Tag Archives: world building

#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.

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#amwriting: evoking a sense of place


The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons

Summer has officially arrived here in the Pacific Northwest. This is a time when I can take my notepad out on the back porch, enjoying the garden and, to a certain extent, people watching. I love my back yard and my porch, feeling as if the heart of my home is there.

My work involves creating worlds and making them real to the reader. All the worlds I write about are a composite woven of my personal experiences and places that I love.

My town is a tiny place, slightly more than a village, and less than a city. Historically it is a mining town. Three things kept my town alive during hard times: the sandstone quarry, the coal mines, and timber. Now it’s a bedroom community for Olympia, the capital city of the State of Washington.

I’ve been here since 2005, and although I love my small house and garden, I don’t really fit into this community, which is probably my fault. Most of my writing groups are in Olympia, and my favorite places are in that city too. But I have a “soul-home,” which is comprised of the places that had the most profound meaning to me in my life. My soul-home is made up of three places that I have lived, which have all had a profound effect on me.

One part of that soul-home is Seattle. I lived there until I was 10, and went to West Woodland Elementary School.Our house was in Ballard, an urban community of fishermen who spent most of their time fishing in Alaska, and who were first-generation Norwegians. Everyone, including my family, was Lutheran, which was a cultural thing as well as religious. In the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Ballard was a small town within the big city, and the kids in my neighborhood were close-knit.

Seattle and the greater Puget Sound area is one component of my soul home, mainly because of the many immigrants whose cultures made it what it is today. The Pacific Northwest and Seattle, in particular, is a fusion of Asian, Norwegian, Native American, and hardy sons and daughters of the pioneers who came from all over the world seeking a better life. We are a unique mix and happy to be so.

In Seattle, music takes on a life of its own, and the world listens. Wikipedia has a page that lists all the famous musicians who came out of Seattle, and it’s pretty impressive. You can check it out here.

Music, art, and literature are celebrated in Seattle, and the influence the city has on Pacific Northwest culture is felt all up and down the Puget Sound region. I was fired to write my own books by reading the works of local area authors like Frank Herbert, Greg Bear, J.A. Jance, Terry Brooks and so many, many more Northwest authors. The Puget Sound region is a breeding ground for creativity, and Seattle is where it comes together.

Amaranthus and Savvy at the needles by haystack rock cannon beach 2012

But I am also a product of many summers spent in Cannon Beach, Oregon. I love that place so much that it is another piece of my soul-home. Terry Brooks and Ursula K. LeGuin are also fans of the North Oregon Coast, as are many famous musicians and actors. Something about it calls to the wilder side of me, and it seeps into my work.

But the primary portion of my soul-home came into my life when I was ten, and my family moved to Olympia, to a home on Black Lake. We moved from a nice, large, two-story home in a middle-class neighborhood to a tiny, rundown, ranch-style vacation house miles from civilization. It was cold and damp in the winter, and cool and pleasant in the summer. The house was barely livable, but the property was what my parents moved there for: the 350 feet of waterfront and the sandy beach, with forested land going back 5 acres to the county road. Dad was a WWII vet, and fishing was his greatest hobby.

The first thing I saw the day we moved there wasn’t the lake, although it was impressive. It was the Black Hills that dominated my view—black and forested with cedars, firs and hemlock, and rising high over the other side of the lake, they dominated the front windows. The many moods of the lake were out there for us all to see every minute of every day. You knew what going to happen by the direction the wind was coming from.

I hated it. I was torn from everything I knew, thrust into a world where I had no friends, and didn’t know my way around. Nevertheless, after the first, terribly difficult months of adjustment, I grew to love my Black Lake home, relishing the rural privacy and the deep connection to nature we formed, without our knowing it. When I left home, I carried a piece of it in my heart, and it will always be with me. My contemporary literary fiction is usually set there, with the bits and pieces I loved so much about that home forming a memory that shines, and I am able to give that place to my readers.

Just as my world, and the place I think of as my home was created by many generations of immigrants and pioneers filled with hope and the dream of a better life, so are most other cities and cultural centers.

The sense of place you instill into your work is the sure knowledge of where it is and what it represents to the protagonist. If you are crafting a world that doesn’t exist, as I have done with most of my work, you must make it real. Take some of what you love about your home, your town, and your culture, and write it into your work.

