Tag Archives: worldbuilding

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

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

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

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

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

Satellite View of Puget Sound by Sentinel 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are changing seasons a part of your story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28

Seattle, by Sentinel 2 Satellite

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

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

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

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

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

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

6 Comments

Filed under writing

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

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

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

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

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

Washington_state_high_termperatures_June_28,_2021

United States National Weather Service via Twitter

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

Wikipedia says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food and water insecurity leads to volatile politics.

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

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

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

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

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

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

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

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

9 Comments

Filed under writing

Food, culture, and what your characters eat #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Village_scene_with_well_(Josse_de_Momper,_Jan_Brueghel_II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Peasant_Wedding_-_Google_Art_Project_2

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia says:

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

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

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

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

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

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


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

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

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

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

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

4 Comments

Filed under writing

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

Today we’re going to visualize the place where our proposed NaNoWriMo 2021 novel is set.

WritingCraft_NaNoPrep_101Where do you see your story taking place? In the real world? A fantasy realm? Space? An alternate dimension? Alternate Earth? Setting is what we are focusing on today.

Much of my work is set in a world called Neveyah. To explain the geography, flora, and fauna there, I need to see how the War of the Gods changed the landscape of three worlds.

What follows is cut directly from my storyboard, which was begun in 2007 when we started planning an anime-style RPG game. The story evolved out of the three paragraphs that answer the following question.

For my planned work, religion is a central driving force. Why is religion so important?

There are eleven deities: six gods and five goddesses. Tauron, the Bull God, is the only god with no wife. He is the youngest of the gods, resentful and jealous of his brothers. He decides to murder his brother, Ariend the Mountain God, and steal his wife, Aeos, the Goddess of Hearth and Home.

Gods are immortal and cannot die. Tauron carves an immense spear out of Ariend’s world and seals his brother in it, thrusting it into the earth and creating the Valley of Mal Evol. He then begins stealing Ariend’s world, binding it to his.

Aeos finds her husband’s prison and recaptures it, saving what she can of his world and binding it to her world of Neveah so that she can be a guardian to his people.

The War of the Gods is central to Neveyah’s religion, a trauma that shapes their lives. One can never escape the visible scar, the immensity that divides the world in half: the Escarpment. It is an impossibly high black wall topped by mountains. The people of Neveyah can’t survive in the heights where Ariend’s people live, and his people can’t survive in the lowlands. It is the wound where the World of Cascadia was joined to the World of Neveyah. Below is the World Map of Neveyah, which I created in 2007.

Map of Neveyah, color copy compressedEvery series set in this world happens at a different point in their history. The current novel is set in the year 131 AS (After the Sundering). The Tower of Bones series begins in the year 3254 AS. In that era, the Sundering of the Worlds is almost a legend, yet the black wall of the Escarpment topped by the Mountains of the Moon still testifies to the reality of the event.

At this point in storyboarding a book, I ask myself, “What kind of society do my characters live in?” For my NaNoWriMo project this year:

Plot-exists-to-reveal-characterIt’s a low-tech agrarian society. Tribal villages are communal, run by a council of elders. Everyone contributes to the community’s storehouses and benefits equally. While some earn more and others less, there is no class disparity. Ivan lives in Weiland, the main citadel of a western tribe, Weila.

Widden, an eastern tribe, has chosen to break away from the traditions that helped rebuild their world. They abandon the practices that brought the tribes safely through the first years. The Tribeless people would prefer to forget the past. Instead of building with stone and brick, they clear-cut forests because it’s faster, and dump their waste into streams in the name of expediency, thinking it all just goes away. Poverty is a way of life in tribeless towns, and jobs that pay a decent wage are scarce. Many people are forced into workhouses, which the Merchant Class perpetuates as a source of free slave labor. The upper-class lives like royalty, while the large underclass lives hand-to-mouth.

Each culture has logical reasons for their way of life. Both cultures have positive qualities, and both have negatives. Neither understands why the other chooses their way.

So, there is a wide disparity between the cultures of the tribes and the tribeless. Finally, I ask myself, “Where does the story open?”

My story opens in a Tribal town, Weiland.

Why do I need those paragraphs that describe the world and their society?

I still need to see that raw, just-born environment. A theme running through the series is the balance of nature and how delicate it is. My protagonist is a shaman, keenly aware that what the tribes have gained in the 125 years since they emerged from the safety of the catacombs and spread across the land can be lost, perhaps forever.

