Tag Archives: worldbuilding

#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

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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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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.

 

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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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Interior Monologues

MP900321209In writers’ forums you will find a great deal of discussion regarding interior monologues. It’s true that beginning authors can rely too heavily on them as an easy way to dump blocks of information into a narrative, instead of deploying it. A few people will even tell you they despise interior monologues, and while I disagree with them, I do see their point.

First of all, it is an accepted practice to italicize thoughts. But we are all aware of how daunting it is for a reader to be faced with a wall of italics.

A rather vocal contingent will say thoughts should not be italicized, that it creates a greater narrative distance, setting readers outside of the character and the events of the scene.

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PDAs an avid reader, I disagree, although more than a sentence or two does exactly that. If we choose to omit dialogue tags for them, and don’t set them off with italics, it becomes confusing. The finished book ends up looking like a bunch of closed quotes were left out, and gives the impression of an unedited manuscript, even if the publisher has subtly changed the font just for thoughts.

If you, as an indie publisher, do choose to leave them in the standard font but add dialogue tags such as she thought, it makes me wonder, why are you bothering to have an interior monologue at all? If you feel that strongly, skip it entirely and find a different way to express your ideas, because readers will have to stop and read it twice.

Interior monologues have their place, and when a writer is expressing a character’s most intimate thoughts, the current accepted practice for writing interior monologue is to use italics. We use them to represent a character’s thoughts in real time, as they actually think them in their head, or the precise words they use. For that reason, italicized thoughts are always written in:

  • First Person: I’m the queen! After all, we don’t think about ourselves in the third person, even if we really are the queen. We are not amused.
  • Present Tense: Where are we going with this? We think in present tense because we are in the middle of events as they happen, so while memories may reflect the past, our immediate actions and mental comments are unfolding in the present, and we want to convey that sense of immediacy. What a mess.

The Website, Novel Writing Help says:

It will be perfectly obvious to the reader that these words are the character thinking and not the author narrating. And the thought itself, as well as not becoming confused with the rest of the text, gains an extra emphasis, like in this example from Clare Morrall’s novel The Man Who Disappeared.

Felix, a man whose world has just fallen apart, is standing out in the street watching his family eat their evening meal without him…

   He wants to believe in this cosiness, this world of families, this labyrinth of deeply entwined love.
   That’s the key, of course: love. He has been told this for as long as he can remember. ‘We love you, Felix,’ one of his aunts used to say, ‘and that’s all that matters.’
   What have I done, Kate?
   Frost glints on the road, nearby car windscreens are clouded with ice. Felix blows on his hands and shuffles his feet around, trying to bring some feeling back to his toes. (End of quoted passage)

As you can see in the above passage, Felix has many thoughts, but only the most intimate, personal thoughts are shown through an interior monologue—the rest are written as part of the scenery, and they create the image of the situation he has found himself in. (Just so you know, I liked that passage so much that I just bought the Audible book.)

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADThis is how we want to write our interior monologues. They must be natural, and organic to the flow of the narrative. Thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way you will retain the readers’ interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters:

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

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

Some things must be expressed as an interior monologue, if you want the reader in your protagonist’s head.

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

Now the reader has also gained a whole lot of information, in only two sentences.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is that Benny is actually a detective working undercover, and Charlotte is the secretary of his quarry.

autumn leavesInterior monologues are crucial to the flow of novels in which the author wants the reader planted firmly in the protagonist’s mind. However, the actual monologues must be used sparingly, and the rest of his/her thoughts should be shown through their actions or external observations.

Those external observations are a subtle part of worldbuilding, when you are writing a narrative that is an intimate portrait of your protagonist.

So, to wind this up, I feel that:

  1. Interior monologues are an organic part of some kinds of narratives, but not necessarily all narratives.
  2. If used sparingly interior monologues can create an intimate connection with the protagonist.
  3. If an interior monologue is used, it should be short and set off by italics, and only rarely with the ‘speech tag’ thought.
  4. Italics should never be used for long passages.

That last one is hard–what do you, as an indie publisher, do for quoted passages or letters between protagonists? Those sorts of questions are a ‘whole nother’ blog post, as we say where I come from.

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