A Word About World Building

For writers of speculative fiction, world building is a vital part of the process of writing.  When your story is set in a fictional time and place, you have to know your world thoroughly and in detail if you want readers to suspend their disbelief in the fantastical events you’re going to put before them.  Inconsistency, sloppy or scant texturing, and stale genre stereotypes are the bane of science fiction and fantasy writing (and reading).

How do you go about creating a whole other world?

Well, here’s how I do it.  I start with whatever originally sparked the idea for the story, of course.  What does that spark point require, contextually, from the time and place, in order to work?  Does technology need to be advanced for this to work, or does technology need to be severely limited?  If it’s limited, what has held it back?  Go from there.  Keep asking questions.  Keep answering them.  If you don’t know yet, make note of it and chip away at other things in the meantime.  If I get stuck, I’ll write a list of “10 Things I Know About [This Place]”.

Sometimes the setting is the spark, for me.  If that’s the case, I draw it out with questions and answers, find conflicts that such a society would face, pick what interests me and what types of characters would be interesting – who’s on the fringes of a culture like this, who’s intimately involved in these conflicts, who wants to help and why, who wants to take advantage of the underdogs’ weakness, etc. – and fill the story out from there.

How do you get ideas for the setting itself?

For the trilogy I’ll be working on this November for NaNoWriMo, I originally started by modeling the setting off of a real-world time and place that interests me – Renaissance Italy.  That isn’t to say I’ve stuck to accurate historical details by any means (the last I knew, Renaissance Italy was never invaded by a clan of pseudo-Russian elves) but it does mean that if I’m having trouble fleshing out details about the setting, I can refer to photos, art, architecture, cookbooks, history books, Italian folk music and folk tales – anything that can be internalized about the actual place and time and either used or modified to work with my fictional setting.  It’s research, but it’s fun research.  How could any research that led me to taste-test brandy-spiked coffee be a bad thing??

Aside from choosing a real-world basis as my starting point, other settings have come to me through toying with ideas about different societal constructs, projections of “what if” questions, working out the history and the future of my own invented world and seeing what types of cultures came together or broke apart before and after the events of the trilogy.  Even dreams, sometimes.  One of my favorite of my uncompleted short stories is set on another continent in the same world as the trilogy – a very isolated continent full of crazy-dangerous wild animals – and the whole setting and story came to me as a dream.  The architecture, the characters, the clothing, the socio-economics and political setup…I dreamed all of it.  Thank you, subconscious.  Thank you!

Should you include everything that you know about your setting in the story itself?

No.  Absolutely no.  I have a binder with maps, timelines, and notes about my setting that’s almost two inches thick.  Nobody needs to know all that crap except me.  And someday, if I ever have a die-hard uber-nerd cult following for my trilogy, maybe them.  But normal readers do not need the full extent of what you, as the writer, know about your world.  You need to know, in order to maintain consistency and keep the illusion that this place is real and that there is all of that stuff to know.  And you can never tell what will end up being pertinent to the book until you’re in the thick of it.  So know your world intimately, including what would be written in dry history textbooks in their schools, but don’t dump the history book in the reader’s lap.  Use your knowledge of the setting to enrich the story, but do it through implication, hints, details that enliven the story and the characters, dialogue and interaction, etc.  Make the story and the setting inseparable.

Making Connections

One of the most common questions people ask writers (especially speculative fiction writers) is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  For me, the answer to that question is, everywhere.  The hard part is turning an idea into a story-worthy conflict with three-dimensional characters, and making sure the idea doesn’t overshadow the actual content of the story.

I’ve picked up the habit of keeping all my ideas (woefully unorganized), even the ones I will probably never use.  Notebooks with scribbled ideas in the margins, grocery lists with character concepts scrawled in next to the shopping, cut and pasted files in my writing directory on the computer, scrap files taken out of other stories…ideas everywhere.

Why?  Because having all that junk to look over helps me combine ideas, and combining ideas is fun, as well as useful for brainstorming full plotlines out of things that, alone, wouldn’t make much of a story.  It’s like going antiquing for a room you’ve only partially furnished – you browse around, find some good stuff, get ideas of what you do and don’t want for the room, remember something you saw over at the dollar store that would fit in perfectly, realize you want to re-paint the whole room, whatever.