No matter where you set your novel, your characters identify with the community where they live. This is true of murder mysteries and thrillers as well as fantasy and sci-fi stories.

An exercise I find helpful to practice worldbuilding is to close your eyes and visualize your real-world environment. Then, without looking around, write a word picture of it. Once you have written a paragraph or two that describes your personal world, you understand how worldbuilding works. You can visualize your characters’ community and write a two-paragraph word picture of that imaginary place.

WritingCraft_mapsIf our work is set in an actual location, we should know where to find resources for appropriate slang, urban myths, and other local peculiarities. I suggest adding a list of where to easily access the resources about your chosen community to your storyboard. My co-Municipal Liaison, Lee French, reminds us that we don’t have to immerse ourselves immediately, just lay the groundwork for November.

Sci-fi writers should bookmark or list sites for any science you may need. If it takes place on a spaceship, you should have a good idea of what the ship looks, sounds, and smells like, a floorplan, and maybe consider what might power it.

Fantasy writers, if your novel is set in a made-up universe/world/town, what are the big-picture parameters of your setting? Again, you don’t have to know everything in precise detail, but you should put down some starter notes.

If you’re writing in the real world as we know it but with sci-fi or fantasy elements, such as zombies, magic, dragons, or future tech, you’ll want to think about how those elements affect your society.

My world has creatures that cast certain magic as weapons or defensively. Their presence in the wild makes traveling without guards dangerous. Below is an image of an excerpt from the bestiary page in my storyboard.

Just note your ideas because we will flesh out the details later. For now, all you need is the overview.

Previous in this series: Creating a storyboard.

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?

Excerpt from World of Neveyah Storyboard Glossary,

12 Comments

Filed under writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skepticism and peer review are fundamental parts of the process.

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

They know the difference between physics and fantasy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Designing the Story (includes creating a stylesheet)

Worldbuilding Part1: Climate

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

Worldbuilding Part 3: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic

This Post: Worldbuilding Part 4: Creating the Visual World


Credits and Attributions:

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

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

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

5 Comments

Filed under writing

Worldbuilding Part 3: Creating the Visual World #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open your eyes and look around.

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

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

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

 


The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Designing the Story (includes creating a stylesheet)

Worldbuilding Part1: Climate

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

This Post: Worldbuilding Part 3: Creating the Visual World

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

7 Comments

Filed under writing

Worldbuilding part two: maps, place names, and consistency #amwriting

My first novels were complete messes to edit. I didn’t have a clue about how to structure a plot and what to avoid. Surviving those editing experiences taught me many ways to smooth the path to a finished novel.

When a manuscript is first accepted, editors at all the large publishing houses begin creating a list of names, places, and created words. This document also contains a glossary and other information that pertains only to that manuscript. My editor refers to this as a stylesheet. Other editors refer to this as a “bible.”

WritingCraft_mapsSome people use a program called Scrivener, which is not too expensive, but which I found quite frustrating. Nevertheless, I understand that it works well for many people, so it may be an investment to consider.

For myself, I don’t need a fancy word-processing program. I use Microsoft Office 360 because I have used Microsoft software since 1993, and I’ve adapted to each upgrade they have made. I use Word for writing and editing and Excel to make stylesheets for each novel or tale I write. I make stylesheets for every book I edit.

If you prefer, you can use a pencil and paper and keep these lists in a ring binder. Or you can use Google Docs/Sheets or OpenOffice, both of which are free.

The stylesheet can take several forms, but it is a visual guide to print out or keep minimized until it’s needed. I copy and paste every invented 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 contradict myself later inadvertently.

Regardless of how you create your stylesheet, I suggest you include these elements:

  1. Names and invented words, all spelled the way you want them.
  2. The page or chapter where the word first appears.
  3. The meaning of each invented word.
  4. Maps, something rudimentary to show the layout of the world.
  5. Calendar.

This list is especially crucial for fantasy authors because we invent entire worlds, religions, and magic systems.

sample-of-rough-sketched-mapMaps are essential tools when you are building the world. Your map doesn’t have to be fancy. You need to know north, south, east, west, where rivers and forests are relative to towns, and locations of mountains.

You also need some idea of distances and how long it takes to travel using the common mode of transportation.

All you need is a pencil-drawn map, lines and scribbles telling you all the essential things. Use a pencil, so you can easily update it if something changes during revisions.

If you aren’t artistic and want a nice map later, this little map will enable them to provide you with a beautiful and accurate product. You will have a map that contains the information needed for readers to enjoy your book.

I also keep a calendar of events for each novel, and believe me, that calendar has saved me several times.

