Otherworldly and unique

On February 9, 2014, Michelle Dyck wrote, I’ve been working on a fantasy series for several years now. (And book one has undergone massive changes and rewrites, which means that the following books will need the same once I get back to them!) The majority of the series takes place in another world. Anyway, I’ve been wondering about whether my main “good guy” nation is unique enough… vivid enough… real enough. This would be an easier problem to fix if I was in the beginning stages of writing about it — but I’m not. Does anyone have any tips for making an otherworldly culture and geography really pop? And how to make those alterations after the entire book has been written (and edited repeatedly, I might add)?

At the urging of Bibliophile, Michelle Dyck told us more: Here’s a little description of the otherworldly nation I mentioned. It’s called Demetria (and I’m trusting that all my fellow writers out there won’t steal the name!). It has a medieval society ruled by a lord. The population consists of humans, speaking animals, and mighty dragons. Mountain ranges, sweeping valleys, great rivers, and lush forests make up most of the landscape. In general, the Demetrians are a noble and peace-loving people, but they will not hesitate to fight when their homes and freedom are in danger.

Besides Demetria, there are myriad other countries in this world, but only two others get introduced in book one. Both border Demetria, and one in particular has instigated a war — one that Demetria has little hope of winning. The second of the two neighboring nations is something of a mystery, and for the sake of not spoiling my plot, I won’t say anymore about it. 🙂

Okay, here’s the plot of book one, THE PROPHET’S QUEST, or its beginnings, anyway. Visions of indescribable suffering… an ancient prophecy… a mysterious white orb called the Prophet — these are the things that propel teenagers Aileen and Josiah into an adventure they never saw coming. When they start probing for answers, they discover that a terrible evil is threatening the people of another world, and possibly Earth as well. Aileen and Josiah have been chosen to turn the tide, but before they can decide to accept their calling, they are kidnapped. The only way of escape lies in the initiation of a terrifying transformation… into dragons. With a nation poised on the brink of destruction and the fate of thousands in their hands, Aileen and Josiah embark on the Prophet’s quest. Neither of them could’ve imagined the peril that awaits.

writeforfun recommended the chapter in Writing Magic called “Where Am I” and added, Before you try to totally change your world, you might want to reevaluate it to make sure that it needs changing. I’ve read lots of fairy tales that are basically medieval Europe with the addition of magic. There really isn’t a whole lot that’s super unique, and readers apparently don’t mind (at least I don’t). If you are certain that you do need to change it, it may help if you made a list of qualities that you want to add to your world, then write a short summary of each of your books and look for places in that short summary where those changes would fit. That way you don’t have to read through your entire book to figure out where to add those changes.

I’m with writeforfun. My most recent novel, A Tale of Two Castles, is vaguely medieval with the addition of a dragon and an ogre and hints that other magical creatures live beyond the borders of the story. Michelle Dyck’s world sounds interesting, and the mere mention of mighty dragons makes me want to find out more. And the possibility of transforming into a dragon is thrilling.

However, just saying that what she has sounds fine doesn’t open up new options for her, so here are a few thoughts.

A while back, for the blog, I searched online for rules for writing fantasy, and the one that rang most true for me was: Create a sense of wonder. More recently, my editor said in an early edit that there wasn’t enough wonder in Stolen Magic. What to do? I had already invented creatures called brunkas, so I gave them the power to project rainbows from their hands. Then, and I love when this happens, the rainbows worked their way into my plot and became integral to the story.

I also made glow worms, which light the tunnels and rooms of the Oase, the brunka museum that’s built into a mountain. Alas, the glow worms didn’t move the plot along but I kept them for the wonder factor.

A good place to start to make our world unique is the mundane. In Fairest, Aza’s hair has tones of the color htun, which is visible only to dwarves. I invented htun because I used to paint and sometimes wished for another color to expand my palette beyond the ordinary color wheel. As I was writing I thought of that wish. Htun is a small change, but it sets the world apart, possibly in an even more surprising and interesting way than major pyrotechnics like force fields or invisible shields or people zooming around the sky.

So we can ask ourselves, What element of ordinary life can we tweak to astonish the reader? Food? Cooking? Buying and selling? Seeing? Hearing? For instance, we can take color away rather than add a new hue. Maybe people in this world see only in black-and-white after dark, indoors and out, or maybe the color actually drains out of the world when the sun goes down.