The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, when I first came up with the story, was a combination of a dream, a question, an interest in mythology, and my desire to write something in a world where I could make all the rules from scratch but still have a modern, conversational narration style.  When I knew there was a book in my head was when this alternate-dimension dream I had combined with the hypothetical question, “What would you do with your last hour if you knew you were going to die?”  Once I had the basic setup in mind, I thought about what kind of book I wanted to write, what setting I wanted to spend a couple years in while I wrote it and revised it, and what kind of protagonist I wanted to spend all that time with.  The domino effect took care of most of the rest of the concepts for the book, since the tone required a certain type of narrator, the establishment of that character drove the action and events, the action and events would require these types of consequences in this world, etc.  It was really a very easy book to plot, for the most part, because I knew what I wanted the parameters to be before I even started it.

Now, the book I’m planning for NaNoWriMo is much more complicated – it’s not as linear, it’s a much broader scope, it’s in multiple points of view, there are interlinked subplots, and it’s the first of a trilogy.  Oddly enough, the first idea that sparked my desire to write it has now been cut entirely out of the book.  As it stands now, the things I’ve left in the plotline came from the following sources:  two characters I cannibalized from (terrible) novels I wrote as a kid (age 10 – 12), ideas from I Ching readings I did for my original character concepts, a brainstorm session of conflict mapping, research sessions on the historical scientific and technological effects on the development of societies, photos of Florence my mom brought back from her trip to Italy when I was young and impressionable, and – again – a clear idea of what kind of book I want to spend my time writing and what characters I want to spend my time with while I’m working on it.  Some of them, I want to spend time with the way you can’t help looking at a car wreck, but still, the fact remains that I’m drawn in by them.  If I’m still curious, even though I already know what happens to them and what choices they’ll make, I consider it a good sign that readers will be interested in them, too.  Let’s hope, anyway – haha!

Long story short (too late!) it’s not just where you get your ideas that’s the pertinent question.  A better question to ask a writer is, “How do you connect your ideas?”  Go brainstorm.  It’s fun.  🙂

Random Inspirations

Inspiration can turn up in the funniest places.  Whether it’s a spark of an idea or the reassurance that no story comes out perfect on the first try, writing can jump out at you from almost anywhere.  As Marian Allen recently wrote in an excellent post on her blog, “Everything is writing.”  I heartily concur.

Some of the odd places I’ve found inspiration in the past few months:

  • The special features on the Pixar movies A Bug’s Life, Toy Story, and Toy Story 2.  The Blu-Ray releases of these films have a whole lot about the team’s writing and design process, with the writers and artists talking about how the story and characters evolved and changed in the process of working on it.  My husband and I are both Pixar buffs, both love the characters and the storytelling, and were interested partly because of that, and partly because, as writers, it’s always nice to know that work you admire didn’t work perfectly to begin with…that they, too, had to cut characters, scrap ideas, change stuff around, alter the tone, and all the stuff that we have to do, too.
  • Cookbooks.  I have recently been trying out new recipes, and as a result, noticed that a set of my cookbooks has highly useful information about the history of each cuisine in the introduction, followed up by a two-page spread about individual ingredients, their source, history, flavor, etc.  This is an awesome little tool for use in building my fantasy world up.  No, I won’t put all that history in, but the more you know, the better you can put yourself into the world you write about – and that authority comes through on the page, making it more believable to your readers.
  • My day job.  Working at a locally-owned coffee shop with a roastery here in town, I’ve found out a heck of a lot about coffee and how it goes from a little white bean to a cup of liquid life-force.  Since my NaNoWriMo project for this November involves a semi-Italian world, and coffee is Kind of a Big Deal in Italy, this is all grist for the mill (or should that be beans for the roaster?)
  • Just being present for real-life moments and experiences.  Paying attention to what the world around me looks like, smells like, how the air feels, who’s around, what they’re doing, how they’re interacting with other people, how someone I’m talking to thinks about things, what’s important to them, where their dichotomies are.  It doesn’t hurt that I went on a vacation to a beautiful place recently and had every reason to be paying wholehearted attention to the world around me!
  • Superhero movies.  For some reason, these always get me thinking about writing.  I don’t know why – the ideas I have while watching one have nothing to do with the movie itself, or heroes or villains, either.  But for some reason, superhero movies get my brain in gear to write.  Possibly because they’re exciting and usually beautifully shot, or the fact that the heroes and villains are generally parallels of one another, and I enjoy that in a protagonist/antagonist team.  Whatever the reason, I’m well aware that if I’m feeling blah about working on a project, I can watch a Batman movie or a Spiderman movie or a Fantastic Four movie (whether it’s a good movie or not) and I’ll be bouncing off the walls, ready to write.  Superhero movies may not do this for you, but be on the lookout for anything that does have this effect on you, whether it makes sense or not!  And then use it to your advantage when you find it.