The knowledge of place is created in the reader’s mind by subtle cues, small descriptions, minor mentions over multiple scenes. A few words, little references to the background setting give the reader a framework upon which his imagination will build the rest.

Terry Brooks’ world of Shannara is real in his mind, because he lives there, just as Neveyah is real to me for the same reason. Both worlds have evolved from the reality and landscape we live in and love so much, yet they are radically different, both from each other and from the Pacific Northwest. They are composites of our imaginations, made real by our experiences.

Haystack_rock_monochromeWhen you write a novel or an essay, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the setting is how you create the sense of place, and must be a creation of many layers:

  • Place: where the protagonist lives, whether in the city, a village, a wandering life with no fixed address, or a farm in the countryside
  • Landscape/Terrain: mountainous, forested, high desert, seaside
  • Culture: in many stories, broad hints of what passes for political systems, the influence of religion, and the amount of respect accorded by society to music and art.

None of these layers will be overtly discussed or described at length in your work unless it is part of what creates the tension and drives the plot. But you, as the author, must know and understand these components as if they were your soul-home. That knowledge will come across in your work via small cues, and your readers will have a firm picture of the world in which your work is set.


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#amwriting: World building: Society, and Magic

Today we will examine society and magic, two disparate concepts with one thing in common: both require a solid framework to imagine the story around. In other words, you have to understand them well.

Luca Giordano, Frescoes in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence, Scene - Justizia ca 1584

Luca Giordano, Frescoes in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

First let’s discuss religion and society: Who are the movers and shakers?

In all societies, there is a hierarchy of power. Someone is at the top and someone else is at the bottom.

As I create the political power-structure, I find that the opportunities for creating tension within the story also grow. I keep a list of those ideas so that when I run short on creativity I have a bit in the bank, so to speak.

When you are building a world that only exists on paper, you have a microcosm of space in which you can convey the social, religious, and political climate of your story.  You show this in small ways, with casual mentions in conversation when it becomes pertinent, and not through info dumps.

However, in order to convey that information logically and without contradictions, you must have an idea of how things work.

  • Who has the power and privilege in that society, and who is the underclass?
  • How is your society divided? Who has the wealth?
  • Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
  • Who wants power, and what lengths are they willing to go to gain it?
  • What place does religion have in this society? Is it central to the governance of the society, or is it a peripheral, perhaps nonexistent thing?
  • What passes for morality? Is sex before marriage taboo? What constitutes murder and how is it viewed? Remember, you only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
  • If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws what are the consequences?

This creates atmosphere. This is knowledge the characters have but the reader does not. There is no need to have an introductory chapter describing the laws and moral codes of the religious order of Grok, or the political climate of West Berlin in 1961. The way you convey this is to show how these larger societal influences affect your character and his/her ability to resolve their situation.

Consider this story: a woman is separated from her husband by the Berlin Wall.  Every day, on her way to her job, she rides her bicycle past the wall, knowing that on the other side, less than a block away, is her husband. Yet the couple is divided by an impassable barrier. How the wall affects her is shown in her everyday life. In this story, the history of how the wall came into existence isn’t as important as how its presence destroys her family. The wall represents the ideology of those who rule in her divided city, so the reader comes to know the politics of both East and West Berlin by her experiences in trying to cross that barrier.

And now for the magic:

If magic is central to your story, it is critical that you have finite rules for limiting how magic works. If you make your characters too clever, readers won’t be able to relate to their story. 

Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_CoverWhen magic is part and parcel of a story, rules and limitations create the tension that moves the plot forward. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an excellent example of this. No one character has all the power. The two most powerful wizards, Dumbledore and Voldemort, are evenly matched, but neither one is all-powerful. Both wizards want something from Harry. Harry has to work hard to gain his the full use of his abilities.

Harry’s struggle is the story.

  • Who has the magic, and what social power does this give them?
  • What are the limitations of his/her powers?

Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world. Conflict is what drives the plot.

What challenge does your character have to overcome in regard to his magic?

  • Is he unable to fully use his own abilities?
  • If that is so, why is he hampered in that way?
  • How does that inability affect his companions and how do they feel about it?
  • Are they hampered in anyway themselves?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize his abilities?

Without rules, there would be no conflict, no reason for the hero to struggle, and no story to tell.