Map of Eynier Valley for HTB copy copy

Places written on a map tend to be ‘engraved in stone,’ so to speak. Readers will wonder where the town of Maldon is when the only village on the map at the front of the book that comes close to that name is listed as Malton.

To prevent that from happening, double-check what you have written on the map, and then do a global search for every possible variant of that name in your manuscript.

Just because you invented the world doesn’t mean you know it like the back of your hand.

That world is constantly evolving in your mind. I have been writing in the world of Neveyah since 2009, and I still contradict myself, which is why the stylesheet is so important.

Every story I write that is set in that world must have the right sights, sounds, and smells. When it comes to worldbuilding, the stylesheet is crucial.

What is the name of the world in which the story opens? The file name you give this document should contain it. My oldest stylesheet is labeled Neveyah_stylesheet.xls and has been evolving with each book in that series.

What did you name the town/village where the protagonists are living? Place names can give the reader an idea of the kind of world your town or village is set in.

I live in an area where the indigenous people were pushed aside and their land taken over and settled by a mixture of Scots, Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians. Our place names reflect all those cultures.

Forty miles west of my house is a coastal city named Aberdeen, and next to it is a city named Hoquiam, a city whose name has its origin in Native Culture.

This is how the countries of Canada and the US are from coast to coast; signs of European ancestry mingled with traditional names reflecting the tribes who were there first.

Are there forests? Mountains? Rivers? My part of the world has large tracts of forests, many wide rivers, and is mountainous, with numerous volcanos.

Each of these areas will affect how your communities live, what resources they have for building, and how long it takes to go from one place to another.

You can’t travel in a straight line over mountains or forests. Sometimes you must travel parallel to a river for a long way until you come to a place shallow enough to cross.

Stowe_River_Basin_Midwest_Neveyah_2020And we’ll just toss this out there – while you can drop a tall tree across a narrow creek, building bridges over rivers requires a certain amount of engineering. Cultures from the Stone Age on to modern times have had the skills needed to make bridges.

Archeology and history both tell us that humans, as a species, are tribal by nature. We band together for protection, shelter, better access to resources, and companionship.

We are creative, and archaeology shows us that our ancestors were capable of far more than we have traditionally believed.

Humans have always created communities where resources are plentiful, but climate changes.

History and geology tell us that what was once a good place may become a desert over time. Your maps should take all the terrain your characters must deal with into consideration.

We based our societies on our oral histories and family connections. How our ancestors lived in their chosen area and what their traditions became were shaped by the climate and the lay of the land. The resources available to them were the reasons they stayed and built communities.

Those aspects of worldbuilding will form the backdrop of your story. If you make a stylesheet, your invented world will be consistent and contain all the elements that make it feel solid to a reader.

Neveya_Map_Nov_2020

 


Credits and Attributions:

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

Map of the Eynier Valley for Huw the Bard, © 2015 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

Map of the Stowe River Basin, World of Neveyah, © 2021 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

Map of Neveyah, World of Neveyah, © 2021 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

12 Comments

Filed under writing

Society, the hidden underpinning of worldbuilding #amwriting

Authors all know that the physical setting of a story and the immediate environment must be absolutely clear in their mind. But there is a hidden aspect to worldbuilding, one that is nearly invisible to the casual reader.

Whether you are writing real-world environments or sci-fi/fantasy, a significant part of the world your characters inhabit is their society.

This aspect of worldbuilding is a fundamental underpinning of any novel, but it is one that goes virtually unseen. How people live, and their place in society is an invisible component of any story.

All societies are made up of layers. What those layers are is listed below. What makes your story different is how you apply the layers and yet keep them subtle to the reader.

We build the society in our minds, and to us, it is rock solid. It helps to write a page or two of background info, just for yourself. The reader doesn’t need to know the details or the history, only that it is.

My Tower of Bones series was initially 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 storyline. This worldbuilding eventually became the basis for 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.

Companies like Square-Enix have it right. Over the last three decades, they’ve consistently produced anime-based RPG games that are considered classics. These games have a rabid following because they share one commonality: they all have unforgettable characters, memorable worlds, and deep, involving storylines.

When I was asked to write the storyline for the game, I began with my protagonist, a hapless yokel named Wynn Farmer. I created a word-picture of his world and how the dangerous environment shaped his society.

Then I made a list of questions about the society Wynn lived in.  The answers formed the picture of his world and his place in it.