Michelle Dyck specifically asked about culture and geography. On September 4, 2013, I wrote a post on the former, which you can look up, so let’s consider the latter, and, again, let’s think small. I remember a detail in a science fiction book that I read decades ago, that the grass in this world enjoyed being walked on. I also recall that the chairs were part dog, and they loved being sat on. Tiny stuff like this really stands out. I still remember those details.

What can we do that will be memorable, too? I’m brainstorming: Stones that get cushiony after a rainfall? Trees that lose their leaves and get new growth monthly? Some bird species that camouflage themselves as bushes when danger looms; as soon as the danger passes the leaves and branches are lowered and return to being feathers and wings? Water that passes through a pudding-like state before freezing? Something about sunsets?

We may come up with ten ideas to jazz up our geography, but we probably should stick with one. One will dazzle the reader. Ten may tire him.

As for revising a big project, the only shortcut I can think of is word search. If, for example, you decide to make a certain kind of bird able to look like a bush, you can do a search on the places where this might come up: forest, meadow, mountainside. Then, when you get there, you can work in the bird.

Usually as I write a novel I also write a chronology of events, which helps me remember what I’ve done and helps me find my place if I need to go back to a particular spot. If you’ve done something similar, that will be useful in the revision.

But if the element you’re adding becomes integral to your plot, you may have to go through the whole book or all the books. That’s my favorite part, though. The plot is set but I’ve thought of something that’s going to improve it, and as I get into the process I feel the story firming up, becoming more exciting, more moving. Wow! I love that.

Here are three prompts:

• The birds that camouflage themselves as bushes are giant raptors. They use their disguise to surprise prey rather than to evade predators. Your MC is carrying a message for the king that absolutely has to get through, and her route takes her through the birds’ habitat. Write this part of her journey. If you like, use it in a story.

• Take the world we live in and change a single thing. Write an argument between your MC and her brother about whatever it is. Have the thing and the argument set the plot in motion.

• In Michelle Dyck’s story Aileen and Josiah are kidnapped. Imagine that your two MCs are kidnapped and left in a sentient room. The room itself is holding them and knows what it’s doing. Have them try to figure out how to escape. You decide whether or not they succeed.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I had forgotten about asking that question! Wow, thanks for the great answer! I have things to think about now. 🙂
    (The last prompt sounds like a lot of fun, by the way.)

  2. In one of my favorite book series, the trees are like ours but with a slite blueish tinge and there leaves turn silver in the fall which I thought was really cool. Also, in a fantasy novel I'm writing I use different types of unusual creatures besides things like dragons and griffins and mermaids and such, because I figured that a fictional planet would have a whole bunch of cool animals to live in it just like ours. Other than that its not much different from the real world.

  3. This post couldn't have come at a better time! I'm pondering whether to use one of my oldest ideas for NaNoWriMo's July camp. It takes place in a fantasy world, and I will certainly consult this post while planning.
    Also, thought I'd mention, the third prompt reminds me of Jessica Day George's Castle Glower as seen in Tusdays at the Castle and its sequel. The castle is, to an extent, sentient, and it changes itself when it sees fit. Usually in a benevolent fashion, unlike the kidnapping room.

  4. Hey, I was wondering if any of you guys have any tips on how to spice up travel scenes so they arn't boring? I'm writing a book where the main characters are doing a lot of traveling and I'm learned quickly that if you don't spice it up it can get pretty boring really fast. So that what I've been doing, but I keep wondering how much spice is too much spice. Where's the line between making the reader so interested they can't stop reading and making them frustrated with it because there just too much stuff going on?

    • They don't need a flat tire and a troll bridge every two pages to keep the reader interested. There are simpler ways to spice things up. You know those pesky bits of dialogue you have to put somewhere but too much talking slows down the story? Put the talking with the walking.

    • I would suggest reading Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith, and it's sequel, Court Duel. The first has a lot of traveling in it, and the second has some as well, though not as much. Plus, they're fun books. Esp. Crown Duel.

    • Is the journey part of the story, or do you just need to get characters from Point A to Point B? If that's the case, you can just say something like "Three weeks later, footsore, sunburned, and in dire need of baths, they arrived at the palace."