NaNoWriMo

This November will be my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month – and I’m very excited about it!  Other than last fall, I’ve been working full-time every November for the last several years, and this past year I was well into the process of revising the rough draft of my novel during NaNo – didn’t seem like a good idea to switch gears and start something new right then.

So this year, I get to do it, and I’m trying to think ahead and prepare for it so I can get the most out of it that I can.

If you don’t know about NaNoWriMo, the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1st and November 30th by writing 1500 words per day (at least!)  Correct me if I’m wrong about that word count, because I had trouble double-checking it on the NaNo website.  Of course, it’s going to be very rough, but that’s what I’ve been preachin’ about lately, right?  Write it down and THEN fix it.  NaNo has a strong online presence, too, and it’s a great way to connect with other writers and swap story talk.

I’m planning on writing the first book of a trilogy that I’ve been planning, plotting, fiddling with, rewriting, changing, doing research for, and generally screwing around with for the past 13 years.  I WANT this book to be written, dang it, and it’s time it was.  What better way to stop all the hemming and hawing and actually plunge into this story than NaNoWriMo?  That’s my plan, anyway.

In preparation for my month of glorious and frantic writing, here’s some stuff I want to do ahead of time:

  • get all my notes together and re-organize them, taking out all the discarded and altered ideas and putting those in a separate binder, so I’ll have a cohesive set of details to work from
  • finish my rough plotline for the various characters’ story arcs, leaving plenty of room for the story to change if need be
  • do more architectural drawings of the setting, to help keep my visuals consistent as I work on writing it
  • take care of as much mundane, real-world stuff ahead of time as possible to keep that month focused on writing
  • possibly do some writing exercises to draw out my ideas for the characters and the storyline – sort of a pre-emptive inspiration process
  • get some appropriate music together and make some work playlists for my writing time

Maybe it’s crazy to prep for something that’s all about keeping a sense of spontaneity, but hey, what Boy Scout doesn’t come prepared, right?

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On a side note, I have just returned from vacation, which is why I haven’t updated this week, and hopefully someday I’ll post more consistently on this blog!

Research

Research is a constant writerly debate in my household.  My husband will go to incredible lengths to avoid doing research for his writing.  I love research, although I have an odd relationship with it.  I research heavily for fantasy, but I’m horribly intimidated by the idea of researching for any kind of mystery or historical fiction, which is why I don’t write either of those genres, although I read both (preferably combined!)

That contradiction aside, why the heck would I do research for fantasy?  To my husband, especially, this is incomprehensible – fantasy is the perfect setup, as far as he’s concerned, because he can just make everything up and not worry about how things work in the real world.  I understand that sentiment, since I write (and read) partly as escapism from reality.

But it’s so exciting to do research for fantasy novels and stories!  It’s not that I can’t come up with ideas and inspiration just off the top of my head for fantasy, but finding out things I don’t know about history, food, inventions, other cultures, religious rituals, animals, etc. gets me thinking about things I might otherwise overlook.  Sometimes I’ll come across an idea and reverse it entirely, but even that reversal wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t found the idea to contradict in the first place.

Some of the things I’ve learned more about while doing research, I would probably never have thought to read up on if it hadn’t related to my story, but I’m always glad to have found out new information.  As a writer, the more you know about anything, the richer, more varied, and more interesting your basis for stories and characters becomes.  It’s like you’re collecting resources that are then, literally, right at your fingertips.