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

Merlin, by Douglas Baulch, Via Wikimedia Commons

I have three worlds with three radically different systems of magic. My serial, Bleakbourne on Heath, is set in a parallel earth that is one shadow away from this one. Bleakbourne, situated on the Heath River, is where the fey and the mortal worlds meet. Leryn, my main character, has many adventures with people who have certain parallels with our history and who are drawn from Arthurian legend, but who are given my own particular twist.

I had to sit down and write out the rules for Merlin’s magic. In Bleakbourne’s world, wizards are born with the latent ability to wield magic, but it is considered a science, and craftsmanship is valued above all else. Skill is what gives a sorcerer power. Certain rituals must be observed.

  • Spells work two ways, and the second way always reverses the first way—this is called symmetry.
  • The words used in spells are of the old, dead, Romani language. Unwords are syllables that have a null meaning and are often inserted for symmetry.
  • All the Romani words with more than one meaning must be chosen carefully because they can be either too short or too long for symmetry. Too long a word will not work at all as you can lengthen, but not shorten them. The sorcerer must choose a shorter word, which requires him/her to insert an extra, closing unword, or the two spells wouldn’t be symmetrical. There are four unwords to choose from, but only three chances to get the spell right

In the Bleakbourne series, the use (and abuse) of magic is the underlying theme.

In creating both social and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within your magic system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there has to be a damned good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

The only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when these institutions affect the characters and their actions. Dole this information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.

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#amwriting: world building: maps and the mythology of history

The world Ortelius' Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published 1564

The world Ortelius’ Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published 1564

After years of work on the author’s part, regardless of whether the book is an encyclopedia, a contemporary thriller, a historical fiction, or even a travelogue with photographs, the world that the book details remains untouchable by our human hands. This is because that world only exists between those pages and in the mind’s eye.

The fundamental laws of physics bar us from going back and viewing or experiencing the reality of a historical event as a participant. We can, however, read about it, paint images of it, or make a film depicting what we believe happened during the event. This is where world building comes in.

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy www.berkeley.edu

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy http://www.berkeley.edu

But wait, you say. I’m not writing fantasy. I’m writing a story about France, in 1945. I don’t have to build that world–it actually exists.

I’m sorry–the world of France in 1945 is long gone. It no longer exists, except as a memory.

Let’s assume you are writing a historical accounting of the Battle of the Bulge. But, even though it may explore a soldier’s true experiences through newsreels, the pages of his diary, and  the interview you had with him, 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.

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 non-fiction real for the reader is subtle but crucial: worldbuilding. It is worldbuilding that makes a stark accounting of incidents and conversations seem real to the person reading the book.

To build a world out of ideas and words, the author must know it well:

  • Create a stylesheet to avoid contradictions in your work. This is covered in my post, Stylesheets.
  • If your work is set in a contemporary setting, make use of Google Earth. This allows you to see a recent image of the place for yourself, even if you can’t afford to travel there.
  • Go to the internet and find maps of the place in the time your are writing about. If you are writing genre fantasy or speculative fiction of any sort, create a hand-drawn map for your own reference. We will discuss this below.
  • Research/or Create and these systems if they pertain to your work: Political, Social, Religious, and Magic. (We will discuss how to do this simply in my next post.)

If you are writing fantasy you need to know what the world looks like.

Original Map of Neveyah from 2008 ©cjjasp

Original Map of Neveyah from 2008 ©cjjasp

I love maps. My own maps start out in a rudimentary form, scribbled in pencil on graph paper, just as a way to keep my work straight. They begin looking like the one to the left of this paragraph, and evolve as the first draft of the story evolves.

Towns get renamed. They get moved to more logical places. Whole mountain ranges are moved, and forests and savannas appear where they are supposed to be. Over the course of writing the first draft, my world becomes real and the pencil sketch  map will become the digital art you see below.

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.

Map of Neveyah, for RizAero

Map of Neveyah 2015 ©cjjasp

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

Billy's Revenge Floor plan ground floorIf your work is in sci-fi, consider making a rudimentary star-chart, if space-travel is a part of your tale. For Sci-fi, you might want to know:

  • the name of the star or stars if the system is binary/trinary
  • number of planets, their names and positions
  • which planet the story takes place on
  • moons and asteroid belts that may be relevant to the tale
  • map of the area on the planet your story takes place or
  • map of space station/ship if the story takes place in space

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. Despite the fact that 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.”

