Tag Archives: worldbuilding

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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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

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#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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