Because of my writing, I read up on a lot of psychology theory – especially Carl Jung and William James, both of whom were also passionately interested in literature and philosophy.  Some of their writings on those subjects have, in turn, expanded my views on fiction, both as a reader and as a writer.  I’ve read up on the historical impact of technology on society, the history of various inventions, traditional foods and drinks of places I wanted to inspire my settings, mythology and legends that cross all over the globe – and now all of that information is at the back of my mind every time I sit down to write.  If you want to be inspired, keep your brain well-stocked with ideas it can put together, pull apart, reverse, or just plain use.

That’s my philosophy on research, anyway.  Oh, and I’ve also become addicted to olives thanks to research, but that’s a side effect you may have to watch out for if you’re reading up on the Mediterranean.  Hah!  That’s one reason to write what you love – if you’re interested in something to begin with, “research” is a great excuse to obsessively read about it, and if you’re researching a place’s cuisine, it’s a great excuse to eat a lot of tasty food (and drink coffee spiked with brandy, if your subject of study is Italy).

10 Ideas About Ideas

10 ways to come up with ideas for stories (when you aren’t feeling inspired):

1.  Writing exercises.  There are many excellent books and websites full of them.  Keep some on hand!

2.  Listen to the conversations of strangers.  People say some crazy stuff!  Even when they say “normal” stuff, it’s interesting sometimes to “pretend” more about them than you actually know – basing it off of the way one talks to the other and vice versa.  Are they relatives, friends, co-workers, romantically involved…?  Make up a context for their dialogue, imagine a conflict or dilemma they could be facing.

3.  Research something.  Have you always been interested in learning more about the RAF’s role in WWII?  Or the history of the police force in your city?  Or the new developments in neuroscience?  Or how a bourbon distillery works?  What a day in the life of a timber wolf entails?  Read up on it.  Go on a tour appropriate to your subject.  Check out websites and forums.  Learn how to do something new.  You never know what new information will spark an idea for a story or a character.  Museums of all kinds can be stellar places to find unexpected inspiration.

4.  Brainstorm with another writer (or two, or three).  Just throw ideas out, have fun, and write down notes when anything exciting comes up.

5.  Think of things that bug you in movies and books – specific types of plot holes, stereotypes, or character inconsistencies…pet peeves you have about how OTHER people write.  Write something better!  Did the movie in question have a great idea for a bad guy, but the storyline left him falling so short of his potential as a character that you wanted to throw the DVD case across the room?  (*cough*  Nothing specific in mind there, noooo….)  Write your own bad-ass, and give him a story he can really shine in.

6.  Read some mythology or fairy tales (not the Disney versions, folks, I’m talking about the old, dark, disturbing stuff here – Hans Christian Andersen and prior).  Public domain plots, themes, and characters you can use to get ideas for your own, original stories.  I’m not saying “write fairy tales”; it’s just interesting to play around with the ideas, and some of the themes are powerful and deep-rooted in the human psyche.

7.  If you have ANY ideas for a story or character you want to start working on, but don’t know where to start, make a list.  10 things you know about your character.  10 things you know about your setting.  10 things you know will happen in your story.

8.  Free write.  Sit down and just start writing whatever you’re thinking, and keep writing without stopping for 10 to 15 minutes.  Stream of consciousness, without worrying about punctuation, spelling, or any kind of correction.  After your time’s up, if there are any phrases or ideas or even word combinations you like, highlight ’em or underline ’em.  Keep free writes together in a folder, and flip through when you’re looking for ideas.

9.  Brainstorm using Tarot cards or I Ching wands.  Facade.com has various types of divination readings available online.  You can use the readings to come up with characters and character interactions, conflicts and obstacles for your protagonist, strengths and weaknesses of characters, and story events.  Like reading mythology and fairy tales, this has the benefit of bringing strong symbolism into your work.  Just be sure not to be too heavy-handed with it.

10.  Do something else creative.  Doodle, color, listen to music, finger-paint, play with Lego, cook, do a craft project, improv on the piano for a while, whatever.  Whatever other creative outlets you have, pick one and do that for a while.  Don’t STRESS about coming up with an idea for a story.  Relax and let it come to you.  Sometimes, like a cat or a kid, all it takes is you ignoring it to do something else, and your story suddenly wants your attention.