kajillion other rather large concepts that combine to make up a civilization.

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?

How do we get around and how do we transport goods?

  • On foot?
  • By horse & wagon?
  • By train?
  • By space shuttle?

Social Organization: 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?

Every society that has merchants also has some form of accounting. The need to account for stores of food and goods may actually have given rise to the earliest forms of written languages. It has been postulated that simple accounting systems came before words.

Quote from Wikipedia:

The earliest known writing for record keeping evolved from a system of counting using small clay tokens. The earliest tokens now known are those from two sites in the Zagros region of Iran: Tepe Asiab and Ganj-i-Dareh Tepe.[6]

To create a record that represented “two sheep”, they selected two round clay tokens each having a + sign baked into it. Each token represented one sheep. Representing a hundred sheep with a hundred tokens would be impractical, so they invented different clay tokens to represent different numbers of each specific commodity, and by 4000 BC strung the tokens like beads on a string.[7] There was a token for one sheep, a different token for ten sheep, a different token for ten goats, etc. Thirty-two sheep would be represented by three ten-sheep tokens followed on the string by two one-sheep tokens.

Ask yourself:

  • How is monetary wealth calculated?
  • Do they use coins? What is their monetary system?

If you are inventing the monetary system, keep it simple. Otherwise, go with a traditional form of money if your society is low-tech. (For my low-tech worlds I generally use gold coins, divided into tens: 10 coppers=a silver / 10 silvers=a gold.) Conversely, use good old-fashioned electronic currency if your world is high-tech.

Language and the written word: Do they have a written language? This is important if you are setting your people in a medieval world or in a low-tech society because it determines how knowledge is passed on. Low-tech generally equals an oral tradition with only the elite able to read and write.

  • How are people educated?
  • Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
  • How are bards, storytellers and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?

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?
  • Warlord, President, or King/Queen?
  • How does the government use and share the available wealth?
  • How is the government viewed by the citizens?

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 what the enemy will be packingDo 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?

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 honest and trustworthy?

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

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?

You are welcome to use this roster as the jumping-off point to form your own inventory of ideas for world building.

When you have cemented the society in your mind, the world your characters inhabit will feel real and solid, and your protagonists will fit into it organically. Their society will be visually real to the reader, even if the world it evokes in their minds isn’t exactly your vision of it. You will have done your job, by giving them a solid framework to imagine the story around.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “History of ancient numeral systems,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_ancient_numeral_systems&oldid=799316402 (accessed October 8, 2017).

13 Comments

Filed under writing

#amwriting: do the reasearch

People always ask what you do for a living, as we are a society of people who define ourselves by our occupations. For many years, I was a bookkeeper, and also, I worked in data entry for several large corporations. Before that, during the 1980s and Reaganomics, I worked as a hotel maid, a field hand, and had several other odd occupations, often holding down three part-time jobs.

When you tell people you write books, they are, generally, interested. When you tell them you write speculative fiction, you get a range of reactions, from pitying condescension to confused, but sincere, respect.

Sometimes people laugh and tell me how easy it must be since I can make any old thing up and it will fly. Despite the old saying that “in wine there is truth,” nothing could be further from the truth.

Readers know when you have gone off the track and into the shrubs of “that can’t possibly happen.”

This means you can’t just make any old thing up because world building must combine enough realism with the created world to make the fantasy plausible. It involves research.

I spend hundreds of hours researching the most trivial details for every book I write. If I get it wrong, it’s because I failed to do the research in the right place.

In the process of writing Huw the Bard and the subsequent stories set in that world, I’ve learned as much as many medieval scholars about how people dressed, what they ate, how they earned a living, how they preserved food and every intimate detail of their lives that is researchable.

I know all of this because I read scientific papers written by experts on the subject, all of which are available to us via the internet. My files are full of the fruits of other people’s efforts, with the sources documented and the authors credited, so I know where to go to find out more if I need to. Lists of links to websites for further research is critical because when one book goes to press, a new book is already falling out of my fevered mind and onto the paper.

Readers are smart. If something is impossible, and you don’t somehow make it probable, you will lose your readers. The best way to make the impossible probable is to mix your fantasy with a good dose of real history. Be historically accurate as often as you can, so that when your blacksmith makes a weapon, readers who know about smithing will not be jarred out of the story by inaccuracy.

Most of the time, these things you spend untold hours researching will only get one line in your narrative, but if that line is inaccurate or impossible, your readers will know you were too lazy to do it right.

