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!