    • From the website on the subject:

      I second Sunny Smith's question. My character's are also going on a road trip in which it is (so far) boring… but I can't go around it because the whole plot is about a quest. I made the character's go though some troubles and get to the clues, but other than that, the road trip is really just plain boring. The road trip IS needed for the plot, but I have no clue how spice it up!
      (Also, I was thinking that you could – like I said, put in clues.)
      Thanks, Writer At Heart

    • Carpelibris, it is part of the story, it's actually a quest story like Writer At Heart's so it pretty major. The worst part is in my first chapter where my POV character is on her way to meet up with the other three mains and she's all by herself in a forest for most of it so there isn't anyway for me to put in any juicy dialogue. So I made it interesting because I'm not one to bore myself and I keep wondering if its to much for the first chapter. Why is everything I post so long?

    • One thing to consider – how much of the journey do you actually have to show? I mean, if the actual journey itself isn't meant to be anything more to the story than the space between here and there, then you don't necessarily have to write the whole thing down. If your character or characters just have to get from point A to point B, then a few sentences may be enough to convey that. But if the journey is very important, then you can still be choosy and figure out how much of the journey you absolutely have to write out. Sometimes a day could be devoted to a single chapter, if events that are important happen in it. But if there's a week where they're basically just riding/driving/walking/whatever, I don't think you have to write down much of what happens there. Just make sure you say that the week passed and they were still traveling, and I think readers will comprehend.

  5. I just finished Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. On a certain spaceship, we meet doors that love opening for people, computers that love calculating for people, and a depressed robot who hates interacting with all of them.

  6. An example of a plot revolving around a world without color would be Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry, from the Giver series. Thought I'd put it out there.

  7. This blogpost came right when I needed it! I'm trying to write a story based off Alice in Wonderland, and creating Wonderland has been kinda hard.
    Anyway, I'm having a bit of trouble, and I was wondering if anyone had any suggestions.
    In my story, my MC, Alisyn Wonderland, is, unbeknownst to her, a descendant of Carrol's Alice. One day, a boy from Wonderland shows up and brings her back so she can save Wonderland from….from….that's what I'm having trouble with. The Queen of Hearts would be the obvious choice, but I was thinking it would be fun to do someone/thing else.
    Also, I can't figure out why Alisyn would need to be the one to save Wonderland…I mean, I think I'll have it so that she and the boy from Wonderland are the only ones who can travel between the two worlds, but I just can't decide why they would need someone from Earth anyway.
    Whoa, that last sentence is confusing. Sorry. Do any of you have any ideas? Thank you!

    • I'm not super familiar with the original Alice in Wonderland book, but could you look at some of the characters and find one who, with the right push, could become the villain? But since your story takes place quite some time later, maybe you'd have to make it a descendant of one of those characters.
      As to why Alisyn (great name, by the way!)… Being a descendant of the first Alice, is there something only she knows? A secret, a clue, Alice's journal, a particular talent of some sort… I don't know. This is all just off the top of my head. If I think of something more, I'll let you know! 🙂

    • I know! The Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse could have taken over Wonderland! And Alice (the original), was the only person who knew their weakness, which is somehow connected to the famous "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" riddle. I think that is could be that they are afraid of solvable riddles, but that might be too easy. Alice would have recorded the info in a gold locket that has been handed down in her family for generations, thereby ensuring that someone would know how to defeat them. And the boy who fetches Alisyn could be either a descendant of the Red Queen, who was overthrown after losing a game of croquet, or the White Rabbit. The riddle thing for the Hatter and Co. might be too easy though, but you can always poison their favorite tea (again, the answer is in the locket.)!

    • The Jabberwocky seems like a popular villain in Alice retellings. If you don't feel like it's overdone, you could use it. Then there are the Red and White queens from Through the Looking Glass. Then Alisyn has some token or weapon handed down through the generations to defeat them. Alice made it so only her descendants could use it because it's to powerful to trust to just anyone.

    • Maybe it's because Alice was so curious. Nobody else in Wonderland wondered about anything that was odd, but Alice always did. Maybe her curiosity is the thing that makes her special and powerful in Wonderland, and Alisyn inherits that curiosity. Because there's no one else in Wonderland like her who wonders, she could be unique and a powerful force.

      As for villains, well, I don't actually have any ideas. It depends on how serious you're intending to make this story. If it's going to be light and kinda funny like Alice in Wonderland was, then finding some bad guy like the Cheshire Cat, or the Duchess, or the Jabberwocky, or whatever would be fine. But if you're looking for something more serious, I think you would have to dig deeper in the story and search for something or some character who you can exploit.

      Also, might time travel differently in Wonderland than in our world, since Alice was there for quite some time but 'woke up' right where she had been? That way Alisyn can be a descendant of Alice, but the original characters from Wonderland can still be there.