Map of Eynier Valley for 'Huw the Bard, ' ©cjjasp 2014

Map of Eynier Valley for ‘Huw the Bard, ‘ ©cjjasp 2014

Therefore, a league is what you say it is, within some loose parameters. I go with the distance you can walk in an hour, but you have to take into consideration the terrain.

Huw the Bard takes two months to travel between Ludwellyn and Clythe. In his story, Huw Owyn is walking through fields, woods, and along a several winding rivers for the first half of  his journey. He has to backtrack as frequently as he goes forward in order 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.

It is a stretch of road that he could have done 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 creates opportunities for tension.

Readers love to see maps in the front of books, but you don’t have to put yours there if you don’t like your own handiwork. This map can be only for your purposes, so you will know in a concrete way where every town and village is in relation to your story.

Fantasy readers like maps. If you choose not to include your map 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.

Every book, fiction or non-fiction, takes an idea, translates it into words, and dares the reader to believe it. It is our job as authors to take what is intangible and make it seem real to the reader who is experiencing the world and a moment in history through our writing.


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World building part 5: history

Richard IIISometimes we feel like our plot is in motion but the reasons driving the action feel purely random. It’s a worldbuilding failure, but an easy fix. In writing historical fiction, a sense of randomness can be a factor, despite having accounts of real events to go by. This is where research becomes critical, because those who win the wars write the history, and they write it to show themselves in the best light. Consider Richard III:

Richard’s history was written by the victors. He was the last Plantagenet King of England, and he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth by the Henry Tudor. The Tudor dynasty lasted for a long time, including Henry VII, Henry VIII, (Bloody) Mary, and Elizabeth I. Consequently, he was mythologized as a tyrant, particularly by Shakespeare, writing during Elizabeth’s reign, two generations later.

Richard III new lookYet with uncovering of his bones in a parking lot, there is a growing evidence that the Richard III Society may not be entirely wrong: his story may have been a bit less damning, and certainly he was no worse than those who followed him. He was a man of his era, as much as Henry Tudor was.

That all-too-human tendency to cover up  our failures and atrocities in the light of our righteous victory over a declared evil introduces contradictions and ambiguities into official accounts of events. That makes the work of creating an accurate portrait of large-scale events difficult.

Looking backward from our viewpoint, and with our values, it’s hard to figure out how things really happened in a particular era, without going well beyond the general, official history offered up by the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and doing sincere, dedicated research. It’s easy to say “this happened this way and that’s that.” (It’s repetitious, too.)

But there will be accounts somewhere, and if they exist you will find them on the internet. Wikipedia is the starting point. Search for accounts that disagree with accepted dogma, and keep rephrasing your questions until you hit on the right one. Bookmark or keep a list in a word document of links directing you to the sites you have found, even if they had little to offer–you might need them later.

Remember, if you’re drawing on real-life history you must dig deep–don’t just skim the surface, reading the official recounting of events as written by the victors.  The internet is amazing. Historians are continually building our database of information and new discoveries regarding how ordinary people and marginalized groups truly lived. Many resources exist that will give a rounded account of life in the Middle Ages both in Western Europe and in countries around the world.

220px-HatshepsutIf you are relying on actual history to provide a framework for your world-building, you should reach beyond the official history of Europe. Asian history is rich and well documented, as is Egyptian. Of course the old adage that history is written by the victors holds true, as I said before, so let’s consider the story of Hatshepsut:

She was described by early Egyptologists as a minor player, only having served as a co-regent from approximately 1479 to 1458 BC, during years seven to twenty-one of the reign previously identified as that of Thutmose III. However, recent evidence shows that in reality, Hatshepsut reigned as pharaoh for more than twenty years.

Her successors, for whatever reason, attempted to rewrite history, erasing her name from monuments. Yet Hatshepsut was one of the most prolific builders in the ancient world, commissioning hundreds of construction projects throughout both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Her buildings were considered far grander than those of any of her Middle Kingdom predecessors’ works, and were certainly more numerous.

Despite the long period of prosperity during her rule and the amazing constructs she built of stone, Hatshepsut’s influence and accomplishments were marginalized and credit for her work was given to others. Early Egyptologists superimposed their own ideas and values on their interpretations of history.