With that done, I set it aside to use as reference material for when I needed to know how a particular character would react in a given situation. We intended to determine what was important enough to be a cutscene later, but never got to that stage. Cutscenes are generally a short transitional animation, marking places where the storyline advances and giving deeper insight into the characters, their motives, and their ultimate quest.

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 and are bored now, thank you for stopping by.

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

  • Nobility?
  • A servant class?
  • A merchant class
  • A large middle class?
  • Who makes up the most impoverished 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 vital part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and understand 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 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?

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?

These lists are a jumping-off point, something for you to consider. The answers to these questions always lead to my considering other larger concepts, ideas and values that combine to make up a civilization. Please feel free to use this roster to form your own inventory of ideas about society.

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

Give your readers just enough detail to show that your world is real and substantial. You don’t need to go into detail about how that world came to be. You, as the author, are the only one who needs to know those details.


Credits and Attributions

Potions of this post were first published here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as “Creating Societies,” © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson. https://conniejjasperson.com/2018/09/24/creating-societies-amwriting,  published September 24, 2018.

Sword image via Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Espadon-Morges.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Espadon-Morges.jpg&oldid=350432233 (accessed March 18, 2020).

4 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

#amwriting: worldbuilding: a framework to hang a story on

I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government, some set in fantasy worlds and some set in contemporary real-world environments. When I first began writing I had been reading and studying the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, and the many other pioneering sci-fi and fantasy writers of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

This was long before eBooks, and I had discovered the joys of the secondhand book store. Every payday I had several new books to add to my collection. In fact, it became hard to find people to help me move whenever my work took me to a different place, because of my large collection of secondhand books.

Many times the actual details of the society and the infrastructure didn’t matter and didn’t come into their stories at all. But the authors knew them, and their visualization of each character, each setting, and the other elements of the scene came across clearly in their writing.

These are subjects that arise my mind in the second draft because after the story has been laid down in its raw form, the answers to these questions matter. And in truth, the answers to these questions are only important in a peripheral way, an invisible framework to hang your story on. The answers ensure continuity and prevent inadvertent contradictions from arising within your manuscript.

Social Organization: What place does your character occupy in her society? That will determine how she interacts with others. 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?

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 access to a written language determines how knowledge is passed on.

Is there a system for communicating knowledge across generations? How does historic information get passed along? How do they communicate knowledge over long distances? Books? Songs? Messengers? Subspace Communication?

Some ideas to consider:

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

Ethics and Values: We currently live in a world where ethics and values are hot topics, and morality in government is a mushy concept. This especially true if a politician has enough plausible deniability or enough bravado to tell and maintain a bald-faced lie despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. In your fictional society, what constitutes morality? What constitutes immorality?

  • 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 it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?
  • How important is it to only tell the truth?
  • What level of deceitful dealings is acceptable?

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

  • How important is human life? How is murder punished?
  • How are thieves viewed? What place in society do professional thieves have?
  • How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
  • What about drunkenness/drug abuse?

Level of Technology: What tools and amenities do people have available to them? What about transport? Low technology generally can begin with an oral tradition and have some written languages. But low-tech means it takes time to pass along messages, and information can get lost or skewed over generations. Low technology in my books ends with the invention of the printing press and widespread access to Roman-style plumbing.

In my work, high levels of technology begin with the invention of the telephone, steam engines, blimps, and other motorized transport, and the use of radio communication. It grows from there to include cyborg technology for instantaneous communication, warp engines, and all manner of nanotechnology.

  • 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, or by space shuttle?

 Do they have the use of magic or a magic-based technology? First you must consider who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? Magic is an intriguing tool in fantasy, but it should only be used if certain conditions have been met:

  1. if the number of people who can use it is limited
  2. if the ways in which it can be used are limited
  3. if not every mage can use every kind of magic
  4. if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  5. if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work
  6. if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal

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 tribal 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?

Religion and the Gods: How important is religion in this tale? Feel free to skip this section if religion plays no role in your tale. If religion 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?

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

  • If not, why? What causes the tension?
  • Can people freely cross borders?

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is part of a collection at the University of California, Riverside.

Waging War: This is another area where we have to consider the level of technology. 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?

When you have cemented the world in your mind,  you will leave enough clues in your writing that the environments your characters inhabit will flow naturally, and your protagonists will fit into them organically. Your fantasy 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.


Attributions:

First Edition cover of A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin, Illustrator, Ruth Robbins, published 1968 by Parnassus Press.

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, image by vlasta2, bluefootedbooby on flickr.com [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

8 Comments

Filed under writing