Thursday, February 25, 2010

World Building ~ It's not just for Fantasy Writers Anymore!

Last Saturday, my fam and I went to the Museum of Science to see the Harry Potter exhibit. Props, costumes, sets and music from the movies swept us into JK Rowling's richly imagined world.

Every author engages in world building, whether you write fantasy, paranormal, historical or contemporary. Yep, even contemporary. Not everyone lives in a huge urban setting. Some people have never walked a small town square. Part of the writer's job is to paint such a vivid picture of that small town, readers can smell the geraniums in the pots outside the victorian courthouse. Every book is a world--a special place where the reader's imagination fills in the details based on a few specifics suggested by the author.

So do we build our fictional world with dumps of description? Not if we want anyone to come with us to our world. We start by dropping in some specific details. Here's a sentence from the first couple paragraphs from Maidensong, my debut Diana Groe book:

Flickering light from the central meal fire kissed the newborn and danced across the smoke-blackened beams of the longhouse.

The world of Maidensong is lit only by fire. I've given my readers a whiff of a smoky longhouse. In a few more sentences, the midwife wraps the baby in a catskin blanket and my reader knows she's not in Kansas any more. Or Regency England. The world of this story is older, darker and more dangerous.

Setting (topography, level of technology, etc.) isn't the only part of worldbuilding. The reader needs to know what's normal in our fictional world. If everyone else is able to fly, an earth-bound heroine is unique. Is she pitied or revered? Every world has its own rules, and the characters defy them at their peril.

A fictional world needs a history. After all, our characters and their progenitors have been living in that world since its creation. What are the values of our world? The religion(s)? The historic feuds and grudges? (Every author can use a little extra conflict. Why not build it into the fabric of our world?)

As writers, we need to know far more details than we share. I confess to having drawn up floorplans for my hero Crispin Hawke's unique home (Stroke of Genius). Some writers design their character's closets and know to the last ribbon what outfits their heroine has to choose from each day. My oldest daughter is writing a fantasy and has drawn some pictures of some really cool, very ornate weapons. Many writers sketch maps.

Do whatever you need to to do in order to be able project your world so deeply into your psyche, it will flow naturally out your fingers in vivid slices of life.

There are so many elements involved in world building, I've just dabbled my toes in this particular ocean. What helps you feel established in a special world of a story? If you're a writer, what sort of things do you concentrate on when you create your fictional world?


Unknown said...

Your posts are always such fun, Emily.

Is it bad that I don't have any world building rituals? They just seem to happen with the characters. It's the same way the stories happen.

I don't make them happen, they just flow out of my fingers. When I start getting too big for my britches and taking control, that's when my characters stop talking to me.

Sometimes, I go back and read what I've written to catch up with the story. It doesn't always stop in the sentient part of my brain before it hits the page.

Sarah Tormey said...

Great post! Though I must admit, I am having a hard time getting past the "catskin" part:)

I watch my characters move through the world in my mind. What is there are the things they interact with. In this sense I completely agree with Saranna's comment above.

EmilyBryan said...

Saranna-If that's how your stories flow, that's wonderful.

However, I'm always looking for processes that will give me results, just in case the story pump decides to stick on the "off" position.

I'm often surprised when I go back to read things, especially if it's been several weeks since I thought about the beginning of my story. Sometimes, it's "Dang! That's good. Who wrote it?" and sometimes, "Yikes, that's awful. Who wrote it?"

EmilyBryan said...

Sarah--When I did my research on Viking culture and found out they used catskin for clothing articles, like you, I was dismayed. I have loved a number of kitties over the years and can't imagine skinning one.

However, I chose to use that provocative detail on purpose. It shows that the culture was cold and pitiless about some things without me having to say so. I also hope it signals that this story isn't quite safe.

Gossip Cowgirl said...

Great post.

I'm doing a workshop on world-building next month, and I'm really excited about it. I'm encouraging both ff&p *and* anyone who writes historical fiction to take it. So this post was timely for me. :-)

It's important to know the details of a historical world, otherwise your readers will assume the rules of the world they live in, which is often not accurate.

Also, people who are attracted to historical novels often have a lot of knowledge about the time period, and as a reader, if I know more than the author about the world that they're writing in, I immediately put the book down. That's not uncommon. So I appreciate that you're encouraging world-building.

Great post, Emily. As usual! :-)

Jane L said...

Emily, I have to have visuals for my scenes. In writing a post Civil War story, I needed to go to a battle field and in my head picture the scene and sit on the hillside and feel the thunder of cannons. I also HATE cemetaries, but I went to one in TN. Where all the people buried there were soldiers in the war, I felt so sad and lonely and cried so hard. My husband thought I was crazy at the time, but he gets it now. I toured a plantation and begged the owner to let me sleep in an old slave cabin. They thought I was crazy to, but they agreed! I just have to touch and feel everything. Heaven help me if I write a story based in London!

Barbara Monajem said...

Super topic, Emily.