270px-WLANL_-_koopmanrob_-_Maat-ka-Re_Hatsjepsoet_(RMO_Leiden)They failed to understand the ritual religious symbolism of statues an art depicting her and didn’t take into account the fact that many women and goddesses portrayed in ancient Egyptian art often lack delineation of breasts, and that the physical aspect of the gender of pharaohs was never stressed in the art. This is in part due to the fact that in ancient Egyptian religious art, subjects were romanticized to fit the ideal of the time, and viewing it from an Edwardian mindset, early scholars believed her merely an overly ambitious “King’s Great Wife” or queen consort.  Recent discoveries, however, are righting that wrong, and she is now considered one of the greatest pharaohs of Egyptian history.

Nowadays, it may be easier to find good, unbiased information on ancient Egypt than it is to get an impartial history of post WWII America.

Reality aside, what if your story revolves around a conflict of some sort in your fictional world?

A major worldbuilding trap that is easy to fall into is not clarifying why an event of apocalyptic proportions is taking place at this moment in time, rather than, say thirty years ago.

So in our second draft, one thing we want to strengthen is our sense of history. WHY is Evil Badguy making his move now? What stopped him from putting his nefarious plan into motion two years ago, and conversely, why can’t he wait until next week? Some critical factor must have prevented him from making his move, some obstacle which no longer holds him in check.

What you have to do is identify what it was that  kept your villain in check, and make sure it is somehow introduced into the story. This can be done in the same unobtrusive way you slip in other background. In the process you will discover factors that kept other political actors in your society in check as well. It’s all about checks and balances. What are the unwritten rules that everyone knows and which constrain their actions?

The main difference between writing historical fiction and speculative fiction is that the writer of speculative fiction can make the history fit the tale. The writer of historical fiction does not have that latitude.



Filed under Books, Fantasy, History, Publishing, Self Publishing, writing

World Building part 4: Questions to consider when creating a society

Thomas Cole, 1836: the Course of Empire: the Consummation

Thomas Cole, 1836: the Course of Empire: the Consummation

In speculative fiction, we often have one culture that is more advanced in contrast to the neighboring, somewhat more primitive cultures. Each of these societies have unique cultures, and if you know the culture of your characters’ homeland, you understand your characters and why they think the way they do.

But what is a society formed of? Initially, people come together and form  small communities, or tribes,  for protection. They find it’s a good way to consolidate more consistent sources of food and resources. With adequate food and shelter, people live longer and are generally healthier. Out of a need to get along with each other, they develop certain commonly agreed upon rules-of-the-road for sharing that wealth. Eventually these common rules become a complex social structure. As life becomes easier for the population in general, other amenities of civilization begin to be a part of their culture.

I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government. When I first began writing I knew it was important to know what the social structure was in each fantasy world, so I made a list of questions to consider when I begin constructing a new society. I was new at this, so please bear with the randomness of the order in which these things are listed:

  1. The butter churnSocial 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?
  1. Language, the written word, and accounting: 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)
  1. Franz Defregger, 1921: Auf der Alm

    Franz Defregger, 1921: Auf der Alm

    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 truth?
  • What constitutes immorality?
  • How important is it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?
  1. 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?
  1. Jahn Ekenæs, 1908: Family in a Norwegian fjord landscape

    Jahn Ekenæs, 1908: Family in a Norwegian fjord landscape

    Level of Technology: What tools and amenities does 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?
  1. 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 is 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?
  1. Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?
  1. Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?
  • If not, why? What causes the tension?
  1. Feat of the grenadier of leib-guards Finnish regiment Leontiy Korennoy in the battle of Leipzig at 1813

    Feat of the grenadier of leib-guards Finnish regiment Leontiy Korennoy in the battle of Leipzig at 1813

    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. It was initially meant to be a jumping off point, just a short list of things for me to ponder, but I thought I would share it with you today. Considering this little list of ideas always leads to my realizing a kajillion other rather 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.

What I originally did was to write the whole story of the community my protagonist grew up in, a word-picture of about 5000 words, and then I set it aside, to use as reference material. This is the method I still use today.

When you have cemented the society in your mind,  the world your characters inhabit will flow naturally 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.


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Worldbuilding part 2: Geography

Map of Eynier Valley for HTB copy copyOne of the problems I have in my fantasy world is knowing where I am, how I got there and where I am going next.  Somehow it’s less of a mystery to the reader if I have some idea of the what world I am writing about looks like.