    • Noodle has some great suggestions. Here are a few more. List out all the creatures that Alice meets in Wonderland. Pick out the few that interest you first and try to brainstorm on the things they want and why, as well as how their actions harm that world enough that Alice needs to intervene. Perhaps it's a single Card that tips the scale, whose desperation for identity and freedom from rule lead him to throwing the kingdoms in chaos. Maybe the flowers with faces have been growing like weeds all over the kingdom and have gotten a taste for eating people who aren't plant-like. Perhaps dormouse's dreams have taken over wonderland, changing it into a nightmarish world. Perhaps the villain is Alice herself, the original Alice, whose still trapped in Wonderland and is driven mad from her time there. By going through each creature and trying to discover what they want, you can then more easily twist them into a villain. You see, most of the time, villains don't start out with evil goals. They have the best of intentions. Even Voldemort started out as a boy who wanted to empower himself from the people that hurt him (the people in the orphanage) or the ideas that frightened him (such as his death). But along the way, they are willing to do terrible things to get what they want. They are ruthless in a way that heroes are not. And the trouble springs from there. I also suggest doing the same for Alice, giving her a dream that she wants to accomplish, even if it's nothing more than for people to believe in her or to survive her twelfth birthday. Then have the antagonist be in direct opposition to what Alice wants. This would give you the bare bones of what the story would be.

      Also, finding out the reason why they need Alice there, well that solution is much the same. Brainstorm by making a list. Just toss out ideas without editing them in your head. Here are a couple of suggestions i thought of: (1) the people in wonderland believe she is the original Alice and have her heard her heroic deeds. They believe that she would be the perfect person to deal with their problems. And so they toss her into their world before she can explain that she isn't actually Alice and when she does no one believes her. (This also goes well with the whole time travels differently idea from Noodle.) (2) Everytime wonderland has been in peril, it's been someone from her bloodline who has helped solve it. And so that's why they want her there, believing she's the only one who could change things. Hope this helps!

  8. Dear Folks,
    I have a Dilemma. Problem: In my TTDP story, the princesses (all twelve of them, for the most part), are confined to the castle for safety reasons and rarely leave it. But they're stuck in the castle always, so very little change in scenery. How do I deal with that. The main "sets" or "backgrounds" if you will, are limited.
    The castle: The various normal castle rooms, the secret bed-chamber of the princesses', several secret passageways (including the underground umm…place they dance), the library with a magical glass domed roof, and the palace gardens, which are fairly small.
    Micheal's home: A two story, seven room house with a garden out back, and a shed which his sister, Althea uses as her workshop.
    The town: Very brief glance at the capital town. So called because it is not even worthy of being called a city, too small. Oh, and a stone church seen for approximately half an hour by an MC.
    Not a lot of scene changes, and I'm getting bored of the same-ness of everything. Any ideas for spicing things up a bit? Thanks

    • I had that same problem in my first book! Unfortunately, I never really arrived upon a solution. My MC was actually confined to only two small rooms for the first fifty or so pages. It was a tiny cluttered apartment that he was living in with five strangers, and he was their captive. I suppose what kept me from getting bored was his interaction with the other residents of the tiny apartment (he had a lot of mysteries to unravel about them), and the escape attempts and general tension of being their captive.

      Sorry that this isn't really advice. I guess the advice I might be able to give is, try to use it as an opportunity to explore all your princesses' personalities through their interactions with one another.

      If anyone has any thoughts on the subject, I'd love to hear them, too!

    • Setting doesn't just have to mean place. It can mean time. You can have events take place at unique times (midnight, holidays), switch up the weather (characters are trapped in the shed during snowstorm), and play with timespan (skip ahead four months, cram the events of five chapters into one night).

    • I have a similar situation in one of my WIP. Something I've realized is that the characters may be confined to a small space, but it's familiar to them. They're at home and comfortable there (at least in the situation you have, Elisa). The challenge of writing a situation like that might be not to keep changing things up to keep the story interesting, but to keep the readers hooked on the events, not the setting. And one way to achieve that is to try and show how at home/familiar the characters are with where they're at. Make sense? Maybe that's not the answer you were looking for either, but I'm doing a TTDP story as well, and they stay in the same place for quite a while.

    • Thanks guys, those are some great suggestions. I like Eliza's idea about messing with time will be so useful. And the fact that the place is familiar with them and not the reader is a good way to fix it up a bit, thanks Noddle. Mrs. Levine, I'll check out your post. Thanks again everyone!

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