I prefer having visuals, too, but really it's more for detail than anything else. When I wrote a story that took place in the south of England (Notorious Eliza), just having been there made me more comfortable about adding detail such as the type of countryside and the churches in Chichester. Nowadays, though, it's possible to get a lot of that detail on the Internet. Of course, it's more fun to go to England!

I'm more likely to draw a floor plan after the fact to make sure nothing that happened is impossible in terms of choreography. I had this very problem when revising my second paranormal (Tastes of Love and Evil) a few weeks ago. A room that had to be in the front of the house in one scene was at the back in another. Details matter!

As for paranormal abilities, often they come to me (well, only to my characters, alas) during the writing process. This can make things complicated because of having to go back and make sure the paranormal abilities are consistent--and not too over the top, in some cases :))

Barb H said...

Love the post, Emily.

Like the others, I was surprised by the reference to catskin. EUWW. But I have to say the details in all three of your Viking historicals were wonderful. I really felt as if I were there.

I love research. I try to worldbuild for the late 1100s, early 1200s (England.)

I have diagrams of castle floorplans and I have sketched layouts of the chambers my characters will use. Unfortunately I'm kind of manic about details--which is bad, because I can't always be certain about some items. I'm often afraid I'll slip up on a point. (And certainly do, I'm sure!)

But--it was great to see Rebecca Lynn's post about her worldbuilding class next month. I'll look that up to take it! I need all the help possible!


Kelly said...

Great post, Emily.

One of the most memorable workshops I've ever attended was given by author Richard Wheeler. I was so mesmerized in what the man had to say I couldn't take a note. LOL
Richard clips pictures of places and items he uses in his stories. Anthing from architecure to pics of furniture/weapons/utensils. I do the same.

But I am also a on-site kind of gal. I want to breath the same air my characters would inhale. I've walked the streets of Eureka Springs AR so many times I could do it in my sleep. But I know what my heroine sees every time she steps out her door. Because I've seen it too.

There are a lot of great 'virtual' resources available on-line but for me nothing replaces being there.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post, Emily. I love to see how other writers do things. I suppose like other historical writers, research is another name for I know my time and setting so well that I "see" my stories in my head like a movie. I like painting with words and describing very little of the scene, then letting everything else come through my characters' interactions with their world to avoid long desciptive passages that I don't like to read when I pick up a book. Seem to help the pace and flow to write this way. Give the reader just enough to use their own imagination.
What a wonderful topic!

EmilyBryan said...

Rebecca--I'm always conscious of how sophisticated the historical romance readership is. We have to get the details right if we don't want our books to turn into "wallbangers!"

EmilyBryan said...

Jane--Sounds like you're a kinesthetic learner. And you're right, it's hard to replace actually being there. But even though I've been to London several times, I always have to remind myself that I haven't seen London of 1810. That's where the world building process starts because historical writers have build a world gone by.

EmilyBryan said...

Barbara--I think you hit on an important point. Whatever the special magical aspects of your world, even if they aren't possible in the real world, they have to be consistent. We will believe the impossible sooner than we'll believe the improbable.

EmilyBryan said...

Barb H--And I love your medieval world! You do a masterful job of choosing specific details that place your readers in the middle of your story.

EmilyBryan said...

Kelly--I agree on the being there. We can research tons of things on the web, but what we don't get are the smells, the sounds, the tastes and textures. And those are the sensory details we need to draw our readers in. I always try to make sure I've engaged all the senses. We aren't writing movies. A book isn't strictly a visual experience. Once we unleash our readers imaginations, anything is possible.

EmilyBryan said...

Mary--I think the amount of detail we have to deliver depends on when and where we're setting our story. If it's an alternate world, we'll need more. If it's Regency England, maybe less because the readership brings so much to the experience. But then the burden is on the writer to give the reader a fresh detail that will deepen their understanding of a world they are already familiar with.

Gossip Cowgirl said...

Haha... Wall-bangers. I have read (and written) at least one of those in my time. :-) Aaah, the memories.

Catherine Wells said...

I come from the fantasy/SF side of the house ("Stones of Destiny" is my only historical to date), and THOSE folks really get into world-building! Some fantasy authors sit down and create the entire world before they start writing the story. My process is more integrated. I come up with a situation, including characters, then imagine the kind of world that would shape them.

For "Stones," I did only a tad of research before the characters came to me. I kept doing research as I outlined the story, then began to write with the world taking form around me. I was still doing research, and going back in to make changes in the world, when I finished. I did research all through the editing process and made adjustments to the world as necessary.

And what I couldn't find out about the world through research, I extrapolated from what was known, or simply made it up. Sometimes I can't remember which is the "real" stuff and which is my conjecture!

EmilyBryan said...

Catherine--Thanks for sharing your process with us!

As I understand it, Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and the Ring trilogy because he needed stories to match the elvish languages he'd already developed (he was a linguist by training). He wanted to give the English a mythology to rival the Norse cosmology (from which he borrowed freely!)