Many authors use locales that either currently exist or once existed in the real world.  This is a good way to do it, because your world is already well defined for you, and most everyone knows that Portland, Oregon is about 170 miles south of Seattle, Washington.  You are safe using currently existing terrain.

When we write a fantasy story, we start out with a great plot, but we are making the physical world up as we go along, and it evolves as the story does. This can be dicey unless you are really good at remembering what you said 3 months ago.  Epic fantasy often involves sending the hero off on a quest – and this means he/she will journey far from home.

Knowing where the protagonists are going, and when they’ll be there is crucial because readers notice inconsistencies; at least I do when reading other authors’ works.

I begin by drawing a sketchy map when I first begin the story. It is just a scribble at first, but this way I have an idea of where the towns are in relation to each other. I do it in pencil so at this stage nothing is finite; they are only approximations–artistic guesses.

Map of Neveyah, color copyAs I write, my map evolves with the story, becoming more complex as the topography becomes more clear to me. In the World of Neveyah, I began with a pencil sketch, and that evolved into a relief map that gave me the opportunities for injecting tension into the tale that I needed. It also provided me with a detailed explanation of where the resources were, so that funding my country was not an issue.

If you are writing epic fantasy, it is unlikely the hero will have a GPS to guide them.  By scribbling a map while I am setting the original story down, I know I have originally declared Armat is the nearest town to the portal, in Neveyah.  This is important because when I am really pounding out the words, I don’t always remember exactly what I wrote 22 chapters ago. Going back to make corrections is a  tricky business, as it is hard to know for sure if you have caught all your small errors in regard to places and the distances between them.

  1. Map your world:
  • How big are the continents, and what is their shape?
  • Are there inland seas? If so, are they fresh water seas like the Great Lakes?
  • Where are the oceans? Where are your port cities located?
  • How large is your protagonist’s country?
  • If they travel, what type of terrain will they be crossing?
  • Does your protagonist’s country have near neighbors?
  • What about mountain ranges? Mountains, swamps, rivers and oceans are all important when you are adding local color to your background.

The physical environment affects the hero’s journey.  Mountains are difficult to travel in, as are swamps and deserts; and these environments will greatly color the story.

Wheel of time mapA map doesn’t have to be too detailed; it is only a bare-bones reference for you as the writer, and possibly for the reader later. Of all the books I have read, the books whose maps I have referred back to most while reading them are those in the Wheel of Time series, written by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.  The map is not too detailed, but it does give you an idea of where Tear is in relation to Amadicia – both of which figure prominently in the travels of all the main characters, and it remains accurate through the entire series.

The thing is—maps, unless they are drawn by satellite GPS–are inherently wrong in regard to actual distances and such. All they can do is provide a general idea of where the cartographer thought things were.

But what about sci-fi—how do you build an entire planet that may or may not exist?

This is where I brainstorm the possibilities: I spend hours on the internet researching the physics and the possibilities of each and every technological thing that appears in my work. Morgan Freeman, Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking are my invisible friends, but the best hard facts are found through scouring the internet.

  1. Locate your planet:
An example of a system based on stellar luminosity for predicting the location of the habitable zone around various types of stars. Planet sizes, star sizes, orbit lengths, and habitable zone sizes are not to scale.

An example of a system based on stellar luminosity for predicting the location of the habitable zone around various types of stars. Planet sizes, star sizes, orbit lengths, and habitable zone sizes are not to scale.

Situate your planet around its sun in what we arm-chair physicists refer to as “The Goldilocks Zone.” Life may exist in the most challenging places, but we humans can only exist in a narrow range of temperatures, in a world with a nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere, and where water exists in abundance. We need a magnetosphere to protect us from lethal radiation. We also need to be situated around a friendly-to-us kind of star, or a G-type main-sequence star. A K-type main-sequence  star may also support our kind of life, as may others, but we know the G-type will for sure. A good-sized moon is also optimal to stabilize the planetary wobble, but not having one opens the plot-possibilities of severe climate stresses due to an unstable orbit.

Alpharse is the setting for a future novel that grew out of a short scifi story. I’ve done a certain amount of prep for it: it’s a colony world, still in the terraforming process, and human habitation is still either underground or in the Asteroid Ships that originally brought the colonists to the system.