The following is my short list of go-to websites for in-depth, accurate information for when I am writing, including grammar questions. They are self-explanatory and are easy to make use of. Submit your questions via their query box and, while figuring out what you really need to know may take several tries, you will soon have answers.

Medieval Histories  http://www.medievalhistories.com

Academia http://www.academia.edu/

NASA https://www.nasa.gov/

Physics http://www.physics.org/

Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Grammarist  http://grammarist.com/

I’ve learned a great deal from reading the literature of medieval times. If you really want to know how people lived, read a modern translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They were bawdy, irreverent, and loved nothing more than a good joke.

For example, if you are writing a story set in a medieval environment, you may need to know what clothing the common European people wore in medieval times. Or you might want to know what their home looked like, or a village. For that, I suggest you seek out the art of the Flemish Painters. There you’ll see what men and women looked like and how they dressed, both for celebrations, and for working. You will see what their towns looked like, and the public places they gathered in. The interiors of their homes are also found in the great Flemish painter’s works.

Any time you want an idea of average European village life in the Late Middle Ages through the 17th century, you need to look no further than Wikimedia Commons.  There, under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830) you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters. These were artists living in what is now The Netherlands, and who were creating accurate records of the everyday life of the common people, along with stylized religious images.

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

They painted their subjects with a heavy dose of religious allegory, but that was a part of village life—both the Inquisition and the Reformation were under way, and the politics of religion was in the very air they breathed. If you are going to write medieval fantasy, you must understand how strong the influence of the Church was and how entangled it was in politics. You must inject that religious realism into your work, and show how the Church, even a fantasy religion, and its politics affect the common person’s life.

My regular readers know I love the work of one family of early Dutch painters from Flanders, the Brueghel Family. Five generations of their family were well-known painters and printmakers.

The internet is your friend, and researching your fantasy novel can be incredibly entertaining. Research is what slows me down more than anything. I spend far too many happy hours on Wikimedia Commons, looking at 16th-century Netherlandish paintings.

2 Comments

Filed under writing

#FineArtFriday: Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak 1860

When I sit down to write, my work is usually fiction. Even so, I want my work to have authenticity, although I might never have experienced what I am writing about. Whether a piece is set in an alternate world, or in this one, or if it is in the past, present, or future, a source of visual information you can use to fire your imagination exists on the internet–Wikimedia Commons.

For example, today’s image is a landscape painting by Albert Bierstadt, an American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West.  This painting shows what tribal life after a successful hunt might be like, and if you are writing about any group of people who hunt or gather food, this particular painting contain a wealth of historically accurate visual information. He painted what he saw. In all of Bierstadt’s work, you will find a world that existed 150 years ago, complete with children playing and dogs barking.

Wikipedia has this to say about the painter:

Born in Germany, Bierstadt was brought to the United States at the age of one by his parents. He later returned to study painting for several years in Düsseldorf. He became part of the Hudson River School in New York, an informal group of like-minded painters who started painting along the Hudson River. Their style was based on carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes called luminism. An important interpreter of the western landscape, Bierstadt, along with Thomas Moran, is also grouped with the Rocky Mountain School.

The life of the American West of the 19th century can be directly translated into a science fiction novel, or a fantasy novel–because the elements of hunting and gathering remain the same no matter what world you set it in. A great many people were involved in taking down a few animals–two antelope, one mountain sheep, and one bear. Hunts of this nature, even with modern weapons, are difficult and fraught with danger. For this reason, the take from this hunt will supply the entire camp of perhaps 100 people for one or two weeks., so foraging for roots, berries, and greens was an important task, as was fishing.

In this painting, you see how the tribe’s homes were constructed, and how the camp was laid out–the butchering party is well away from the rest of the camp, which is on the banks of a river. Everything that was important to the lives of these people is laid out in detail, exactly how it was the day the artist set up his easel in the wilderness and began painting.

Go to history for your world building, and go to art for your history. Don’t be afraid to ‘waste time’ looking at paintings and examining them for minute details, because your imagination will run with it, and your work will have a sense of realism.


Wikipedia contributors, “Albert Bierstadt,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Albert_Bierstadt&oldid=793302910 (accessed August 11, 2017).

The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak; Albert Bierstadt 1863 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAlbert_Bierstadt_-_The_Rocky_Mountains%2C_Lander’s_Peak.jpg, accessed August-11-2017.

Comments Off on #FineArtFriday: Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak 1860

Filed under #FineArtFriday, writing