It’s located across the galactic arm from my protagonist’s home world of Lorann, and to travel the quickest route involves crossing an area of the galaxy inhabited by the Ernsaa, a race of methane-breathing beings who don’t want anyone coming near the worlds they claim. Thus, the closest route is now closed to them and it now takes twenty years real-time to get from Alpharse to Lorann even with the technology available to them. This means the colonists are on their own and can expect no help.

  1. Consider the Uninhabitable (by humans) Terrain:
  • What is the surface of the world like at this time?
  • What makes it dangerous?
  • Can humans breathe the air yet or must they wear protective suits?
  • Are there native organisms, or was it a young world when it was first colonized?

In regard to the maps you are drawing for your story: if you choose to incorporate your map into your book, that is an awesome addition—but for the love of J.R.R. Tolkien—don’t put maps in your books that have nothing to do with your story.

Candar Map. Recluce series, L.E. Mdesitt Jr.I have talked about this before: one of my favorite series of books, written by L.E. Modesitt Jr., has a huge failing–the maps suck!  In Fall of Angels, The Chaos Balance, Magii of Cyador, and Scion of Cyador, all of which take place before the world of Recluce is dramatically altered, the main characters are traveling all over the continent to places that don’t exist on the maps provided in the front of the books! The series span several thousand years, and the cities and geography changes radically, but the maps are stubbornly stuck in the timeframe of the first book in the series, Magic of Recluce, which actually details the last years of the story.

There is absolutely nothing on the map in the front of the book that pertains to the time frame of Scion of Cyador. Lorn, the main character, travels all over Cyador! I can only assume the crappy maps and the many typos and inconsistencies in several books of Modesitt’s Recluce series are the fault of his publisher, one the Big Boys of Publishing, TOR, who has done a great author a terrible disservice by not addressing these issues before publication. Despite the typos and stupid maps, I love Modesitt’s work and highly recommend it.

In conclusion, situating and building the physical world your characters will live in takes a day or two of your time, but once you have it all together, your work is so much easier. Taking notes and adding to your map and your style sheet as you go will keep your work consistent and make the setting of your story real to your readers. When you, as the author, have only a mushy idea of what sort of world in which your characters live, you will inadvertently write contradictions and inconsistencies into your work, so do your homework from the outset.


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Worldbuilding part 1: Infrastructure

Book- onstruction-sign copyWorldbuilding is the term commonly used for the art of unobtrusively creating the world in which your characters live. Of course, fantasy and science fiction authors clearly need this skill, but all authors must be able to create the world in which their characters live, on the printed page. You, as the author, may know what Seattle looks and smells like, but the reader in London will not.

Many new authors say, “Well, just make it real in your mind, and it will feel solid in your story.”

That’s not precisely true, because things that are solid in your mind tend to evolve and change with every new day. That is bad for a fantasy world, which is what books are. We are going to make a style sheet, describing the rules of how our world works–because the universe has rules, and if we accidentally break them, the reader will throw our book away. Yes, you are going to write it down and refer back to it as the story progresses.

We begin by thinking about the basic necessities our characters will need to survive. Take a look at the world around us, and see what supports us, what nourishes and shelters us. This is called infrastructure. We need to have this support system completely solid in our minds as we write, so that the reader has the sense of a solid, well-thought out world.

  1. BUILD YOUR INFRASTRUCTURE: All societies have an economic component to them, whether they are set in space, in Middle Earth, or in Seattle. In any case, there’s nothing worse than a fictional world where there are elaborate social structures that seem completely disassociated from the realities of acquiring food, shelter and clothing. Authors of fiction don’t just write stories—we create whole societies and the economies that support them.
  • MH900438718FOOD and WATER: How do they eat? What do they eat? How does it get delivered? It doesn’t have to be central to the story, but it will come into it at some point because everyone, even vegans, likes to sit down and enjoy a conversation over a good meal, and a society that has no food descends into chaos and war ensues. Do they have certain rituals at meals, a prayer, or do they have formal manners? If they are at home, a small sentence mentioning a napkin or the kind of food will help to set the scene for the reader. If they are in a restaurant or a mess hall, most people will be able to build the picture just from that clue.

If your story is set on a space station or on a space ship, acquiring food becomes central to the tale, because a certain amount of space inside must be devoted either to storage or to hydroponic gardening.

If you set your tale in 1845 Paris, you must remember that this was the Little Ice Age, and was a time of global famine.

  • CLOTHING: People get cold, and need protection. What are they wearing? How do they get it? In some genres, clear descriptions of the garments is needed—most romance novels require some attention to clothing, and if your tale is set in another world or in the past, knowing what they wear becomes very important. You absolutely must understand the constraints certain kinds of clothing will add to your plot.

498px-Peter_Paul_Rubens_088If your romance is set in a medieval world, you will want to dress them with some accuracy. Readers are savvy—they will know you haven’t thought it out well if your fully armored knight is suddenly indulging in a moment of passion with fully dressed Lady Gwen. Think about the many layers of what your characters are actually wearing—it can’t be done! For that you must undress your characters, and if they are full armored or wearing Victorian undergarments, it becomes a bit involved. This means they must plan ahead for their romantic trysts and leave the armor at home.

My book, Huw the Bard is set in a mash-up world—one that has many elements of medieval Britain, but with a few Victorian amenities. I didn’t want clothes to take up a lot of space in the tale, but some mention had to be made.

The trouble Huw had at the outset of the tale was that he was on the run and traveling in disguise. The borrowed shirts of a common working man were made closer-fitting than his traditional bards’ robes, because cloth was expensive and no laborer could afford to waste it on something like big loose sleeves just for fashion. I had to make it so that the straps that ran up his arms and crossed his chest and kept his specially crafted knife sheaths in place didn’t show at all above the rawhide laces at his throat, even when he drew his knives.

It’s only given about three sentences in the actual book, but I had to research what real knife-sheathes are like and how cumbersome they are to wear. In the process I discovered how useless they truly can be. This concept created a certain amount of tension for my plot—he would have to get used to throwing his knives without giving himself away, as he didn’t have the robes to disguise his movements.

When writing fiction, it is important to remember that people are not really that much different nowadays than they ever were. They get cold, so they wear clothes, in many layers. The warmer the weather, the fewer the layers your characters will wear. Inside a warm building, they may be lightly clad. Keep that in mind as you are writing, and convey the idea of their attire with a minimum of words, and your reader will get more enjoyment from the tale.

So, Back to Infrastructure:

  • GARBAGE: Who takes away the garbage? Who deals with their bodily wastes? This also doesn’t have to a large part of the story, but in the morning my husband and I are sometimes woken up by the garbage trucks at our house, so it is a part of the environment. And I don’t know about you, but using an outhouse or emptying a chamber pot is the least romantic thing there is, so if your tale is set in the middle ages, be aware that sanitation was minimal and that dealing with it consumed a certain portion of their day.
  • TRANSPORTATION: How do they get around? Are they riding horses, or driving cars? If you’ve set your story on a space station, do they get around in some sort of shuttle? It’s a good idea to have some idea of distance, and how far people can travel in a day. Draw a map if your world is a fantasy world, or get a map if it is set in our world. You need to have some idea of where places are in relation to each other, and what the distances between those places are, and what the roads are like because that will have an affect your characters too. If people are flying between London and Toronto, there are certain time constraints that must be adhered to—it’s not an instantaneous thing. The wait at each airport, the time spent in a taxi, the time spent in flight—that is a good chunk of time, so make sure it is considered in your storyline.
  • 490px-Henry_Singleton_The_Ale-House_Door_c._1790

    The Ale-house door by Henry Singleton c. 1790

    WORK: What do the majority of your people do to survive? Are they working in a lawyer’s office, or a hospital? Are they farmers? People need to work to survive. In our society today, people identify themselves by their work—”I am an accountant” or “I am an office manager.” We spend 8-10 hours a day at our work, so it is crucial to have your characters’ employment clearly visualized for the reader.

When I decided to set my first book in a medieval setting, I did a certain amount of research on Wikipedia, and found it is actually a good source for quick reference.  However, many people whom I admire and respect regularly tell me it’s not the best source for real information about anything. (!!!) SO, ever the intrepid seeker of information, I resorted to investigating in some rather obscure places, but I did find what I needed.

It just took a little time, and a lot of effort. Do the research, and lay the groundwork for your infrastructure. Your readers won’t thank you, but they will be so immersed in the story, they won’t realize the world is a fantasy, and THAT is what you want.

The next installment of this series will explore the world itself–creating the environment and the geography.


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